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NCO Blog: No Place like... NCO by Arlene MacFarlane

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In spring 2018, NCO's Under 13 Orchestra were tasked with creating their own piece of music. Here's what tutor, Arlene MacFarlane, thought of the project.

“So, half of the orchestra are going to create a new composition using all their own ideas... Oh, and we only have a few days to do it in!”

This was the remit for music staff in the meeting beforehand. No way, no way at all is this possible, or so I thought… I was apprehensive of the project and could not quite see how it would be possible to pull off, considering the short amount of time that we had to work with the young musicians. How could this work well? We were talking about classically trained musicians, of no older than 13, who heavily rely on the comfort of music in front of them. Nope, no way. I could not believe I was chosen to be on the staff team helping to create this new work - I was not comfortable improvising or composing! 

Cue the first workshop session with composer John Webb and all of my previous fears were vanquished and I was spectacularly proved wrong. From the beginning, the children and I were fully engaged and up for the task ahead. Throwing ourselves into it full throttle, without reservation. Musical ideas were coming from the children thick and fast, there was no stopping them! With the drive and enthusiasm from John, they felt fully supported and it gave them the most incredible confidence to seize the opportunity.

After the children had planned the format of their piece around their experiences encountered at NCO - from the audition process to the courses and concerts - they were split into groups with music staff members who would help them to create their own motives for the piece. For me this was one of the most rewarding parts, I had to inspire, guide and provide an encouraging environment for them to grow their ideas.

What they came up with was simply outstanding and completely smashed all expectations. A few other imaginative processes took place and before our very eyes grew the most astonishing thing: A new composition, from scratch, no notation and it was… brilliant, completely brilliant. I cried. Tears of utter astonishment, absolute joy and sheer pride. The impossible was suddenly possible! They had created a wonderfully constructed, child led, intricate and very good piece of music.

What I have learned for the whole experience is never place limits on children, given the right opportunities, guidance, space to grow and explore their own ideas, something utterly astonishing can be achieved, and NCO proved just that. This experience has changed the way I approach teaching, coaching and performing and will be a lasting memory for me, both musically and personally. There really is no place like NCO!

Watch the 'making of' documentary by Mat Beckett, River Rea Films.

Watch the full performance of No Place like... NCO by Under 13 Orchestra conducted by John Webb.

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