The Really Terrible Orchestra

65 strong, started in 1995

There are 65 of us now, but we started in 1995 with just 10 players and on wet November evenings we could be down to 5 or 6. It began with our envying the pleasure our children gained from music. And as nobody else would have us, we formed our own orchestra. Alexander (“Sandy”) McCall Smith, our Founder, said “ It won’t be a good orchestra, in fact it will be a really terrible one” and that is how the name came to be.

We rehearse fortnightly in the wonderful music centre of St Georges School for Girls in Edinburgh. At the beginning we played simple 2 or 3 part arrangements for junior school orchestras. Those of us at the first rehearsal remember the excitement of being able to play something, anything, which vaguely resembled a tune. And over the years we progressed to arrangements which had parts for each instrument. It is still a struggle to find pieces which have a part for everyone and are not too difficult.

Sir Richard Neville Towle (source of knighthood unknown) has been our Music Director from the beginning. He is actually a real musician, has been to Music College and runs a professional music group, Ludus Baroque. But as Sandy frequently tells audiences Sir Richard is at heart a psychotherapist, and he has understood from the outset that playing in the RTO can make us all feel better however badly we play. Sir Richard has perfected the technique, not well understood by some other conductors, of appearing to treat us as a serious music ensemble capable of making progress, while knowing all along that the scope for improvement is limited.

Our early concerts were just for our families, but one day Sir Richard had a free evening slot at his Edinburgh Fringe Festival venue, and he persuaded us very reluctantly to take it. It was a great success, a full house, and we learned the value of offering wine before the concert.

We also came to learn the merits of keeping our concerts short, of playing simple recognisable pieces, of distracting the audience with speeches, adlibs from the conductor and audience participation, anything to limit the number of minutes when the orchestra was playing.

And gradually one thing led to another – eventually to The Cadogan Hall in London in 2007 and now to The Town Hall, New York on April Fools’ Day 2009.

In one of Sandy’s speeches he asked “.. and where would we be without the RTO? I can answer that, he said, we certainly wouldn’t be performing in public!”