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.
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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.