by Author Stuart Burns

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Creating musical routes

A response to “Musical Routes: a landscape for music education” by Kate Wareham, Executive Director of the National Orchestra for All

The National Orchestra for All welcomes Sarah Derbyshire’s recent report “Musical Routes: A landscape for music education”. Her thorough and informative report neatly brings together the core sources of research in this area with her own survey of professional music organisations, music services and hubs and representatives of music organisations.

Derbyshire’s report focuses on these challenges in three categories, social, ethnic and geographic noting that there are contributing factors within each category that reduce the opportunity for the UK’s young people to participate. It concludes that access is unevenly delivered and that despite the implementation of the 2012 National Plan for Music Education, we still have a long way to go as a sector to make access to opportunities to learn and play together for children and young people truly equal.

This is a reality that young people within our National Orchestra for All programmes feel keenly. We serve 90 young members of our National Orchestra (one of our three programmes) who have been nominated for their commitment and dedication to music, often in challenging circumstances. They participate in a yearlong season of workshops, rehearsals and performances – opportunities not available to them within their own communities. The statistics behind this very special orchestra show that 60% of our young people live in areas of deprivation or face some sort of economic disadvantage. The remaining 40% face other challenges including physical or emotional health concerns, speak English as an additional language or simply come from a geographical location where there is very little music opportunity.

Her report also draws attention to what is lost in not being able to participate in music. Susan Hallam’s review “The Power of Music” demonstrates the significant impact of music on attainment and skill development in multiple areas of life from academic subjects to life skills necessary for the workplace and contributing to community and society. At the National Orchestra for All we can attest to this through our experience and the findings with our own research carried out by Institute of Education PhD student and NOFA scholar-in-residence showing the significant impact on confidence, self-esteem and sense of belonging in particular of taking part in our programmes.

What is most telling though is that beyond the research we have countless individual stories speaking of the reality behind the statistics – developing the confidence to take risks, broadening horizons, building well-being and more – all through making music together.

What is most frustrating is that often the young people already facing economic or other challenges are the ones that would benefit the most from the pleasure and skills gained through participating in an orchestra or music ensemble.

An impoverished culture of musical expression

We would argue that the consequences go even further than those highlighted in the report that we will diminish the future amateur music participants and drain concerts of their audiences.

We also run the risk of a significant and perilous separation in society between those who are “musical”, “musically talented” or “elite” and those who are not. Music will become (even more so) the preserve of the few, or to be experienced solely from afar – from stalls seats or through headphones rather than through participation by all in all walks of life and all communities. Music should be created, participated in and enjoyed by all, not the lucky few.

The National Orchestra for All would add to the report’s conclusions a few of its own:

Make the case for non-musical benefits without reticence

We need to become comfortable with making the case for music in terms of both music itself for its intrinsic value and for the skills and benefits it delivers that are “non-musical”.

This music we love is rich and generous and for those (potentially decision makers) that have been deprived in their own lives of opportunities to meaningfully enjoy music, we must tell the story of the power of music in words they understand. If these include well-being, concentration, discipline, self-esteem, attainment and more, then so be it. It is all true.

Start with the barriers and how to overcome them

We at NOFA are proud of our figures but are aware that even we, with a model built on the premise of overcoming barriers, have some way to go and we need to work hand in hand with hubs and other organisations to ensure that young people, who cannot keep up with their more supported peers in terms of attainment, have the opportunity to participate in high-quality music-making.

We echo the concerns about access to instruments and lessons. Teachers have told us that Pupil Premium funding for lessons is often administered in such a way as to not go far enough, leaving many still without opportunity. We need to ensure that where there is help available, it gets to the right young people. Many young people don’t even consider music could be for them – they know it is out of their reach. This barrier occurs even before is before young people get the chance to perform in ensembles – the thing that gives the most satisfaction from learning music, increases motivation and reduces the chances of giving up.

At NOFA we have begun distributing donated instruments and working with organisations such as Restore the Music to enable schools to fill this gap. Our Modulo Programme aims to enable music departments, low on young people able to perform in an orchestra, to create mini-orchestras and join a regional or national pop-up orchestra at the end of each term. The programme gives young people vital opportunities, motivates participation and gives young people a sense of achievement. We would welcome any schools interested in becoming part of this programme to contact us – we will be opening it up more widely in September 2016.

Celebrate the young people who have diligently overcome these barriers

We should celebrate the young people who have overcome these barriers and use them as role models.

“The very nature of learning to play a musical instrument, the commitment required and sheer hard work, is seen to imbue discipline and an understanding of the fact that reward does not come without effort.” Musical Routes: a landscape for musical education

NOFA can introduce you to countless young people whose stories embody this and go further, they did all of this in the face of very little support, financially or emotionally. For other young people at the start of their musical journeys in a seemingly alien and elitist culture, these young people are the inspirations and the motivators. Click here to read about one of our inspirational young percussionists, Charley.

I am sure that many music educators have their own examples of young people with similar stories. Let’s celebrate them.

Stop focusing on ability and instead focus on commitment and passion

Our programmes exist to compliment the music education system, and perhaps to challenge it too – although there is quite a bit from within the system of this happening anyway as this report attests.

We believe that the influence of financial and personal support on music progression isn’t inextricable. We believe that together we can create a music education system that encourages access for all, participation and enjoyment for all, and progression for all.

Our system is designed to bypass this by being non-auditioned. This allows us to recruit committed and talented musicians despite their support networks, not because of them. Our arrangements allow your multi-ability young people to play together creating meaningful performances.

This makes NOFA a unique and exciting ensemble. Whilst some of our young people go on to study music – Cyan Koay, a recent NOFA alumna for instance who studied music at Oxford University and is now becoming a music teacher – many do not. But the most important thing for NOFA is that during their time within the orchestra, they both learn life-skills and develop their musicianship. These life-skills help them in their current and future education, employment and communities and to be confident, happy and contributing young people and as alumni, adults.

Music education is not just about the funnel of talent through to music colleges for our entertainment or instruction in years to come. It is about facilitating the fundamental need and benefit as human beings to make music together. We hope too that our alumni will contribute to a thriving amateur (and sometimes professional) music scene.


“Professional music organisations now represent the Research and Development department of the national music education sector – piloting new ways of working, innovative models of engagement, increasingly guided by the voices of the young people they work with in order to respond to their needs and support their acquisition of advanced musical and social skills.” from Musical Routes: a landscape for music education.

We are so pleased that organisations such as our partners London Music Masters are stirring up debate and sharing expertise. The great conversations led by the Advance Network and many more have been a wonderful source of stimulation within the debate. We too will also be introducing a series of panel debates around the country. If you are interested in attending any of these, please email us at and we’ll let you know the details when they are booked.

Let’s keep talking. But most of all, let’s keep acting.

Kate Wareham, Executive Director, October 2015



Musical Routes: a landscape for music education – Sarah Derbyshire

The Advance Network

The Power of Music – Susan Hallam

London Music Masters

Restore the Music