The Phoenix Strings - Lancashire musicians rekindling their passion for music

PUBLISHED: 21:42 23 November 2012 | UPDATED: 22:26 20 February 2013

The Phoenix Strings - Lancashire musicians rekindling their passion for music

The Phoenix Strings - Lancashire musicians rekindling their passion for music

The members of this Lancashire orchestra happy to play second fiddle, writes Roger Borrell

Young William Clarke responded to his mums violin practise by putting his fingers in his ears and pulling the face of a small soul in torment. I realise the violin can be the Devils instrument when played badly, she laughs, but his reaction wasnt exactly motivating!

You could say Jane has had the last laugh. Now, when she picks up her bow, William sits proudly in the front row of the audience watching his mother intently as she plays with 30 colleagues in a quite unusual orchestra.

The Phoenix Strings is for lapsed musicians. If you packed your instrument away in the attic after leaving school or college but have a hankering to blow the dust off the fret-board and give it another go, this could be just what youre looking for.

It was formed in 2007 by musical director and conductor John Foster, an accomplished violinist who has had a distinguished career playing in Britain and in the USA from the London Festival Ballet to the Bruce Forsyth Show. He was also head of strings at Rossall School, near Fleetwood, and as a resident of Cleveleys he has been in demand as a teacher of adults.

It was in this role that the nucleus of a dozen pupils, under Johns direction, decided they wanted to form their own orchestra for strings. It is quite exceptional its not an orchestra for youngsters or beginners, but for lapsed musicians, says John, who trained in Manchester before starting a career as a professional violinist and violist.

There is great camaraderie. I have worked in orchestras where it looks like everyone gets on, but they dont. Its not like that here.

Perhaps, its because theyre such an interesting mix. We have people from the medical profession, teachers, a police inspector, an accountant and even a nuclear physicist.

A mix of abilities, too, and that demands patience from any conductor. While most concentrate solely on directing and driving an orchestra, having John in charge means he is on hand to coach and help to develop their playing skills. It also means he can select a programme which stretches their abilities without breaking their hearts.

They started small. Our first concert was in a old folks home - we picked it because they couldnt run away! says Jane, who lives in Hoghton and picked up the violin again after 26 years.

From there, they have gone on to stage several more ambitious productions, with choirs in some cases, and operating from bigger venues and performing challenging pieces such as a Schubert Mass and Handels Messiah. Along the way, they raise money for charities including Macmillan Nurses and the North West Air Ambulance.

They rehearse every Wednesday evening at a church hall in Thornton-Cleveleys and members travel there from across Lancashire. One of the original members, Jonathan Warren, makes the weekly round trip from Liverpool.

Jonathan is a former sea captain now teaching at the John Moores University nautical school.

Theres nothing else quite like this, he says. You really look forward to rehearsals it brings a lot into your life. Even in the early days weve never sounded diabolical because the pieces are set at a level we are comfortable with.

Catherine Chambers, a former teacher from Kirkham, adds: I was inspired to start again by a child I heard playing. I thought: I used to play like that again and I decided then to start. Its the best thing Ive done.

Grant Wood, who works with people with autism and lives in Cleveleys, says: When you play alone at home all you hear is yourself. When you come here and everything playing together its such a great feeling.
Jane sums it up: John suffers great pains to pull out the best technique and tone in each one of us.

You create this sound that to start with might be bad but you progress and then it gets really good. Then, theres something in you that soars - just like the music.

Driven to make music

When you ask former Leyland Motors engineer Nigel Reddecliffe how he came to be in the orchestra, he replies: I was bamboozled into it!

His wife, Valerie, joined the Phoenix Strings and Nigel drove her and her cello across from their Clayton-le-Woods home every Wednesday evening. He became such a regular face at rehearsals that John Foster asked him if could play.

I told him I didnt have a clue but he quizzed me a bit further and I told him I had made a harpsichord, which I could play. It was at that point he revealed he needed a pianist and he signed me up.

Ex-teacher Valerie adds: Theres a real joy in playing in a group such a buzz, it gives you a real kick.

See how they play

If you want to see The Phoenix Strings in action, they are performing Christmas music at Brindle St Josephs RC Church, Hoghton, on December 9, starting at 2.30pm. Tickets can be bought on the door. You can find out more about the orchestra, which is supported by Kevin George at The Violin Shop in Blackpool and Family Care Associates, by logging on to

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