On being a member of the orchestra

ECCO – how did I get here?

I wouldn’t describe myself as a musician so much as someone who has messed around with a variety of instruments. I didn’t play an instrument as a child, but as a teenager I followed that well-trodden path of self-taught blues guitar, followed by a couple of years in a folk band, messing around with a variety of instruments. For the next 40 years or so found myself listening to a broad range of music and continued to mess around with instruments without really seriously learning any of them. Aged 60 I bought a saxophone, went to some jazz evening classes, happened to meet a member of ECCO who told me about the orchestra, and thought I would give it a try.

At that stage two questions arose – was I good enough to play in an orchestra, and were there any orchestral parts for a saxophone anyway? I had never taken any grades, so had no way of knowing what level I was at, but it became quite clear that this was a supportive group and with the aim of getting people like me to get together and play, regardless of experience or qualifications. No auditions, just turn up and start blowing. And although many of the pieces we play have no saxophone parts (quite a few were written before the saxophone was invented) there are plenty of horn parts that have been adapted for the saxophone, and if there isn’t one Laura will just write one.

The experience of playing with ECCO has been hugely inspiring. Initially it was a revelation just to sit in as part of a group of musicians, to play a score and find it fitted with what other people were doing….even if the fit was sometimes a bit approximate. Interestingly the things I thought would be difficult, like actually being able to play the score in front of me, turned out not to be too bad. But other things took me by surprise, like discovering the difficulty of counting 7 bars rest, then another 8 bars rest, and coming in at the right time. For the first few weeks I got lost at regular intervals, possibly so surprised that I had played a few bars correctly that I entirely forgot to carry on counting. I also realised just why an orchestra needs a conductor. Get 20 musicians together and set them off, and you quickly find each one of them has a different sense of timing. Not to mention the places where everything slows down or speeds up a bit. I had often wondered if an orchestra really needs someone at the front waving their arms about, but I quickly realised that conductors do actually have an important role!

And that’s where Laura is so central to ECCO. Laura seems to have all the genes of a human dynamo, she is hugely enthusiastic and encouraging and her wacky humour permeates every session. She also has a deep understanding of music and she is determined to get us all to perform at our best. Our weekly rehearsals are a lot of fun, the music is challenging enough to stretch us, and that builds a real sense of communal achievement. I think all our members would agree that Laura is taking us on a journey, and as a group of players we are now quite a bit further down the road than we were a couple of years ago. I don’t know where it will lead to ultimately but for me it’s the journey that counts.

At £5 per session it’s a bargain, and for that we get access to a decent room at the University Music Block, or sometimes even the chapel which is a lovely space to play in. Occasionally some of the University’s full-time music students join in too. Our repertoire is continually expanding, Laura is open to suggestions of pieces to play, and we even have one member, Ray (bassoon), who arranges pieces for us. And quite apart from all that there is also the social side, with a group of regular attenders at the pub afterwards for a chat.

Not long ago I would not have thought joining an orchestra was a realistic proposition, but the supportive and non-competitive nature of ECCO has really opened up the enjoyment and potential of ensemble playing for me.




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