CEO of Music for Youth, Judith Webster, gives her take on youth orchestras at the ABO conference in Belfast.
Music for Youth (MFY) is a unique national youth music organisation. We present events across the UK, which offer free performance platforms for young musicians and embrace all forms of music. First established nearly 50 years ago, we now work with around 60,000 young people each year.
As such, we have a bird’s eye view of the state of young people’s music making, both in the formal education sector and beyond. Through our large-scale national events – like out Primary Proms and National Festival – we give young people and their teachers an opportunity to be part of something bigger performing alongside large numbers of other young people with a common interest.
Our position allows us to observe trends in music provision over time. In 2012, 123 orchestras took part in our regional events; this had reduced to 67 in 2018. Five years ago, 13 of these orchestras had over 80 young musicians; this was down to 8 in 2018. The average size of school-based orchestras was 49 in 2008; in 2018 the average was 34.
Add these stats to what we hear from our colleagues delivering music services around the country regarding reductions in funding, particularly from local authorities, it’s clear that access to the kind of tuition I was lucky enough to receive when young has changed dramatically.
Conversations with the Association of British Orchestras (ABO) revealed that they have nearly 30 ‘youth ensemble’ member organisations and that there is little overlap with Music for Youth’s network. Realising this, I saw an opportunity for our two organisations to work together. To kick things off, I led a session on this subject at this year’s ABO Annual Conference.
The conference in Belfast offered a great opportunity to throw around some ideas, make sure professional orchestras were fully aware of the issues facing the sector and think about how we might come together to make a difference. Clearly there is some excellent work already in place between the profession and the education world. But it tends to be limited to particular regions – with resulting ‘cold spots’ and similarly patchy provision still prevalent within music education.
MFY is well placed to facilitate new developments in partnership with the ABO, working with a number of orchestras and providing platforms at national events that go beyond what currently exists in format, content and performance practice.
At the conference session, it was acknowledged that young people performing to other young people, as cultural ambassadors, is far more impactful than this same role being undertaken by adults – even inspirational ones. One of the ways MFY does this is through eight Primary Proms across the country each year – with young musicians of very high standard performing to large numbers of primary school children. The impact is palpable.
We must continue to challenge ourselves to give young people more of a voice in what they do, how they do it, who they do it with and where. There is the common understanding that we must talk to young people more in order to achieve this and for our work to remain relevant and engaging for young people.
As we look ahead to Music for Youth’s 50th anniversary in 2020, I feel it is a special opportunity for MFY and the ABO to join forces, to develop, take risks, work together and combine our networks and all the young people we access collectively. Music for Youth will continue to consult with our networks (orchestras and beyond) to develop ways to work together to inspire future generations to keep making music.