It’s not just about the music

Looking for a seat to grab a quick lunch before the start of the Highbury Grove School/NYO Inspire project, I sat down in the school canteen and immediately got into conversation with three NYO violinists. They were friendly, welcoming and enthusiastic about the prospect of working with the combined Year 8 at Highbury Grove during the afternoon. I shared my enjoyment of the recent NYO concert at the Barbican Centre (John Wilson conducting an ambitious Elgar and Respighi programme) and they beamed from ear to ear. These three were personable, intelligent and motivated; this bodes well for the afternoon ahead and my energy levels have already gone up a notch.

Into the school hall next where about 200 musicians from Highbury Grove School and NYO are about to rehearse and perform a special arrangement of the John Newman tribute song ‘Love Me Again’ by a Highbury School member of the music staff Dimitri Scarlato. The soloist is the impressive Jake, a Year 8 student. But how to organise and structure the large forces along with their instrument cases, sheet music, stands, reeds, bows and chatter? This is down to Pierce Brown, Assistant Headteacher and Director of Music, Zoe Martlew professional cellist and NYO coach, and the staff of the NYO Inspire Programme.

Zoe kicks off with some communal music games, rhythm patterns and a simple twelve-bar blues that she builds effectively within the various orchestral sections. She has an infectious energy. I observe NYO players with their antennae out to help with tuning and getting the young Highbury Grove players settled and content; this may their first orchestral experience. I sense empathy ‘we know how you’re feeling – we’ve been there’. 

We break into smaller groups and I eavesdrop on a flute and oboe sectional rehearsal. There are about fourteen students here and the NYO players galvanise the group with a ‘pass the note around’ game before getting into the detail of the Love Me Again arrangement. Rhythms are broken down into ‘I do eat cake’ and then the NYO team share music stands with Highbury Grove young musicians, giving a pulse, going over tricky bits and joking, whilst encouraging them ‘ you should be proud; you did great’ when they repeat difficult phrases and have made good progress in a short time. It’s a tricky piece especially for players who have only been learning for a year, so the NYO team are there with sneaky shortcuts ‘ just play one note on the beat and leave out all the fast bits’. Sometimes it’s harder to count the bars than to play the notes so they help with that too. I observe some fledgling leadership skills in the NYO team who have a structure and plan, work collaboratively, keep their eye on the clock, and share the highs and lows of wind playing without a whiff of patronising language.

I ask the Highbury Grove flautists and oboists what they’ve got out of the afternoon apart from the glee of missing lessons? They were quite shy but said:


‘it’s a great experience playing with NYO’


‘they’re almost professional’


‘we get to play proper music’


What do the NYO flute and oboe team say?

‘ We’re flattered by your comments’ 

‘It’s definitely possible to get into NYO so keep at it; most people don’t get in the first time but it’s still a great experience going to the other projects’

‘It’s something to aspire to’ 

‘It’s not just about the music’

‘Many don’t become professional musicians; some become doctors’

‘I’ve met so many new people including some from Scotland!’

‘Keep what you’ve learned here and build your skills’

‘Have fun and enjoy’.

This was heartening stuff and there was definitely a sense of consolidation and increased confidence when everyone returned for a full rehearsal and final informal performance. Zoe continued to enthuse ‘If you’ve got lots of notes, be flashy about it!’ The players’ concentration increased as the afternoon progressed. Highbury Grove Year 8 may have been in awe of NYO initially but they were now learning skills and shortcuts including some demo tips from NYO string players on bowing and the energy involved in getting a good tone rather than tickling the strings.

The afternoon was part of a two day residency at Highbury Grove with whom NYO Inspire have an ongoing partnership. I found it exhilarating to be there.

January 2015


With thanks to Highbury Grove School, Music in Secondary Schools Trust, NYO Inspire and the Queen’s Trust for their generous support.