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"Really Terrible Orchestra" Making Noise in Westchester

by Jake Neher
A A
Nathaniel Chase conducts the RTO at a performance in Irvington.
Courtesy of the Really Terrible Orchestra of Westchester

Members say with new leadership, they're "not so terrible".

(Audio feature at the bottom of this article)

A violinist looks bewildered. She's lost her spot. But conventional wisdom says to keep playing no matter what, so she does. And soon enough her bow is swinging upward in synch with the rest of the section. It's no tragedy for this small orchestra when something like that happens. Even during their last rehearsal before a big performance. They've embraced not being perfect, or even all that good. In fact, they've embraced being "really terrible".

Nathaniel Chase is the conductor of the "Really Terrible Orchestra of Westchester". Yes, that's what they choose to call themselves. Chase is relatively new to the orchestra, having joined the rag-tag group in January after coming across a Craig's List ad seeking a conductor. Unlike everyone else in the group, he's a trained, professional musician working all over the Tri-State region. He says despite the name and an overall lack of skill, his first rehearsal with the Really Terrible Orchestra didn't send him running for the door.

"I came in with no expectations because I just had no way of knowing," he said. "And I found that there were a lot of people who were all much better than they thought they were. They just needed a little bit of guidance and a little bit of support to realize more of their potential."

But at least some members of the group had doubts about Chase's expectations when he first arrived. One of the original six members, Les Krasnogor, says he was a bit skeptical when the new conductor handed out the sheet music for a new piece.

"So I looked at it at home," Krasnagor said, "and I said 'Oh my God! Look at that! How are we ever going to play that thing? He's crazy!' So I come to rehearsal, and all of a sudden, we're playing it. And it sounds good! I could not believe it."

Orchestra founder Barbara Rosenthal says those "eureka!" moments have become more frequent lately.

"What happens is, it's just human nature that you want to get better," Rosenthal explained. "So when you're playing regularly and you've got music to practice, people get better. And everyone wants to get better. So what happens is, we aren't so bad."

Rosenthal started the group in 2009 after she found out about the "Really Terrible Orchestra" of Scotland. Rosenthal quickly rounded up a whopping six members. Three years later that number has more than quadrupled. They even have a spin-off group called the "Really Terrible Dixieland Jazz Band of Westchester". She credits much of the success their motto - "if you have an instrument and a pulse, you're welcome."

"Most people feel that they're not good. It's just a universal feeling, 'I'm not good enough.' Most people feel that way," she said. "And when they see that name, they say 'well, I could play in that!'"

Conductor Nathaniel Chase says the music has become less hard-on-the-ears since he joined the group. He even says being known as the "Really Terrible Orchestra" is a factor in that success.

"I don't think the name is deprecating at all. It's liberating," he said. "And it allows people to realize their full potential, because they don't feel intimidated by having to achieve a certain standard that's set by another individual or a teacher or whatever."

On a Saturday afternoon in early May, the group is giving their first performance with Chase at the helm. They are in a beautiful venue in Irvington with panoramic views of the Hudson River, which sits just feet outside the building.

Patricia Waters sits in the front row. She's a professional pianist in Westchester County, and she has been to every one of the Really Terrible Orchestra's performances since the group started in 2009. She says she is inspired to see people who want to play music together, no matter their level of training or skill.

"Well I know that music is just a very wonderful and important part of my life, and I'm happy that it can be part of other people's lives too," Waters said. "And I don't really care if they're amateur or professional, it's just very heart-warming to see."

At intermission, Waters says she can tell they're getting better.

"There's a lot more precision, just concentration and..."

Right at that instant, Waters is interrupted by a deafening "THWAP!"

"Whoops! Somebody dropped their violin. Well maybe not so much concentration," Waters says as she laughs.

The group is scheduled to perform next on August 4th at 3pm at the Chappaqua Library on 195 South Greeley Avenue, Chappaqua, NY. For more information on the Really Terrible Orchestra of Westchester, you can e-mail rtowest@gmail.com.

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