Rusty Musicians

By Jeremy Miles

Back in the dark, paranoid days of the Cold War, Naval commander Graham Baynes used to be in charge of war exercises aboard one of Britain’s Polaris nuclear  submarines. To break the tension he would relax by playing his trusty flute. Unfortunately a fully manned submarine on active service offers few opportunities for quiet musical interludes.  So, displaying the resourcefulness expected of a senior officer of Her Majesty’s Navy, Graham used to clamber into the Polaris’ bomb-bay - the only place he could play without disturbing his crew.

By his own admission his ability as a flautist in those days showed all the signs of someone who only had the opportunity play very occasionally,

Now 76 and living in retirement in Wareham all that has changed. He gets to play regularly and doesn’t have to do so in the company of a missile or two.

When I caught up with Graham recently he was busy rehearsing the woodwind sections of Mahler’s Symphony No 1 under the direction of Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra oboe player Peter Rendle.

For Graham is one of dozens of musicians from all over Dorset who are taking part in  the BSO’s Rusty and Not So Rusty Musicians project.

 The initiative  has been running annually for 11 years and encourages anyone who has a Grade 5 or above music qualification to take part in a series of workshops and rehearsals and then play in a grand concert alongside the mighty BSO. 

This year’s gala showcase featuring more than 100 Rusty’s performing alongside 60 BSO professionals will be at Lighthouse in Poole on the 13th June.

Conducted by BSO stalwarts Kevin Smith and Ian Pillow, it will feature a programme  that includes music by Dvorak, Mahler, Holst, Sibelius, Copland and Shostakovich.

Meeting the Rustys at one of this year’s workshops at Gillingham School, it was instantly clear that they offer a huge range of talents and abilities. Some are former professionals, others keen amateurs but many haven’t played for years and have simply been inspired to dig a dusty old instrument out of the loft and get back into the swing of things.

Organiser BSO education and community officer Linda Higson says the Rusty’s project has grown massively since the first year when just 20 people turned up.

“It’s incredibly rewarding to see people of so many different abilities coming together and making music of a quite extraordinarily high standard. You see some of them come through the door for the first time nervous, hesitant and way outside their comfort zone. You can see their confidence growing as the weeks pass.”

Peter Rendle, who has been with the BSO for more than 30 years, says that many of the once terrified novices become accomplished players and old friends who turn up year after year. “It is quite incredible how no matter how uncertain people have been in rehearsals they invariably seem to raise their game for the  showcase concert. It always seems to just take off.”

 At the Gillingham workshop the players were divided into various musical categories - strings, brass etc. They then received specialist tuition from a team of BSO volunteers before joining forces to play there way through the days work together. 

 The Rusty’s include people of all ages from teenagers to octogenarians and come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Graham Baynes  has been a regular at these annual sessions since the year 2000.

“It’s a marvellous experience,” he told me. “When I first started I had basically had 20 years of not playing. I play regularly now, although I’m afraid I probably don’t practice as much as I should.  Doing this keeps you up to a level.”

This year he brought his 14-year-old granddaughter Cally Webster along for the first time. A keen flautist at school she was excited about the prospect of playing with a huge orchestra. “It’s really good to be able to take part in something like this. I’m really enjoying it.” 

Another youngster is cellist George Owen, also 14, who has been attending the Rusty and Not So Rusty sessions for the past three years.

When he first took part his family lived near Christchurch. Now they’ve moved to the Dorset/Somerset border making the Gillingham workshop conveniently close to home. George who passed his Grade 7 exam at the age of just 10 is currently studying at  Wells Cathedral School but says he sees music as a passion rather than a career and hopes to become an engineer.  He’s currently wrestling with the fact that now he’s turned 14 he’s been forced to “retire” from the National Children’s Orchestra.  When we meet he’s taking advice from his friend, Blandford based viola player Nathalie Green-Buckley, about the prospects of joining her in the National Youth Orchestra

“I think this project is absolutely wonderful,” said George’s dad, Tim Owen, one of the Rusty’s volunteer parent-helpers. “It is amazing,” agreed fellow volunteer and near-neighbour Roger Allen. Roger’s 15-year-old son Tommy plays the French horn, an instrument he fell in love with at the age of five although he was far too small to play one at the time. “I can’t tell you what it means to Tommy to be able to take part in something like this,” says Roger.  “He receives tuition from and even gets to play alongside his absolute hero. It’s like a dream come true.” The hero it turns out is BSO horn player Robert “Bomber” Harris. 

Other Rusty’s include former landscape gardener Jim Grant from Poole who at 79 years of age is one of the oldest players. A former military band musician, clarinetist  Jim spent years playing around Dorset with the Starburst Dance Band.

“This is good experience.” he told me.  “You learn a huge amount and play music you’d never  normally get the opportunity to perform.”

Retired Royal Yacht Association organiser David Ashwin who plays the viola agrees.  Although he didn’t touch his instrument from the age of 15 to 55, he is now, along with his double bass playing wife Judy, a veteran of nine Rusty Musicians concerts.

The Blandford couple are also regulars with the Shaftsbury and Dorset County Orchestras. David admits that when he first joined the Rustys some years ago he was only just getting back into serious playing. “I suppose I was getting gently unrusty but I can tell you it took a lot of WD40.

“Doing this was a brilliant opportunity and it seems to have proved a little bit addictive,we keep coming back.  But everyone is so warm and welcoming and it’s such fun sitting among the symphony orchestra musicians.

“They’re so good. In fact that the first time we did a concert  I was enjoying listening  to them so much that I almost forgot to play.”

*The Rusty and Not So Rusty Musicians Concert will be staged at Lighthouse in  Poole, on Sunday June 13.

© Jeremy Miles 2022