A Terrible Troupe

Photograph by Tom Bryan

Ten years ago, W.S. Hobgood had a terrible idea.

He was newly retired, still an avid church organist, and had just completed an orchestral conducting class at UNC. A knack for the craft is nothing without musicians to practice on, so he assembled a group of like-minded aficionados, people who wanted to learn (or re-learn) music with great enjoyment and little expectation.

Thus, the Really Terrible Orchestra of the Triangle was born.

At first, RTOOT—yes, the acronym was purposefully chosen to bring to mind a certain bodily function—was comprised of only a handful of musicians and their conductor. For the first five years, the group was cheerfully nomadic, rehearsing and performing wherever they could find space, at Duke, in Chapel Hill and in Raleigh. These days, the orchestra is more or less settled in Cary, with roughly a hundred players, ranging from middle school students to retirees.

Concertmaster Steven Wiggins says that when the group gathers to rehearse, the entire Triangle is represented. Musicians trek from Chapel Hill, Garner, Raleigh, Apex, Morrisville and Durham to create terrible music together.

“It’s so hard to play alone and get that experience, but when you can hear people playing around you, you’re not just playing off a sheet,” Wiggins explains. “You are responding to other people. You literally are playing as part of a whole, and you can feel that whole in addition to yourself.”

Although Hobgood passed away in 2016, his wry, larger-than-life spirit is still a palpable presence in the orchestra, which is now conducted by the former head of NC State’s music department, Dr. Robert Petters.

For six months out of each year, rehearsals take place from 2 to 4 p.m. on Sundays. Wiggins says the sessions usually start with a laugh when the first piece falls flat on its face. They take a moment to crack up, regroup, and begin again, and for two hours, the group chips away at its piece, with short interludes to poke good-natured fun at the conductor. The gleefully irreverent nature of rehearsals extends to the orchestra’s twice-yearly performances, where no composer or composition is safe. Patrons receive earplugs, crayons and a crossword puzzle at the door, and are instructed to turn their cellphones on at the beginning of each concert.

The crowds that fill the concert halls have also changed over the last decade, shifting from exclusively duty-bound relatives to include a pool of delighted strangers. Wiggins credits this development to their skilled bassist, Ray, who has a knack for drawing people in (he also tows his instrument to rehearsals behind his motorcycle in a trailer made out of a casket). Audiences may come for the spectacle, but they stay for the heart and the music. In an inverted bait-and-switch, it turns out, the Really Terrible Orchestra puts on a decidedly good show.

For RTOOT’s 10th anniversary concert on December 4 at the Cary Arts Center, the group will put forth its very best efforts at pieces ranging from Tchaikovsky to the Star Wars theme. Rumor has it that audience participation and kazoos will also feature. In keeping with the orchestra’s mission, Wiggins says the performance will have “something for everyone,” making music accessible to terrible musicians and terrible listeners alike.

To purchase tickets to the 10th anniversary concert, visit rtoot.org.

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