Cork Youth Orchestra: Making the most of musical youth

Tomás McCarthy has been immersed in music since he was a child and is passionate about the rewards of taking up an instrument, writes Marjorie Brennan

McCarthy teaches viola in the Cork School of Music and is also conductor with the Cork Youth Orchestra, Ireland’s first youth orchestra, which was established in 1958.

The CYO is run on a completely voluntary basis, by interested musicians and parents. It is clear that a huge amount of work goes into the enterprise.

Tomas McCarthy and Cork Youth Orchestra rehearsing ahead of their annual big performance at The Youth Orchestra's conference at The National Concert Hall, Dublin next month. Picture: Larry Cummins

“It takes a committee of 14 people to run everything. At all rehearsals we need to have a set number of parents — between eight and ten,” says McCarthy.

The orchestra age profile ranges from 14 to 19 and it currently has 131 members, which is far in excess of the standard. 

This is because McCarthy wants to give as many people as possible the opportunity to play.

“The reason we have such a large number is because if I was to stick to the standard number of 80/85 players, there are so many other people who wouldn’t get a chance. We have extra large wind and string sections. 

"That means another 50% or 60% of people are getting a chance. Everyone is included, which makes it difficult to pick repertoire but we either all play or we don’t play.”

The ensemble rehearses every Saturday night in Deerpark CBS in Cork, who McCarthy says have been very supportive over the years.

“We have our office there, our library, we stow our instruments there. Over the years, we have built up a very substantial music library, with the help of fundraising and sponsorship, we have been able to increase our library and our bank of instruments, which we can loan these to players who are in need at that time.”

McCarthy sees at first-hand the benefits of playing with an orchestra.

“It’s about confidence, self-esteem, socialisation. It is fascinating to watch their confidence develop and grow. They are meeting people who are not their school friends; it gives an extra dimension to their lives.”

He says playing a musical instrument also enhances all kinds of other learning.

“A lot of people who do music excel academically. They may not end up as musicians but they develop a great imaginative capacity. In music, you must learn to read ahead, it’s all about spatial awareness and planning. 

"These students are very good at project management, problem solving and in taking a wider view on a lot of things. 

Their concentration is superb, and they can often take in information without writing it down, they can just look and understand, which gives them confidence.”

The CYO is taking part in the 24th Festival of Youth Orchestras at the National Concert Hall in Dublin this weekend.

Playing in such venues is a valuable experience, says McCarthy, but continuous fundraising and sponsorship is required to ensure the young musicians are able to avail of such opportunities.

“We keep our fees to a minimum €220 per year, which might seem like a lot of money but they get concerts, professional training, tutoring, and weekends away.”

Every four years, the orchestra represent Ireland on a tour of Italy, which is coming up in 2020.

“That is the peak of their cycle in the orchestra, playing to 4,000 people in the main square in Florence next to the Medici Palace on a balmy summer’s night, that’s a memory for life.”

Some 30% of CYO’s former members are professional musicians, and McCarthy says their Saturday nights in rehearsal stand to them in their careers.

“Being at the youth orchestra on Saturday nights, every player becomes a better player as a result. 

"Quite a number of them will end up in music as a career, some of that is because of being in CYO and the enjoyment they get from the experience.

“They get to play 80 or 90 pieces, but when they go on to be a full-timer, this music will come back again and they will have played it with us.”

The Festival of Youth Orchestras, National Concert Hall, Dublin, tomorrow. Tickets €7.50-€15,;

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