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Working Towards Long-Term Musical Growth Through Strategic Planning & Institutional Organization: The Case of The National Youth Orchestra of Belize
Belize
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Working Towards Long-Term Musical Growth Through Strategic Planning & Institutional Organization: The Case of The National Youth Orchestra of Belize

Authors: Bridget Kinneary (USA), Julia Monaco (Canada)

ABSTRACT

The National Youth Orchestra of Belize (NYOB) serves approximately sixty woodwind, brass, and string players between the ages of 15 and 30. This case study makes recommendations for long-term growth, including offering more long-term contracts for teaching staff, putting organizational techniques into practice for rehearsals, and focusing strategic planning by administrators and teachers on the recruitment and musical development of youth from a larger geographic area. The orchestra would also benefit significantly from the presence of younger students and youth from more diverse populations.

FIELDWORK CONTEXT
30 January-7 February 2017 | BELIZE CITY

This case study seeks to reflect upon the current state of the NYOB and analyze the orchestra’s growth potential. It is based on interviews with teaching staff and orchestra members, surveys conducted with the young musicians, and our observations over this ten-day period.

SUBJECT BACKGROUND
NYOB

The National Youth Orchestra of Belize/Rainforest Symphony was founded, under the direction of Colville Young, approximately thirty years ago by the government of Belize. In 2013, The Orchestra of the Americas teamed up with Belize’s National Institute of Culture and History (NICH) to expand this program, creating the National Youth Orchestra and Choir of Belize. (The choir component is currently on hold.) As of 2017, the orchestra had approximately sixty members and had split for the first time into junior and senior orchestras. Both are full orchestras and include woodwind, brass, and string players between the ages of 15 and 30. The National Youth Orchestra (NYOB) serves all of Belize, a small Central American country with a population of 350,000 and an area of only 8,867 square miles.

Roughly 90% of the students in the orchestra are enrolled in either Pallotti High School, Wesley College, or the Pallotti School of Music, all located in Belize City. Pallotti High School and Wesley College are secondary schools co-sponsored (50/50) by the government and the church, as is typical for the Belizean school system. Both offer music classes as part of their academic curriculum. The program at Wesley College includes marching band and concert band, and students may choose to play any wind instrument they desire (including oboe and bassoon). The Pallotti High School program is much smaller, consisting of just one music class that focuses on teaching students to play recorder. Advanced students have the opportunity to play other wind instruments within the same music class. The Pallotti School of Music, though located on the Pallotti High School campus, is a private music school that operates independently from the high school. One building on campus is for music classes and rehearsals, and the NYOB currently rehearses in this space. Note that students that receive instruction at the Pallotti School of Music generally come from wealthier backgrounds, own their own instrument, and have access to more educational opportunities (weekly classes, travel opportunities for masterclasses, etc.).

NYOB students usually begin violin at age 12, though a handful of children start earlier with private lessons at the Pallotti School of Music. This school is the only option in Belize City for private music instruction and offers individual lessons on string instruments, flute, guitar, voice, piano, and theory/aural skills.

The orchestra’s wind program is just beginning to bloom. Flute students have access to a private teacher at the Pallotti School of Music but no private lessons are available for other wind instruments. With the exception of two flautists currently playing in the senior orchestra, the orchestra wind players all began playing in their high school marching band programs.

The youth orchestra depends greatly on the collaboration of international musicians, with many coming to Belize from The Global Leaders Program, MusAid, and the Honduras Philharmonic Orchestra to work for weeks or months at a time. During these visits, students receive group and individual lessons as well as coaching on orchestra repertoire.

According to orchestra members, music is not recognized by most Belizeans as a viable career option, although the field is quickly developing. Many members of the orchestra who are now adults earn their living by teaching music and playing occasional gigs. Some have formed quartets and are called to play gigs throughout the country. It seems that appreciation for classical music, and instrumental music in general, is spreading through the passion and enthusiasm of the orchestra members. NYOB members have gone on to study music at universities across the Americas and perform with notable ensembles such as The Orchestra of the Americas.

CASE ISSUE
WORKING TOWARDS LONG-TERM MUSICAL GROWTH THROUGH STRATEGIC PLANNING & INSTITUTIONAL ORGANIZATION

The following three issues must be addressed to ensure the long-term musical growth of NYOB:

1. Unequal Learning Opportunities For Orchestra Members

The violin section of the orchestra is strong but the lower strings and wind sections are less advanced and have received less instrument-specific training. Whereas guest string players are frequently hired to work with the orchestra for long periods of time (6 months to 1 year), the wind students have not had the same opportunities. In addition, although Pallotti Music School offers classes in flute, the flute students from Wesley College and Pallotti High School have no access to a private teacher. Students at these schools who began playing two to three years ago are still working on beginner concepts and demonstrate considerable difficulty reading music. Said Dex Leslie Jr., a Wesley College student, “After learning some useful practices, it has made me realize that I have much more to learn. [The Global Leaders workshop] was fun but there was little time. I would like to learn more for I wish to be the best in doing what I plan to do.”

Similarly, the lower string sections have received less instrument-specific attention. The orchestra is comprised primarily of violins because the teaching staff includes three violin teachers. There are no cello, bass, or viola teachers in Belize with formal pedagogical training.

When students meet weekly for orchestra rehearsals, the differences in their abilities is evident: students with the privilege of private instruction play a much more active role in rehearsals and respond much better to the challenges of preparing orchestral repertoire.”

2. Organizational Weaknesses During Orchestra Rehearsals

Rehearsals consistently begin about 15 minutes late, no attendance is taken, and there are no repercussions for not attending rehearsal. Due to complications with transportation, rehearsals must end on time and may not be extended based on the delayed start time. The first rehearsal of the season was spent ensuring that students had their sheet music and setting up chairs. The orchestra rehearses once per week, for two hours per rehearsal.

3. Multiple Music Programs But Little Effort To Unify The Musicians

The orchestra (both junior and senior levels) is made up primarily of students from the Pallotti Music School, Wesley College, and Pallotti High School. Students at Pallotti Music School receive private lessons, whereas Wesley College provides students with a typical high school band program, offering group classes and wind band experience. Pallotti High School has a small music program independent from the Music School which teaches students introductory concepts on the recorder and basic skills (major scales and initial concepts of sound production) on some wind instruments. When the orchestra members meet weekly for rehearsals, the differences in their abilities is evident: students with the privilege of private instruction play a much more active role in rehearsals and respond much better to the challenges of preparing orchestral repertoire.

These stronger players are frequently not challenged by the level of the orchestra. Though NYOB is the only program of its type in the country, it must acknowledge that, without motivation to keep growing musically, the more advanced players risk feeling stuck and deciding to leave the program.

ANALYSIS

The following SWOT analysis considers the strengths and weaknesses of the NYOB, opportunities for development, and threats to the program. The analysis is organized into three tables: elements common to both strings and winds, elements unique to strings, and those unique to winds. 

The reality of the wind players in the National Youth Orchestra is distinct from that of the string players. Many string players in the NYOB attend private school, have their own instruments, and have a means of transportation to rehearsals. They have access to stable local teachers and long-term international teachers. By contrast, many wind players borrow instruments from the high school, cannot afford private lessons, and do not have a means of transportation to rehearsals (the directors organize carpools). The Pallotti Music School currently offers private lessons on flute but not on any other wind instruments and, as noted above, the orchestra’s wind section—with the exception of two flautists—comes from local high school marching bands. While the wind students are passionate and dedicated to their art, they would advance more rapidly given one-on-one, instrument-specific attention.

SWOT Analysis: General Considerations

Strengths

  • Numerous partnerships with strong international organizations: MusAid, YOA, Honduras Philharmonic Orchestra, University of North Florida.

Weaknesses

  • Imbalance in instrument sections (see below).
  • Lack of attendance policy: rehearsals consistently begin about 15 minutes late, no attendance taken. No repercussions for not attending rehearsal.
  • Musical level of the orchestra significantly lower than that of the strongest players.
  • Various groups work under the umbrella organization of the National Youth Orchestra but little effort made to unify the musicians.

Opportunities

  • Recent establishment of Junior Orchestra allows the organization to serve a wider range of abilities.
  • Existing partnerships with outside organizations could result in efficient, long-term help.
  • Search for paid gigs and learning opportunities (international scholarships) is constant in order to keep the musicians interested in music as not only a hobby, but a career option.
  • Program is supported by the government and has received instrument donations in the past.
  • Potential for growth across the country. Since the country is small, bringing in students from other regions for weekly rehearsals is manageable.

Threats

  • Low public opinion of classical music: many consider it only a hobby; few professional opportunities available at this time; no university music degree program in the country.
  • Financial barriers: underserved populations cannot afford instruments or transportation to orchestra rehearsals.
  • Lack of family support to pursue music seriously.
  • Excessive numbers of guest artists: too many people coming to the program for short periods of time; too much input from too many sources with limited knowledge of the culture.
  • Inadequate facilities: rehearsal space was not created with the orchestra in mind. The space is small and not acoustically appropriate for classical music. Constant interruptions during rehearsals (opening and closing of doors) inhibit students’ focus.
  • Strong division between the Pallotti Music School, Wesley College, and Pallotti High School.

SWOT Analysis: Strings

Strengths

  • Older orchestra members and alumni serving as teachers.
  • Team of three invested violin teachers at the Pallotti School of Music who also play in the orchestra.
  • Semi-regular workshops with outside organizations (MUSAID, YOA, Honduras Philharmonic Orchestra)

Weaknesses

  • Imbalance in instrument sections: majority of orchestra is violins, low strings sections are smaller and less advanced.
  • Auditions promised, but not held.

Opportunities

  • Additional violin instruction in Mennonite community about 2 hours from Belize City. Supportive parents; none of the students are in the orchestra yet.

Threats

SWOT Analysis: Winds

Strengths

  • High quality instruments available to the students from the beginning of their learning process.
  • A variety of ensembles and playing opportunities, including marching band, wind band, orchestra, and chamber music.

Weaknesses

  • Imbalance in instrument sections: 
    only one strong flute player in the wind section; clarinet players and entire brass section had difficulty reading, tuning, and recognizing the notes they were playing.
  • Wind players double in Junior and Senior Orchestras though there are sufficient musicians available to avoid doing so. Newer musicians not given the opportunity to participate in these ensembles.
  • No wind teachers available other than flute and occasionally trumpet.
  • Students from Wesley College cannot take instruments home in order to practice, and do not have their own instruments. The instruments are taken directly to orchestra rehearsals and concerts.

Opportunities

  • Band and music classes in Wesley College allow students to play on a daily basis.

Threats

  • Unwillingness to work on an individual basis with students outside of Palloti Music School.

RECOMMENDATIONS

This case study suggests the implementation of the following recommendations to ensure that the orchestra continues to grow, that its members attain a higher standard of professionalism, and that playing level increases:

1. Long-Term Teaching Commitment

Hiring an experienced teacher for the lower strings or the wind sections for 6 months to a year would greatly improve the playing level, reading abilities, and general musicianship of those sections. NYOB might encourage teachers to commit to longer periods of time with the orchestra by offering grants that would allow them to attend conferences and workshops during their term of employment.

If it is impossible to contract someone for an extended period of time, the orchestra should schedule guest artist visits more strategically, i.e., one visitor every two months rather than four at the same time (as was the case during our field assignment). Visitors must be flexible to the orchestra’s needs, and not vice versa.

The violin teachers at Pallotti Music School are extremely dedicated to the orchestra and present at all rehearsals, playing side-by-side with the students. In order for students in the other sections to feel truly supported, they should have equal access to teachers and receive equal attention from them. The lower strings, for instance, could hire a regular teacher who is a cellist but has familiarity with the stringed bass. It is also recommended that teachers focus on new members, as this will contribute to the creation of a welcoming and safe space and will encourage all members to participate.

The orchestra should offer more instruction in small group settings (sectionals, group lessons) in order to even the playing field for those who do not have access to private instruction.

2. Putting Organizational Techniques Into Practice

The orchestra should institute a “Musician’s Code of Conduct,” which would outline basic rehearsal etiquette such as arriving 15–30 minutes before the scheduled rehearsal time, bringing sheet music to rehearsal, and assisting with set-up of the rehearsal space. The orchestra could assign different members to set up the chairs and stands for their section each week and create an administrative team of students to lessen the workload of the director. This would also increase the commitment of the musicians. By allowing a half hour for set-up, the short period of time available for rehearsal can be used more efficiently. If possible, members should also meet for sectionals once per week before group rehearsal. Finally, a secretary could be assigned to take attendance and call attention to those who are not attending or arriving late.   


3. Unifying Musicians from Multiple Music Programs

The National Youth Orchestra of Belize, as suggested by its name, should be an opportunity for all youth in Belize, and all members should receive similar learning tools. The orchestra should offer more instruction in small group settings (sectionals, group lessons) in order to even the playing field for those who do not have access to private instruction. Sectionals could be used to work on tuning, balance, and control, but would also serve to increase the sense of community among the musicians. Giving each student the chance to work with professionals, for instance via long-term teaching appointments or strategically scheduled visits by guest artists, would ensure that the whole orchestra continues to grow together and would decrease tension between the less privileged members and those who have access to private instruction. Additional chamber music opportunities could encourage further growth in the advanced players and provide an example for beginners to strive for.

It is also recommended that the NYOB seek to reach students in other parts of the country. The orchestra should investigate partnerships with local transportation companies that might offer free transportation to students from outside of Belize City, advertise learning opportunities in concert programs, and hold open events in other communities.

CONCLUSION

The National Youth Orchestra has had a strong impact on Belizean youth, and on Belizean society in general, by offering national and international playing opportunities, scholarships, and, most importantly, a space for youth with limited extra-curricular options to invest their free time.

As noted above, the wind and string sections of the NYOB present different challenges. Neither the wind players nor the lower strings have received the same level of access to, or support from, teachers as have the violin players. In addition, wind players have not had as many opportunities to study with long-term international teachers. The NYOB must dedicate both time and personnel to the individual growth of each student in order for the orchestra to achieve balanced musical growth as a whole.

By establishing clear organizational practices and applying strategic planning at an administrative level, the orchestra will be able to reach more students and make better use of the ability, passion, and enthusiasm of existing students, yielding to long-term musical growth and a larger presence of the National Youth Orchestra on a national level.


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