LSO East London Academy

'Huge hope for 2021': New music influenced and performed by young musicians

Artwork from the DreamCity music video: neon-hued ballet dancers surrounded by swirling pink

Throughout the pandemic, young musicians have seen so many of their out-of-school musical opportunities – which are vital to support their social contact, mental health and musical progression – disrupted or cancelled.

LSO Discovery knew it was important to find new ways of working with their LSO East London Academy young musicians, and to provide an exciting, rewarding and fun project for these young people against the backdrop of 2020 and its challenges …

Artwork from the DreamCity music video: neon-hued ballet dancers surrounded by swirling pink

What is the LSO East London Academy?

The LSO East London Academy, launched in 2019, aims to identify and develop the potential of East Londoners aged 11–18, particularly encouraging those from backgrounds under-represented in the professional classical music sector. The two-year programme, delivered by musicians from the LSO, provides free, high-level training and mentoring for young musicians, stretching their musical skills and instrumental learning, whilst accelerating confidence and aspirations.

In normal times, our young string players would have been preparing for an Autumn of weekend coaching sessions and masterclasses, plus opportunities to meet more conductors, composers and musicians, and to attend LSO rehearsals and concerts.

Belinda McFarlane coaches a young musician as part of the LSO East London Academy 2019 workshops

But 2020 has been far from normal. During the first lockdown, LSO Discovery put together a series online masterclasses and new digital resources for the young musicians. And with playing together in person still not an option for the Academy come Autumn, it was time to devise something new!

Belinda McFarlane coaches a young musician as part of the LSO East London Academy 2019 workshops

Belinda McFarlane coaches a young musician as part of the LSO East London Academy 2019 workshops

Creating a New Project

LSO On Track Projects Manager Beth Kershaw and LSO Violin Belinda McFarlane explain how the project came into being:

'It is so important to support not only the continuation of our young musicians' instrumental learning and progression through this period, but also to find creative ways to replicate the social connections and mental health and wellbeing benefits that participating in creative activity brings. We were also keen that our young musicians should be able to work together on a project, something that would recreate the sense of working as an ensemble towards a collective outcome.

It was obvious the end result should be a recording of some nature.  To best combat the challenges this presented, we imagined something that could be recorded in segments, as solos, that were then able to be woven together to make an ensemble piece.

With nothing in existing repertoire of this nature, we approached composer, cellist and previous LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme participant Ayanna Witter-Johnson to create the work. 

Ayanna Witter-Johnson

Composer Ayanna Witter-Johnson © Nick Howe

Composer Ayanna Witter-Johnson © Nick Howe

Ayanna embodied the imagination, ambitious creativity and determination to create a unique process and foundation for the project this term. She conceived the piece as mix and match fragments, that would be knitted together to make a piece AFTER they had been recorded.'

Plans for a new Autumn project were born: an innovative composition, coaching and recording project, where a new commission for string orchestra provided the basis for a collaborative process between Ayanna, the young musicians and LSO Members. Young musicians would input their creative voices in the development of the music, work with a high-profile and exciting composer, and be coached by LSO musicians to learn new music material. The result would be a new piece with the 2020 LSO East London Academy at its heart.

'This project was everything and more we could have hoped for in lockdown.  Different, creative, challenging.'
Belinda McFarlane, LSO Violin

Artwork from the DreamCity music video: abstract towers of pink and blue lights

Getting Started

In early-October, the project kicked off with a creative discussion session between Ayanna, the 20 East London Academy young string musicians, LSO Violin Belinda McFarlane and LSO Discovery staff.

'I loved being able to talk to like-minded people that share my passion, and meeting a real composer too!'

Ayanna asked the young people to share their personal experiences of lockdown in 2020 and their thematic and musical ideas for the new piece. Ideas like …

uncertain, longing, versatile, interesting, melancholic
mystery, optimistic, hopeful, collective, lively
adventure, creative, dreams, clash
collective, clash, dreams, lively
versatile, longing, uncertain, melancholic, interesting
hopeful, optimistic, mystery, adventure, creative

Those ideas inspired the first stage of the writing process.

'The process of creating the piece was unique to us all. I first created a series of 34 individual short musical fragments that reflected the themes of personal creativity, perseverance, uncertainty, dreams, dance and playing games.'
Ayanna Witter-Johnson, composer

'I was really glad to meet new artists and cooperate with them, especially in such times where meeting new people is a bit scarce as a result of the pandemic.'
LSO ELA Violin

'I like the idea that our experience in quarantine influenced some of the music.'
LSO ELA Violin

Artwork from the DreamCity music video: vertical bars of neon green

Online Coaching

Young musicians were split into five groups to take part in online coaching sessions via Zoom, each with an LSO mentor: Violin I with Belinda McFarlane, Violin II with Matthew Gardner, Viola with Steve Doman, Cello with Amanda Truelove and Double Bass with Tom Goodman.

'I really enjoyed how even though it was online, I still felt really connected with all the musicians and it still felt as if we were all in the same room!'
LSO ELA Violin

Equipped with music and 34 individual backing tracks with click (recorded by LSO Members earlier in the Autumn), our mentors and young musicians alike both rose to the challenge of taking coaching online, navigating the limitations of a format where playing together is not possible. LSO mentors made the time and space within the sessions to listen to each young person one at a time, utilised our newly created backing tracks to support playing and demonstrated difficult passages on their own instruments. Our young musicians kept their focus so well throughout, paying careful attention to all the advice that was given to the group, listening to their peers play and often practising along on mute.

Huge ground was covered during the online sessions: as well as help learning the new music and guidance on some advanced techniques on their instrument, participants also received support on their musical skills, sound and posture. Unique to 2020, they also gained experience and insight into recording work, learning how to record new material themselves using invaluable click or backing tracks.

'I enjoyed the Zoom calls as they were a great way of coming together as it had been so long since we have been with each other.'
LSO ELA Violin

LSO musician coaches young violin players via Zoom call
LSO musicians coach young violin players via Zoom call

'For many of the young musicians this project unleashed a new found self-confidence, as they set and rose to their own challenges, recording in their homes.  Many of them said that although they often doubted themselves in the past in group rehearsals, by having to achieve on their own, and judge themselves, they felt they had actually proved to themselves that they could achieve on their own.'
Belinda McFarlane, LSO Violin

 'I enjoyed the Zoom calls as they were a great way of coming together as it had been so long since we have been with each other.'  LSO ELA Violin

Recording the Fragments

Between each session, the young musicians were encouraged to go away and work on what they had learnt, by rehearsing the fragments individually and sending practice recordings to their mentors for feedback.

And the young musicians weren't just trying to perfect the music. There was also the challenge of making a clear recording free from all the noises of homes full of relatives, pets and ticking clocks!

With backing tracks in hand (figuratively) and all three mentoring sessions under their belts, the Academy participants had all they needed to record their own final versions of the fragments – as many of the 34 as they possibly could by the end of November.

Building DreamCity

In total over 480 separate recordings were handed over to Ayanna. From all these recordings, she then had the huge task of inputting, editing and layering, interweaving hundreds of bits of raw material and tens of instrumental lines (pictured below) to create one complete piece: DreamCity.

'Working with the LSO East London Academy and LSO musicians was an incredibly inspiring process for me. Translating their stories into audio clips and then creating a final piece out of that was a new way of working that stretched my imagination in exciting ways. Everyone’s dedication and enthusiasm throughout the process was uplifting and made the whole project a joy to be a part of.'

Composer Ayanna Witter-Johnson © Nick Howe

And the final step? Bringing visual artist Deon Elsworth on board to create a visual feast to accompany the music.

'The video added an important dimension to the music in that it enhanced and expanded the themes, really bringing to life the energy of the cultural city backdrop of the piece and balancing it with dreamy underwater scenes in a melting pot of colours and movement.'
Ayanna Witter-Johnson, composer

Composer Ayanna Witter-Johnson © Nick Howe

Composer Ayanna Witter-Johnson © Nick Howe

Ayanna used the audio software Logic to input, edit and layer the recordings, creating DreamCity: a complex process, as this screenshot of the final file makes clear!

Voilà! DreamCity, was complete!

On 22 December, just two and a half months after that first creative session, LSO East London Academy young musicians, parents/guardians, LSO mentors and staff, and Ayanna came together online to see and hear the premiere of DreamCity.

 'Absolutely incredible!' … 'Just beautiful!' … 'Amazing piece of creativity.'
LSO ELA participants and parents on hearing the final piece

And of course LSO Chair David Alberman and Music Director Sir Simon Rattle were excited to listen to the premiere too:

'What a fantastic thing! I can really hear everyone's energy, there's a very particular and intense sound […] and I can feel and understand what that energy and that creativity means. The fact that you've worked so hard and made such a beautiful outcome in this particular situation just shows that this is not stoppable. I am thrilled and moved – it makes me look forward to seeing what you're all going to produce next and to the future so much. The LSO is really lucky to have such a new team of people around.'
Sir Simon Rattle, LSO Music Director

'What arrived on my iPad just sounds fantastic. I can just imagine the fun you had putting it together. It's absolutely brilliant and it gives me huge hope for 2021.'
David Alberman, LSO Chair

What's Next for the LSO East London Academy?

In addition to the DreamCity project for young string musicians, LSO Discovery were busy recruiting another 20 musicians to the LSO East London Academy. All young wind, brass and percussion players, these participants join the string players already on the Academy. Through 2021, they will all work with LSO Members on a new programme of online activity, including repertoire coaching, masterclasses and instrumental techniques sessions.

And once it is safe to do so, we can't wait to return to in-person activity with all 40 young musicians on the Academy!

The LSO East London Academy is developed by the London Symphony Orchestra in partnership with the local Music Services in ten East London boroughs: Bexley, Barking & Dagenham, Greenwich, Hackney, Havering, Lewisham, Newham, Redbridge, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest.

The LSO East London Academy is made possible through the generous support of the Henocq Law Trust, The Steel Charitable Trust, The Irving Memorial Trust, the Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation, The Radcliffe Trust and Linklaters LLP.