The Irish Chamber Orchestra ‘Sings Out with Strings’

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

The Irish Chamber Orchestra ‘Sings Out with Strings’

Kathrine Barnecutt, Education and Outreach Manager, Irish Chamber Orchestra


SOWS cellists performing with the ICO.

Our Sing Out with Strings program, in Limerick, Ireland, derives its name and history from an initiative called “Sing Out,” a highly popular and influential songwriting program facilitated by Dr. Kathleen Turner (currently course director of community music at the University of Limerick). The program involved members of the Irish Chamber Orchestra (ICO) collaborating with and taking direction from schoolchildren in Limerick to create a suite of original orchestrated songs, which they performed annually in concert with ICO.

Sing Out with Strings built upon this vision, with a view to immerse the Irish Chamber Orchestra in the local community by providing access to free music lessons to students in disadvantaged areas of Limerick. We began in 2008, when there was a lot of social unrest in the city of Limerick. John Kelly, ICO’s then-CEO, was inspired by Venezuela’s El Sistema program, and began to forge the way for ICO to make a real and lasting difference in Limerick communities. With the help of seed funding from the University of Limerick and subsequently the McManus Foundation and other funders, the initial violins were purchased and Sing Out with Strings (SOWS) began, with ICO players as teachers and mentors for the students.

SOWS is based on the creative-confidence, personal-engagement community music ethos of the songwriting program, and fuses this ethos with the incremental skill-building and more abstract musical learning of string playing. The free program engages every child attending local partnering primary schools, as part of their daily school curriculum. Each class receives a weekly songwriting workshop and two violin/orchestra sessions each week. As attendance is not on a voluntary basis, and private instrumental tuition is extremely rare in the local community, we work hard to ensure that we have a positive personal resonance and develop relevant material for our classes, in order to maintain a positive working relationship with the children. Carefully facilitated songwriting classes provide a safe haven for both children and adults to share their creative thoughts and musical ideas, developing skills and confidence within a safe workshop format. ICO musicians visit every class to work with students on their ideas and orchestrations, creating a real and meaningful knowledge exchange.

SOWS secondary school students performing chamber music at an awards ceremony.

The confidence to inquire and exchange ideas transfers to the string program, as we adapt concepts in traditional string-teaching methodologies and repertoire so that the works of Suzuki, Kodaly, Beethoven, and Handel sit happily alongside Avici, SpongeBob SquarePants, Camila Cabello, and traditional Irish music.

Since our founding, we have added violas, cellos, basses, and ukuleles to our music-making, and we’ve also been able to add side-by-side performances with the ICO and “meet the musician” guest visits from international artists. We now provide over 100 hours of free weekly sessions in local primary schools; we also offer musical scholarships to second-level students, free music camps, and a city-wide youth string orchestra. In the course of these offerings, we collaborate with numerous youth organizations. Our growth is determined and led by our young musicians, and we’re lucky to be in a position to support a variety of career pathways for them to navigate, actively encouraging a multi-genre approach to music-making.

Like programs all over the world, we were forced by the pandemic to pivot and find ways to make our music-making relevant and accessible. Kitchens became studios and videos became the norm; we experimented with new technologies, puppets, even Legos. We found positivity in the privilege of being invited into homes online and having parents, grandparents, siblings, babies, and pets participate in lessons.

Another positive result of the pandemic experience has been strengthening our ability to converse with colleagues and programs around the world—this has been a stimulating game changer for our teaching artists. I’ll admit, I’ve loved participating in the El Sistema USA conference and the Sistema Europe conference with the ability to put my kids to bed!  It’s also enabled a space in which we can step back, recalibrate, and forge partnerships with people working in Irish Youth Development whose values and actions align with our own.

Finally, we created an innovative “Sing Out with Strings Online” platform aimed at string teachers and learners, offering flexible arrangements of beginner string repertoire, as well as games and supports, that have evolved from the teaching and learning in our own program. Sing Out with Strings Online emphasizes the fusion of creative community engagement with learned technical and musical skills that makes our program distinctive. ICO CEO Gerard Keenan is committed to expanding on the important work ICO is undertaking, to help widen free music education access not just across Ireland, but also across the world.

Irish news coverage of 2019’s Summer Gala concert, featuring SOWS students performing their own songs based on Julia Donaldson’s The Snail and the Whale story book, along with other orchestral pieces, in concert with the Irish Chamber orchestra.


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