Meet Wigan's Really Awful Orchestra - which is doing awfully well
You would have thought that a musical outfit with the name The Really Awful Orchestra was bound to cause discord.
But much even to its creators’ surprise it is proving a big hit with sell-out concerts around Wigan.
The odd bum note is to be expected, but folk are rediscovering talents that have lain dormant for sometimes decades in a coming-together of joyous amateurism that audiences are finding they love.
The full houses have proved still more eye-opening when you consider that large parts of the entertainment industry are still only part-emerging from lockdown restrictions, some having failed altogether in the meantime, while cautious crowds are not always coming back in force.
The RAO is the brainchild of Ian Darrington and Peter Fletcher, both of whom have deep educational and musical roots in the borough and who four years ago set up the Music Continuum which now runs Wigan International Jazz Festival and Sunday Jazz (what used to be Wigan Jazz Club).
The ensemble is not without precedent: best-selling author Alexander McCall Smith, of all people, having set up the Edinburgh-based Really Terrible Orchestra back in 1995.
But such organisations are a real rarity while having a shared concept: bringing together lapsed instrumentalists for music-making and social interaction.
Ian, who as well as being musical director of Wigan Youth Jazz Orchestra for many moons worked for Wigan Council’s music service teaching brass instruments, thinks there is a huge, untapped well of talent in the borough.
He said: “I was thinking one day about the number of children I taught over the years and it came to two or three thousand. You multiply that by the number of other teachers, instruments and time periods over the decades and you end up with a huge number.
“And only a fraction, sad to say, of those who learn instruments as a child, carry on with them into adulthood either as a hobby or a profession. I was thinking that a lot of people must have instruments gathering dust in a cupboard or a loft who might be coaxed to give it another go.
“There will be some of course who think it would be too embarrassing or they can’t remember any of what they learnt so long ago. But it is amazing what comes back and it also helps hugely when you find that other participants feel very much the same way.”
And the age range is broad. There are a couple of youngsters who come along because their parents are involved, but otherwise, the players are in their 20s to their 70s.
It is proving particularly revelatory for the older members.
Peter said: “I did voluntary work for Age UK and people would say ‘I used to play an instrument, you know’ whether it was a violin or a trombone. And these were people who were not going out and had nowhere to go. The orchestra has given some older people a new purpose and it is very much a social activity.”
Career and social backgrounds are broad too with some professionals admitting that it is the one time they can escape from the mountains of work they have at the office or classroom because they need to focus so much on the performance in front of them.
The RAO was set up three years ago, after an appeal was made for lapsed amateur musicians to come forward was made, and the conductor Chris Perry was appointed its musical director.
Ian said: “We started with 15 or 16 players but it started to snowball and now we are up to 40.
“The enthusisam and passion for it is incredible and the playing standard is pretty good - much higher than we expected from people some of whom have not touched an instrument for 20 to 25 years. The orchestra’s name is a misnomer really but it is eye-catching and I think we will stick with it.”
And it isn’t putting audiences off. A recent concert at St Michael’s Church in Swinley was completely sold out.
Repertoire is broad, ranging from popular music to classical and the enthusiam from the performers is palpable.
Ian said: “Lockdown was a real pain, but many of the musicians wanted to keep going so they kept in touch on Zoom to practise and record. That wasn’t us - they just did that off their own bats.”
Covid still hangs over the next RAO plans but the continuum is hoping in future to hold whole rehearsal weekends two or three times a year, perhaps residentials, and there are also thoughts of having sectional rehearsals on weekends.
And it is not clear when the next concert might be.
But the music-making continues.
The Really Awful Orchestra rehearses from 7pm until 9pm each Monday during school term time (and through the summer holidays) at Wigan Music Centre, Park Road, Hindley.
At the moment they are particularly on the look-out for brass players: trumpets, trombones, French horns and tubas.
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