How the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain is bridging the music education divide

The demise of the European Union Youth Orchestra after 40 years of good work hit the headlines hard this month. Here National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain CEO Sarah Alexander writes for IAM about the true value of enabling young musicians to inspire one another – and how peer-to-peer work creates opportunities for all

‘NYO musicians learn from one another in the way kids learn skateboard tricks’

In 2013-14 the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (NYO) received an unexpected legacy of £2.2m (€2.9m), a great deal of money for us, more than 12 months of turnover. Our first reaction was excitement and relief as fundraising takes time and energy and the outcome is never certain. Very quickly, however, we realised we had a problem: £2.2m would not affect our long-term position but was far too much to absorb into reserves.

NYO CEO Sarah Alexander
NYO CEO Sarah Alexander

NYO is funded by some sophisticated trusts that would balk at giving money to an organisation that was hoarding unspent millions – and quite rightly so. Our conclusion was that the money would have to be spent. So, after replenishing our reserves and putting some money into improving our fundraising infrastructure, we elected to devote the rest to doing what we do best – supporting young orchestral musicians to excel. This was the origin of NYO Inspire, at which peer inspiration lies at the very heart and this summer celebrates its first birthday.

Since arriving at the orchestra in 2007, I have given a great deal of thought to the role peer inspiration plays in propelling NYO to staggeringly good performances. NYO musicians learn from one another in the way kids learn skateboard tricks. They watch and they listen, they admire, they share tips. Of course, our musicians are not self-taught: NYO employs the best tutors and the best conductors. But above and beyond what the grown-ups contribute there’s this peer energy, these passionate young people spurring one another on to greater and greater feats of brilliance. This is something special.

We started using peer learning consciously as part of our rehearsal process back in 2009-10, and saw a positive impact on standards. We wondered what would happen if our orchestra performed for other teenagers and even ran music workshops with them, so we started giving concerts in secondary schools, with workshops for school musicians to help introduce the repertoire.

The effect was electric. When you stand up in front of your peers and perform you can’t fake anything, it has to be absolutely real. And everybody feels this. After giving workshops and performances in schools, NYO musicians have told us very seriously that they found it even more thrilling than performing in the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall.

And so NYO Inspire was born to harnesses this peer inspiration. The idea is to give teenage musicians who lack opportunities the boost they need to take them on to the next stage. NYO can’t fund the grassroots music education system, but we can make powerful strategic interventions, using peer-to-peer learning in workshops, and peer performances in schools.

NYO Inspire targets musicians at Grade 6 and above, the level at which most regional Music Education Hubs and Music Services struggle to provide meaningful challenges for their teenage musicians. Long-term cuts in Local Authority music provision, both in and out of schools, have drastically reduced the total number of learning musicians, which reduces the numbers that progress to higher standards.

And so the quality of regional ensembles has fallen in turn. Indeed in many cases cuts have been so drastic that those ensembles no longer exist. In the 1970s the best regional youth ensembles were in the public sector and private schools lagged behind. Now the majority of the opportunities to play classical music at a good standard are in the private sector.

‘People who come to observe NYO musicians running workshops for their peers leave us totally inspired themselves. The fact is, teenagers can achieve much, much more than anyone ever expects of them’

For committed state school educated musicians the consequences are disastrous: 93 per cent of the nation’s teenagers attend state school so all things being equal around nine out of 10 NYO musicians should be from a state school.

Instead, the figure has fallen to as low as around three in 10. We have been working on this since 2010 and today the orchestra is roughly 50-50 split between state and privately educated students.

Significantly, the state school musicians who make it into NYO tend to do extremely well, progressing through the ranks to take the lion’s share of leadership roles. We take this as a sign of how much musical potential is being lost in the state sector.

It is too early to say how far NYO Inspire will impact on our educational diversity, but at the individual level it is clearly working.

With some musicians we meet on NYO Inspire it’s like someone strapped a rocket-booster onto them. When NYO gave workshops and a concert in an inner London secondary school in January 2015 we met a keen young flautist. He was blown away by our concert of Elgar Symphony No 1, conducted by John Wilson, and joined us for an Inspire Day.

Then he came on a three-day Inspire Ensemble series. By summer he was playing alongside regular NYO musicians in the Inspire Orchestra, touring into secondary schools and leading workshops for school musicians, just like the workshops he had participated in in January. By that time he was at NYO standard and joined the orchestra. There’s simply no way this would have happened without NYO Inspire. This was an advanced young musician who had no musical peer group, no ensemble challenges, and no opportunities to advance.

In 2015 our 164 NYO musicians worked alongside more than 1,500 state school musicians. Of these, 17 ended up in NYO in 2016. In addition to this we performed to almost 4,000 teenagers in schools. Everyone who takes part loves it. People who come to observe NYO musicians running workshops for their peers leave us totally inspired themselves. The fact is, teenagers can achieve much, much more than anyone ever expects of them.

Magically, despite the extra workload for our musicians, NYO performances seem only to get better and 2015 was a truly amazing year in the concert hall. By the summer Sir Mark Elder felt the orchestra had hit a new level of expressive confidence.

The Royal Philharmonic Society must have agreed because they gave NYO the Best Ensemble Award for 2016. Our musicians set out to inspire their peers and they came back with their ensemble skills honed to a new level. That is the thing about peer inspiration: it works both ways.

The challenge now is to establish a funding base for NYO Inspire while also expanding it to meet demand. There is so much potential out there for classical music – among young musicians and among young audiences. Our job is to make sure it does not go to waste.

Apply for NYO 2017
Applications are now open for instrumentalists and composers to join the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in 2017 are now open. To apply head to the website. Closing date is 1 June.
Auditions and composer interviews are FREE, located across Great Britain and come with travel bursaries. They are friendly, positive, and a great learning experience. NYO Tutors share playing tips in a workshop, and all applicants receive performance feedback.