4 Minute Read Reimagining the Youth Orchestra

Creating The Young Person’s Orchestra for the 21st Century

In our first blog post (May 2020) we wrote about our search for hope in the face of what appeared to be a significant threat to music education. In that moment, we saw the possibility that uncertain times might offer opportunities to dream up different structures, pedagogies and approaches to the music ensemble. To imagine what this might look like, we took inspiration from Shieh and Allsup’s (2016) reframing of the large ensemble as a flexible, hybrid collective, in which ‘multiple projects exist simultaneously and are loosely connected in a community of support’ (p. 33).

Animate Orchestra is a program delivered by Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. The program brings together school-aged musicians from different cultural backgrounds and with diverse musical interests, and it supports them to create and play their own music in what is described as a ‘Young Person’s Orchestra for the 21st Century’.

In June last year, Animate Orchestra moved online. This immediately expanded access to young musicians from all over the UK. The in-person orchestral program was exchanged for a series of remote activities: (1) Self-Isolate I Create I Animate, (2) Animate Artists Online, and (3) Animate Orchestra Online.

Ten months later, there are indeed signs that the uncertainty of 2020 has been a catalyst for progressive responses by some large ensemble music programs. These include online projects that focus on collaborative composition and creative improvisation, such as the one undertaken by the UK’s Animate Orchestra, a program that Geoff first wrote about a few years ago. One of Animate Orchestra’s lead facilitator-musicians and artistic directors, multi-instrumentalist, composer and arranger Sarah Freestone, contributes her reflections to this blog post.

Self-Isolate I Create Animate involves a series of video challenges issued to young musicians and to which they are invited to provide creative responses. To date, there have been four video challenges. They are ‘video’ challenges because each of the four creative facilitator-musicians has created a 6-8 minute video that explains a simple prompt or idea to inspire the creative task.

The four videos are brilliant! They offer practical examples of accessible approaches to fostering musical creativity. What’s more, they are also open-access resources for practitioners as well as young people. This video compilation of the creative responses of each of the young composer-musicians offers evidence of how well they work.

At every stage of study, learning an instrument does not necessarily encourage creativity. Intonation, rhythm, bowing, breathing; these are, to a large extent, ‘correct’ or ‘wrong’ and that is both necessary and beneficial to musical performance. However, to have the opportunity to create something of your own allows the notion that ‘there is no right or wrong’ – it’s yours, so how can it be wrong? That simple (yet very alien!) concept can impact hugely on confidence, aspiration and empathy (other people’s creative ideas can’t be ‘wrong’ either, we just have to collaborate). This, along with an increased awareness of the basic compositional building blocks, can enable musicians and non-musicians alike to increase their understanding of musical language allowing for a broader listening and participation experience.

Sarah Freestone on enabling creativity in orchestral programs

Animate Artists Online, led by Sarah, offers a group of 20-25 more advanced young musicians the chance to collaboratively create a new piece of music. The first work that they composed in 2020, For All The Neighsayers, weaves together inspirations drawn from the composer Joseph de Bologne, the nine sabre parry positions of fencing, the American instrumental ensemble Snarky Puppy, and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet. The video these young musicians created showcases progressive, exciting, high quality, creative music making by young people of all ages.

Working together online has been a steep learning curve and the challenges have been many and massive! How can we create a collaborative composition when we cannot play together? When we can’t even speak together at the same time? What we found, however, was that the creative process remained the same as a physical workshop – listening, analysing, discussing, setting tasks, making musical choices – but with the advantages of screen sharing, using the chat, and breakout rooms that didn’t take ten minutes to carry a harp and a bass amp up two flights of stairs!

The chat enabled a continuous democratic flow of ideas in an added dimension that bounced in all directions; the screen sharing enabled me to share Sibelius and Pro Tools sessions so that the participants could make musical choices and physically see the processes of harmonic voicings and audio editing, as well as being able to spontaneously share YouTube videos or documents depending on where the conversation took us… As ever, the fantastic results that can be seen in the videos were entirely down to the creativity and ability of the young people to adapt and innovate.

Sarah Freestone on the challenges and benefits of adapting an ensemble program to the online space

Finally, Animate Orchestra Online adapts the Animate Orchestra program. Over three days in October 2020, the program gathered together online a group of young musicians and Trinity Laban tutors and students to create and record a new piece of music inspired by Mason Bates’ A Bao A Qu and creatures in the style of Jorge Luis Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings, using instruments inspired by Heinrich Biber’s Battalia. The end result is Taco-Cat – A Story.

Animate Orchestra Online, Taco-Cat – A Story

I’m sure that the benefits we’ve unearthed of working online will inform future work in collaborative creative projects. Geographical, financial, and logistical barriers were not an issue and that the creative ‘groundwork’ could happen in this way really opens up opportunities for participation in the future. We don’t have to travel to a special venue to be able to create, we can all create from home…

Sarah Freestone on the online space as a way to overcome barriers to participation

Here we can see a Young Person’s Orchestra not just for the 21st Century but more particularly for the 2020s, responding to new challenges and exploring new opportunities. Animate Orchestra is an example of a flexible, hybrid, high-quality, creative, socially informed, and youth-led approach to re-imagining the orchestra as a vibrant collective.

Of course, nothing replaces the shared experience of playing together and – currently – that is not possible online. But the need for creativity that has been brought to the fore during the pandemic, not only for personal wellbeing and fulfilment but also for adapting and re-shaping our futures, will benefit from the lessons we’ve learned online.

Sarah Freestone on bringing creativity to the fore through online ensemble collaborative projects

In future blogs, we will profile more examples of youth orchestras and large ensembles that are seeking to rewrite the script. We hope that each one will help to expand our appreciation of the ways in which such ensembles can be constructed both for and with young musicians, and in which they can enable young people to develop their skills in music, creativity, and collaboration.

A disclaimer and call to the reader: We have no doubt there are many other examples of large ensemble music programs evolving over the past year. Please send us an email ( and tell us about them!


Shieh, E., & Allsup, R. E. (2016). Fostering musical independence. Music Educators Journal, 102(4), 30-35.

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