Redefining the Idea of the Orchestra

This post is written by network participant Doug Bott.

The National Open Youth Orchestra (NOYO) is a world first, an ambitious ensemble launched in September 2018 to give some of the UK’s most talented young disabled musicians a progression route. NOYO promotes musical excellence, empowering disabled and non-disabled musicians aged 11-25 to train and perform together as members of a pioneering orchestra.

NOYO is co-delivered by Barbican / Guildhall School of Music & Drama, Bristol Music Trust, the National Centre for Inclusive Excellence and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Young disabled musicians have come to NOYO through a range of other accessible programmes including Orchestras for All, Drake Music and Open Orchestras. For NOYO to succeed we need to continue building a national ecology of accessible opportunities in music, together with an expanding number of partners, to ensure that young disabled people nationwide:

  1. Have equal opportunities to learn a musical instrument, acoustic or electronic
  2. Can develop their musicianship through a range of programmes at different levels
  3. Have the option to pursue a career in music

NOYO aims to create the conditions for young disabled musicians to shape not only their own future, but also the future of orchestras. Here’s Jamie, NOYO saxophonist, on their first six months with NOYO:

I feel powerful. Like, the preconceptions that other people have had, and that I have had about myself, I’ve beaten those. Because I’m now part of this group, I can beat those ideas.

At NOYO, we believe that young disabled musicians can redefine the very idea of ‘the Orchestra’, tackling inequality, inspiring new musical instruments and creating new musical forms for the 21st century. NOYO can be a catalyst for the evolution of the orchestra as a vital artistic force in contemporary culture.

NOYO is informed by a Sound Connections Feasibility Study and rooted in the Social Model of Disability, aiming to remove barriers that might otherwise prevent talented young disabled musicians from fulfilling their potential. Such barriers can include:

Instruments: musicians who may not be in a position to play traditional orchestral instruments are excluded by the four conventional sections of an orchestra (strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion). NOYO accommodates a wide range of both acoustic and electronic instruments including the Clarion, which can be played with any part of the body, including the eyes.

Music: the inviolable nature of much orchestral repertoire presents barriers to disabled musicians who may require more flexibility (reasonable adjustments) in certain aspects of their music-making. It also limits the potential diversity of instruments that orchestras might otherwise include. NOYO commissions ‘modular’ [1] repertoire to enable a greater diversity of both players and instrumentation.

Entry requirements: many young disabled musicians haven’t benefitted from a music education that can equip them with musical qualifications. NOYO is developing a more equitable but still rigorous set of entry requirements to recruit young musicians who can demonstrate musical ‘passion, potential and perseverance’, without the need for ‘grades’.

Low expectations: a lack of disabled musical role models hampers the expectations of young disabled people, their families and teachers. NOYO aims to create new role models by publicly showcasing the excellence that young disabled musicians can achieve, through a progression route that develops the professional disabled musicians of the future.

Overcoming these barriers presents significant challenges not only for the National Open Youth Orchestra, but also for the ‘orchestral sector’ as a whole. I look forward to discussing these challenges with other network members.


[1] Please note, our use of the word ‘modular’ in this context doesn’t follow the definition coined by Stefano Vagnini. It’s possible that we need a new name for our approach.

Doug Bott is the Musical Director of Open Up Music, which he co-founded in 2014 to make orchestras accessible to young disabled musicians. Starting out as a Salisbury Cathedral chorister, Doug spent his early music career playing with the experimental rock band, Angel Tech. From 2000 he increasingly focussed on breaking down disabling barriers to music, with extensive experience as a music leader, arts manager, consultant, trainer and facilitator for organisations such as Drake Music, The British Paraorchestra, the OHMI Trust, Youth Music and Sing Up. Since 2014, Open Up Music’s programmes have had a huge impact for young disabled people. Open Orchestras won the Music Teacher ‘outstanding SEND resource’ award in 2019 and is now the biggest community of practice for accessible youth orchestras in the UK. The National Open Youth Orchestra is the first disabled-led ensemble of its kind anywhere in the world and its predecessor, the South-West Open Youth Orchestra, won the Royal Philharmonic Society ‘Learning and Participation’ award in 2017.