“There we were…” | National Youth Orchestra of Ireland together again | Written by Daimee Ng

There we were.
The National Youth Orchestra of Ireland, congregating outside the National Concert Hall on 9 February, 2020, after a brilliant performance in IAYO’s 25th Festival of Youth Orchestras.
There we hugged, laughed and exchanged goodbyes, telling each other just how excited we were for the summer course, and even more so for the orchestra’s 50th anniversary.
Of course, as we know now, there was never a summer course. Or a winter course. Or any course at all. No one could have predicted that it would in fact be another two years and almost three months before we could finally meet again.
But here we are.
Two years and three months later, we arrived at Kilkenny College, with instruments in arms and music in our hearts, greeting our old friends and all the new faces, with excitement but much nervous anticipation. As we sat in the main hall, setting up, we all worried about the state of the orchestra. With almost two-thirds of the members completely new, picked solely from video audition, and the remaining members from the 2019 – 2020 orchestra, very few of us had played together, and with no practice in smaller sections, and barely any previous contact, we had no clue how this course was going to go. And then in strode our eccentric, fanatical, phenomonal conductor, Gearóid Grant, who fearlessly sent us crashing immediately into Leroy Anderson’s Irish Suite.
It was as if we had never left.
Was it perfect? No. Was it flawless? Absolutely not. The music that flooded the hall that afternoon was disjointed and almost messy, but stronger was the determination and excitement that we all shared. The purpose of the three days, Gearóid told us, was not to perfect the music nor gear towards a performance. The purpose of the course was to give us the opportunity to do the one thing we had all missed so much. The purpose of the course was to simply play. And play we did.
Over the three days and two nights we spent together, we made our way through our beautiful program – Brahms’ Haydn Variations, the previously mentioned Irish Suite and Tchaikovsky’s exquisite 5th Symphony. Sitting in the hall, seeing the music in front of us come to life around us – oh, how it was missed! We watched, we listened, we practised, we played, and though we wore masks, the sheer joy that filled the room was addictive and contagious.

Aside from Gearóid, a team of excellent staff worked around us 24/7 to ensure we were well-looked after and healthy. Voluntarily taking time off their own holidays to make this course possible, we had staff looking in on us during rehearsals, signalling the ends of sessions and reminding us of the timetable for the day. Staff also stayed up all night to make sure we got enough rest, to answer any concerns we had and to wake us up in the mornings. Looking after over a hundred and twenty young musicians, slightly delirious on a bit too much sugar late at night – not an easy task!
We spent our breaks outside in the sun, getting to know each other and drinking the famous Kilkenny apple juice (It’s really just Kulana juice, but it never tastes quite the same as it does when we’re here. Besides, might I mention, it’s also free!), and our free time was spent in our dorms or outside playing football. After rehearsals we had meals in the canteen which specially catered to all our dietary needs by a team of brilliant kitchen staff (a crowd favourite being, of course, the chicken curry and rice) and we took regular trips to the petrol station across the road from the school for snacks.
Although we only spent two nights here, the evenings were full of activity. We played team-bonding games in our sections, had a trad session, ordered takeaway and even had a pizza party with an outdoors disco. We ended each night in the common room, squashed on the sofas and on the floor around the piano, singing songs together spontaneously. It’s safe to say that even when we’re not practising, we find someway to be surrounded by music, always.
I could not explain to you in words what it felt like to finally play together again, to feel the energy of so many musicians of different ages, different backgrounds, from different counties and walks of life, but who share this same, unique love of music in their souls.
It felt, simply, like coming home.
This time, when we hugged goodbye on Thursday evening and exchanged contact details, we laughed and promised each other twelve weeks. Twelve weeks until the next time we meet here, make music together and get to do it all over again. Come see us at our three concerts in Kerry, Waterford and Dublin from 5 – 7 August. We can’t wait to share our love for music with you!
IAYO would like to thank Daimee for her time in writing this beautiful article. We would also like to the NYOI Manager Carol-Ann McKenna for making this happen!
Daimee (age 16) is a violinist who studies at the Young European Strings School of Music in Dublin. This is her fourth year in the National Youth Orchestra.