On Open Youth Orchestras and Inclusive Music-Making

Photo, Ian RitchieA letter from Ian Ritchie, guest speaker at OC’s 2019 National Conference to the OC Membership on the Re-sounding the Orchestra report:

Having first participated in conferences organised by your ACO predecessors back in the early 1990s, when I chaired the Association of British Orchestras and ran the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, I was delighted to be invited again to take part in your recent deliberations in Ottawa. In acknowledging not only those heady days of innovation and change in the orchestral landscapes of our respective countries but also these present times of strategic ingenuity and creative effort so evidently at work in many Canadian orchestras, it may seem rather presumptuous of me to offer any suggestions to add to your already well-considered responses to the recent Re-sounding the Orchestra report. But I shall take that risk!

Re-soundingI should like to advocate the possibility of developing socially-inclusive, community-based ‘open’ youth ‘orchestras’, in partnership with established professional orchestras throughout Canada, as a strategic and practical response to the report’s understandably challenging and uncompromising demands, drawing on the Setúbal Youth Ensemble model which I have developed over the past five years through my Music Festival in Portugal. In brief, through an open auditioning process which makes no assumptions of any Eurocentric orchestral structure, the resulting Ensemble has recruited and maintained roughly a quarter of its membership from the aural tradition, reflecting the local population of immigrants from former African and South American colonies of Portugal, another quarter comprising young people with various disabilities and special needs, and approximately half coming via the mainstream of music education – all chosen for their talent. With the instrumentation dependent on the selected young musicians rather than the other way about, there is no standard repertory and therefore all the Ensemble’s music has be specially composed or arranged: this has given unique creative opportunities to a new generation of composers, embracing unusual instrumental combinations (including the use of accessible technology, where appropriate) and inventing special notations to enable the participation of those unable to read the conventional musical language. This Ensemble is Setúbal’s official ‘youth orchestra’.

I believe that it will be important for orchestras to protect the continuation of a positive and manageable evolution rather than to stir up a sudden and potentially damaging revolution, in responding resonantly to the Re-sounding report. The Setúbal model can support this approach, inviting decisive action and encouraging any necessary ‘revolution’ to be driven by the new and emerging generations of collaborative musicians. Such ensembles – which will be young, innovative, adaptable, inclusive and diverse musical communities – are much more likely than established and understandably less flexible adult orchestras to persuade conservatoires and universities to listen and respond to demands for fundamental transformations in their educational and training pathways. These pathways are currently too narrow and poorly signposted for musicians from non-Eurocentric and Indigenous backgrounds to make useful progress; and they are completely blocked for most people with physical disabilities, learning difficulties and other special needs.

To summarise, the adoption of the Setúbal Youth Ensemble model, locally adjusted for each distinct ensemble and community, will not impose standard western classical hierarchies and practices of leadership, instrumentation, repertoire, notation and rehearsal procedures but shall admit various musical genres (reflecting the group’s varied membership), new works, arrangements, improvisation, mutual creativity and adjustable time-frames into the process. Such an approach is not necessarily expensive; it is accessible for young musicians of all backgrounds and can help to address the reported concerns of those seeking equity, especially amongst the Indigenous population; it gives composers and other creative artists a broader palette of opportunities to collaborate; it can advance music as an art-form in itself and more widely on a number of fronts, including its proven but untapped potential in human development, health and well-being. That would be a resounding success!

Ian Ritchie (London, England – July 2019)

Guest Blog: Playing it Forward

Meeting with young people and making music ever more accessible are priorities for the Orchestre Métropolitain. Each year, the OM sparks wonder in more than 11,000 young people across Montreal through an educational program with two initiatives: The OM at School and Playing it Forward.

The OM at School provides an opportunity for meaningful encounters between students and musicians, in the form of workshops held in schools, and by welcoming school groups to rehearsals and concerts. Last December, the art works of some 15 kindergarten students at École Notre-Dame-des-Neiges embellished the foyer of the Maison symphonique. The students, who attended the dress rehearsal, were able to see their works on display, and to present one as a gift to conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. In preparation for the outing, the students had learned about Schumann’s Piano Concerto, one of the works on the program, and were paid a visit by the OM’s artistic partner, conductor Nicolas Ellis, who answered their questions.

Playing it Forward aims to provide a forum for young musicians and to support their development through mentoring, master classes and other activities. The OM Preludesmusical performances given by young and talented musicians as a prologue to OM concerts, is an example. The young performers then attend the concert free of charge and a few have the privilege of presenting flowers on stage to the conductors and soloists we welcome. Another Playing It Forward project is the creation of the OMNI competition. Devoted to young musicians between 7 and 17, the competition gives entrants the chance to display their talent in a relaxed setting that encourages connections between young people who share the same passion, and discussion with professional musicians. These initiatives are inspiring, not only for the young people involved but also for the OM musicians, who find them a source of great pride.

Thank you to Laura Eaton at the Orchestre Métropolitain for guest blogging for us.

Comparative Report 2017-18

Thanks to our master statistician, C. Stephen Smith, and the efforts of orchestra people coast to coast, Orchestras Canada has just published the 2017-18 Comparative Report. Each year, Steve collects financial information and audience numbers from member orchestras and produces a detailed Comparative Report, which is then shared with participating orchestras.

Summary information by region and by budget is available in the Resources section of our website.

Compared to the previous year, 2017-18 fiscal results demonstrated an overall strengthening of orchestras, with a 7.5% increase in revenues, and the overall ‘national debt’ of orchestras dropping to under $2 Million, the lowest since this report started in the 2004-05 season. Orchestras have also been more efficient with an overall 4.5% decrease in the amount spent by orchestras per audience member reached.