Half a century of making music

Violinist Sian Harrison on the joys of playing with Forest Philharmonic Orchestra

Forest Philharmonic Orchestra

Mark Shanahan conducts Forest Philharmonic Orchestra at Walthamstow Assembly Hall. Credit: Mark Burton

For the past two years I have been a member of Forest Philharmonic Orchestra. The group has been making music in Waltham Forest for just over 50 years and celebrated its anniversary last season with an excellent series of concerts.

Some members have been there for the majority of those years and remember the founder and first conductor, Frank Shipway, who sadly died last year.

Being a member involves, among other things, going along to rehearsals on a Monday evening, when all most sensible people really want to do is curl up on the sofa and unwind after a day’s work.

But the effort is always rewarded.

Each week, I get to spend nearly three hours with some of the warmest, most dedicated people I’ve met, as we fill our rehearsal space with incredible music.

They are people from all walks of life; teachers, architects, doctors, scientists – some of whom travel many miles to be part of the orchestra.

On the first play through of a piece, we might not always get everything right.

But slowly, surely, week by week, our hard work is transformed into something remarkable.

Under the expert guidance of conductor Mark Shanahan, and a team of professional players who are passionate about music-making and music education, we learn.

We go over each piece section by section, work out how each bar is to be played – how loud or soft, how fast or slow – and we listen to each other.

Gradually, the pieces improve and we take advantage of a quick break to catch up with each other over tea or coffee, provided by our good friend Sylvia.

After a couple of rehearsals of the pieces for our December concert – a Shostakovich symphony, the Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky, and Scherzo Fantastique by Suk – and already you can hear the strands starting to come together.

On top of the rehearsing, our dedicated volunteer committee members busily manage everything, making arrangements and working hard to ensure everything runs like clockwork.

In a typical concert week, we have three extra rehearsals to prepare and get everything finely tuned for the performance. Those weeks are sometimes gruelling, as our jobs obviously don’t let up while we’re putting in the extra time. But the high we experience following a concert makes it all worthwhile.

Violinist Sian Harrison

Violinist Sian Harrison

When I first joined the orchestra, I hadn’t played my violin for nearly two years. I didn’t know anybody and my nerves turned to fear as I walked into my first rehearsal, to be greeted by a wall of sound – how would I ever be able to play that?

I felt like turning around and running home, but I didn’t. I sat down, got out my violin and I played. Amazingly enough, I found I could still do it!

I remembered how to sight-read music, where to put my fingers on my instrument, how to move my bow. Badly, at first, but I eventually found my feet. I was hooked.

Suddenly, it felt as though an element of my life which had been gathering dust for such a long time was revived. Something that had been missing had returned and I was ashamed I’d ignored my playing for all that time.

Since then, I’ve made some good friends and done things I’d never have imagined I’d do before joining the orchestra. I’ve helped with workshops for young children, helping them to understand classical music and aiming to foster a love for it which they will hopefully continue to have long into the future.

My own knowledge of music has expanded with every new concert, as I’ve been introduced to new repertoire every time. There have been some very special performances with leading classical artists, including singer Susan Bullock and pianist Stephen Hough.

We’ve also played at venues across London, including the Barbican and the Royal Festival Hall – places I’d never have dreamed I’d perform at. But my absolute favourite place to play is Walthamstow Assembly Hall.

With the generous support of the council, we are able to put on four concerts every year right here in the borough. Not only is the Art Deco building beautiful to look at, but it has a wonderful acoustic which gives an extra boost to our sound.

There’s also the tremendous support we get from our audience members, several of whom are part of our ‘friends’ scheme and help the orchestra to keep going.

At a time when other amateur orchestras in London and elsewhere in the country have been forced to close, or to cut back on concerts, we’re really incredibly lucky to have Forest Philharmonic on our doorstep. And I’m so very fortunate to be a small part of it.

Forest Philharmonic Orchestra’s next performance is on Sunday 6th December at Walthamstow Assembly Hall, from 6.30pm. To find out more information and to buy tickets

Visit: http://forestphilharmonic.org.uk