by Ian de Stains OBE

When I was growing up, my paternal grandfather spoke intriguingly and often about a somewhat special violin that belonged to the family and that would come to me if I showed an appropriate aptitude for music. I had visions—if not of a Strad—then of a suitably serious instrument kept safe somewhere in a family attic or vault.

As it happens, music appealed to me, and I seemed to have a talent for it from my earliest years. By the time I reached high school (one which had a strong reputation for music and drama), I was eager to be a part of the orchestra. I asked for the promised violin, but to my enormous disappointment, it turned out it did not exist. My parents were not in a position to buy me a violin, so I resorted to asking the school for an instrument. Too late: the strings were fully subscribed. I could, however, play trombone.

Don’t laugh. The classical slide trombone is a very sensitive instrument and its players need to have a keen sense of pitch. The slide means there is no perfect position for any given note (unlike a valve instrument, for example) and in this sense there is a curious sympathy with the violin. The trombone is much maligned as a comic instrument but there is some beautiful music written for it (for example Rimsky Korsakov’s Trombone Concerto, the slow movement of which was one of my exam pieces).

Playing in an orchestra is an extraordinary experience, in large part because you realize that you are simply one part of the whole. No matter how skilled a soloist you may be, in the orchestra you are one of many and it is the whole that matters. Bringing it all together is the task of the conductor, who must have a thorough understanding not just of the score, but of the part each instrument plays in it, and how best to help each player contribute to the fabric of the whole piece. Indeed, the time he spends waving the baton before an audience is but a tiny fraction of the work involved.

It’s been a long time since I played in an orchestra, but I was pleasantly reminded of how much I enjoyed doing so during a recent conversation with Maestro Robert Rÿker, the founder and music director of the Tokyo Sinfonia. Robert has worked hard over the last several years to build an orchestra of talented young Japanese players that is now an important part of the international community. It is a resource that’s available to all of us, and one that is deserving of our support. To learn more about it please visit the website at

Ian de Stains, OBE is the Executive Director of the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan. He is also the author of The Business Traveller’s Handbook to Japan, published by Stacey International and available from Amazon.