Sarah Alexander, chief executive and artistic director of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (NYO), is talking me through the recent changes to the ensemble’s recruitment process. I’m finding the conversation a little – to use current parlance – triggering.
My own unsuccessful foray into NYO life involved an arduous journey to Kettering, where, despite possessing reasonable technical skill and obsessive interest, I failed to convey either aspect to an unwelcoming panel. I silently vowed never to go through such a process ever again and quickly switched to less collaborative activities.
Today’s teenagers have a very different experience. “We like to see the people involved in the process as gate openers, rather than gate keepers,” explains Alexander.
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The NYO now works with hundreds of young musicians alongside the ‘official’ ensemble, and its Inspire scheme is open year-round to all students who play an orchestral instrument to Grade 6+ standard (it’s not necessary to have taken the grades).
Those who attend state schools, are home educated and/or are Black, Asian or ethnically diverse will automatically be admitted in a radical move to support diversity. Auditions for the NYO itself are more accessible: musicians need to be at Grade 8+ standard, but no longer need to have taken the exam, and bursaries are available. The latest round of applications has just opened, and closes on May 29.
At the recent Association of British Orchestras (ABO) conference, there was a general consensus that it was no longer acceptable for ensembles – particularly those in receipt of funding – to simply “turn up and play”. Alexander, who was appointed OBE in 2018, has spent the past decade rebalancing the proportion of state and private school pupils in membership of the 164-strong NYO from one in two to nine in 10.