Sunday, September 02, 2007


This summer the six year old suddenly demanded to play the violin. Her obsession had the quality of a crush, coming from nowhere that I could discern. I am terribly untalented myself, and dare not even sing in the shower. The Warrior Monk, however, can carry a tune and to my unmusical ear has a miraculous ability to pick out a song on the guitar. Unfortunately he spends most of his talents singing in falsetto to execrable 70's Greatest! Hits! on car trips through the radio wastelands of Iowa or Wisconsin.

Nonetheless, after incessant nagging, we signed her up for Suzuki violin lessons. Due to her tender age she was initially permitted only a styrofoam violin. But she persisted and to her great delight was recently awarded a real (rental) violin with lessons to begin next week.

Given that she has a strong genetic connection to my tin ear, I have no great hopes of her musical future (but one never knows, right?) Nor did her big sister, who took up the clarinet last year, yet make me reevaluate my skepticism. Last spring we attended her school concert where the musical numbers proceeded with a predictable idiosyncratic and sagging rhythm.

Much to my surprise I learned last week that lack of talent does not necessarily spell the end of a concert career! Witness this article about a group called the Really Terrible Orchestra:
But where standard amateurs may be incidentally bad, the Really Terrible Orchestra is fundamentally bad. Its random ability to play the right notes at the right time, or at all, is part of what the orchestra chairman, the lousy clarinetist Peter Stevenson, calls “our entertainment package.”

“We knew there was no market for a good amateur orchestra, because a poor professional one would always be better,” Mr. Stevenson said. “But there is a market for the R.T.O. And that our concerts sell out in advance, to audiences who just love to hear us scrape through easy arrangements of Bach or the last 40 bars of the ‘1812’ Overture — the rest is far too difficult — is proof. There’s always thunderous applause, especially if we’ve got lost in something and ground to a halt. Always a standing ovation. And it’s not just because we have our friends and family in the audience. People genuinely thrill to it.”
We did thrill to the ten year old's concert. And we now have a CD recording of it to prove it. And yes there was a standing ovation though I doubt there was a single audience member who did not fall in the friends and family camp.

The NYT article continues:
How much, you might fairly ask, is the Really Terrible Orchestra trying to stink?

“Not at all,” Peter Stevenson insisted, sounding slightly hurt when I asked to attend an orchestra rehearsal if it had such things.

“It’s unkind of you to think we don’t rehearse,” he said, “because we do. And some of us even take lessons, as I am at the moment, from a serious teacher. I can’t pretend that no one ever plays deliberately badly. It’s usually the trumpets, and they make me angry when they do. But for the rest of us, we are actually doing our best. And that’s the tension in which we operate. On the one hand, we’d like to get better. On the other, we know we won’t.”

I believe both of the kids would like to get better too. And I don't yet know whether they will or won't. If not, it's nice to know they could found their own Really Terrible Something-Or-Other and soldier on.

As for the Really Terrible Orchestra?

The second world tour is due to hit London in November. “I fear they’ve heard of us down there,” Mr. McCall Smith said, slightly concerned that they might also have heard a pernicious rumor that, thanks to persistent practice, the orchestra was less bad than it used to be.

“It’s not true,” he insisted, “and I don’t see how it could be. We’re only too happy for people to practice. I do myself, but it will never make a difference. No one good is ever going to join us. And if they did, they’d be hugely outnumbered. Children would raise the standard, but we don’t let them in for that reason. It would be too embarrassing. And though people say we have ambitions, what is ambition? When a piece speeds up, it’s ambitious enough for me.”