Australia has had a long and fruitful history of providing excellent large ensemble music-making opportunities for young people across the country. As a society we have followed the European tradition of valuing orchestral training both for its musical education and the teamwork qualities that playing in a youth orchestra tends to imbue. Each State has an active, and generally quite successful, chief youth orchestra organisation; it is these capital city orchestras which form part of the informal institution named “Youth Orchestras Australia”. In addition, there is a significant number of satellite and regional youth orchestras spread far and wide largely run as community enterprises for the benefit of local players. Some of these deliver a full program of rehearsals, tuition and concert opportunities, and others are more ad-hoc in nature. Whatever plan each youth orchestra follows, it is safe to say that there is a growing interest in participatory amateur large ensemble music activities across the country.
Despite this growing interest and the sustainable nature of this business, youth orchestras face considerable challenges. There are, and always will be, financial struggles for organisations which are not-for-profit associations with a grass-roots base. The ongoing search for government funding, philanthropic donations and corporate sponsorship is a competition most frequently won by large professional arts companies who have the resources and the musical stars to attract more attention in this sphere. For organisations where the central administrative team is generally always quite small (albeit extremely dedicated), there are many aspects of care and vigilance that must be covered, including working with children guidelines and policies, educational outcomes, safety rules and procedures, music pathways and curriculum, progressive repertoire, etc. In many ways, the issues and threats faced by youth orchestras are more complex than those faced by professional symphony orchestras. The responsibility that comes with caring for and educating young people is a constant task and youth orchestras falter in this priority at their own peril.
It goes without saying that the strengths and opportunities for youth orchestras are innumerable. The study of classical music is aspirational for the growing middle-class, and even though some instruments have suffered a lack of popularity in recent years (the bassoon for example), as the population grows and Australia expands as a multicultural society, there are many more opportunities to develop a flexible youth orchestra business which meets the needs of its surrounding community. There is an innate joyousness that comes from successfully integrating young musicians into an orchestral setting, and it goes without saying that the performances can be high quality as well as inspiring, moving and brilliant. The opportunity to fill our society with great music is one which keeps most hard-working youth orchestra professional and artistic staff committed to this industry.
Youth – young people as participants in the orchestras
Heritage (50-60-year-old organizations)
Career pathways – the provision of orchestral training which can lead to a career
Prestige (of heritage & medium)
Grass roots/connection to community
Balance of excellence and access
Values (why we do what we do) – youth orchestras are a learning environment which can positively instil the values of teamwork, excellence and hard work
State based funding
Reserves generally strong (not universal)
Diversity of income/student fees
Variable size/not consistent or similar – youth orchestras are not employers so need to rely on enrolments; not all instruments or numbers of instruments are always available
Audience development (beyond parents)
Finding artistic talent
Reliance on grassroots/feeders
Venues (rehearsals and concert spaces) ***
Succession planning with skilled people (KSA): staff, artistic
No federal funding (excl. AYO)
Groupthink, lack of understanding of the sector/medium
Wages vs workload
Values/alumni – youth orchestras have large numbers of alumni who share the same values and understand the importance of arts and culture
Partnering with venues – in order to reduce costs of venue hire
Collaborations with Symphony Orchestras & others – in order to centralise administrative tasks and share artistic personal and knowledge
Symphony Orchestras and Youth Orchestras MOU – share conditions and memberships
Find niche among competitors – our place in the hierarchy
‘Disadvantage’ – sponsorship or support from philanthropy, trusts, etc. – many students are unable to afford fees to join a youth orchestra or they experience other barriers to participation. Youth orchestras have an opportunity to find support in various ways to assist these students.
Access for Gifted & Talented kids to music – not covered by schools
This medium elevates the soul regardless of socio-economic background -> universal story
Governance (enthusiasm for the product) – Boards are usually of a high level because of the excellent product
Excellence (enthusiasm for the product) – members of the general public can be drawn to the idea of young people doing excellent things
Competing activities (school, other leisure activities, other orchestras involved in – this threatens participants and audiences.
Education programs by other organizations
Schools & tertiary institutions
National decline in instrument uptake and standards in musicians (AMEB) ***
Venues – cost of hire becoming more unaffordable
Donors – crowded marketplace & confusion
Limited opportunities for young people to gain work as musicians after their training in a youth orchestra
Number of opportunities for young people e.g. ACO, SSO, flow on ‘scoop up’ effect
Maverick set-ups – youth orchestras in country and regional areas often do not have the same professionalism or expertise and this sub-standard program can negatively affect the whole industry
Loss/reduction in funding
Loss of pursuit/perception of excellence – as the major income for youth orchestras is based on membership, the emphasis on quantity over quality can become an issue
Yarmila Alfonzetti, CEO, Sydney Youth Orchestras, and CEOs of the capital city youth orchestras: Kathleen Grant, Music for Canberra; Dorian Jones, Melbourne Youth Orchestra; Geoff Rosbrook, Queensland Youth Orchestra; Colin Cornish, Australian Youth Orchestra; Ben Burgess, West Australian Youth Orchestra; Claire Oremland, Adelaide Youth Orchestra; Michelle Forbes, Tasmanian Youth Orchestra.