Katie on Tour: My musical experiences after retinoblastoma

by | Nov 7, 2022 | My story

Hi, I’m Katie and over the summer I went on a tour with the Hampshire County Youth Orchestra to France and Spain, in which I am principle second violin. I also had retinoblastoma when I was 8 and now have an artificial right eye. In orchestra this means I always sit on the right hands side of the stand (we share in pairs) and sometimes I need to move around slightly more than average to make sure I can see the conductor. This is a daily blog about what we got up to and my life on tour (with an artificial eye!).  

Day 1 

It’s currently 1:30am and I’m on a coach somewhere in the middle of France. We have around 12 hours left on our journey to Pamplona (in Spain) and are currently trying to get some sleep. Despite reports of hours of delays around Dover for the last 3 days, we managed to get through without queuing and even made it onto an earlier ferry than planned where we ate our dinner and watched in anticipation as France grew bigger. Towards the end of the ferry journey my eye became uncomfortable with discharge sticking to the surface and an hour into our coach journey I took it out. Luckily the people around me mostly know about my eye and as far as I can tell couldn’t care less about my current lack of a normal eye. We just stopped for a break, and I received a few longer-than-usual looks from other orchestra members in the service station but I guess that’s to be expected as they don’t know about my eye. Anyway, I’m now going to try to get some sleep, but who knows how well that will go on the slightly cramped coach. 

  Two happy girls stood inside the ferry with the sea in the background A beautiful view of the sea

Day 2 

We arrived in Spain!! Our hotel is on the outskirts of Pamplona and is a 4-star hotel which is much appreciated. Unfortunately, it is a bank holiday and so the planned activity which was exploring the shopping mall next to our hotel was less than exciting (although there was ice cream available, and a coke for me due to a dairy allergy). To fill the time, Carl, our conductor, blew half of his emergency budget on bowling for the whole orchestra! Much to my disappointment my brother managed to beat me despite having the lowest score in his lane until the last two turns but despite this upset we had a great time. There was then potential for a short rehearsal in our hotel but with everyone functioning on less than enough sleep, we returned to relax and shower in our hotel rooms, which thankfully had air con. 

Road sign reads 'Espana' Having fun bowling 

Day 3 

Today was our first concert in Spain, and my first time playing my violin in another country! The drive to the concert venue was about an hour and a half- something no one appreciated after the 26-hour journey of yesterday. It turned out our concert venue was 50 metres from the border with France as the town we were in (called Hondaribia) was on the river that is the border between France and Spain. After unloading the van into the concert hall, Fernando our Spanish tour guide led us round the town pointing out places to find lunch, however a group of us found a large supermarket in the hope of buying cheap, vegan food. The town was beautiful with views of mountains and the sea. We then regrouped for a sweltering rehearsal before deciding to ‘live dangerously’ and have another break before our first concert. Carl then surprised us by addressing the audience in Spanish and our concert began. The audience seemed to enjoy the performance; however, the consensus of the orchestra is that it can only improve from here! After a late dinner in a fancy restaurant, we are now on the coach back to Pamplona to the hotel and expect to arrive sometime after midnight for some much-needed sleep!  


Stood by the sea smiling A poster about the Hampshire orchestra A group stage shot of the musicians with their instruments

Day 4 

We have just finished our second concert and are on the coach back from lorgroño to Pamplona. We had to find our own dinner today, but most restaurants were not serving food yet so almost the whole orchestra ended up in a supermarket. We sat and ate in a very pretty park before running back to the concert hall for a very hot concert, which was much more successful than yesterday from our point of view! Earlier in the day we travelled into Pamplona to explore the old city, which was beautiful. Our guide Fernando took us on the route that the bulls and runners run during the famous running of the bulls which took place last week. The town was incredible with loads of bull-related monuments. My eye has still been quite gooey all day, but I have got used to carrying a tissue on me and I also have sunglasses which I wear if I get worried it’s too noticeable but mostly I only wear them in the sun! Another late night now I expect (it’s currently 10:44 and we’re still on the coach) and then off to France tomorrow! 

 A group shot stood outside a beautiful old building

Day 5 

We have spent an incredibly long day on the coach and have finally been allocated our rooms in our hostel in France. With great sadness we all said goodbye to our Spanish guide Fernando after taking an orchestra photo and then we boarded the coach. The 11(ish) hour journey was made far more entertaining by the impromptu karaoke using the coach’s microphone system and we were treated to One Direction, Disney and a rendition of a song from Les Miserables attempted in four-part harmony! Although undoubtedly the highlight was when my brother joined in surprising everyone with the fact that he can sing. Unfortunately I failed to persuade him to rap though. Arriving at our hostel we went straight to dinner where there was an unfortunate event with some pasta cooked in butter. After I quickly took some medicine to stop my allergic reaction progressing, my meal was replaced and my friends were wonderfully kind and supportive, making the scariest experience so far bearable. Our room here is very hot and it is very late so I should try go to sleep.  

Katie and a friend smiling in a selfie A group shot out the hotel

Day 6 

We have had a lovely, relaxed day today so far recovering after the exhaustion of yesterday. After a much later breakfast than the rest of the week we regrouped and decided not to visit the nearby town of Angers as previously planned but instead to spend the morning in the lovely park the hostel is in and relax by the lake. First though we went to a carrefour to find some food for lunch, and we were all surprised when our bags were searched just to enter a supermarket! I was very pleased because I managed to find so vegan ready meals which should provide more than enough safe food for the rest of the trip. We then headed down to the sunny lakeside and had a great time splashing about (and each other) in the warm water. I always feel slightly self-conscious as I wear large swimming goggles when many people would go without, but they minimise the risk of developing an infection in my eye and the mask-style I find most comfortable. As usual no one cared, and I had the benefit of being able to see underwater! 

We have just completed our first French concert which was in a beautiful church on a hill and once we finished there was a stunning sunset leading to many photos! The concert had mixed reviews as we had changed our main piece for the French concerts and felt we had not played our best, however the audience gave a standing ovation and clapped for an extra encore (we had already played our set encore of Star Wars)! 

A beautiful building Katie and a friend stood with a sunset in the background

Day 7 

Our last full day of the tour was met with a mixture of sadness and exhaustion. We had a fairly relaxed morning again, with more swimming in the lake but this time we left for our last concert before lunch. It was in another beautiful church in the city of Angers and as we went to find our lunch (I had already eaten one of my ready meals) we were given fliers to hand out to advertise our concert tonight (all our concerts were free entry and there were different levels of pre-arrival advertisement). This was a daunting yet hilarious task as many orchestra members attempted to try out their knowledge from GCSE French! Before playing we took a whole orchestra photo, shouting “mambo” after a trumpeter played their part (we have been playing West Side Story most of the year by this point) and then played together one last time. Afterwards there were more photos, many in tears as this was the last concert for a lot of people. The sadness was only increased by the coach drivers playing sad songs all the way back to the hostel! When we arrived, we gathered for a speech by the staff and clapped and thanked everyone for all the headaches and effort that went into making this planned tour of summer 2020 finally happen! Then all the year 13s were gathered into a room for a more personal speech and we were given a glass of champagne each to celebrate our time in the orchestra. There were some more toasts and a lot of revisiting pieces we had not thought about in years (namely Shostakovich 10 and Peterloo Overture by Malcom Arnold) which inevitably led to more tears. We are now all upstairs but not quite wanting to go to sleep because tomorrow really will be the end of an era. 

Katie and lots of musicians smiling with their instruments Katie and another lady smiling at the camera

Day 8 (final day) 

We have been sitting at Calais for over 2 and a half hours now, as we arrived very early for our ferry, and couldn’t get on the only earlier one. We just got back on the coach after going through border control, so at least something is happening, and someone has got enough data left to show to women’s Euros final on their phone which we are all craning to watch and is providing much needed entertainment, despite the score still being 0-0 in the 55th minute!  

We are finally on British soil! The ferry was very fun and a much needed breath of fresh air. I spent most of the time on deck with my friends being completely blown around and watching the beautiful clouds and sunset (and a very funny seagull).  

It is one 1:42am and I am finally in bed at home. Our arrival brought the final frantic unloading of the trailer carrying the big instruments, before we all slowly dispersed back to our homes. 

A smiling Katie taking a selfie A happy group photo, the weather looks hot with a sea breeze  

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