Charting the journey of strings in Louth
For decades Louth has enjoyed a rich tradition of classical strings playing and performance. Inspired to a great extent by renowned local musician and educator, the late Father McNally, dedicated tutors and music schools throughout the county work with hundreds of young musicians year-round to develop their playing abilities and safeguard that tradition into the future.
When Music Generation Louth was formed in 2011 it looked around at what excellent provision was available, but noticed a gap, particularly for those of primary school age. While younger strings players may have taken music lessons individually or within school environments, there were limited opportunities for them to play together as part of a group.
In Easter 2012, with limited resources but a big vision and lots of determination, the gap was re-envisioned as an exciting new opportunity. Coordinator Gemma Murray brought on board musician and tutor Jayne Graham, a graduate of the Guildhall School in London who had previously worked with youth orchestras through the music service in Northern Ireland and the UK. In rooms and spaces donated by partners at DkIT they presented a pilot ‘strings camp’, where young musicians were invited to have a go at playing as part of an ensemble. Some 30 children, mostly of national school age and of diverse levels of playing ability, seized the chance.
Some six years on, the Senior Strings Enesmble performs at a spring concert for family and friends:
‘It was new for them’, remembers Jayne of those first, early days. ‘They just felt the wholesomeness of not being on their own going into a room to do a practice, not going into a violin lesson, just playing with other musicians, getting the end results, learning their line, somebody else’s line, and then hearing it altogether’.
The camp offered Gemma and Jayne a chance to gauge what demand there might be for youth ensemble playing and performance longer term. ‘It worked really well’, Jayne recollects. The young people ‘got a taste for it’ and quickly afterwards, a few dozen violinists signed up for weekly orchestra rehearsals through the programme.
Emma, one of the young musicians involved in the Orchestra from the very beginning, explained her first impressions of playing with the ensemble and what she gained from pushing her musical boundaries: ‘I had to sight read a hard piece as part of a group of others who were also trying to read a hard piece… It wasn’t just a case of playing the violin. It really pushed me to develop my skills.’
Over time, the group began to expand. Jayne noticed smaller ensembles of varied abilities beginning to emerge and suggested that a second orchestra, catering for ‘Junior Strings’, would enable the young people to progress in a context and with a repertoire appropriate to them. The Orchestra invested in new instruments, and members were given a valuable opportunity to experiment with music in different genres and styles. Young musicians discovered openings for performance and participation that may previously have been unavailable. Ayesha, a young cellist, explains that without the Orchestra ‘I wouldn’t be playing the cello, because when I was starting off, Music Generation rented me a cello. I wasn’t going to buy one and then start playing it. It’s not something you can do with such a big instrument. I wouldn’t be playing an instrument that I love so much if we didn’t have Music Generation.’
As membership increased a third, ‘First Strings’ Orchestra was formed for those at the very beginning of their musical journey, while the Junior and Senior Strings Orchestras continued to grow in breadth and ability. Young players found new ways to work and play together to extend their skills and repertoire. Their musical community became more solid and a series of Chamber Groups formed. Members were invited to take part in residential and training initiatives hosted by Music Generation partnerships in Louth and other counties. They were mentored by members of the Vogler Quartet as part of Music Generation Sligo’s ‘Tuned In!’ programme, and worked alongside respected composer Elaine Agnew and outreach musicians of the Irish Chamber Orchestra during Louth’s ‘Corda Connections’ Summer Music Camp.
In 2015, having performed well at the regional ‘Newry Feis’ on several occasions, Jayne felt the moment had arrived for the Orchestra to present their music on a national stage: ‘We decided we’d bring them to Feis Cheoil – the orchestra competition. So we learned a couple of pieces and they were quite young at the time, and we were intimidated out of our minds. But the children went out and played, and we were all really nervous – the children were nervous, I was nervous – and we didn’t play our best, but anyway, we were there. And then we sat up in the auditorium and this other orchestra came out and they were blow-your-mind brilliant, and they played a whole Vivaldi piece from memory. And I remember the children watching them, and as much as they hated them, they admired them and coming home on the bus one of the children said: ‘Jayne, when are we going to learn some Vivaldi?’ And I remember thinking, we have learned so much today. We didn’t perform our best, but we have learned gallons and we’re still thriving on that performance.’
The Orchestra has become stronger as they continued to face new challenges and reach new milestones. In 2014, the group was invited to perform as part of the Music Generation Gala Concert in the National Concert Hall, where President Michael D. Higgins was Guest of Honour. Set the task of preparing five different pieces – they usually performed just two – the commitment of the ensemble was put to the test: ‘I remember between August and the event happening in November it being really stressful’, says Jayne, ‘but it definitely challenged us, it brought the young people on.’ Indeed, some of the young musicians count the experience among their lifetime musical highlights. They remember being cheered on by their peers and by young musicians from within and beyond their county. ‘They loved it, it was exciting – just everything was fantastic.’
‘And all the while there’s great bonding going on between all our children’, Jayne points out. ‘It’s more than just learning music. It’s friendship too... It’s broadening their minds and developing their social skills’. The young musicians agree that there are many benefits to playing in the ensemble beyond performance opportunities and the chance to develop their musical skill. On the morning of a bank holiday Sunday, during a break in rehearsals, Hermione – another long-time ensemble member – considers what keeps her committed to her music and the Orchestra: ‘It’s a chance to see our friends, for a start. I’d never see Emma or Ayesha because we go to different schools, but you get to play together for two hours… There’s just something about the Orchestra. It’s just a more special thing... You just like to play with other people. It’s fun.’ Aware of the competitiveness that can be associated with orchestral playing, Hermione is quick to state that in the Strings Programme: ‘There are no cliques. Everyone gets along. We’re all one big group, in it together. There’s no real rivalry or separation. It’s amazing.’
Asked what factors may have contributed to the programme’s success, Jayne suggests the choice to meet and rehearse regularly, on a weekly basis, as well as a genuine commitment to working in partnership with the young musicians. The young people have autonomy. They contribute to their own learning and to the repertoire (most recently they asked if they could learn some film scores, while a film is projected on a screen. Jayne and Gemma are exploring possibilities!) Hermione supports Jayne’s theory: ‘We get to choose the pieces we like to play too, so we’re never going to get bored of a piece we don’t want to play. We’re not always doing just one genre – Bach or Mozart or Baroque – we did ‘Eine Kleine’ by Mozart and ‘The Final Countdown’ in the same competition!... So you get to play something you love and you get to see people you love at the same time.’
Two years on, that bus journey home from their first excursion to Feis Cheoil stuck with Jayne. Inspired by the ambition of the then-young members of the Orchestra, she engineered an opportunity for her senior players to finally ‘learn some Vivaldi’. Through a connection with St Paul’s High School Choir in Armagh, Jayne and the Orchestra began preparations for a collaborative performance of the composer’s famous oratorio ‘Gloria’ .
The impact of setting the bar consistently higher and working hard to rise to every challenge is not lost on the young musicians. ‘When we finished Vivaldi’s Gloria we just felt such a sense of pride and achievement’, Emma remembers. ‘Everyone wanted to just go out there and play it, because we had worked really hard on a really challenging piece. We wanted to show it off. And we can still play it – we still do.’
As the Orchestras have evolved, the young people – as much as their Directors – have found new pathways to progress, new ways to engage with music, and new musical avenues to explore. They are developing musical interests outside of their lessons, listening to the music they aspire to play on Spotify and YouTube. They’re bringing it back to their tutors with enthusiasm and challenging them to meet their interests. They want to see their Orchestra expand to include brass and percussion. They’re learning from and inspiring one another. Jayne remembers the first time one young musician arrived to rehearsals having learned to play ‘vibrato’. Within the space of an hour she was asked to teach others ‘how to do that shaky thing.’
Through their commitment to music, the young people are also demonstrating resilience, perseverance and strength of character. Reflecting on what’s changed since she first picked up a violin Emma says that initially ‘Practice was the thing I disliked most. I didn’t understand why it was important or what it meant, but I stuck with it and grew to love it.’ For Hermione, playing and performance has gone ‘from being a chore to being something that you want to do.’
Since 2012, the participants in Music Generation Louth’s Strings Programme – now totalling some 80 players – have charted an extraordinary journey. The opportunities it has made available to young strings players in the county have, in many cases, been transformative. For a musician like Ayesha, who previously had ‘no musical history’, ‘to just step into this world – to move up to Senior Strings and adapt to that style of playing... You feel a sense of pride.’ Cellist Cillian comments that without the Orchestras, ‘There’d be no groups, it’d all be just solo stuff, and I definitely wouldn’t have gotten any confidence. At the moment I’d be hoping to do something in music in my future whereas if I didn’t have Music Generation, the orchestras and the chamber groups, I really don’t think I’d have the confidence in myself. It’s really grown me. I’ve grown musically and I’ve gotten much better at working with people.’ He surmises: ‘We have so much to thank Music Generation for. The amount of experience we have now… We’ve played in the National Concert Hall twice, we met the President, we’ve played the ‘Gloria’ in Armagh – that was amazing – we’ve done really well in competitions, we’ve had the opportunity to go to Sligo. All of that experience is amazing and we wouldn’t have had half of it (or any of it, really) if it wasn’t for Music Generation.’
To learn more about Music Generation Louth’s strings programme and other initiatives available for young people in the county visit www.musicgenerationlouth.ie