A giant orchestra of NYO Musicians and Highbury Grove Students under the baton of Zoe Martlew.
The day after our sell-out Barbican concert, I woke up buzzing, still with snippets of Respighi’s Pines of Rome playing on loop in my head. Usually I feel heavy hearted at the idea of going back to normal, non-NYO life, but not this time. Thankfully I was part of the reduced orchestra that would stay on for another three days as part of a very special project in secondary schools - NYO Inspire.
First we had a day off in London to recover from the very intense few days of travelling, rehearsing and performing and were advised to catch up on some school work and relax. However, being in London without having to do a big audition is a rare occasion for me, so I took advantage of it. A group of us spent the day walking around London Bridge. After trying to sneak into some of the towering, shiny corporate buildings like The Shard and The Walkie Talkie, we retired to some coffee shops and played card games, reminiscing about the previous evening's concert and reading some of the reviews.
The next day we headed to Highbury Grove School, a comprehensive secondary school that specialises in music. I remember walking across the athletics track on my way to the first session, and noticing that not one student stared or commented on the huge cello case I was carrying. That was when I took a closer look, and realised that the majority of students were carrying instruments themselves - probably the only place where NYO has been outnumbered by another group of teenage musicians!
Hanae O'Neil, viola, giving some tips to a Highbury Grove student.
The first session centered around an orchestral arrangement of the pop song ‘Love Me Again’ by John Newman, arranged by Highbury Grove music teacher, Dimitri Scarlato and directed by NYO Cello Tutor, Zoe Martlew. After a thirty second silence to focus everyone’s attention, giving the Highbury students a taster of a real NYO rehearsal, we played a scale to warm up. There was a total of about 270 young musicians all playing together! Zoe asked for a suggestion of a character or mood for us to play it in - I expected the usual ‘happy’ or ‘scary’- but one student immediately shouted ‘the Pink Panther!’. Almost at once the NYO double bass and percussion sections began playing the jazzy accompaniment and we were all laughing as Zoe counted us in. Moments like this have made me realise that when working with other young musicians it’s important to value every contribution - however unexpected - and improvise to accommodate new ideas.
Elodie Chousmer-Howelles, violin, and a Highbury Grove teacher at the fun play through session.
That evening we invited any Highbury Grove players to stay behind to have a fun play through of Clean Bandit’s pop song ‘Rather Be’ arranged for full orchestra. I was amazed to see that not only a large number of students lined up to join, but also many teachers eagerly took part too. I sat alongside a deputy headmistress who confessed that this was the first time she had picked up a cello since her teenage years. This opportunity for an informal rehearsal and the availability of spare instruments had given her the courage to begin relearning alongside her colleagues and pupils.
Imogen Royce, flute, guiding a young Highbury Grove flautist.
On the last day things stepped up a notch as we were now working on Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 - a very difficult piece! After introducing it by playing some extracts that characterise each movement, we split off into sectionals. The cellos and double basses began by sitting in Zoe’s ‘magic circle’ which creates a friendly atmosphere that encourages everyone to contribute more in their playing and musical ideas. We worked together on a simplified version of the third movement, and I soon realised that this music was nothing like the typical ‘beginner’ repertoire the students were used to. After we ran through a few sections and identified what was most challenging, I decided I’d ask everyone to put away the sheet music and play a simple D major scale. We worked on playing it in the style of Elgar, with expressive hairpin dynamics and a rich, warm tone and I felt the energy in the room really lift - the students found it much easier to vary their playing style when given something they were used to, so we made progress much more quickly. I even saw one boy trying to copy my vibrato, and afterwards I explained some exercises that help cellists create vibrato in the right way that my old teacher had told me at the same age.
We were then delighted to invite back the wonderful John Wilson to the podium for our final performance. It surprised me that the exhilaration I’d felt a few days before, after playing in two of the UK’s biggest concert venues, was matched by this one in a school hall with an audience of teenagers. I hope they enjoyed it as much as the NYO musicians did. Now I am back home, already counting down the days till Easter… NYO 2015 has got off to a great start!