Writing for Young Musicians

The article below was written for Arco, the magazine of ESTA, the European String Teacher’s Association.

In November last year I had the privilege of hearing one of my pieces being played by a massed string ensemble with young musicians from all over East London alongside players from the London Symphony Orchestra. The performances were extraordinary, and the event was more extraordinary still, being the culmination of the LSO Discovery’s latest Take a Bow project for young string players. From the opening moment when leader Roman Simovic walked out, acknowledged the applause and immediately launched into Paganini’s First Caprice (wowing the audience and all of the young musicians alike), followed by a spirited performance of Bach’s Double Concerto in which Simovic was joined by violinist Tom Norris, conductor Cameron Burns and the whole ensemble, it was clear that there was to be no compromise, no dumbing down. This was music making of a very high level, and the children were right in the heart of it. Yes, some extra parts had been written for the very youngest players (by long-term LSO Discovery arranger and composer Gareth Glyn), but this was an act of enabling, rather than simplification.

My piece The Gypsy’s Violin finished the programme. When I wrote it just over three years ago, I wouldn’t have imagined that it would take on a life of its own, with performances well into double figures, and interest from various ensembles both in the UK and abroad. The idea to compose a piece for young players together with professionals came from Howard Moody, a truly great musical enabler and inspirer of young people. I happened to be playing in an orchestra for a programme in which Howard conducted a performance of Alec Roth’s wonderful Concertino Piccolo. Alec’s work is a kind of Concerto grosso for a group of young violinists and a professional string ensemble, in which the young musicians are the soloists. It’s a gorgeous piece that sounds fresh and vibrant. The young musicians got a huge buzz from being part of a “grown-up” concert, and the professionals had a reminder about what joyful innocent music making can be, but so often isn’t. “You should write something like this,” Howard said as we were leaving the stage. A few months later, he’d made some introductions, and I found myself with my first proper commission from a group called Superstrings, a Wiltshire-based charity providing after-school music clubs and holiday courses. They cater for all abilities of young string players, from open strings to Grade 8, and their founder and guiding light Liz Anderson was determined that the new piece would involve absolutely everyone from the group. Moreover, it should push them all to the limits, no matter where they were in their musical development. With Liz’s help, we settled on two main groups of younger and older children respectively, a beginners’ group, and a quartet of soloists. Alongside the strings of Salisbury’s own professional ensemble La Folia, (including a virtuosic part for their leader Daphne Moody, who also happens to be a tutor for Superstrings), we had the line-up for the performance. Searching around for a starting point, I stumbled across a Transylvanian gypsy story in which the devil magically creates a violin from the souls of an unfortunate family. At the end of the story, the violin ends up in the hands of a poor gypsy who plays it in towns and villages on his travels. I wondered if the music he played on this enchanted violin could be the music that we played in our huge string ensemble, full of fire and folky exuberance. I could make all the tunes fit the youngest players so they’d be at the very heart of the music, and every time a tune was repeated, the music on top could get more elaborate and exciting. I wanted a piece full of drama and colour that had interesting twists and turns and which challenged everyone, including the professionals. And in the end, it seemed to work! The music sounded rich and vibrant, the tunes stuck in everyone’s heads, all the children and professionals seemed to really enjoy the performance, and I couldn’t have been happier.

But what happened next really amazed me. Howard Moody had been busy again behind the scenes and introduced the piece to Sir John Eliot Gardiner who then introduced it to the LSO. They programmed it for that year’s Take a Bow, not just in London but Paris as well! With an ensemble over twice the size and some added orchestral percussion, the music felt even more exciting and energetic than before. Word then seemed to get out and more and more groups got in touch wanting to play the piece, including an unforgettable performance in Cheltenham Town Hall played by the massed strings of Gloucestershire Music and The Welsh College of Music and Drama conducted by Glyn Oxley, with Tasmin Little taking the solo violin part and telling the gypsy story. And since then, the LSO have commissioned another piece from me along similar lines called The Sea and the Sky, which was first performed in Take a Bow in 2011.

So what’s going on? It’s clear that my impression of performing in Alec Roth’s Concertino Piccolo wasn’t unique and there is something wholly worthwhile in the idea of children performing alongside professionals of the highest level. But also, having the youngest children making music alongside their older peers within a school or music centre must surely inspire them in a way that perhaps wouldn’t happen when they are segregated according to ability. I’m not suggesting that ensemble teaching shouldn’t concentrate on each level individually, and there’s already a substantial repertoire of string ensemble music for beginners, intermediate and advanced players. But the experience of working towards a performance which involves absolutely everybody, and is a real landmark event can only be a positive and inspiring thing. The challenge, therefore, is for composers and arrangers to write music to enable precisely this. We need to get involved in groups like Superstrings and write bespoke music to fit their needs and forces. We need to cultivate relationships with music departments in schools and music centres and write big ambitious pieces which involve everybody, no matter what their ability might be. Superstrings recognise this, and have since gone on to work with folk supergroup Bellowhead in a project for the Cultural Olympiad.

The LSO’s Take a Bow continues go from strength to strength. It’s clearly a formula that works, inspiring so many children from all over East London. Conductor Cameron Burns writes, “Whilst many of the kids involved in the project may not go on to become professional musicians, Jeff’s piece gives them an experience which I hope will remain with them always and ignite a love and passion for performing and for music. What a tremendous coup to be able to say that you got to play with the LSO at such a young age!” Another distinguished Take a Bow conductor, François-Xavier Roth, writes, “The performance with the LSO is really the heart of Take a Bow. The opportunity to play with this amazing orchestra, to share something with them, is very special. After Take a Bow, some of them are now going to concerts regularly and even want to play in the LSO in the future!”

Long may Take a Bow continue, and long may Superstrings blaze a trail far from the bright lights of London. But we need composers and arrangers to enable projects like these to happen. The fact that we might be writing for beginners within an ensemble should be a challenge for us, not a hindrance. It should prompt us to find exciting musical solutions without compromise, and we must avoid the lowest common denominator at all costs. The rewards are immeasurable, both for the young musicians and for the lucky composer who gets to hear his or her music played with such excitement and youthful enthusiasm, just as I did last November.