One of my most precious musical memories is of sitting on stage, my part played out, listening to the dying embers of Mahler’s 9th symphony. Bernard Haitink guided the LSO through a performance which transfixed 6000 prommers at the Royal Albert Hall. The space between final tones and silence impossible to determine, the hush of held breath and hearts beating before thunderous applause. It was a moment I’ll never forget, the mixture of Bernard, the LSO, Mahler and The Proms. Anyone who’s ever played in a Prom will tell you just how special an occasion it is. I was playing again this year with the LSO under Gergiev as we made our way through all five Prokofiev concerti; an exhausting but exhilarating evening (Although the Prommers applauding the leader giving the A on the piano gag did get a little tired by the 4th concerto). I was back this week in a guise which I have written about before on this blog, the nervous parent. My son was playing at the proms for the first time. It was a performance with Sir Mark Elder and the National Youth Orchestra, and they too were playing Mahler 9. Wonderful.
And it was wonderful. A sold out hall sat bewitched as the young players, conductor-less, lead each other in the giant piece of chamber music that was Regreening by Tansy Davies. We were sat behind the orchestra and despite the reviews all saying that the piece was lead by the leader (who certainly did at points), it was clear to me that different members of all of the sections of the orchestra were leading. The cellos swung their heads around to wait for a queue from the horns, a trombonist stood up and triggered the end of the 2nd violins phrase and then all of a sudden, they started singing! Summer is a’comin in and possibly some Tallis(?) wove its way through the orchestral texture, half heard and dreamlike, like they were sharing a precious secret. It was magical, a successful piece from a composer I’ve come across before (Tilting, an LSO commission), and as an exercise for a group of young musicians, it was invaluable. One of the biggest differences between a youth orchestra and a professional one, is that the young players often expect to get every single instruction from the conductor. In real life, it’s not like that, and Davies’ piece forced the players to watch and listen - the most valuable lesson of all particularly before a piece like Mahler 9.
Without an interval, they continued with the symphony. Much has been written about the piece and I wondered if an orchestra with less life experience than a bunch of cynical old pros would be able to successfully navigate the piece technically and emotionally. I needn’t have worried. A symphony which often leaves me exhausted and wrung out, whether performing or listening, suddenly sounded more life affirming than I’d heard before. The last movement which can under some conductors, feel like death played out in real time, sounded wistful and...refreshing. I know that sounds odd, but it really did. There was regret and sadness but it wasn’t the end. The awkward tempo shifts, particularly in the third movement proved no problem at all and the solo playing was exceptionally good. The security and imagination from the leader and principal viola and cello in particular were breathtaking and I was shocked to find when reading the programme that most of them were only 16 years old. It would be unfair to single too many individuals out though, because for me, the most impressive aspect was the ensemble playing. Mark Elder, from where I was sitting, wasn’t giving a version of ‘youth orchestra’ conducting, he didn’t change the way he conducted from when he conducts the LSO (maybe he smiled encouragingly a little more often!) - he essentially treated them the same as every other band, albeit with the luxury of a lot more rehearsal time.
Having heard the NYO in its present incarnation back in the Barbican at Christmas as they played their first concert, it’s difficult to believe that it is the same group of musicians; the trajectory which their level has taken is steep and deeply impressive. Reading the article by Sarah Alexander, the Chief Exec of the NYO a couple of weeks ago in the Independent, she writes of providing opportunities for young players to take on bigger musical challenges, and the problems facing music education which are manifesting themselves in dropping numbers of instrumentalists.
“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.”
The young people in the NYO have been running Inspire days for young players at their residencies this year and by all accounts they have been...inspirational. They’ve particularly been a success in giving young musicians the opportunity to play with a really excellent ensemble. Often this provision isn’t available to them anymore in their area. It’s a brilliant idea and I take my hat off to them for doing it. One of the flute players who came down to the LSO wind academy for a day to participate had come straight from an NYO Inspire day and her eyes were burning with excitement as she told us about it. Sometimes, one day is all it takes. Alexander believes that many of these young people who go to an inspire day will be the future NYO players. I’m sure she’s right.
However, what worries me is that fewer and fewer kids are reaching the stage where they can be good enough to play in an Inspire day or similar scheme, fewer still even have the opportunity to begin playing an instrument. Musical instrument lessons in the state school sector have become an unaffordable luxury for many, which may go some way to explain some shocking figures from the article,
‘while only 7 per cent of UK teenagers attend private schools, for NYO musicians the figure is around 50 per cent.’
Of course, many of the players from private schools may be on scholarships, receiving financial help etc, but I still find it worrying at the imbalance, not that it’s the fault of NYO. The free music lessons in state schools of the past have long gone, and the total demise of music provision in many areas has left many young people unable to play an instrument. The costs and commitment of private lessons and the price of instruments, music and so on, means that it’s not even just the lowest income families that don’t have the opportunity anymore. All three of my kids play instruments and I can tell you that the costs are astronomical - there is little room financially for other activities. If a musician like me thinks twice about the cost, then what hope for the kid who wants to play the bassoon or violin as well as playing football and riding a bike and whose parents don’t really have classical music on their radar? It’s no wonder that orchestral instruments are being dumped for cheap guitars and swift gratification. Little low cost/free musical instrumental tuition in schools and a national curriculum which waves in the direction of classical music on it’s way past to more exciting contemporary music, and I don’t mean Thomas Ades…Not only are our future players being shortchanged, but so are our future audiences who will have little knowledge or experience of the art form apart from the first four bars of Beethoven 5 and a faint glimmer of recognition for that song from The Apprentice...
My local council used to provide free music lessons for kids. It gave anyone the chance to try, but now you have to be able to pay. Many can’t. My local council gave me a scholarship to study at the Junior Guildhall School of Music and Drama on Saturday mornings when I was 15. It was life changing. Those grants are no longer available. I wanted my son to have the same chance and opportunity. It costs around £3000 a year. Completely out of reach for many people. When I went on to study at the GSMD for my degree, course fees were small change - my son starts in September and we were jumping for joy around the kitchen last week because he had had his first years student loan approved. We were excited that he already has £9000 worth of debt around his neck before he’s played a note. By the end of the course, it will be at least £36,000. And how to cope with the costs of living in London to study keep me awake at night. The mounting costs to learn in the UK never end, and for many of those who come through the state school sector, the 93%, especially those on a lower income, it’s becoming almost impossible.
If we want more children to play orchestral instruments, funding needs to be made available so that kids in state education can afford to learn as well as those 7% in the private sector. Music in schools must be a core subject to inspire and educate and enrich. We constantly worry in the music industry about where the audience of the future will come from. I would say that it goes hand in hand with where the next generation of players comes from. The two are interlinked. If music education in all forms, at all levels isn’t available, then who will play and who will listen? If I had my way, the first thing I’d do would be to put the National Youth Orchestra on the National Curriculum. Now that really would inspire the next generation of audiences and performers.
You can watch the NYO perform Mahler 9 from the concert described above on Sunday 16th August on BBC 4 and after that, on the BBC iPlayer.
This is my personal blog. All views are my own and are not endorsed by any of the organisations I work for.