We at NYO are passionate believers in the value of music education for all. Forced to watch the historic and on-going destruction of the UK’s music education infrastructure, we experience its impact first hand. What can we do about it? What role can NYO – and youth orchestras more generally – play in supporting the renaissance of music education in the UK?
There are strong academic arguments, backed by a growing body of empirical evidence, for the benefits of a high-quality music education. Playing in a youth orchestra brings all those benefits and adds more of its own.
Orchestras provide a community of like-minded young musicians. They relieve the loneliness of practice while providing both motivation and reward for further skills development. Peer inspiration increases ambition and accelerates learning. Ensemble and leadership skills developed in orchestral performance can be life-enhancing and even life-transforming, as similar skill-sets are in sport. Working to achieve high-quality public performances provides an experience of excellence that can launch a young person on a trajectory of success, in music and beyond. Orchestral music-making is a profoundly communal activity that fosters both social-connectedness and individual well-being. Frustratingly, these arguments have yet to turn many heads in government.
There’s another problem too. Young people are not listening to classical music. Classical music barely features in the curriculum and the numbers of teenagers taking Music at GCSE level is declining. Young people are rarely given the chance to listen to classical music, nor do they include it as part of the sound track of their lives.
More generally, classical music itself simply does not turn heads like it used to. Contemporary performance standards are stellar, yet audiences are in steady decline. Classical music is no longer perceived as essential to the musical life of our country. Whether or not the decline in music education helped bring about this wider decline hardly matters at this stage. Democratic politicians resemble the electorate from which they are drawn and to whom they are answerable. As long as the overwhelming majority in the UK is unconcerned about the decline of audiences for classical concerts we should hardly be surprised if politicians remain deaf to the case for the provision of music education in schools. Ultimately, the indifference that successive governments have shown towards classical music is a reflection of wider public attitudes.
NYO’s solution to both these problems comes in the form of its NYO Inspire programme. Now the benefits of orchestral playing, which have helped to turn NYO into a better orchestra and NYO performances into uniquely thrilling artistic events are also used strategically in its NYO Inspire activity.
NYO Inspire targets high-quality ensemble playing opportunities on musicians, mainly from state school backgrounds, who lack other opportunities to advance their playing. The programme is a huge success, reaching thousands of teenagers every year. As a result, hundreds of state school musicians have advanced their musicianship, achieving places in NYO, in other high-level youth ensembles, and in conservatoires.
Because NYO Inspire is delivered by NYO musicians working alongside NYO tutors, it has also transformed the culture of our own orchestra, which is more outward-looking, more passionate, more communicative and readier to proselytize for classical music than ever before.
The development of NYO Inspire activity has led us to make another, thrilling discovery.
A natural extension of the peer-to-peer learning processes was to take the NYO Inspire Orchestra on tour to teenage audiences. Thus, three years ago the NYO Inspire Orchestra began giving concerts in secondary schools, created specifically for teenage audiences but which also include some of the richest, most challenging works from the orchestral repertoire.
The atmosphere of these concerts is a million miles away from the formality of the concert hall, yet the music is of the highest quality. And they have not merely been well-received, but breathtakingly so. Indeed, even the most die-hard proponents of classical-music provision in schools have been astonished by the impact of these concerts, which have a buzz and a passion that has to be witnessed to be appreciated. The open-mindedness of our teenage audiences has been incredible – even to our own teenage musicians, for whom classical music is often a private and somewhat shamefaced passion. They have thoroughly enjoyed hearing sophisticated orchestral arrangements of pop music; and they have been no less thrilled by unexpurgated Shostakovich.
All of which suggests a way forward, not just for NYO, but the youth orchestras in general. If we want to reverse the decline not only of music education but ultimately of classical music itself, we must develop young audiences as we never have before. We must throw out the rule book and create performances that are given for and by young people. We must empower teenagers to grasp the classical tradition and re-make it for themselves, just as they do with pop music. Our teenage audiences have proved themselves to be eclectic in outlook and hungry for challenging new artistic experiences. It seems that that the only thing that comes between teenage audiences and classical music is – dare we say it? – the classical tradition. In protecting itself from dilution, has the classical tradition also – unwittingly – been protecting itself from new audiences? As an orchestra of teenagers – the greatest in the world, no less – NYO is uniquely well-placed to throw open the doors of the tradition, and welcome new generations in.
Chief Executive and Artistic Director
National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain