Feature / Music

The ‘orchestra’ keeping a musical tradition alive

The group has been bringing string players together for over a decade

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Gemma Grant
Wednesday, June 19, 2024

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N a dark evening at the fringes of Princes Park, there is music in the air that belongs to an era gone by. 

Members of the Brunswick Old Time String Orchestra are sitting inside Carlton North’s old railway station, concentrating on their craft. From violinists to guitarists, to banjoists and mandolinists – the group has been bringing string players together for over a decade. 

The orchestra provides a unique sense of community for its players, said Maree Roberts, a volunteer and violin player with the group. 

“It’s a great experience for anyone who’s starting out on their musical journey… It’s very welcoming. It’s very supportive,” she said. 

Primarily focused on American folk music, the orchestra veers away from more popular titles. 

What they play is largely decided on by the members. 

“We play a real mix of tunes and that’s one of the strengths of the group. We don’t just play one musical genre, we do by a mix,” said Roberts. 

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For Helen Hatcher, a love of American bluegrass music initially inspired her to learn the fiddle. Once a pianist, she became a string player in her later life. 

“I got a cheap fiddle and hated the sound of myself for about a year. I was able to persevere and push through… Even one note on the violin requires so many different parts of your body to work together,” she said. 

The Old Time Orchestra provided her with an important opportunity to play collaboratively in a group. 

“It’s amazing. Playing music with others is just the most amazing sort of level up,” she said. 

“You can only play well together as an orchestra. If you’re listening to each other, and to a certain extent, kind of watching each other.” 

Hatcher, now retired, worked as a computer programmer in the second half of her career. She said that there were surprising connections between these two activities, in spite of their differences. 

“The fiddle tunes that don’t involve a lot of improvisation… there’s a lot of patterns. The maths and the programming bring an ability to work in that environment, recognising patterns and being able to work with patterns,” she said. 

The group meets every fortnight and is always looking for new members.

For Margaret Newton, the Old Time Orchestra was a reason to become reacquainted with the violin, which she originally learnt as a teenager. 

“I was lucky to go to a school which taught musical instruments. And we actually had a violin in the family. So it sort of seemed logical to have a go at that… and I was alright at it,” she said. 

Although starting to play after such a long hiatus was difficult, the former public servant credits the orchestra with helping her rediscover her musicality. 

“When I first started again, it was really hard, because it depends a lot on practice and muscle memory. If you don’t play you lose all that,” Newton said. 

“[The group] gave me an opportunity to play, and also an incentive to keep playing. Because I do really enjoy music and I sort of missed it.” 

In March, the Old Time Orchestra performed at the Sydney Road Street Party. This event was a particular highlight for the ensemble, who love playing for people in their local community. 

“It's a great experience for anyone who's starting out on their musical journey… It’s very welcoming. It’s very supportive,” says Maree Roberts.

For Margaret Newton, these performances bring the group together in a way which is really special. 

“When we play together and it goes well, it feels really good. You just feel that common purpose… you do get a bit of a buzz,” she said. 

The orchestra is always welcoming members, especially those who are looking for an ensemble to play with. Helen Hatcher said that anybody interested should consider joining a musical group – regardless of any hesitations they may have. 

“I don’t think it matters what age you do it. If you’ve got the opportunity and keep persevering, you can make progress,” she said. 

More information about the Brunswick Old Time String Orchestra, including the date and time of its next rehearsal, is available on the group’s Facebook page. 

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