Touring, young people and Ohrworms

Membership Coordinator Laura Shipsey on what groups can take from her experiences with an international youth orchestra

The logistical feat that is taking a musical group abroad and the challenges associated with an aging membership are two issues that we hear about almost every week on the membership team at Making Music. They are both huge issues and issues which we have been working on; see our resources on touring, and on young people’s engagement in amateur music.

This summer (which now seems a very long time ago) I was lucky enough to again be involved in the annual course of the Cambridge, Heidelberg, Montpellier Youth Orchestra (CHMYO). CHMYO is a pretty unusual setup and this year the European friendships it fosters were stronger than ever. But from the point of view of the Making Music membership team and our work to help members solve their problems, CHMYO is interesting as living proof that both the widespread challenges of aging memberships and taking a musical group away are not as big as they might seem. The only caveat is that you’ll need a lot of enthusiasm and often more than a little bit of lateral thinking.

CHYMYO is not your average youth orchestra – it started as an exchange between Cambridge and Heidelberg which this year celebrates the 30th anniversary of becoming tri-national with the addition of Montpellier. Each summer the orchestra meets for 10 days in one of the three cities and rehearses tirelessly for a concert (or two) at the end of the course. It is an exchange founded on trust, collaboration, love of music and commitment to providing a unique experience for the musicians lucky enough to have been involved. In each of the three cities it has a very loyal following and couldn’t exist without the support too many people to name here.

Each city brings its share of musicians and a conductor and the conductors work closely together to formulate a plan for the course and the concert. The first thing you learn as a musician with CHMYO is that even though you may not be able to hold a conversation with the person next to you, you can play some absolutely brilliant music together. The three countries do use markedly different teaching techniques but largely the understanding of the music itself is the same and it is that which draws the group together.

By lunchtime on the first day to when everyone goes their separate ways at the end of the course there is an almost endless chain of happy whistling and occasional screeching of the Ohrworms (earworms of catchy tunes). This is an orchestra that guarantees a few things: a linguistic and musical challenge, a lot of fun, experiences that mean you can’t help but want to make music a part of your life, and fluency in an interesting amalgamation of French, German and English into a new-fangled conductors’ language that somehow all the musicians seem to understand.

So what can Making Music member groups learn from this initiative?

First of all it is living breathing proof (if you needed it) that there are young people who will give up their time to make music together and that the music they make is of a fantastic standard. What the young musicians of CHMYO enjoy is the challenge of 10 days to learn some very advanced repertoire, the experience itself, and the focus that comes with being ambitious but simultaneously having a good time.

Second of all, that taking your group somewhere new is not as scary as it might seem but there are a few things without which it would not be possible: a lot of preparation, a support network when you get there, and musicians who understand and are up for the challenges of the journey (musically and logistically).

CHMYO works because it is a team of people who understand their roles and how those roles change depending on which country they are in. There is a huge network of support in each city and a lot of work goes into making that network as strong as it can be.  Without the support of the families of the musicians, the staff of the venues, the musicians themselves and the team of three musical directors who bring the whole thing together, it wouldn’t be possible.

I’d like to finish by saying how hopeful my experiences with CHMYO (from  violinist, to pastoral assistant, to composer and unexpectedly – to bass drum player) have made me. We can, I think, be very confident that many young people are energetically devoted to music. All they need is space, direction and an opportunity.

And if it’s possible to take a tri-national group of teenagers with instruments and varying degrees of common sense across London and to the Proms when the tubes suddenly stop, then it’s almost certainly possible to take your group somewhere new too – just be prepared for anything and make sure everyone involved is too!