Burford Orchestra is holding a Come and Play event on Sunday to encourage more musicians to join its ranks. Louise Woods explains how she took up playing the French horn again after a 25-year gap and rediscovered the joy of performing as part of a large ensemble.

WHEN I was 11, the head of music at my big Essex comprehensive school handed me an old French horn which had been gathering dust in the back of his cupboard and said he thought it might suit me.

It was heavy, cumbersome, and packed in a huge black case that my friends unkindly told me (repeatedly) looked like a portable lavatory. And it was fiendishly hard to play.

But I had hundreds of lessons, took exams, and somehow (aided by the fact that French horn players are usually in short supply) made it into my county youth orchestra.

That’s when all the hours of practice finally came into their own.

No one could ever have prepared me for the incredible skin-tingling joy of being right in the middle of amazingly beautiful music, of hearing the tune swirling around you, and through you, as it passes from strings to wind to brass.

Those were deeply magical years for me, and I feel very, very lucky to have been able to live that amazing musical dream through my teenage years.

But like so many not-particularly-musical kids I went to university and life kind of took over. I did take my French horn with me at first, but there was never enough time to practise, and so much fun to be had elsewhere, and eventually it got shunted back to my parents’ house, where it stayed, buried under my old school books, for the next 25 years.

Then, five years ago, my daughter Florence came home from school saying the head of music had suggested she learn to play the French horn.

Maybe she had heard me talking about my orchestra days. Maybe she had seen me drifting into wafts of reverie when quick snatches of Classic FM stumbled on a piece I’d once played. But he said he thought it might suit her.

I searched out my old French horn, took it to a specialist to be oiled and polished, and then pulled it out of the case to have a look.

It had been 25 years since I’d last held the shiny coiled brass tubing in my arms, but to my astonishment my lips and fingers remembered what to do. The noise I made was awful, but it was like driving a car. You never really forget what to do.

I worked my way through the beginners’ tunes, then a few of my old exam pieces, and finally the horn concertos I’d blasted inexpertly across the kitchen as a kid.

When I’m playing my horn, the years fall away and the music transports me back to a tiny glimpse of the stress-free innocence of my youth.

Witney Gazette: Louise playing her French horn as a teenager

But everything finally came full circle four years ago when I plucked up the courage to join the Burford Orchestra. Just like the old days, I thought I’d never be good enough, but – as always – French horns were in short supply and I was warmly welcomed in.

And do you know what I’ve found? The joy of being part of a great big group of musicians is as intense and moving and deeply, deeply pleasurable as it ever was.

Playing music as an adult is a whole different thing. My fellow players aren’t (all) the intense, driven, precociously-talented kids of my youth orchestra days, many of whom worked their way through to national level and on to flourishing careers in music.

Yes, a few of the Burford gang teach music, many play brilliantly, having never stopped, but there are quite a few, like me, who are quite simply thrilled to have returned to their instrument after years in the music wilderness.

Helen Jenkins, my mate on the French horn desk, got her instrument out of her wardrobe a few years ago after reading a book (I Found My Horn by Jasper Reese) about a man who returned to the music he had loved as a child.

When she joined Burford Orchestra, she was the only regular French horn player.

“I was dreading playing in public at first,” she said, “but I really enjoyed playing with other people. I’d forgotten how much pleasure that gives.”

“The concerts are still nerve-racking and the exposed passages are a big thing for me, but without music in my life, I did feel as if something was missing. There isn’t anything else that gives that buzz.”

It’s a similar story for Kate Farquhar, who makes a 90-mile round trip to attend rehearsals.

She said: “I played piano and violin as a child but stopped in my teens, and only decided to learn the oboe in my thirties, after all my kids went to school. I took lessons, but it was weeks before I could get a sound out of it. People laughed at me and my mother thought I was completely bonkers.”

However, Kate worked through her grades and achieved a distinction for her Grade 8 exam 18 months ago, and says she thinks (and hopes) she has inspired her children to love music as much as she does.

“My first night with the Burford Orchestra was quite overwhelming – I couldn’t believe I was part of something so amazing,” she said.

“I love everything about being in the orchestra, the sound we produce together is exhilarating, and for me, the 90-mile round trip is worth it.”

Most of us are amateurs, many of us having picked up our instruments again after decades without playing.

The fingers and the embouchure might be a little stiff, the range not quite so extensive, but for all of us, the fun and sense of joy is just as intense as it ever was.

Did you play a musical instrument at school?

Do you remember all the fun you had being part of the school or county orchestra? Is your old violin, trumpet or cello gathering dust somewhere in your loft? Do you fancy seeing if you can still hold a tune?

On Sunday, Burford Orchestra is holding a relaxed and very informal Come and Play afternoon at Burford School, in Cheltenham Road, from 1pm to 5pm, and we’d love you to join us.

We will be running through some lovely pieces such as the music from Les Miserables, and Vaughan Williams’ English Folk Songs, stopping for a break over a cup of tea and a cake (or two), finishing with a mini-performance.

There’s no minimum standard required (as long as you can read music) and no great expectations – just bring your instrument.

You never know, you might even feel sufficiently inspired to want to start playing regularly again – we really hope so.

The orchestra rehearses every Monday evening from 7.30pm to 9.30pm at Witney Community Primary School, in Hailey Road, followed by a pint at a nearby pub.

We put on concerts, usually at Burford School, three times a year. Look out for our next concert on Saturday, June 28, to celebrate our 60th anniversary.

  • For more information about the orchestra, call Helen Jenkins on 01993 830559 or 07880 908760 or see burfordorchestra.org.uk