To understand the importance of the existence of TACO it is necessary to understand the meaning of its absence. Without TACO possibly hundreds of people will have wasted thousands of hours of music practice, rehearsals and recitals, and countless dollars on lessons. Hundreds of musical instruments would be collecting dust or rusting in closets, basements and garages. And, many people would have nothing to do on the last Sunday of every month.
Musical education is often begun as part of a school curriculum, or parental insistence. Once the required lessons are completed, only a few continue to pursue music with any serious commitment. After all, music is hard; it requires a lot of practice, time and study to become professional, and it can be lonely for young people at a time when getting together with friends to party is much more fun.To understand the importance of the existence of TACO it is necessary to understand the meaning of its absence. Without TACO possibly hundreds of people will have wasted thousands of hours of music practice, rehearsals and recitals, and countless dollars on lessons. Hundreds of musical instruments would be collecting dust or rusting in closets, basements and garages. And, many people would have nothing to do on the last Sunday of every month.
While parents may envision their child to be the next Mozart or Bernstein, they generally expect a “back-up” plan to become doctors, lawyers, or other professional, which defer time for musical practice. It has long been known that music does positively affect the brain in other areas of study, but at some point, most of us simply stop playing. Work, family and life all take precedence over our music, even as we tell our children to practice, practice, practice.
Some tenacious souls do stick with it and continue to play an instrument throughout their lives, but mostly for personal pleasure or for family and friends. At some point we reach a plateau, that without further instruction, we never overcome. This limits the repertoire, messes with our confidence and most likely, any interest in going further wanes. Our instruments are stowed away, never to be seen again. Of course, we don’t sell them because we really believe we will play again. But, what is the motivation to play? I believe it is the delight in simply making music, not rehearsing, perfecting and performing, but getting together with others to play. For me, music is social, a team sport, and is best played with others.
Regretfully, I never played an instrument as part of a band or orchestra as a child. I taught myself to play piano, but found it to be a solitary instrument, and not very portable. Next was guitar, but I never made it past the strumming chords stage. I really wanted to play with other people, but my father insisted that I learn to play the Hammond organ—he loved Radio City Music Hall. I was not enamored with this enormous instrument—I could barely reach the pedals—so I resisted lessons. The ultimate outcome was that I gave up instruments and joined my school theater company, became a singer, performed in community musicals, and originally began college as a theater major.
My desire to play an instrument with other people finally came to be in the late 1990s when I started taking flute lessons. Why flute? Not because of Jean-Pierre Rampal or James Galway. It was Ian Anderson, that magnificent minstrel from Jethro Tull and a performance by jazz great Herbie Mann at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
After a few solo lessons I signed up for the West Valley College chamber music class. After 3 semesters, the most you are permitted to take, I was deemed at the advanced level. I decided to try out for the school orchestra. Within minutes of the first rehearsal I began wondering what exactly “advanced level” meant. I can’t recall the details of the experience. My memory of the experience is a blur of loud sounds, elbow-to-elbow people, a seemingly foreign language from the conductor, and the instant knowledge that I never really learned to sight-read. I was in way over my head.
I did not return to the orchestra and my recovery took a long time. Thankfully, serendipity happened. In 2005, a co-worker told me about his flute choir class at the Community School for Music and Arts in Mountain View (CSMA). I sat in for one session and discovered that it was designed for intermediate musicians who wanted to continue learning. I signed up right away, but soon after a serious illness left my hands and fingers partially numb.
I didn’t think I was ever going to play again, but one of my fellow musicians, a physical therapist, suggested that playing might improve the neuropathy. She was right and through the gentle guidance of my teacher, Kathy Kuehl, I continued. All of the numbness never completely resolved, but I have compensated. Determination is a wonderful thing! I’ve also had the opportunity to learn to play the bass flute, alto flute and piccolo. After gaining more experience, I felt a yearning to explore music beyond flute voices. In 2012, another fellow musician at flute choir told me about TACO, the Terrible Adult Chamber Orchestra. I was very intimidated to play with another orchestra, given my ordeal a few years earlier, but the word “terrible” showed promise.
I printed out the music ahead of time and read through it. It was a bit challenging, but I decided to go for it. I found the people to be very welcoming and jovial. Several were setting up chairs and laying out the cards denoting where each section was to sit. There was a table for pot-luck contributions. As people began tuning I became more comfortable. Cathy Humphers-Smith, founder and conductor, picked up the baton and discussed the music set-list and we began.
Sour notes and perfect notes joined together and, thankfully, Cathy conducted at a manageable tempo. After a couple of run-throughs, we moved on to another piece, and then another. The TACO objective is to play together, not to rehearse a piece to death. More experienced musicians helped those of us newbies to keep pace and to redirect us when we lose our place. You can hear the soft counting under-breath, one, two, three… This was especially helpful during the long rests that occur when playing with a full orchestra.
So, now back to the importance of the existence of TACO. It is known as an orchestra for the rest of us. The rest of us are people who want to play music, but don’t have the time or inclination to practice every day, or every week. We enjoy the camaraderie of like-minded musicians who find a once a month gathering just right. But make no mistake, for some of us, it is an opportunity to gain insight into ourselves and what we might accomplish. Removing the fear of performing and the ability to make lots of mistakes, without repercussion, is essential to gaining musical confidence. Frankly, I found it impossible not to improve.
In addition to improving my musical skills, I’ve made several new friends. Former professional French horn musician, Art, and I participated in the San Francisco Symphony’s Community of Music Makers workshop at Davies Symphony Hall, conducted by Donato Cabrera. Cathy came to cheer us on! I admit, that was really scary since everything was played a tempo, but we went a second time. It was nice being a veteran.
In 2013 I attended the National Flute Convention in New Orleans with TACO member and flutist, Gina. We played in the Jambalaya Flute Orchestra with 150 other flutists conducted by Angeleita Floyd. I wanted to learn more about jazz, it was New Orleans after all, so I signed up to play with the Swamp Jazz Flute Orchestra conducted by Ali Ryerson. We had almost daily rehearsals and two performances. It gave me a real introduction to what it is like to be a professional musician and it was a thrill to meet and take workshops with famous flutists. I could never have felt so confident without TACO.
Back home Cathy solicited TACO members to play for the City of Los Altos Volunteer Appreciation. An actual paid gig! Gina, Heidi and I agreed to do a flute trio. This meant actually selecting the music, rehearsing, timing everything, deciding on clothing, oh my! Someone was actually going to pay money to hear us play. Well, okay, it was just playing in the background, but that counts, right? The following year Gina and I performed at the same reception as a flute duo. Another paid gig! So, some of us do actually perform as TACO did at the Los Altos On The Green concert.
The “how can I top this” moment came last summer when I went to the Fringe Festival to play with Scotland’s internationally known Really Terrible Orchestra—the inspiration for TACO—to a sold out house in the Cannongate Kirk, located on The Royal Mile. That I was performing for an audience was not astonishing since I had performed a lot as an amateur actor and singer. That I was performing as a musician was significant. And how very fitting that it was in Scotland. Ian Anderson’s birthplace.
Cathy instigated the event, which took two years to coordinate, along with four other so-called terrible U.S. orchestras, but it was wonderful. TACO was represented by Laurel, also on flute, Marcia, on oboe and me, on flute and piccolo. When I returned home I was feeling really good about myself, so I joined the Campbell Express Band, along with Heidi, which is a band composed of wind, brass and percussion. Did I mention fast-paced? Well, I hung in there and performed in their December concert.
I have now performed three times for pay. My third gig was this past April for a wedding as part of a duet with the very talented and supportive TACO member, Dean on cello. Once again Cathy tapped TACO members. A wedding? What if I really blow it–no pun intended. It was the most nerve-wracking of my performance experiences. It began as just background music, no problem; but, then the bride asked us to play the processional and recessional. OMG! I can‘t hide behind the hum of conversation for this. Cathy was confident that I could do it. She coordinated the music, conducted our rehearsals and was at the wedding cheering us on. It was a success. Whew!
Thanks to TACO and the guidance of Cathy and Vivian, and support of other TACO members, I’ve gained the confidence, experience and skill to pursue music as more than just a personal interest. It has been a launch platform for other musical activities. I consider myself a TACO Ambassador telling people to dig out that flute, trumpet, or violin from the closet. Grab the rosin, valve oil and polishing rags. Come out and play. Even if you haven’t played for years, or you are just learning. Get some official TACO gear, and proudly become a TACO Ambassador yourself. This gathering truly is magic and there is no pressure. You might even find yourself sitting next to a real professional musician, composer or conductor. They often drop in just because it‘s fun to play music with others.