The School Orchestra, circa 1966

…and so in a remarkable feat of generosity the Parent Teachers Association of Cookridge County Primary School stumped up some cash for Pimple Head Thirsky to go and buy some musical instruments being that he’d told them how wonderfully musically talented we all were on the bleach bottle and dried peas rhythm thingys.

If we were a band we could have called ourselves The Harpics, or The Toilet Ducks.

Actually, thats still a good idea.

Write that down someone, is anyone taking minutes ?

So Pimple Head went out and bought some musical instruments for his class of thirty gifted rhythm bottle rattlers, and he came back with four violins.

And we waited with baited breath to see what else he’d brought back to the class for us to play but that was all, just the four violins, thats seven and a half kids per violin, we could take it home one day a week and half a kid would be disappointed, Pimple Head was bloody useless and/or the Parent Teachers Association were bloody useless and/or violins were extreeeeeemly expensive.

Actually thats not all, he brought back some tambourines too, like we needed anything else to add to the rhythm section, someone should have told him that we already had a 30 piece rhythm section, more rhythm is not what we were badly in need of, we had rhythm in abundance, what we needed was a melody section, somewhat more of a melody section than what four violins could provide, especially as no-one had the first clue of how to play the bloody things.

I’ll say this about shaking a toilet duck full of dried peas, you pick up the technique pretty quickly, it doesn’t take much teaching to get the drift, “Just shake the bloody thing laddy” is all that Pimple Head needed to cajole us with and once you’ve shaken it, well, there you are, you’re in the rhythm section, a bone-fide percussionist, Top of the Pops is your next stop.

The violin is something different, “Does anyone know how to play one of these already ?” is what Pimple Head asked of us that first day and when not one hand from the sixty hands available went up in the air – ok fifty nine hands, Stuart Ackroyd had probably broken his collar bone again, he broke his collar bone most weeks, in fact as soon as it was healed we went out of our way to break it for him again – Pimple Head gasped, “Surely one of you must know how to play the violin?” a question asked in desperation, “there must be one of you at least, I’ve bought four of the bloody things”, I think he was rather banking on the idea that if at least one kid knew how to play the violin then that kid could teach three other kids, for it was abundantly clear that Pimple Head could neither play nor teach the violin.

Working on the well worn principle of “Well it can’t be that bloody hard, lets start on page one” Pimple Head set about selecting four of the most likely kids in the class to play his newly purchased violins – how you select a kid to play the violin just by looking at them I don’t know but apparently I wasn’t a suitable candidate, to my ever lasting relief, I was quite happy with my toilet duck thank you very much Pimple Head.

I don”t think it was a coincidence that Pimple Head selected four girls to play his violins either, presumably he thought that the violin was a bit of a girlie instrument to play, who knows why he chose four girls but he did and so every lunchtime they were condemned to gather together in a classroom that was as far away from the rest of the school as possible and practice making screeching noises on their new violins in preparation for what Pimple Head had promised the Headmaster would be a spectacular end of term concert featuring the massed string orchestra and Harpic rhythm section.

Even at ten years of age we all knew, from day one, that it was doomed to failure, even at ten years of age we all knew that the four girls selected would never learn to play a selection of Vivaldi concertos in three weeks, we, the rhythm section, we all learned our parts really quickly, thats the beauty about playing a Harpic bottle, it sounds the same every time you play it, a sound reminiscent of dried peas rattling around inside a plastic bottle, but its always in tune and it doesn’t matter what sheet music they put in front of you, you can play it.

The school governors were invited, all the kids in the school would be there, loads of parents had been invited, the Parent Teachers Association who had underwritten Pimple Heads string orchestra on a promise of genius child prodigy’s would all be there, and Pimple Heads P45 would probably be there too, just waiting…

Come the day of the concert the Head called our class together for a rehearsal in the hall, the caretaker was setting out the chairs for the arrival of all the VIP guests that afternoon as we gathered at the front of the hall and started to tune up our instruments which for 26 of us consisted of unscrewing the bottle top and making sure we hadn’t eaten all of the dried peas yet.

Pimple Head had even found himself a baton with which to conduct us all and he tapped it all on a music stand to bring us all to attention, with both hands raised in readiness he looked towards his string section and nodded once to start them off.

I’m not quite sure what the overture and beginners were at that concert but it sounded just like it was called “Nails down a blackboard” or perhaps “Cat in abject terror”, to be blunt, it was the sort of thing you could use as a soundtrack to the next “Alien Invasion of Earth” movie, the bit where the aliens are dying in flaming balls of fire, in fact, thats a good idea, someone write that down.

It was terrible, absolutely awful, it sounded just like the four violinists had only been playing for three weeks, which in fact they had, and it sounded as if the four violinists had only been playing for three weeks but not actually listening to any of the lessons or practising at home of an evening, which in fact they hadn’t.

The Headmaster only said one word, “STOP!” is what he said, well two words including the exclamation mark.

“STOP!” he said it again, then turning to Pimple Head asked, “Can we forget the overture and beginners and just play the piece that they’ve been practising, you know, the bit they are good at ?”

“Thats the bit they’ve been practising headmaster” admitted Pimple Head.

And so it came to pass that that very afternoon, in front of several hundred gathered children, parents and governors Pimple Head stood at the front of the hall and conducted to a record player which played a selection of Vivaldi’s greatest hits while 26 of the children in his care rattled and shook various washing up liquid and bleach bottle filled with dried peas and if the audience weren’t exactly generous in their applause then at least they didn’t boo much and certainly didn’t throw things at us.

The violins were never seen again.

Presumably they were on sale or return.

Would any violin salesman be so stupid ?

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2 thoughts on “The School Orchestra, circa 1966

  1. I enjoyed this one too. I teach a string orchestra and those first several months require all my patience to get through. Amazingly enough, though, some of the kids actually pull it off and learn to play Vivaldi.

  2. My eldest could play the clarinet pretty well when she was 11 years old, we then bought her a saxophone and she played that to a good standard too, problem was her school stopped doing music as part of the curriculum (crazy I know) and although we paid to get her private tuition she was never comfortable with playing in public, which was the main focus of the tutor/orchestra, she stopped playing the instruments and has not played since which I know she now regrets 12 years later.

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