5 Minute Read Reimagining the Youth Orchestra

Young Musicians Reshaping Musical Traditions

Back in March of this year, Agrigento published my first blog post in a series exploring the topic of change and the youth orchestra. Over the months since, I have been learning about inspiring programs, and having conversations with people who are acting for change.

After a break, this current blog post looks at East London’s Grand Union Youth Orchestra. I am grateful to Tony Haynes (Co-Founder and Creative Director of Grand Union Orchestra) for taking the time to talk with me and contribute to this blog post. I also acknowledge the young people whose words are included in this blog post. (A list of the video sources is included at the end of this post.)

Grand Union Youth Orchestra

Established in 2007, the Grand Union Youth Orchestra (GUYO) is, according to its website, a ‘world music and jazz youth ensemble that brings together young musicians aged 12-26 who wish to explore the world’s major musical cultures.’ GUYO offers young musicians the chance to explore musical styles from all around the world through regular masterclasses and workshops led by the professional jazz and world musicians from the Grand Union Orchestra.

It’s not the standard orchestra … It’s pretty much almost like jamming with a lot of other musicians from different backgrounds. So that’s what I really liked. (Andre, GUYO participant, 2018)

Grand Union Youth Orchestra at Rich Mix (Shoreditch, London, 2019)

GUYO reflects East London’s culturally diverse community, with the countries of origin of the young musicians and their families spanning Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, Cyprus, Portugal, Italy, India, Bangladesh, the Caribbean, South Africa, East Africa and China. Not surprisingly, the range of instruments played is equally diverse.

Grand Union Youth Orchestra, it’s a very special experience for all young musicians. I believe in the UK, the mixing of many different cultures, many different styles of music. (Alex, GUYO participant, 2018)

Young musicians can join for free and without the need to audition. As members of the orchestra, they have the chance to participate in performances, work alongside professional musicians, learn about world music, discover new instruments, develop improvisation skills and, importantly, meet and create music with other young musicians.

In line with the company’s long-standing practice of working with refugee, migrant and migrant-descendent professional musicians, GUYO offers young musicians the opportunity to connect to the culture of their own family heritage and the culture of the wider community.

It has enabled me now that I can play South Indian/North Indian music, African different types of African music, then about my own culture, South American music, Brazilian music, Eastern European music, Chinese music. When did I ever think that was gonna happen? I never thought that was available in London. (Cassius, GUYO participant, 2018)

GUYO’s purpose – reflected in their current motto ‘new shoots from old roots’ – is to nurture future generations of musicians. This is achieved by giving young musicians the chance to learn and take inspiration from the Grand Union Orchestra musicians with whom they make music. Tony describes this offering as a ‘palette of opportunities’ associated with authentic ‘creative artist experiences.’

Grand Union Youth Orchestra: Nurturing the Next Generation

The company’s interest is, Tony says, to ‘create the exceptional musicians of the future.’ This means that the company makes no claims to being inclusive. The program is not designed as an experience open to all young musicians. Instead, GUYO is offered as an alternative, accessible and culturally relevant pathway for young musicians who are not currently served by other youth orchestra or music programs.

Conversations about issues of diversity and cultural authenticity are approached with similar caution and honesty. Reiterating the importance of the creative musical experience, Tony argues that GUYO is

about the musicians … all these musicians are here, not simply because they represent a different musical culture, but because they are extraordinarily creative in their own right. And can work with other musicians and can see the creative possibilities of their music… We ought to be aware of all this music and all those musicians, because they’re part of our society. (Tony Haynes, 2021)

Like many cultural organisations, GUYO has made changes since the onset of the pandemic. In planning the 2021 Summer School, Tony decided to do things differently. He explains that the shift to online education due to Covid-19 meant that young people ‘were simply being talked at.’ However, the company also realised that this had, to some extent, characterised their own approach to working with young people.

The characteristic model is you have one of the musicians – could be a West African drummer or a South American or Chinese or a Bengali musician, Indian, South Indian – doing, in the old-fashioned way, a masterclass. In other words, they talked about their instruments. They talk about a little bit of an insight into how Indian ragas work. (Tony Haynes, 2021)

The 2021 Workshops program involves young participants working creatively with four Grand Union Orchestra musicians. Starting the day, each of the musicians shares aspects of their own creative practice. The young people then spend the remainder of the day in smaller groups producing their own creative responses to what they have learnt in the morning sessions.

What a fantastic summer school we had – I think it was the best one yet! We had a very enthusiastic group of young people who wanted to learn, and they got to experience a very wide range of musical genres – at least two a day! – and then went and got to compose their own pieces using these various styles. (Claude Deppa, Course Director, 2021)

This process, described by Tony as a form of call and response, involves tutors showing the young musicians (“This is what I do”), followed by an invitation: “What are the ways in which you can build this into your own music?” This approach transforms the learning process, Tony says, from Am I playing this raga correctly?” to “This slightly peculiar scale: what ideas does it trigger off in me?”

You could hear the Latin clavé beat coming out in something, or you could hear they made up a scale which is like a raga. It was very palpable how they had taken it on. (Tony Haynes, 2021)

A youth orchestra program with social goals?

So, is GUYO a youth orchestra program motivated by social goals? Tony resists this label. He states unequivocally that GUYO ‘occupies a quite different position.’

GUYO is a youth creative music program for young people that places artistic purposes at the heart of its mission. As Tony explains, GUYO – like its parent ensemble, the Grand Union Orchestra – ‘never does anything for anything but artistic purposes.’ This is not to say that it stands apart from the wider social or political issues facing its young musicians and their communities. Being driven by artistic purposes does not, Tony explains, preclude the possibility of profound social outcomes. To the contrary, he argues that Grand Union’s work has undoubtedly promoted cultural equity and understanding, helping to counter social issues, including racism and xenophobia.

Yet art for art’s sake may sit uneasily with those of us concerned with music’s potential to function as social action. Afterall, it is a stance that has served to protect and preserve the privileges of many major Western cultural institutions. As a stance, it risks being perceived as regressive and in conflict with contemporary beliefs about artists’ social responsibilities, borrowing Varkøy’s (2015) words, to ‘contribute to growth and renewal in society’ (p. 148).

However, it might equally be considered an honest, modest stance that refuses to make grand, idealistic claims about the power of music and the possibility of social transformation, favouring realistic and attainable goals and objectives.

In the introduction to the final chapter of his latest book, Rethinking Social Action through Music (2021), Geoff writes of the ‘balance of aspiration and realism’ (p. 352) that characterises the views of Daniel Barenboim and Zubin Mehta in relation to the potential for music – specifically the orchestra – to build peace. He then contrasts this stance with the ‘utopian narrative’ that has fuelled the ‘rhetorical excess’ around the youth orchestra and the wider field of music education and learning.

Aspirations have been confused with achievements, and a blurring of institutional propaganda, advocacy, journalism, and even some one-sided research has produced a hyperbolic dominant narrative that is significantly divorced from reality. (Baker, 2020, p. 353)

It is not surprising that rhetorical excess is favoured over modesty and restraint. In the context of the conditions in which the majority of the world’s music education and learning takes place, few people want to hear Zubin Mehta say that his efforts to bring peace to Kashmir through music failed, or that Daniel Barenboim does not believe that his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra can be an ‘orchestra for peace’. Effective marketing slogans and successful funding pitches are rarely founded on modesty or restraint shaped by doubt and ambiguity. Yet, as Geoff argues, ‘embracing ambiguity is not about denying music’s positive potential—it is about fulfilling that potential’ (p. 359). Is it possible that an orchestra like GUYO might achieve as much or more, in social terms, despite claiming to do less?

What can we learn from GUYO?

Programs like GUYO are essential components of a vibrant music education system. As Tony argues, rather than being considered add-ons – ‘icing on the top of the cake’ – they should be considered an integral part of the cake. Certainly, more programs like GUYO would help to address the systemic problem of underrepresentation in music education (DeLorenzo, 2012; DeLorenzo & Silverman, 2016; Egalite, Kisida & Winters, 2015; Smith, Mick & Alexander, 2018). In the search for ways to give young people the chance to work with musicians, musical cultures and traditions that are closer to their own cultural identities (Davis, 2021; Egalite, Kisida & Winters 2015; Weiher, 2000), yet without boxing them into a single identity, GUYO offers an attractive, thought-provoking model for the youth orchestra of the 21st century.

GUYO also raises interesting questions about music as social action. How important is social discourse? Are many “social” music programs not driven by artistic concerns as well? Does GUYO really belong in a different “box” to, say, Sistema-inspired programs?

More importantly, GUYO presents a model that recognises that music programs can offer more than the opportunity to learn musical skills or traditions. Perhaps the real power of programs like GUYO is to present young people with, in the words of Allsup and Shieh (2012), the opportunity ‘to shape musical traditions and social traditions that live and breathe and transform the world in which we live’ (p. 50).

The route to greater cultural diversity is that the content of the art itself should be culturally diverse.

Tony Haynes, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (2016)
Videos with GUYO participants cited in this blog post

Allsup, R., & Shieh, E. (2012). Social justice and music education: The call for a public pedagogy. Music Educators Journal, 98(4), 47–51.

Baker, G. (2021). Rethinking Social Action through Music: The Search for Coexistence and Citizenship in Medellín’s Music Schools. Open Book Publishers.

Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. (2016). An Inquiry into The Civic Role of Arts Organisations, Grand Union Orchestra. Retrieved from

Davis K. (2021) Recruiting and Retaining Black and Latinx Students in String Orchestra Programs. American String Teacher. 71(1)-17-21. doi-10.1177/0003131320976093.pdf

DeLorenzo, Lisa C. 2012. “Missing Faces from the Orchestra: An Issue of Social Justice?” Music Educators Journal 98 (4): 39–46. doi:10.1177/0027432112443263.

DeLorenzo, L. C., & Silverman, M. (2016). From the Margins: The Underrepresentation of Black and Latino Students/Teachers in Music Education. Visions of Research in Music Education27.

Egalite, Anna J., Brian Kisida, and Marcus A. Winters. 2015. “Representation in the Classroom: The Effect of Own-Race Teachers on Student Achievement.” Economics of Education Review 45:44–52. doi:10.1016/j.econedurev.2015.01.007.

Smith, Bret P., James P. Mick, and Michael L. Alexander. 2018. “The Status of Strings and Orchestra Programs in U.S. Schools.” String Research Journal 8 (1): 15–31. doi:10.1177/1948499218769607.

Varkøy, O. (2015). Pierre Bourdieu and the autonomy of art: The idea of art as critique. In P. Burnard, Y. Hofvander-Trulsson, & J. Söderman (Eds.), Bourdieu and the sociology of music education (pp. 140-154). Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing.

Weiher, Gregory R. 2000. “Minority Student Achievement: Passive Representation and Social Context in Schools.” The Journal of Politics 62 (3): 886–95.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.