Really Terrible Orchestra Irk Ears, Soothe Souls

Above: Edward Brooke-Hitchins’ brief documentary about the Really Terrible Orchestra of Edinburgh, Scotland.

If you aspire to play in an orchestra, you practice for hours at a time, day in and day out. You listen to live performances and recordings of professional orchestras so you know what the standard is. And you learn with pinpoint precision all of your instrument’s parts in the vast and venerable orchestral repertoire.

Or you could do what the musicians in Really Terrible Orchestras in Scotland and the United States do, grab an instrument you’ve tried to play well but simply cannot, show up at rehearsal and laugh – laugh, can you believe it? – at your mistakes.

Far from striving for pristine performances, musicians in the world’s six self-described Really Terrible Orchestras are demonstrating that a not-so-good performance – or even a pretty awful one – has a certain beauty all its own: the beauty of making music with other people just for the joy of it.

The U.S. boasts five Really Terrible Orchestras, all inspired by the original Really Terrible Orchestra (RTO), in Edinburgh, Scotland. That orchestra was founded in 1995 by Alexander McCall Smith, author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency book series and several other acclaimed series. Smith was a sousaphone and bassoon player in Edinburgh’s RTO and, in 2008, expressed his take on the RTO’s founding and mission in an opinion piece for The New York Times:

This is music as therapy, and many of us feel the better for trying. We remain really terrible, but what fun it is. It does not matter, in our view, that we sound irretrievably out of tune. It does not matter that on more than one occasion members of the orchestra have actually been discovered to be playing different pieces of music, by different composers, at the same time.

Word of the RTO spread to America, and the idea caught on. In 2008 violinist Colleen Schoneveld founded America’s first Really Terrible Orchestra – the Really Terrible Orchestra of Pennsylvania – in Bethlehem, Pa. Really Terrible Orchestras now exist also in North Carolina, New York and California, which lays claim to not one but two Really Terrible Orchestras.

Today, Edinburgh’s Really Terrible Orchestra boasts a recording, which people have actually bought, to its name and has performed at the famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival and at other auspicious venues around the world. The orchestra’s concerts inevitably sell out. Seems classical music performed badly but in a spirit of fun has a market.

Who knew?

So, what do you think, Ohio? Are we really for a Really Terrible Orchestra of our own?

Learn more about America’s Really Terrible Orchestras:

Read more:

  • TACO: Local Orchestra Has Appetite for Imperfection (LATC)
  • Really Terrible Orchestra Is Also Really Fun (TMC)
  • Really Terrible Orchestra in U.S., Debut (LVM)
  • Lousy Is the Best They Can Ever Be (NYT)
  • And the Band Played Badly (NYT)
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