So I can read music, can play piano in a basic way (think I got to grade three or four as a kid), but have always dreamed of being a percussionist in an orchestra. A timpanist to be specific! Is there any chance, aged 40, and with no orchestra or percussion experience that I could make the dream come true? Where do I start?
I don't think you'll find an orchestra that will allow you to learn 'on the job', so you'll need to get some lessons first. My son learns orchestral percussion at school and I think with some basic musical knowledge you could reach a useful standard quite quickly. He started last year, has Grade 4 piano, and is now working towards Grade 4 on percussion.
The big problem to my mind is: where do you get your timps? I imagine most percussionists don't own a full set, but that they're owned by the orchestra.
One thing you could do to get started is have a look for education/outreach programmes by the major orchestras - many of them run taster days, workshops, etc. that are open to all. Try the Royal Philharmonic's website, for example. The BBC Proms also run family workshop days and you don't need any experience. Once there, get talking to whoever's in charge of percussion and ask for advice.
I don't think all amateur orchestras ask for Grade 8, especially for unusual instruments. You just have to keep searching! If you're in a bit city then obviously there will be more choice.
You could also try posting your question on the ABRSM forums (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music). Don't post in the percussion bit, as it's very quiet; try one of the busier sections, like the Café. They have a useful list of amateur musical groups here. Also try the Local Amateur Music Network
Meanwhile, you could start brushing up your piano skills so you remember all you knew about reading music etc.
And no, speaking as a late-flowering clarinettist, 40 is not too old!! The AB forum is full of inspiring people who have started much later than that and done great things.
Percussion is more complicated than most people think, so you would need lessons to get to the level you need to join an orchestra. I would see if you can find someone locally to teach you and take it from there.
WiganKebab - You will need to have percussion lessons to get you up to standard. Would you be competent reading an orchestral score (percussionists need to count a lot of empty bars)? There's a reasonable list of amateur orchestras here - seems to cover most orchestras in my area anyway and includes several that are for adults who haven't played since school days or are fairly new to their instrument. See if there are any adult education courses in your area. For London, for example, there are these ones listed. I think that a lot of percussionists are very good pianists who want to play in orchestras as well. And from my experience (as a choral singer), percussionists are often not regular members of orchestras but just come in for later rehearsals. Whilst you get the experience needed to be a percussionist, you might consider joining a choir - one that performs with orchestras rather than a church choir or rock choir. You would pick up useful transferable skills from that.
Definitely start with lessons. I played in orchestras until I was 18 and then my violin playing became a hobby that was neglected quite a lot. I'm nowhere near the standard I was when I was younger but joined an amateur orchestra a few years ago and was fine. That said, it's easier to fudge through some of the bits you're a bit rusty on when you're part of a large section, a bit more tricky if you're the percussionist. You should be able to find a teacher in your area through this site. I found a violin teacher to help me get motivated.
Do you live in the North East? I play in the Cobweb Orchestra, where really everybody can join. There are several groups and we could certainly do with a percussionist! www.cobweborchestra.org.uk/ It really is great fun and I enjoy it very much. I played the bassoon at school and university orchestras a long time ago and picked it up again in the last couple of years thanks to Cobwebs.