Living in harmony
Ahead of the Festival of Youth Orchestras this weekend, Lynne Caffrey finds out how playing music has helped foster young people's creativity
Signing kids up for after-school activities is stressful, as parents seek that perfect moment once a week where funds, schedules, ability and a child's interest align. In Ireland - unsurprisingly, given the dominance of GAA and our drive to combat childhood obesity - sport wins, with 90pc of children aged 10 in organised weekly sporting activity, according to 2013 report 'Keeping Them In The Game'.
But is our bias towards sport at the expense of fostering creativity, a skill that Sir Ken Robinson, an international advisor on education in the arts, argues is as important as literacy?
In his 2007 TED talk, Robinson says benign advice can steer children away from exploring their artistic intelligence, noting: "We tell kids, 'don't do music, you won't be a musician'." Yet, meeting some of the 500 players taking to the National Concert Hall stage on Saturday for the 23rd Festival of Youth Orchestras, it's obvious playing is building skills for the future… even if they're not destined to be the next John O'Connor.
Susie Butler, the founder of Musica Fusion School of Music in Charleville, Co Cork, says: "We're in a rural area, the surrounds are south Limerick and north Cork and each one of the townships is quite small. GAA really does feature strongly. For the kids who aren't into that, the orchestra is their sport and the NCH is our Croke Park."
Musica Fusion has players aged from four to 18 and Susie sees huge discipline in the younger children who sit quietly during performances where they only play a few notes. "It all starts with fun. I make an idiot of myself - if anyone saw me they'd think I was insane - but the moment I put my hand up and say 'rest' there's not a sound out of 50 children.
"They have to turn up on time, follow instruction and play," she says. "It builds more than musical skills and dexterity. We structure it to include everybody - if they just play one note right the first time, two the second… even a five-year-old can join in playing Tchaikovsky."
Anne Moriarty, conductor of Mayo Youth Orchestra in Castlebar, aims to foster creativity. "Our orchestra is open to everyone who shows that little spark of talent," she says. "I'm really coaching, building an environment where they can push themselves to play out.
"For some, Saturday will be their first performance so, like a coach, I'll find a way to turn any tension into a positive."
Creativity is one of the most important skills a child will need to thrive economically, according to the 2017 Human Capital Report from the World Economic Forum. Complex problem-solving, critical thinking, emotional intelligence and collaboration are others. John McGinley, Music Development Manager of the Donegal Music Education Partnership, will accompany the 73-strong Donegal Youth Orchestra at the NCH. The orchestra, which ranges in age from 12 to 18, has grown over 30 years with the aim of helping musicians to collaborate.
"We've got 500 people doing one-to-one lessons in Donegal and this is a way of getting them together," John says. "We can see the way people who can be introverted blossom."
This collaborative atmosphere transcends music, says Susie, giving children emotional resilience and awareness.
"If you ask a child to go up and play violin on their own, you'll see fear, but when they're standing beside their best friend, they can't wait to give it gusto," she says.
"We have three children on the autism spectrum and four very severe dyslexics, including my own daughter, and they all love it." In fact, Susie's daughter developed a system of coloured notation that helps children with dyslexia read music.
While the young people who play in the orchestra tend not to talk in buzz words, it's obvious the environment has built skills they will carry beyond the concert halls. Joanne Gorman (14, left) has been a flautist with Mayo Youth Orchestra since she was nine. She hints at the tenacity it took for her to keep going.
"It was really difficult at first and I wasn't that good at playing the flute," she says. "It was intimidating but then you get to know people.
"I'm not that sporty but I do play squash. They're similar in some ways, we have to work with others and be part of a team."
Joanne's experience echoes that of Mayo Youth Orchestra leader and violinist Aoife O'Grady. When she joined, aged nine, she was the youngest in the orchestra.
"I had a bit of trouble keeping up, but after a few weeks you get the hang of it," she says. "Even though you think everyone can hear you, it doesn't matter too much if you make a mistake.
"I also do tennis, swimming, piano and GAA. I started sport and music at the same time so it's been easy to combine the two. They're similar in that everyone else relies on you, you have to bring in your music, you have to bring in your stand - if you forget, it can affect other people," adds Aoife (right).
"When you walk out on the stage all the lights are on you. It's so similar to walking out on to a football pitch. I've been doing piano exams since I was six so I've been able to cope with that kind of pressure. I did my first solo concert a few weeks ago."
For the players sitting exams, orchestra helps them manage the stress. John Feeney (15), who plays the timpanies (kettle drums) with Mayo Youth Orchestra, says: "I practised all through my Junior Cert exams just to clear my mind. It's a great way to shut off, stop worrying and just play music with your friends." John has been with the orchestra for six years and even helped teach Chinese musicians Irish trad in Vienna. "I got thrown on the timpani in the middle of a concert in Vienna's Golden Hall," he says. "It was a bit of a laugh! The Chinese gave us a load of tea. We felt bad because all we had brought were Tayto and Cadbury chocolate and they hated it!"
He adds: "I play soccer and gaelic and I'm on the debating team. Orchestra helps because you perform in front of an audience. And it's great for working together."
Francis Lawrence (18), who plays viola in Mayo Youth Orchestra, also plays ukulele, writes poetry and is a member of Mayo Youth Theatre. Orchestra has opened his eyes to the creative opportunities available in Ireland.
"With sports teams you have one common interest, with orchestra you have people from a jazz influence, I love playing romantic pieces, other people play baroque. There's also a toxic masculinity that sport teams sometimes embrace. In creative industries it's more of a spectrum. You can be entirely yourself.
"I don't think I'd be as comfortable with who I am without a community like Mayo Youth Orchestra."
While the emotional and career benefits are obvious, growing creative arts participation will be a challenge.
A 2016 report drawn from the 'Growing Up in Ireland' study found girls are five to six times more likely to take part in the arts, participation is higher among those in the top 40pc of earners and those in small areas and with special educational needs are less involved. The numbers also fall between primary and secondary school and again when children leave education.
For John McGinley, who has seen first-hand the growth of a thriving arts scene in Donegal thanks to an innovative funding model, changing this is vital.
"Every child should have the chance to play music," he says. "In sport it's all about winning and losing - in music everyone's a winner. All the performers on Saturday will come away feeling great."
The Festival of Youth Orchestras takes place at the National Concert Hall this Saturday, with performances at 3pm and 8pm. Tickets priced from €7.50 to €15 are on sale from the NCH box office or online from nch.ie. See iayo.ie for more details.