Music Students in Cardiff join forces with WNO

27 June 2013


MUSIC students in Cardiff will this summer have the chance to take to the stage alongside professional musicians from the orchestra of Welsh National Opera.

The young people are taking part in special workshops based on the current programme of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin and Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream.

They will also perform with orchestra members in a series of concerts next month and in WNO production of Benjamin Britten’s Paul Bunyan in August.

The events are part of an ongoing collaboration between WNO Orchestra and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama which first started nearly 20 years ago.

It was WNO bassoonist Chris Vale with the help of Phil Boughton Orchestra Manager at WNO who first launched the scheme, known as side-by-side, after he took a year’s sabbatical from the orchestra to develop outreach work at the college.

“The year after that the college wanted to keep on this outreach idea so I spoke to the head of brass at the college about how we could help the students get the idea of a real job – the actual experience of coming in and playing with an orchestra,” he says.
Initially the project was quite modest but has since grown in size.

“We would have no more than ten to audition and they were chosen on the merit of how they were doing in their exams at college which gives them an incentive to work harder at the college. Then I organised the panel of section principals who gave a morning of their time and we did the auditions exactly how a proper professional audition would be for an orchestra.

“At the end of that process, in most cases, we take no more than one of each type of instrument. So, if we talk about brass, in the first year we had a trumpet, a trombone and a horn player.

“What we found was that the students were amazed at how much they had learned. So the next year we brought it out for wind, so we had wind and brass and then we brought percussion in as well. Two years after that we brought the strings in. And this year we have brought in a harp player and we are looking at how we can help the pianist and repetiteurs.

“We deliberately started the placements slowly over a few years because you can’t know straight away how it is going to work because this all has to fit around WNO’s schedule – our productions and rehearsals.”

The students gain a good understanding of how the orchestra works as they are given the opportunity to play alongside the professional musicians.

They come in and listen to an orchestral rehearsal, then they play for half an orchestral rehearsal with our player sitting by them in case there is a problem and then they come in for the sitzprobe, where the orchestra and the singers rehearse together, and do half a sitzprobe and then they play for half a stage rehearsal in the pit. Then they get tickets for the dress rehearsals.”
And the response from the students has been very positive.

“When I was working at the college I was dealing with a lot of the same students for outreach work at the college and the thing that they all said was that they had not realised how precise the orchestra performance had to be,” says Chris. “We might play a whole section as a professional orchestra and then the conductor will say ‘quieter’, ‘louder’, ‘do this’, ‘play it this way’ or ‘play it again’. And although the students do that of course with the college orchestras I think they suddenly realised the dynamic range of a professional orchestra and also the things that are unique to opera orchestras. That is things like not being too loud for the singers, trying to keep the pitch incredibly steady so that the singers know where they can pitch it and also just the complication of all those different keys and the length of time that you have to play. I think those were some of the big things that they learnt.

“The success story is that some of the students who have been on placements and have now left the college are coming in as extras for us now. And that is a real reward. If they come in and give a really good account of themselves then the next stage is that they may play in the stage band or something like that and get paid professionally for it.”

This year side-by-side has expanded to take in students at Birmingham’s Conservatoire although the new project is currently on a much smaller scale.

“We haven’t launched the full placement there because there would be a lot of logistical problems but it is something we are working on,” says Chris. “It would be a nice thing to achieve to maintain a side-by-side in Cardiff and a side-by-side in Birmingham. And it is always a case of looking at new ideas.“

In Cardiff the students will be performing three Chamber music concerts alongside musicians from the WNO Orchestra. One for strings, one with brass and percussion and one for wind.

Many of those young musicians will also be playing at Wales Millennium Centre for the WNO Youth Opera production of Paul Bunyan in August, which features a voiceover by comedian and television presenter Stephen Fry.

“The band for WNO Youth Opera this time will be students from RWCMD, Birmingham Conservatoire and Cardiff University” says Chris. “This year we put in place an agreement that we would ask the placement students that we would like them to play in WNO Youth Opera. Playing Paul Bunyan at Wales Millennium Centre is a worthy experience for a young person who wants to make a career in music.”

And Chris knows how valuable these projects are for the musicians of the future.

“These kind of programmes were not made available to me when I was training and they would have helped me immensely,” he says. “I was in Midland Youth Orchestra, as it used to be called, with James Langley and for me it was an amazing time. But when I went to the Royal College I don’t think I ever played opera. At that time in your career you would not have thought of opera as another type of playing or another job.

“It’s a very genuine scheme in terms of what the students get out of it. Often the students come along and play in our orchestra and sometimes they come along and say ‘this is what I want to do’ and sometimes they say ‘actually it’s not for me, I can’t cope with that’ and they go for other pathways. But I think it does show the students the reality of playing in the profession.

“The WNO musicians who are involved in these schemes are working hard doing this. They are performing in the evenings but spending the day with the students. But they do it because they believe in it – they believe it is what we should be doing. It is a big time commitment and it is not every orchestra who would want to do it.”

And the college sees the benefits for its students.

“Our partnership with the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera has enhanced our orchestral and ensemble programme in many ways,” says RWCMD head of ensemble performance Zoe Smith.

“Not only do those students who successfully audition for the placement scheme gain from experiencing first-hand the way an opera orchestra works but larger groups of the college community are able to participate in vibrant performance projects, sitting next to professional opera musicians whom they previously may only have seen from a distance in the pit.

“The joint outcomes of up to 50 students at a time in large-scale repertoire (string ensemble and wind orchestra) allow both students and professionals to combine their significant talents to create something wholly different from WNO’s normal musical diet, providing inspiration for our instrumentalists and giving them extended, informal contact with people who already do what they hope to do.

“In addition, the placement scheme has been established so successfully, with the full support of WNO management and players, that our students are able to grow as orchestral players to such an extent that they are regularly called upon to work professionally with WNO, either as extra players or stage band musicians as the need arises. We are proud both of the partnership and what our students have achieved through it.”

WNO’s Residency at Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama will be on 28 & 29 June. 
28 June – WNO String Orchestra – 1.15pm
28 June – WNO Wind and Brass Ensembles – 7.30pm
29 June – WNO Orchestra – 7.30pm
Box Office: 029 2039 139

WNO Youth Opera’s production of Paul Bunyan will be performed on 23 August 7.30pm and 24 August at 2.30pm and 7.30pm at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff.  Box Office: 02920 636464

Diane Parkes