National Youth Music Organisations on the move: what does this mean for SATM?

Inclusion. Community. Youth voice. Sharing and empathy. Excellence of experience, not just of musical sound.

These are commonplace ideas in the field of social action through music (SATM) and they were central themes of a public seminar on 17 March. But this was not a SATM event: it was a debate organized by the UK’s Music Education Council (MEC), entitled “The Importance of National Youth Music Organisations and Centres of Advanced Training.” It featured representatives of some of the UK’s most hallowed youth music ensembles, including the National Youth Orchestra, the National Children’s Orchestra, and the National Youth Choirs. If music education has traditionally been constructed as a pyramid, this was the apex on show.

It was fascinating to see how the language and aims of the elite end of the music education sector have shifted towards those of socially-oriented programs in recent years. The centre of gravity of the youth ensemble world is moving towards SATM’s stated goals. This might justifiably be seen as a vote of confidence in SATM. But it also poses a subtle challenge for a sector that historically defined itself against the norm.

If ideas such as inclusion, community, and youth voice become mainstream in the large-ensemble world, even among high-performance groups, then what will be distinctive about SATM? What will be its USP (unique selling point)?

The logical conclusion is that SATM will need to up its game if it’s going to offer something distinctive. It will need to embrace pedagogical innovation and strive harder to centre and achieve its social goals. It will need to move forwards if it is not to look like it is moving backwards relative to the mainstream youth music sector. The MEC seminar could be seen as a pat on the back for SATM, but also as a spur to action.

In fact, the issue is not just that the mainstream may be catching up with SATM; it may actually be overtaking it in some places. The MEC seminar revealed the UK’s traditional elite to be more progressive than some of the most celebrated SATM programs in certain ways (for example, in the routine involvement of young people in governance). This is a warning against complacency and outdated alignments, which have held back some parts of the SATM field.

An important takeaway from the MEC event was that if programs are to be socially progressive, they also have to be musically progressive. Fully embracing youth voice means giving young people full control over the music – empowering them to make the music that they want to make, the music that is relevant to their lives. The social goal (youth agency) needs to be embedded in the musical process. A program that is distinctive is likely to sound distinctive.

This presents a particular challenge for SATM, given that the field’s most famous exemplars have been musically conservative. How to break away from the reproductive model of the past and embrace musical creativity in all its guises? How to put young people – not the conductor, the composer, or the musical work – at the centre of the musical process? SATM’s best-known programs do not provide much of a lead. It was noticeable at the MEC event that the programs that are most youth-driven at a musical level are the least conventional ones (such as Urban Development and the National Youth Folk Ensemble), which are not focused on large ensembles or classical music. This poses questions for SATM, which has historically centred these tools and been rooted in the classical orchestral world. What justification is there for continuing down this path when there is so much evidence of the advantages of other ones?

Even the traditional elite are now calling classical music “the elephant in the room.” They are pointing to genre fluidity as the future. They are dismissing instructionism (a pedagogy of adults instructing children in technical skills, which is the bedrock of SATM’s first-generation programs) as an old-fashioned approach. The National Youth Orchestra says that it is no longer an orchestral training program, while the National Children’s Orchestra is reconsidering the meaning of excellence. This is a sector on the move, its rethinking of its practices and purpose turbocharged by the Covid pandemic. SATM cannot afford to sit on its laurels.

The MEC seminar showed the apex of the UK’s music education pyramid looking critically at itself in public. Representatives acknowledged that dance education has been more progressive than music, despite having less funding; that music organizations should learn from their youth work equivalents, which have been doing deeper work for longer; that a potential gulf exists between musical skill and capacity to work with young people. Such public realism is salutary (and it has not historically been the norm in SATM).

If even the National Youth Music Organisations and Centres of Advanced Training are raising such critical questions, the writing is clearly on the wall for some of the foundational tenets of SATM. The good news is that new ones are already being written in certain places; some programs are forging less conventional paths, as described in my most recent book. But the field could go further: there is still plenty of attachment to old and increasingly questioned ideas. The MEC seminar saw leading youth music organizations come together and not only commit to new ways of thinking but also distance themselves from old ones and acknowledge their historical shortcomings. This is something that SATM as a sector is still reluctant to do, but with National Youth Music Organizations on the move, the pressure is on.

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