Rhinegold Photo credit: John Palmer Photography
Catherine Arlidge with NCO members

Alex Stevens

Editor, Music Teacher

Curriculum for artistry

8:00, 5th October 2017

The National Children’s Orchestra is emerging from a period of change, led by new artistic and educational director Catherine Arlidge. She has ambitious plans for the development of the organisation and its young musicians, as she told Alex Stevens

A new era is beginning at the National Children’s Orchestra. By the time this edition of MT lands on doormats, the application deadline for a new managing director will have closed, and in June it was announced that violinist Catherine Arlidge had been appointed the NCO’s new artistic and educational director.

The organisation’s direction has been scrutinised in recent years (as MT readers will be aware) including the setting up in 2014 of the OurNCO campaign group, backed by the organisation’s founder, the late Vivienne Price. This was in response to plans which OurNCO called ‘a programme of radical change’ – including a move to Birmingham which ultimately has failed to materialise. Arlidge has taken over from Roger Clarkson, who was appointed NCO director of music in 2000.

MT will be speaking to the new managing director about the NCO’s organisational direction once the appointment has been made – but as part of this edition’s strings focus, the new artistic director, CBSO violinist and founder member of educational string quartet The Stringcredibles – speaks about her plans.

Passion and potential
It is clear that, professionally and personally, Arlidge is thrilled with her new role. ‘When I saw the job spec it could have been written for me,’ she says. ‘It was all the things that excite me: developing potential in young people, striving for excellence in what we do, communicating a real passion for classical music, sharing that as widely as possible, and increasing access to it in every way that we can.

‘The NCO is an organisation with a really strong track record in so many ways, and a huge amount of potential. It takes exceptional young musicians from ages 7 to 14, and sends them on a journey, with some of the top coaches in the country, to do some of the best concerts they could ever imagine themselves doing. It’s a bit like a sort of junior Team GB for classical music.

‘It’s also about seeing it as a training programme rather than an orchestra. In a way, I think that’s one of the problems with the name – that it doesn’t really do it justice. We’re actually 12 orchestras, both region-specific and age-specific, so it’s a big, big programme and a big enterprise. We have about 150 tutors and 200 social and pastoral staff. The potential for the NCO to be even more influential is definitely there.’

Purposeful leadership
Arlidge is confident that her role as artistic leader of the organisation, parallel to the responsibilities of the new managing director (who is expected to be appointed around the turn of the year), will allow her ‘to concentrate on the creativity of the organisation, on the repertoire, the curriculum – all those things’.

‘What I want to do in the first instance is to draw on the huge skill that’s already there,’ she says. She would like ‘to harness that enthusiasm’, but shape it, she says, into four curriculum strands which represent both the ingredients of a great musician and what people need in the professional world – as musicians and beyond.

‘The first of the four things for me is mastery, which is the art of creating a really fabulous performance, the nuts and bolts of that. Wellbeing is second – how your mind and body interact in that process to make sure that you’re getting the most of yourself, and that all of you is in that journey. The third is autonomy – who are you as an individual musician, what are your unique qualities, what do you bring to the music and to your performance that’s special. And, finally, purpose – why are we doing what we are doing? What is the point of an orchestra? What’s the point of arts and culture?’

JM1_8265These four strands will be articulated as the NCO’s overarching ‘curriculum’ under Arlidge – ‘and our tutors will sit within that mixture, where they feel comfortable. There may be some who are absolutely passionate about mastery and don’t want to do anything else, and some who are really interested in autonomy and purpose, or whatever. The important thing is that we develop our tutors and we draw on the skills that are there already.’

Overall, she believes that musicians’ professional development is not as comprehensive as it should be: ‘It will be fantastic to see how we can experiment with that ourselves, and then hopefully help the wider sector on how to develop thinking around how you can create the best possible young musicians.’

Among other things, she eventually hopes to be able to commission new music for the NCO – including, intriguingly, a possible set of orchestral studies designed to work on particular aspects of orchestral playing: ‘I think it would be fantastic if you could take little things that are tricky, like passing a line seamlessly around the orchestra, and wrote something that did that for two minutes, and that’s all it did. A bit like you practice your instrument – you zoom in on what you can’t do, and you practice it with a really succinct study, for as long as it takes, in order that you can do it.’

Having visited NCO summer courses since her appointment, Arlidge feels she has a good idea of what sort of repertoire the orchestras’ members enjoy. ‘They love the big pieces, the really exciting big symphonies, orchestral suites and so on. The technically demanding stuff that they wouldn’t get near to performing in other parts of their life. They also love the fun stuff, the more Latin, Sistema-type stuff, and they enjoy film music, which is also great music.’

For Arlidge, the artistic challenge will be about shaping popular programmes to a set of explicit, self-conscious learning objectives. ‘It’s going to be important to combine different styles of repertoire and different styles of playing in the learning process.’

Challenge and responsibility
Arlidge is particularly well qualified to navigate the challenges of string teaching, orchestral playing, and the wider fields of music education and the professional classical world. If a more traditional route into a role such as this might be through the world of county youth orchestras, Arlidge’s is the most portfolio of portfolio careers: she is sub-principal second violin of the CBSO, involved in much of the CBSO’s schools and families work (including presenting many of its concerts), performs, teaches, coaches and delivers workshops with the Stringcredibles, and is a board member of the Association of British Orchestras. She also teaches privately, and has three children. In 2013 she was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society and Association of British Orchestras Salomon Prize, which celebrates the outstanding contribution made by orchestral musicians to musical life in the UK – and in 2015 received an MBE.

There is no hint from Arlidge that she will be giving any of these things up – justifiably, she sees the breadth of her current professional work as a positive. ‘For me it’s a kind of continuum, and NCO is right in the middle, as a sort of pipeline from children having an opportunity in the first instance to what we are fundamentally going to need in the profession. It’s a lovely trajectory.
‘In terms of responsibility, it is a big responsibility, but I just see it as a hugely exciting thing. I’d been looking for a while for something to challenge me and to use and develop my skills. It’s the first thing that’s come along in a long time where I thought: “Wow, that would be really brilliant”.’

There is every chance that, under Arlidge’s artistic leadership and that of the as-yet unknown managing director, the NCO will indeed go from strength to strength. Watch this space.


Auditions for NCO 2018 are taking place across the UK in October and November

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