On Sunday 29 January 2017, I took my seat for the second time in my life to play the cello in an orchestra as part of Orchestras for All’s (OFA) charity fundraiser, Musical Chairs. The mission of OFA is to unlock access to the life-changing experience of ensemble music-making for 11-18 year olds with complex lives. Musical Chairs, the charity’s annual fundraiser, gives members of the public the chance to take a seat alongside young members of OFA’s flagship programme, the National Orchestra for All (NOFA) – a unique, mixed ability orchestra of 100 11-18 year olds – and take part in a day of rehearsals and concert. To take part, each Musical Chairs participant has to raise a minimum of £250 through sponsorship from friends and family who are then invited to come and watch us in concert.
Having only learned to play cello as part of the inaugural Musical Chairs event in 2015 and having thoroughly enjoyed it, I was keen to re-fresh my skills and re-join the orchestra, confident it would all come flooding back to me the minute I took my seat. When, after five minutes of the first rehearsal it quickly became apparent that this was not going to be the case.
The voice belonged to 16 year old Alannah, a long-time member of NOFA, and my desk partner for the day in the cello section.
If it hadn’t been for Alannah, I’m not sure I would have made it to the 4pm concert. From helping me tune my instrument, pointing to the music when I got lost and helping me with patches I simply could not play, Alannah supported me every step of the way. She was not alone. Throughout the day, across every instrument section in the orchestra, young people from NOFA were actively supporting, mentoring and coaching the adult Musical Chairs participants.
There is no doubt that making music, especially making music as part of an ensemble has the potential to be transformational. It transcends educational ability, socio-economic status and disability; it gives people a unique way to express themselves; it brings multiple benefits, including confidence and self-esteem, self-efficacy and cultural awareness and can develop teamwork and communication skill. After only a few short hours playing together as a group I could see this happening first hand – we were sitting up straighter in our seats, playing out and projecting our part with confidence and vigour.
But the biggest revelation of the day for me was my coach, Alannah. Her patience, kindness and belief in me was truly inspiring and made me want to play my best. In her speech during the concert she mentioned that she had struggled with anxiety and confidence growing up but that she “never feels more confident than when she is playing in NOFA with her friends”. “As much as being part of the orchestra has taught me a great deal musically,” she said, “I believe it has been most beneficial to me as a person.” As I travelled home after the concert with a spring in my step and a smile on my face, I couldn’t agree with her more.
Kerri works for #iwill, a UK-wide campaign that aims to make social action part of life for as many 10 to 20 year-olds as possible by the year 2020. Through collaboration and partnership it is spreading the word about the benefits of youth social action, working to embed it in the journey of young people and create fresh opportunities for participation. The campaign is being coordinated by the charity Step Up To Serve, governed by an independent board and has cross-party support.