More often than is probably healthy, I find myself asking the age-old question – ‘Does what I do matter?’ It’s easy for me to come to the conclusion that the answer is no – at least at first.
Over the past four years and a bit, I have been lucky enough to study music at institutions and with friends that have reinforced the idea that yes, music and the arts are valuable. However, I’ve always had at least some small feelings of doubt, worrying that I and the people around me are stuck in an ivory tower of our own construction. We are constantly told that classical music is ‘dying’ and that it serves only as the pursuit and pleasure of the elite. There are countless albums and compilations of classical music (or music in a similar idiom) ‘for study’ or ‘for sleep’ – in other words, for distraction, for the background. And I think this is where Nevis breaks the mould – one performance at a time, this incredible ensemble is confronting stereotypes and tearing them down, reclaiming what music means to us all.
My first performance with Nevis was just two weeks ago, at the Beattie Library in Stevenston. For me, what really drove home the message of how flexible Nevis is was the fact that up until that morning, I thought I was meant to be meeting everybody at a primary school in Saltcoats instead! Luckily, I found out about the change in time, and after that, I was able to just sit back and go with the flow while other people figured out where and what we were playing next.
Our soloist, Andrea Baker, was a magnetic powerhouse; whether she was singing gospel or opera, she got involved with and communicated with our audiences in ways that we sometimes just can’t as orchestral musicians, and you would never have imagined that like me, it was her first time doing anything like this – but all of us newcomers were fully welcomed by the Nevis family. One of the things I enjoyed most was that sense of community, looking after each other especially as the days went on and fatigue inevitably caught up – every audience that we had deserved and got the same level of commitment and energy, no matter whether we were performing for 5 people or 50.
In hindsight, it’s difficult to remember every single performance that we did over those three days, but a couple of them stood out to me. The first was at a school for children with additional support needs, where no matter what we played, the look of sheer joy and wonder on the kids’ faces, and their unfiltered reactions were completely rewarding. The second was at a youth theatre centre, where we’d been anticipating a large audience as part of a ‘Christmas Extravaganza’, but what we got was a group of teenagers who had clearly just been pulled out of a rehearsal for the sake of giving us any audience at all.
However, they were by far the most engaging of all the audiences we had, and I think the whole orchestra can agree that it was one of the most dynamic concerts we did on the tour – our audience danced almost all the way throughout, they sang along during ‘Take On Me’, and somebody started doing the worm for some reason! What links these two concerts for me more so than some of the others, I feel, was that these were both groups that would typically have no interaction with orchestral music-making in their everyday lives, and yet once confronted with it, had absolutely no barriers to enjoying it and no qualms about showing their emotions.
So often as classically trained musicians (as most of us are), we take these large ensembles, concert halls, and the whole ritual of performance for granted – it’s just part of our everyday lives and livelihoods. But in stripping away the barriers and bringing music to the audience, what Nevis is doing is giving everybody the opportunity to listen to music. Sometimes, people just walk past without paying attention, and that’s okay, because there’ll be somebody else who stops for a few seconds to enjoy what’s happening – and that makes it worth it. For me, every person who’s stopped has been a reminder that what I do really does matter.