The National Youth Wind Orchestra

John Robert Brown

Clarinettist Juliet Davis joined the National Youth Wind Orchestra (NYWO) in 1999. Now she is no longer a member. The official age range of the orchestra, which meets twice a year in April and August, is from 15 to 21. Perhaps Juliet is above the age limit?

"Technically no, but I felt too old," says Davis, who is a student at the Royal Northern College of Music. "I'm on the NYWO house staff now. I'm generally helping rather than playing. I do a little bit of coaching as well."

Juliet held the NYWO leader's chair for four years. As with everyone else who speaks about the NYWO, she is palpably enthusiastic. "It's good fun, a good way of meeting people," she says. "The orchestra is getting younger each year. From when I started to when I left, the average age of the orchestra has dropped by two or three years. The average is about 17 now, but the standard is still just as high, or higher. I don't know why so many players are coming through at a younger age. Maybe more people know about the orchestra? I sat in on two or three days of auditions during the last couple of years. There are lots of very good players."

Juliet recounts her amazement at a couple of outstanding clarinet players, both around twelve years old, one of whom played the Malcolm Arnold Sonatina perfectly, from memory. Juliet laughs with astonishment. "He was well below the lower age limit. I think he just auditioned for the experience."

"The age limit is 15 to 21. Candidates must be in full-time education, with a Grade VIII distinction," explains Director Kit Shepherd. "Anyone not of that level lowers the whole standard. Focus on Chamber courses, for younger players, accept people from a Grade VI upwards. They are from 15 to about 18 years old."

Shepherd explains that every player has to re-audition each year. While the NYWO auditions are for a specific instrumentation, Shepherd is seeking the top players. "We do find the best people. It's important that we find those who show great promise," she says. "I'm responsible for the auditions. A small panel of qualified people helps to choose the orchestra. John Gillow, who is the orchestral manager, is always there. We discuss each applicant, their standard, how old they are, and their attitude. We consider reports from teachers, though we make our own assessment. We provide an accompanist, and ask her opinion."

The Orchestra was started in 1968 as the British Youth Wind Orchestra. The founder, the late Eric McGavin, was a clarinettist. In 1986 the name was changed to the National Youth Wind Orchestra (NYWO). McGavin's intention was to cater for the numbers of clarinet and other wind players coming out of music colleges, as there was insufficient room for them in symphony orchestras. Now the NYWO takes up to thirty clarinets, with nine flutes, twenty-one brass.

One of the challenges for anyone in music education is the organising of ensembles of a specific instrumentation while simultaneously maintaining high standards. For example, does a major conservatoire accept only a couple of oboes each year, however good the applicants? Such a challenge gives rise to the current Endangered Species programme, to support the bassoon, oboe, French horn, trombone, tuba and double bass. Does Shepherd's NYWO face any shortages?

"Through the years, yes, there are shortages," she says. "They come right, and then there are shortages in other instruments. This year there's a shortage of trombone players. It might be something else next year. We always have a glut of flutes, and sometimes an excess of clarinets. This year I've had my pick of 14 or 15 bassoons, and about ten oboes. But don't forget that those who are not taken into the main orchestra will probably go into our Focus on Chamber Music course."

Clarinettist Juliet Davis agrees: "We've always got a large clarinet section, which is nice. But the lower brass tends to be the bit that is lacking. We have full sections, but a lot of them are extra players from various colleges, that are drafted in. Especially the bottom end of the trombones. They are usually friends of people who are already in the section. But we've had hundreds of applications for clarinets and flutes."

The course fee for the main orchestra for eleven days is £395, to include all food, accommodation, tuition and transport. The fee for the Focus on Chamber Music courses for six days is £295. How does Shepherd keep the cost down?

"By trying to find sponsorship, grants and donations," she says. "It's important - and difficult. The John Lewis Partnership has been supporting us for a long time. There's also the Allianz Group, the Musicians' Benevolent Fund and the Goldsmiths' Company. It takes time to get sponsorship, time that is wasted when an application is unsuccessful." Players come from all parts of the UK, though no travelling expenses are paid. If there appears to be a lack of Scottish players, it is because Scottish term times differ from English dates, which makes for difficulties.

For those who have trouble finding these fees, there are scholarships. "I really do try hard not to exclude anybody because of financial pressure," says Shepherd. "I do have bursary money from various companies. I'm not in a position to give lots of money, but I can help."

One of the biggest policy decisions is repertoire. What does the Orchestra play?

"We've played a lot of really good stuff," says clarinettist Davis. "We've done a lot of Philip Sparke's band stuff, some Kenneth Hesketh, and quite a number of Martin Ellerby's band pieces. We went on a tour of Ireland a couple of years ago, when we played an arrangement of Stravinsky's Firebird, and Pictures at an Exhibition. We did two concerts in Paris in 2001. That was really good fun. And we played at the Millennium Youth Prom the year before that, when we did the Sparke Dance Movements, and a joint performance with the National Voice Choir, A New World Dancing, by Philip Wilby."

Clarinettist Kevin Murphy, Head of Woodwind at Wells School, was initially brought in to teach on the Focus course. "They run two courses," he explains. "One is the main orchestra. The other is the Focus course, for students who are maybe aspiring to be in the band, who may have auditioned and have just missed out. The Focus course is a chamber music course, primarily for woodwinds. David Campbell was initially the tutor for that. They also do a chamber concert parallel to the main concert, in the main band as well. David did that, and I came in and took over the Focus course for a couple of years. I really enjoyed it. I found the level of enthusiasm very high. The repertoire is basically octets and dectets, such as Gounod's Petite Symphonie for Winds and Claude Arrieu's Dixtour. It was a good way for the younger players to get a foothold, to gain confidence, and move into the main orchestra. Boosey and Hawkes sponsored me. More recently they have sponsored David Campbell."

Murphy is an NYWO enthusiast. "I have sent many of my students. I continue to send many students from Wells, some very good players, because they get so much playing opportunity. It's not eight clarinets in an orchestral section, when you get to play in this piece or that piece. They are playing all the time. And one or two have had a good introduction to piccolo, or Eb clarinet, or bass clarinet, or contra bassoon, as a result of that orchestra. Coming from a specialist music school, I find it a beneficial course for our students to go on."

The next NYWO residential courses are to be held in early August, at Tudor Hall, in Banbury, Oxfordshire, together with the Focus on Chamber Music course. The age range for the latter is from 15 to 19, and the admission requirements are slightly lower. During that period there will be public concerts St John's Smith Square, London, at St Mary's Church, Banbury, and at the CBSO Centre in Birmingham. The conductor will be James Gourlay, the tuba player, who is Head of School of Wind and Percussion at the RNCM.

Glenn Price, who teaches at The University of Calgary, Canada, and is active with the World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles (WASBE), is enthusiastic about the way the courses are organised. He recently conducted the orchestra. "It provides for some of the country's finest professional performers to coach each section for two full days, before a week of intensive full rehearsal. The NYWO is a remarkable organization that offers an unparalleled musical experience," he says.

This article first appeared in Classical Music magazine, 18 June 2005. Used by permission.
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