UK Youth Orchestras: our musical future?

Monday 17th June 2013

Rupert Christiansen’s article in the Telegraph stipulated that youth orchestras in Great Britain are as strong as any of the South American youth orchestras produced by El Sistema. While there are several hugely successful and influential orchestras in the UK today, have they achieved the prominence in our minds that El Sistema’s have?

The National Orchestra For All, established only two years ago by Marianna Hay, is the most similar to El Sistema’s process that has achieved so much recognition globally. Based neither on achievement nor ability to play, the orchestra is assembled from 11-16 year old children in special measure schools. As Christiansen describes, teachers nominate students who have special needs or learning difficulties, and often come from troubled family backgrounds. Marianna Hay emphasises that ‘the point is not to foster professional soloists but to use the experience of making music as an exercise in focused co-operation and collaboration. This can make a huge difference to a child’s confidence, as well as broadening cultural horizons’.

Sarah Derbyshire, Managing Director of the National Children’s Orchestras of Great Britain said that NOFA is a ‘great initiative and another example of the wider impact playing in an orchestra can have on children, musically as well as socially and emotionally’. The NCO, which is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, constitutes five age-banded orchestras for 7-14 year olds, and they fundraise extensively to ensure that no talented child is ever denied a place for financial reasons, believing that ‘the ability to play is far more important than the ability to pay’. Sarah Derbyshire emphasises the part that NCO can play in inspiring young people to take music as far as they can; the NCO is there to help children fulfil their potential.

However, whilst over 1000 children each year audition for a place in the NCO from around the country, there are still some serious audition ‘holes’ in the UK where children are not being encouraged to try out playing in an orchestra. These holes, surprisingly, include places such as Suffolk, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, as well as Wales and the North East of England. With the creation of Music Hubs, organisations such as the NCO need to be collaborating with local authorities to improve the music education of children in these target areas and their involvement in national orchestras. Sarah believes that only through organisations and music hubs all working together can youth in the UK achieve their musical potential.

It is often discussed as to whether an amateur youth orchestra should be performing rather than professionals who, as the Musician’s Union highlight, should be performing in all concerts to help them earn their living. However, if we want our youth orchestras to have the same prominence as they do in South America, then we have to be ready to back them all the way through inception to success. We have started doing this with the National Youth Orchestra’s performance at the Proms, but there is a long way to go. As Rupert Christiansen says, ‘we must believe in our youth orchestras’, otherwise there is no hope for increasing music opportunities to children throughout the UK. Our children musicians are after all, this country’s musical future.

(Bill Hiskett)

(NCO concert, courtesy of Bill Hiskett)