How the National Youth Orchestra is inspiring a new generation of musical teenagers

We have launched NYO Inspire, which targets musicians who have bags of talent, but who face failure because they have no chance to take on bigger musical challenges

Sarah Alexander
Monday 03 August 2015 16:33 BST
Bold as brass: NYO horn players
Bold as brass: NYO horn players

The benefits of a musical education on the development of all young people, the warning cries about cuts in music education in the state sector and the need for government to reverse their refusal to make arts education part of the national curriculum have been shouted from the rooftops. While we need to keep up the pressure on the Government, the National Youth Orchestra accepts that arts organisations have a role to play and we've decided to act.

In the biggest single innovation in our 67-year history, we have launched NYO Inspire, targeted at musicians who have bags of talent, potential and commitment, but who face failure because they have no chance to take on bigger musical challenges.

Our first challenge is purely orchestral: touring Mahler's epic Symphony No 9 with the conductor Sir Mark Elder and Tansy Davies's brand new Re-greening combining playing and singing, taking in NYO's annual visit to the BBC Proms and its first performance at Young Euro Classic Festival in Berlin.

In the past, National Youth Orchestra auditions took place on a reasonably level playing field. This is no longer the case and we feel this is wrong. Music education provision in the UK is patchy and NYO see the results of this every year. Many brilliant teenage musicians struggle to gain a place in NYO, not through a lack of talent or commitment but because long-term cuts in local authority spending have eroded music provision and they have few or no opportunities to play with musicians who are better than themselves and who challenge them to push themselves further.

At NYO we are acutely aware of the role peer-inspiration plays in teenage musical development. There is no surer way of motivating a teenage musician to break through to the next level of musical achievement than sitting them next to a teenager who has already taken that step.

NYO rehearsals combine aspiration, inspiration, learning and teaching in a dynamic process of musical development. The consequence is NYO's teenage orchestral brilliance in performance. Longer-term, many leading UK musicians such as Alison Balsom tell us that playing in NYO was literally life changing, leaving an indelible mark on their artistic development.

Paradoxically, the worst thing that can happen to an aspiring young musician is for them to be the best player on the block, with no flesh-and-blood players to emulate. In auditions we meet young musicians who have progressed as far as they possibly can alone, often putting in a heroic amount of effort, without making it to the standard required to become part of the NYO.

What these young people need are first-class ensemble performance opportunities, where they can take on bigger musical challenges alongside peers who are as good as or better than they are. Regional youth orchestras used to provide these opportunities. Today, however, in many parts of the country this kind of top-level orchestral experience is only available in fee-paying educational institutions. Because of this, while only 7 per cent of UK teenagers attend private schools, for NYO musicians the figure is around 50 per cent. Far from being rich, almost all are in receipt of significant levels of financial support; private school is simply the only way of advancing their performance skills.

NYO Inspire gives these teenagers the highest quality orchestral playing opportunities in a series of free workshops, residences and ensembles, structured as a mini-progression route. At the summit stands the NYO Inspire Orchestra, a full symphonic orchestra that tours secondary schools and plays to teenagers who may never have heard an orchestra performing live before.

Almost as exciting as the new musical opportunities themselves is the design of NYO Inspire workshops. Not only are workshops run by a team of teenage NYO musicians, who sit alongside to guide participants throughout rehearsals and performances, but our Inspire participants are themselves also challenged to lead workshops with other young musicians. Just as there is no quicker way of acquiring skills than learning them from an admired peer, we believe there is no quicker or surer way of cementing those skills than being challenged to teach them for yourself.

For musicians who make it this far, success at NYO auditions is now only a step away. Not all will make it, but at least now we can honestly say that they have as good a chance as anyone.

The potential of NYO Inspire is immense. Making a collaborative offer that the Music Education Hubs are crying out for it, the high-intensity, cost-effective progression route it offers does exactly what was called for in the National Plan for Music Education. All that we need now is the funding to turn its national potential into a reality.

The NYO tours to Aldeburgh (6 August), Birmingham (7 August) and to the BBC Proms (8 August) with Sir Mark Elder. NYO Inspire continues in September ( Sarah Alexander is Chief Executive of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain

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