Three days ago I received news that a musical friend of mine had died. It wasn’t unexpected so I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t feel anything. Today was an orchestra rehearsal for one of the many groups she had built over her career. Somebody suggest we start with our tea break rather than doing it half way through so that we could share our thoughts and memories of our friend. People drank. People ate cake. People talked. But as far as I could tell, nobody was talking about S. Now being autistic it is of no surprise that standing around chatting in groups is not my thing. I can do it but I tend to gravitate to people I know and listen to what they say. Some people I trust; I might start a conversation with them but it wouldn’t be unusual for me to sit quietly in the corner, eyes closed, hoping to regain some energy.

Today I turned to my trusted friend and asked her if she remembered the day that we first came to the orchestra. We walked in with the encouragement of friend who had recently joined our local ensemble and had attended the orchestra before. I think we must have been late because the orchestra was all set up and presumably about to play something. It was all a bit embarrassing because everybody turned to look at us. S, the conductor, asked us what instruments we played. I answered, “tenor or descant”. I probably didn’t speak very loudly and S replied along the lines that I wouldn’t be playing descant in this orchestra. I found this a bit hurtful. How did she know how well I played the instrument?

I settled down in the tenor section. It was overwhelming. The difficulty of the music, the challenge of playing in a large group. I needed to overcome my fear of playing a wrong note, and I needed to keep looking at the conductor to get my timing. I also needed to stop tapping my foot. Thank god I didn’t play descant, because they seemed to be professionals. I also learnt that there was no hiding. S knew exactly what was going on. She knew who played the wrong note, whose recorder was out of tune, who wasn’t playing and who was playing at the wrong time. She knew but she was only ever encouraging. She didn’t point fingers, but she would get a section to go over a bit a few times together to encourage the tentative players and if you couldn’t get it, she then suggested you marked it for practise at home.

I was a wreck by the end of the first rehearsal and I don’t think I would have returned without the support of my friends. I did go back though, and I kept going back. I conquered those fears, took on the advice and practised. I was never going to be an excellent player, but I have become a solid player within the orchestra. S would often say that she knew she could count on me because I would always be looking at her for direction. It seemed a bit excessive to me, there were plenty of times when I wasn’t looking at her during critical moments but I guess it was the effort I made that she appreciated.

I remember her asking me to play a solo part. I didn’t want to but thought that the fact that S had asked me meant she had some confidence in me. It was at the beginning of a substantial piece. The lower instruments started the piece and I came in on solo tenor with the first iteration of the theme. I came in at the right time, but played it at exactly half the speed I was being conducted. S sang along, and I immediately corrected my tempo. She always said “well done you” whenever I played a solo section, I think she knew how tough it was for me. And I gained confidence where now I have got to a point when I can play a live concert in a calm and confident manner knowing that no matter what, I will get through the piece. There will inevitably be mistakes, but I know I am a good enough player to keep going and still make it to the end without falling apart.

S also gave me the confidence to change around instruments. I learned to play the treble, then made the difficult transition to the bass, difficult because I also needed to learn the bass clef. The contrabass followed, then the sub-contrabass. Over the last year I have loosely cemented in the great-bass, and now the sub-great-bass. When she was no longer able to play her recorders, S asked me to look after her Kung Superio contrabass. This is a beautiful, expensive, rich toned instrument and I was honoured to look after it.

I have carried this rather heavy instrument to the orchestra for a year now, grateful for the car lift another member gives me to the rehearsals. Today the orchestra said goodbye to S by playing some of their favourite pieces that S had conducted. We also played a piece that S had written. I made sure I played her contrabass in that piece. I didn’t play as well as I could since I haven’t touch a bass in a while, focussing as I have on the great-bass this year, but I did the best I could and I know that would have been good enough for S. I would also know that if another rehearsal was happening next month, then I would be expected to be better.

The contrabass and I are sitting in the same room. It now belongs to the orchestra and for the time being I remain its custodian. It is an even more special instrument now that S has died. There is a part of me that is inherently musical and S has helped me nurture that part into the player I am today. People seem to want to sit next to me nowadays for support which is both flattering and rather puzzling. There is not magic in being a solid player, just a need to put in some practise and to particularly go over again and again those bits that seem impossible the first time they are played. And of course, you have to absolutely look at the conductor.

I will no longer look over the top of my rather high music stand and see S staring back at me, nodding encouragement at me because she knows I am not sure if I have come in at the right time. Being a member of the orchestra has changed me so much and given me so many worthwhile, sometimes very challenging experiences. S was intrinsic to that, she made the orchestra special. I will miss her. One last hug.

So now I shed my tears and my grieving can begin.