Daily Bow: TACOs for All!

Daily Bow LogoAround this time four years ago, I was sitting across the room from my cello–not yet taken out of its case–and I was crying. Just the thought of taking the instrument out of the case and listening to myself play–never perfectly enough for my taste–was too much for me to handle. I had just finished my undergrad and earned my Bachelor of Music degree from one of the best schools in the country. I should have been pretty musically happy, but I absolutely hated the cello. After weeks of this same scene, I finally realized that, along the course of my undergraduate education, something had gone terribly, terribly wrong. I started playing the cello when I was 14: far, far too late to amount to anything, according to conventional wisdom. I had three years to go from zero to music school level, and I gave up everything to do it. It happened, I’m convinced, not because of anything I did right or anything good about me, but because of how very much I loved what I was doing. And by the end of my undergrad, I suddenly hated the one thing I had given everything up for. That’s when I knew something was wrong. That’s when I realized that the pressure to produce such perfect, micro-managed music had sucked the joy out of what I was doing. I then proceeded to take the next year to get that joy back: I had to relearn how to enjoy music as music, not as a failed quest for perfection.

This quest for perfection has created the incredibly high level at which modern classical performance operates, but it has also created some monstrous side effects. Many musicians have been driven to near insanity by the pressure to perform mistake-free, and many would-be amateur musicians have been driven away from participation in classical music by its unforgiving standard of performance. Here’s where my new favorite discovery comes in. Meet TACO, ensemble based in Los Altos, California. In TACO’s case, it’s all in the name: Terrible Adult Chamber Orchestra. The group is conducted by Cathy Humphers Smith, and it’s comprised of a rag-tag band of  amateur musicians. They meet once a month for a “gathering” (rehearsal is too pressured a word), and, for a fee of $10, anyone can come hack through classical repertoire in the company of fellow music-loving, non-judgmental amateur players. TACO is not about perfection. It’s not even necessarily about sounding good. “What’s the goal?” asks Humphers Smith. “The goal is to play music together. That’s it. People are wanting something that’s nurturing of the soul.”

Humphers Smith is so very right. My own dad, who plays cello but only recently had his first orchestral experience reading Mahler 5 in a pick-up orchestra of amateurs (of the experience he says, “very humbling”), balks when I encourage him to join a community orchestra, because he doesn’t really want to perform. He really wants to play great music just for the joy of playing the music, and he wants to play with like-minded people. He’s hardly alone. It seems like every adult non-musician used to take music lessons, and many of them speak with regret about giving up playing. Everyone gets too busy, and, after a while, the embarrassment of not having played clarinet in years becomes a barrier. Not so with TACO and its kindred spirits across the world. Community orchestras of similar natures are popping up all over the world, embracing their terribleness with a wild abandon that is endearing, liberating, and downright day-making. TACO was itself inspired by Scotland’s Really Terrible Orchestra (RTO), which counts among its members celebrated author Alexander McCall Smith (on sousaphone).

“I’m into the whole idea of not performing and just coming here to have fun, playing the music, meeting the people,” said Ron Ibaraki, 61, a systems engineer from Los Altos who hadn’t touched his clarinet since high school until joining TACO. “And if you play a few wrong notes, that’s all right, too.” Many TACO members have stories similar to Ibaraki’s, but the roster runs the gamut of all possible ages and ability levels. Lara Levy, a 23-year-old bassoonist and music teacher from Los Altos, enjoys the “variety of music that we play — and the food, the social-ness. Most weeks, I have an 80-year-old bassoon partner, and he’s a blast.” TACO is a bit unique among its kind: they don’t perform. The RTO does, as do others. The orchestra is a soul-sister to one of my all-time favorite musical experiments, the Portsmouth Sinfonia, which was founded in the 70’s, played concerts, and even recorded an album. The one criterion: no “real musicians” allowed…unless they were playing an instrument 100% foreign to them. (Listen to them on YouTube with your speakers turned up as high as possible so you can really absorb all of the glorious detail.)

Inherent comedy aside, these orchestras are doing something incredibly important. They’re giving the enjoyment of music back to us and reminding us that the real goal here is to play music, and that can happen at any level. It sounds hollow when our teachers tell us that, ultimately, a few wrong notes are not the end of the world–but they really aren’t. The love of music is only sustainable when it isn’t smothered by fear of imperfection, and TACO reminds us that embracing the music–lumps, bumps, squeaks, and all–is what it’s all about. Personally, I think all music schools should be required to have Portsmouth Sinfonia-style ensembles for stress relief. That’d be the biggest boost to a music student’s mental heath I can think of.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply