FEATURE: Words into Music with the National Orchestra For All

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FEATURE: Words into Music with the National Orchestra For All

NOFA players relax ahead of the concert

On Sunday, April 14, 2019, one hundred young members of the UK’s National Orchestra for All (NOFA) took to the stage of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire for their 2018-2019 season finale concert. As ever, the young musicians of this unique, mixed ability orchestra came from all over the UK; as ever, they brought the audience to its feet. And once again, they delivered a world premiere, this time An Orchestra of Overheard Conversations—which they also co-composed.

NOFA’s musicians, aged 11-18, are not auditioned; rather, they are nominated for commitment and dedication to music making in the face of challenges in their lives that make access to traditional ensembles and orchestras extremely complex. On Sunday, they proved once again the extent to which young musicians with complex lives can rise to a challenge and have a remarkable impact.

Throughout the 2018-19 season, the challenge was the theme of WordPlay and the way music and language interact. At residential courses in Leeds, London, York, and, most recently, Birmingham, the players tackled repertoire as diverse as Vaughan Williams’ sumptuous Lark Ascending, Britten’s iconic Night Mail, classical opera, and rap. But in An Orchestra of Overheard Conversations, they went one step further, co-creating a work based on their own speech patterns with workshop leader Fraser Trainer and composer Danyal Dhondy.

Phase one of co-creation began during the first residential course of the season in Leeds last July. The first step was to record—with the players’ enthusiastic participation—conversations they were having about music: not just what they were saying to each other about what music and music making mean to them, but also how they were saying it.

NOFA on stage at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

In Phase Two, NOFA’s creative team took these recordings and turned them into musical phrases based on the intonation, pitch, and rhythm of players’ speech. In Phase Three, these musical phrases formed the basis of work at Winter Sessions, where we encourage the players to set notated music aside and focus on improvisation, creating new music with guidance from workshop leader Fraser Trainer. This became the basis for two brand new improvised pieces, performed last December. In Phase Four, NOFA’s composer- in-residence, Danyal Dhondy, transformed the improvised workshop pieces into An Orchestra of Overheard Conversations for the whole orchestra.

Sunday’s performance contained a further element. Throughout the season, the poet and Roundhouse Resident Artist Kit Finnie spent time with NOFA’s young musicians listening and talking to them; she then developed a spoken word piece inspired by them. On Sunday in Birmingham she performed her poem, weaving it in and out of An Orchestra of Overheard Conversations:

Now I know the truth
which is that there are countless ways
to play an instrument. In the beginning,
I did not know this. No one did. We
apply weight to string, lip to reed,
diligence to practice and puuuuuuush. andifwereluckyeveryonepusheswithus andthroughourstraincomesbeauty-fullmusic. Now I know the truth, there is no such


when I raise the reed to my mouth, I feel it pushing back.  As if to say—


as if, I suppose, to say nothing at all.

There is so much more hush in everything than I ever allowed myself to realise.

The final result was really quite extraordinary:  a five-movement work that incorporated extended techniques, complex polyrhythms, and spoken word.

Developing ideas for An Orchestra of Overheard Conversations at the Winter Sessions

We think a great deal at NOFA about how we can incorporate the voices and opinions of our young players in what we do. We find that involving them as co-creators gives them a sense of pride and ownership of the orchestra, and also helps to involve them intensely in what otherwise might be seen as highly challenging and ‘inaccessible’ repertoire. An Orchestra of Overheard Conversations is a complex and ambitious work, but it remains faithful to what the players have contributed through speech and improvisation. Many of the main themes were internalised by the players through the process of developing and learning them by ear during the creative process. A piece that might have been uninvolving if they had simply been presented with it on paper became, instead, ‘their’ piece, which they felt confident to play and enjoyed performing; another dimension of access to music and musicmaking; and a democratic process for players who come to NOFA with very different levels of musical technique. As a co-creator, it matters not whether you are Grade 8 or Grade 1.  Everyone can participate.

Looking ahead, we want to take this idea even further in our 2019-2020 Season ‘My Roots, Our Routes,’ a season of work that will explore the music underpinning human migrations and journeys—our own personal journeys and the famous journeys of others. Throughout the season, we will also be exploring our young musicians’ own musical roots, establishing a programme of leadership throughout our activities, in which our players research and teach one another the music of their own family cultures and histories. New music introduced and taught by our young people will ultimately be arranged into a new work celebrating their diversity and, we hope, their global reach.

Author: Marianna Hay, Founder and Artistic Director, Orchestras for All in the U.K.

Date Published: 30 April 2019