Summer orchestra

For the past week I’ve been doing an orchestra course. We spent 5 days doing sectional rehearsals (eg brass, wind, violins etc.) in the mornings, then a choir rehearsal and then full orchestra rehearsal every afternoon. 

We played Vaughan Williams’ English Folk Song Suite, which is one of my favourite pieces of music, so I obviously really enjoyed that. I’ve played it before so there wasn’t much that new to me, but it was really great to see how everyone else grew as musicians during the week, and how much everyone improved (most people were a bit younger and less experienced than me). We also did some pieces with our sections, and our brass section leader picked two really fun but slightly more challenging pieces for us to play, which was really good for me, and also made the improvement over the week even more noticeable in everyone. 

We sang Holsts’ ‘Swansea Town’, which was quite tricky, and perhaps slightly too hard for some of us, but the theory was that singing would improve our musicality by helping us to pitch intervals without playing. We also had two ‘musicianship’ lessons in the week, doing Dalcroze Eurhythmics, which was interesting. It involves using movement to teach music, for example doing steps with size relating to the intervals we were singing, and walking and running in time to the music, and catching or bouncing balls on the main beat of the bar. It was challenging (for one thing, I can’t catch to save my life), but I think by the end we’d all learnt a lot. 

We also had the opportunity to do some informal chamber music in the mornings before sectionals started, so I finally fulfilled my ambition of playing the first movement of Poulenc’s Sonata for Horn, Trumpet and Trombone (YouTube it – it’s great) – now I just need to go back to do the other two. 

On Friday, we did a concert of all the pieces we’d been working on in a nearby church, which was loads of fun. There’s nothing quite like the buzz of performing something you’ve worked really hard on really well. 

The trumpet: A lesson in perseversance

When I was seven years old my primary school offered us the opportunity to learn a musical instrument. We were given a form listing the instruments which the school had teachers for, and had to tick three that we wanted to learn, so that the school could allocate lessons. I ticked the cornet, the clarinet and the piano, because these were the three instruments in the house.

My school decided I would learn the cornet and the keyboard. I quit keyboard lessons after the first class, due to my mortification at not knowing ‘Doe a deer’ from the sound of music to sing along with the other students while the teacher played it on the piano (we didn’t actually play anything all lesson…). I later regretted that and took up piano outside school, and wished I’d learnt earlier.

My first cornet lesson was with a group of five other people from my school year. We were shown how to make a sound on the cornet (by blowing a raspberry) and told to do it down a solitary mouthpiece which was passed along the row. I was cripplingly shy and wouldn’t even try it, but for some reason I carried on.

I struggled with the cornet. I found it frustrating and difficult and embarrassing. I hated that my parents made me practice for ten whole minutes every single day! I hated my lessons, which were embarrassing and not very encouraging at all. Playing was painful and upsetting but I refused to quit!

When I went to high school I got a new teacher. I was still painfully shy, and she made me act as much as she made me play. She made me stand as if I had the confidence and skill to play anything, and talk about emotions and feelings and arrrggghhh! Without that I never would have learnt the confidence I have now.

I joined the school windband and was eventually was asked to join the orchestra (for grade 6 and above). I started to really enjoy playing with other people. I started to want to be better, to want to practice. I even went on a weeklong summer course just to play in a windband, which I enjoyed immensely.

Just before the end of my senior six year (the last year before university in England), I took my grade 8 exam. I was devastated as I came out, thinking that I’d failed and my 10 years of practicing and working so hard were all wasted.

I actually got a distinction!

Relieved, I didn’t play the trumpet (very similar to the cornet, just my teacher preferred it, despite my protestations that it wouldn’t fit in my locker) for a month. But an invitation to do another summer school next week made me realise how much I actually missed playing, and I’ve practiced every day since and loved it.

I don’t know if I’d do it all again. Maybe I’d pick an instrument more suited to my personality. But as I progressed it became obvious to me that there was no turning back. And I’m so glad I didn’t.