Allin Gray: Orchestra issue urgently needs addressing

It shouldn’t be RTÉ’s role to decide a national policy for our orchestras, says Allin Gray.

WITH the recent announcement of a review of orchestras by RTÉ, the national provision of this aspect of culture in Ireland has come under the spotlight, being raised in the Dáil by both Micheál Martin and by Joan Burton.

Mr Martin describes the orchestras as a “national treasure” and Ms Burton claims they are “an intrinsic part of our culture”. And yet we have a new Minister for Culture, Josepha Madigan, who, like the previous minister, is washing her hands of the matter and claiming it is in the remit of the Minister for Communications, Denis Naughten, under whose portfolio responsibility for RTÉ lies.

The announcement of the review of orchestral provision coincided with an internal statement to the effect that RTÉ is looking to reduce the numbers in the orchestras by 31 full-time staff by June of 2018 as part of an overall reduction in staff at the station. This includes posts already vacant but the upshot is that RTÉ would not be able to field the two orchestras that it maintains at present: the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.

There have been many letters to newspapers and much lobbying of politicians during November and December and the prevailing opinion is that it can not be up to RTÉ alone to decide a national policy for orchestras simply because the only two full-time orchestras in the country are housed within the broadcaster.

The provision of orchestras and other performance ensembles, the promotion of musical culture and the availability of music education are national issues that are deserving of discussion, of planning, and of investment by the state. However, if such investments of time and money are to be made, the proper stakeholders need to be consulted and the value of the orchestras to our culture needs to be clearly stated.

In order to have investments deliver value, we need a national plan, a vision for the place of orchestras within Irish culture.

As Director of the Irish Association of Youth Orchestras it is my job, and my privilege, to witness the beneficial effects of ensemble music-making on young people throughout Ireland. The availability of a basic music education for young people in the Republic of Ireland can only be described as inadequate.

In many countries in Europe, basic education in music — the melodic and rhythmic skills equivalent to reading, writing and elementary maths — is considered to be a right and is delivered to all young people through the school system. Although we have a curriculum for this in Ireland, it is not always delivered by teachers that are appropriately trained or, in many cases, it is not delivered at all. The vast majority of young people that receive training on an instrument do so because their parents can afford it — opportunities independent of parental ability to fund lessons are very few.

Yet, very much despite all this, we have a thriving youth orchestra community in Ireland. Rates of participation in ensemble music-making by young people are very high, and the standard of performance of our youth orchestras compares favourably to those of countries with a much stronger formal basis in music education. We are also seeing very strong growth in amateur orchestras throughout Ireland; a reflection of the development of our musical culture over the last 30 years of which youth orchestras have played such a central part.

This growth of musical culture in Ireland, is something that we should see much more of. Provision of a basic music education to our young people not only creates the interest in and want to play instruments and participate in ensembles, it has also been shown, to be the best tool, bar none, for promoting cognitive development in young minds.

But that is only part of the story, it also promotes well-being through the satisfaction of acquiring skills, through enhancing the ability to enjoy music, through participation in social music-making activities and in the joy of performance. This, not only for young people, but for people at every age.

When we speak of national wellbeing, culture is at the very centre of such wellbeing; not only in orchestras and in classical music, but in all types of music, in all arts and crafts and in sports and the sciences and every activity where we express our humanity and investigate and participate in the world around us.

For this culture to flourish and to work for all people, we need infrastructure and we need skilled people to teach, mentor, inspire and enable. In music, professional orchestras are an essential part of this infrastructure. The ones that we already have provide huge value in their knock-on effects throughout the country. That is something that we should have more, rather than less of and it should be a priority for our Minister for Culture to make sure it is planned for and invested in.

  • Allin Gray is director of the Irish Association of Youth Orchestras


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