Out of tune – and loving it : Terrible Adult Chamber Orchestra (TACO) makes beautiful music

Photo By: Eren Gknar/Special to the Town Crier
Photo Eren Gknar/Special To The Town Crier

Members of the Terrible Adult Chamber Orchestra, from left, Arthur Schwartz, Vivian McNulty and Greg Cheung, undermine their name by playing beautiful music. TACO’s informal atmosphere allows the musicians to enjoy the process without the pressure.

Passing by the Hillview Community Center Social Hall the last Sunday of the month, you may hear what sounds like an orchestra tuning up.

After a few minutes, you’ll realize it is already tuned. And while it may be performing “The Sound of Music,” each musician is playing to a different beat.

Those dissonant notes come from the Terrible Adult Chamber Orchestra (TACO), a “happily terrible” group of amateur musicians who play for the fun of it, according to the group’s website.

The ensemble mimics one started by best-selling author Alexander McCall Smith. Acclaimed for his “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series, Smith retired to Scotland and founded the Really Terrible Orchestra in the 1990s.

“The whole point of TACO is that we gather to enjoy the process of making music,” said founder Cathy Humphers Smith, a music major who worked her way through college by teaching piano and later served as program director for Music for Minors.

“Families, friends and anyone else are welcome to come at any time to sit in and listen and enjoy our process,” Smith said.

Vivian McNulty, a retired music teacher from Blach Intermediate School, serves as the band’s librarian, transposes their music and also conducts.

Making music without anxiety

Although the name – TACO – sounds like a gag, it’s no joke for the 40 musicians who play without worrying about stage fright or performance anxiety. Experienced and inexperienced musicians are welcome.

Viola player Kent Smith, a member of Nova Vista symphony, plays alongside Los Altos resident Gina Atkinson, whose husband gave her a flute as a birthday present last year.

“Unlike most TACO members, I had never played my instrument before joining,” said Atkinson, who played clarinet, oboe and piano in her youth.

As managing editor of the Psychoanalytic Quarterly, “my work is very isolating,” Atkinson said. When her daughter told her about meeting Smith in Mountain View’s World Harmony Chorus, for which they both sing, Atkinson decided to join TACO. The group is “very welcoming to everyone,” so she doesn’t feel self-conscious about her inexperience.

Atkinson said another factor that keeps her coming back is Smith’s dedication.

“She’s very tolerant with people playing a lot of different levels,” Atkinson said of her conductor. “Both (McNulty and Smith) are super directors – we are absolutely fortunate to have them.”

“There’s a level of perfectionism when you play,” Smith said. TACO provides “a niche for people who don’t want that pressure but who really love to play.”

To calm nerves, Smith calls the meetings “gatherings,” not “rehearsals.” There’s a large dollop of socializing, with a break for wine and sweets.

A noble experiment

Smith and her husband, Kent, began an experiment in their Los Altos living room in 2011. She had always wanted to develop her conducting skills and her husband longed to play instrumental music with other adults “without the pressures and perfectionism required of a performing group.” They subsequently launched TACO.

Gathered by word of mouth, 25 musicians met at her house.

“We only met twice,” Smith said, before the demand exceeded the couple’s space and she rented the Hillview room.

Attendees range from people who haven’t picked up their high school French horns for decades to musicians like Kent, who plays with a symphony but wanted to meet other musicians without the pressure to practice.

“One cellist plays in two orchestras weekly, and she appreciated the chance to come to TACO to try new fingering without the stress of performance,” Smith said.

Los Altos Hills resident Alison Kibrik plays snare drums and piano.

“The piano’s a solo instrument,” she said, which makes it fun to play in a group. “I love making music with other people.”

TACO meets 2-5 p.m. the last Sunday of each month at Hillview Community Center, 97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos. No experience is required, and lapsed or current musicians can sign up at Cost is $10 per session, $25 for three.

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