Rhinegold Photo credit: Jane Moyle

Lucy Thraves


Q&A: John Madden

2:53, 18th September 2018

As artistic director of the National Schools Symphony Orchestra, John Madden heads up a platform to high level musicianship for young performers. Lucy Thraves finds out more

The National Schools Symphony Orchestra (NSSO) was founded in 1994. How has it changed/developed since then?

The National Independent School Symphony Orchestra (NISSO) was founded originally as a 13+ ‘continuation orchestra’ for the Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS) music courses and modelled closely on the IAPS operations. The founding course director was David Evans (currently director of music, Hereford Cathedral School) and he was guided by a board of Trustees (mostly serving or retired Headmasters of IAPS schools), and supported by John Catt Educational and the IAPS. By the end of the 1990s the trustees had dropped the ‘independent’ moniker and NSSO became the all-inclusive organisation it is today. Currently the ratio of independent to maintained school pupils is about 60:40.

Sadly, the IAPS orchestral courses were discontinued after a difficult period financially, and the flow of young musicians into NSSO was in danger of drying up completely. The trustees decided to create Young NSSO in 2010 to continue to offer orchestral courses to younger players and to protect the flow of players for the successful and flourishing older orchestra.

When, in turn, the trustees found themselves in a difficult period financially, Malvern College took on the ownership and management of NSSO. With the college’s support a third orchestra, NSSO Sinfonia, was created, providing a middle-tier of opportunity, enabling a smoother progression across the ensembles and catering for children aged 9-19 with a minimum entrance standard of ABRSM grade 3 in Young NSSO and ABRSM grade 8 in the main orchestra. We also established a Conductors’ Course which offers tuition as well as the opportunity to conduct one or more of the NSSO ensembles.

How does the NSSO fit into other youth ensembles and schemes across the UK, such as the National Youth Orchestra?

NSSO sits comfortably in the panoply of the UK’s youth orchestra provision, offering a bridge between county orchestras and the National Youth Orchestra; a dozen NSSO alumni are currently members of NYO. We also provide opportunities for ‘retired’ members of the National Children’s Orchestra (NCO) to extend their experience. But our single annual residential course is also often a very good fit for talented musicians with a variety of interests and abilities who do not want to commit to a residential music course in every school holiday.

“Musical talent is the only criteria to join NSSO and we work hard to ensure that we can support children whose parents cannot afford the course fees”

Music education is becoming increasingly difficult for children from less privileged backgrounds. What kinds of financial support are available for children applying to NSSO? How do you attract a wide range of applicants?

Access is a key issue for NSSO and for me personally. Born into a completely unmusical family and brought up in Toxteth, Liverpool, it was music and education that led me to study at Cambridge and set me on the course that I still pursue today. We have a scheme of means-tested bursaries at NSSO, supported by Malvern College and various individuals and trust funds, as well as scholarships for the leader of each orchestra.

Attracting a wide range of applicants is not easy or cheap. So, I was especially pleased this year to welcome talented young players from The Nucleo Project, a social action programme in North Kensington that uses the pursuit of musical excellence as a way to enrich the lives of children young people and their families. There are over 300 children involved in the project, led by Lucy Maguire, and having attended their 5th anniversary concert I was convinced that we could offer additional opportunities to these children and that they would enrich our week at Malvern – which did prove to be the case!

Musical talent is the only criteria for successful application to join NSSO and we work hard to ensure that we can support children whose parents cannot afford the course fees.

Unlike many youth music ensembles, the NSSO is not based in London. What opportunities/restrictions does this afford?

An important part of the NSSO offer is that we aim to audition children in their own schools, rather than summon them to regional centres. This is least disruptive to the child’s education, costs parents nothing in terms of transport, and gives us a direct link with schools.

For a national organisation, not being based in London can be a real advantage. Malvern, in the heart of the English countryside, so rich in its association with Elgar, is a fantastic place to make music. Transport links are good and the college is an absolutely first-class venue, offering sporting and recreational facilities that are second-to-none and a safe environment in which children can work hard and happily contribute to the success of the musical endeavour.

What’s the most enjoyable aspect of your job as artistic director?

Having spent over 30 years in schools, the opportunity to continue working with children is the most enjoyable aspect of the job. Knowing that the experience NSSO offers can be transformative is hugely satisfying and chimes deeply with my own, albeit very different, experience. At the end of the 2018 course a member of Young NSSO raced up and, smiling from head to toe, proclaimed loudly: ‘That was the best week of my life. Can I come again next year?’ Need I say more?

Do you have any plans in the pipeline?

As we embark on the 25th anniversary celebrations we will launch the NSSO Chorus, who will join the main orchestra at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, next year to perform the Verdi’s Requiem, conducted by Richard Dickins. We are also overhauling the Conductors’ Course and plan to develop a NSSO Big Band. With the support of Malvern College, unique among independent schools in managing and promoting a national musical enterprise such as NSSO, we are looking to the future in a very positive and progressive way, continuing to provide high quality musical opportunities for young musicians, enriching their experience and helping them develop and meet their aspirations.

NSSO has always welcomed children from beyond the UK, most recently from New Zealand, France, Spain, Switzerland and Singapore. This year we were joined by a group of young string players from Guangzhou in China. I hope this development will continue over the years, and maybe we will celebrate our 50th anniversary as the International Schools Symphony Orchestra!


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