Not so terrible: Terrible Adult Chamber Orchestra takes a different approach to playing ensemble music

STORY BY NATALIE ARBATMAN, PHOTOS COURTESY THE TERRIBLE ADULT CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

Wearing casual weekend clothes with their hair down, 70 people sit in folding chairs eating snacks and chatting about their week. It’s hard to guess from their appearance, but each of these 70 people is a musician, about to play hours of classical music. 

The Terrible Adult Chamber Orchestra (TACO) is not your traditional music ensemble. The musicians may play the intricate compositions of Beethoven and Bach, but TACO is a non-audition orchestra, with members ranging from first-time players to veteran musicians. 

Founded in 2011 by Cathy Humphers Smith and her husband Kent, TACO strives to create an environment in which any musician can play comfortably and without fear of failure. Humphers Smith said they chose “Terrible” to be in the group name as a “humorous way to set the expectations that it doesn’t matter [how well you play], we’re in this for fun.”

According to Humphers Smith, traditional ensembles can be intimidating for novice musicians and difficult even for experienced ones. She said that because performance orchestras are obsessed with improvement and perfection, musicians often feel discouraged from playing. 

“You’re not performing for anybody, nobody’s buying a ticket, you’re not beating things to death to make them perfect,” Humphers Smith said. “You’re just enjoying playing music for the sake of playing it.”

(courtesy TACO)

Karl Swartz, who quit playing violin after his college ensemble said he’d have to practice for hours every day to be a part of their orchestra, said that TACO is made for people who want to play music “just for the fun of it.”

Though the group began with 20 musicians playing in Humphers Smith’s living room, it has grown to over 70 people attending each meeting and over 700 sit on TACO’s mailing list. Prior to the pandemic, TACO met monthly at the Los Altos Youth Center for three hours to play together.

“Our objective is to all start the piece at the same time and end it at the same time,” said Ola Cook, a flutist who joined TACO in 2012 after dropping the flute in 1997. “Whatever happens in the middle is okay.”

This mentality welcomes musicians who would be unable to participate in most orchestras, such as those who struggle playing full pieces because of medical conditions or inexperience. 

“There are fine musicians who play with performing groups who develop Parkisnons or brain tumors, and they can continue playing with TACO because it doesn’t matter, nobody is judging them, they don’t have to sound perfect,” Humphers Smith said. 

Mark Serjeant, a clarinet player for TACO, developed a sinus condition that makes playing full pieces on the clarinet difficult. He said the relaxed venue that TACO provides means he can continue playing music without worrying about sounding perfect or even being able to play the whole song. 

“I try to play at least one note per measure to try to stay in sync and TACO is the right place for me because they don’t care,” Sergeant said. “Occasionally, we have a song and I actually can play the whole song so it’s a great venue for me.”

Serjeant, who played clarinet in his college marching band said he “put the clarinet in the closet and never took it back out” after he graduated in 1972. That was until 2012 when he joined TACO after reading an article about the group. Serjeant said his favorite part of the casual atmosphere is that he can feel relaxed playing music.

“It’s not like you’re dragging the performance down, because we don’t perform,” Serjeant said. 

Humphers Smith said her organization contributes to a recent movement to make classical music more accessible. She said that classical music is losing audiences because of the procedures that are associated with watching a performance. 

“The listener has to dress up, buy an expensive ticket … There is a protocol for taking in classical music,” Humphers Smith said. “It’s an incredible thing to see a concert live, but they are losing audiences because it’s not seen as very approachable.”

Fourth of July “jam session,” 2021. (courtesy TACO)

Swartz describes their regular gathering as “jam sessions” rather than concerts, or even practices.

These sessions occur once per month when musicians, regulars and those new to TACO, gather to play six pieces of new music for three hours. 

According to Humphers Smith, who also serves as the group’s conductor, most musicians come up to an hour early to set up their instruments and mingle. Then, someone leads everyone in tuning their instruments. 

After tuning, the orchestra plays its set pieces for the session, which come out of the 400 arrangements that Humphers Smith has purchased from school orchestras; school orchestras “take the original music, and make it suitable for certain levels of learning,” which allows various skill-levels to play the same piece. 

“I want to be playing music that is famous and that people know, but I don’t want it to be so difficult that people can’t do it and they don’t have success,” Humphers Smith said.

Humphers Smith says she tries to vary the genres and types of music the group plays each session. According to Swartz, they have played showtunes, classical and pop, among others. Swartz said that TACO is more “adventurous” than the traditional orchestras he also plays in, which he said “constrain the music.” 

“When we play show tunes like ‘Oklahoma,’ I enjoy that a lot more than playing Mozart or Beethoven or all the Russian people whose names I can’t pronounce,” Serjeant said. 

This practice follows TACO’s guiding principle of making music accessible for all. Boasting a group of diverse community members, TACO prides itself on being open to all skill levels. The group is open to all ages, but the majority of participants are adults. 

“It’s important to have a place like that, otherwise adults don’t get an opportunity to play,” Humphers Smith said.

The wide range of musicians all come together to form a tight-knit community. According to Cook, the support from this group has built her confidence and inspired her to take risks with music, such as travelling to Scotland to perform with a Scotish orchestra, which she said she wouldn’t have otherwise considered. 

“We’ll count under our breath for people who have a little trouble with staying on time,” Cook said. “TACO offers a community and an incredible opportunity for people to be able to get together with other musicians … and do something that’s uplifting.”

Many TACO musicians branch out and create chamber ensembles, coined the Taquitos, with other members who play the same instrument.

Cook said she appreciates the opportunity to connect with other musicians and have a forum to ask questions and share about music.

“Now, because I have this community of musicians around me, if I’m experiencing something odd I can ask ‘Does this sound right to you?’ or ‘Have you ever had this happen?’ and we can all help each other,” Cook said. “It’s really like an extended family.” 

This support extends to the community at large. Humphers Smith said that the holidays last year inspired her to collaborate with KMVT on their programming for seniors who had been isolated at home. Freestyle Academy student volunteers edited together individual videos from each musician and the final product, ten Christmas songs, was broadcasted on KMTV to seniors at home.

Although Humphers Smith said there was initially a huge learning curve with virtual concerts, she adapted and they played a second concert in a similar format with the TACO chapter in Los Angeles. Musicians each played a part of Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida.”

“Musicians have suffered like nobody’s business over this pandemic, it has just been such a burden on musicians in one way, and in another way, it’s opened the doors to so many people who are willing to put in the time to do technical work,” Cook said. 

Humphers Smith said that playing music provides an escape for people from their daily lives because “you leave all your problems outside and you forget about everything that’s going on in your life.”

“Playing with other people live means hearing the other voices and getting to know how you fit in. You’re a part of a group that’s creating something,” Humphers Smith said. “It’s transcendent.”

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