Since 2006 Readipop has delivered three Urban Orchestra projects in conjunction with music services and has developed a model for musical inclusive work with young people. We have tried to mix the best of the ‘urban’ experience with the ethos of the orchestra to create something that is more the feel of a yarn bombed lamp post or an open laptop night at the local poetry workshop than a Burberry baseball cap.

Readipop’s Urban Orchestra model has been developed since 2006 through collaborative projects with Reading Borough Council, Berkshire Maestros (music service), the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and The Stables, Milton Keynes. Through each iteration we have developed some key project principles that we are bringing together into an Urban Orchestra toolkit. The concept came from Readipop’s two leaders at the time – Russ Alsop and Gavin Lombos. We wanted to share the positive group experience of playing in an orchestra with young people who would otherwise miss out, we also wanted to share the ‘band experience’ – namely the enjoyment of performing your own music. The trend at the time was for orchestral/urban collaborations however many of these appeared to be parallel performances with the orchestra playing the music of the urban artist or DJs dropping a beat to some Beethoven. We aimed for more of a dialogue between young people as performers, composers, arrangers and lyricists working with us and other partners as musical collaborators and producers.

As the projects developed, our understanding of what we mean by ‘Urban Orchestra’ became more nuanced. Within each project we explored the concept with the project leaders and young people by unpacking the name.

What is an orchestra?

One definition describes an orchestra as ’a group of instrumentalists, especially one combining string, woodwind, brass, and percussion sections and playing classical music’. Our workshops and discussions created our own understanding of an orchestra as:

– a group of people playing a range of different instruments together at the same time. – it should include typical orchestral instruments plus any other instruments and sounds. – the performance is led by a conductor or conductors. – each performance is unique. – striving for quality.

This definition allows a lot of scope for experimentation and interpretation.


Urban Planners

Urban – adjective 1 in, relating to, or characteristic of a town or city: the urban population. 2 (also urban contemporary) denoting or relating to popular dance music of black origin: hip-hop’s traditionally urban vibe.

Our use of the word urban came from an initial exploration of the juxtaposition between definition 2 and the ‘traditional’ orchestra. In this sense the concept and ‘brand’ was in danger of becoming dated and wrapped in a cliche. Over time the really interesting aspects of theses projects and the truly inclusive process has come from the exploration of definition 1.

Urban as: – a space where different people come together. – a mix between the old and the new. – a space where the new ideas develop.  – a place where outsiders are welcome. – a signifier of sophistication, coolness, credibility and quality. – a common experience across the world. – a destination for dreams and aspiration.


Musical Inclusion/Social Inclusion

The two go hand in hand, one informs the other. In this orchestra the conductor and professional musicians are the social engineers or city planners working to create an idealised urban environment where the bail resettlement hostel or women’s refuge is comfortable next to the park and not affecting house prices in the affluent neighbourhood nearby. Our orchestra celebrates urban food, urban style, urban living, fusion and juxtaposition, culture mix and culture clash, tweed and jeans, pinstripes and trainers, a police horse or the Banksy in the Natural History Museum.

The joy of the Urban Orchestra is the mix of young people who take part, seeing mutual respect bloom between gifted instrumentalists from whatever genre and hearing the music created by young composers and producers being respected, orchestrated, arranged and performed by great musicians.  In our Urban Orchestras we’ve had a rapper on day release form a secure training centre performing for the first time alongside a privately educated young musician playing a gold flute worth more than several of the music leaders’ cars. Young string players have taken a track created by a producer on a laptop and produced a full score for the rest of the orchestra.


The Urban Orchestra needs a common language and common themes. For this we have turned to the world of cinema using storyboards to structure the work and to create a commonly understood version of the work to be performed. The storyboard and the widely understood concept of the ‘movie score’ are the entry points to the creation of a common language within the orchestra – like our own slang. The crescendo leads to the drop, the coda and the rewind, the stutter and the staccato, a loop or a tihai. Music has been composed about a dying tree in a shopping mall, a fight on a saturday night, a hangover, a mobile phone number, a voicemail message, riding your bike, roundabouts, fried chicken and questionable mayonnaise.

To facilitate the performance the project leaders must accommodate a wide range of performance methods including playing from a traditional score, from memory, chord charts, structured improvisation, DJ playlists, graphic scores, numbered playlists, grids and number sequences. We ended up using two conductors, one using a baton and reading the score whilst waving their arms, the other following the score and cuing or counting in performers with a nod or point. We chose to seat the audience above the orchestra so the mechanics are on show.

Urban Orchestra embraces community music and arts development principles. It is respectful of the people and the place in which it exists. It is not led by the repertoire or the choice of a concert director, the performance programme is not pre-determined other than setting a date for the performance, which is done before we know what the music will be or who will play it.

Since 2006 a number of other models have grown with vastly or subtly different approaches. Most seem to be attempting to tackle the apparent inherent contradictions between musical inclusion and artistic excellence that the orchestra often proposes. Quality needn’t be exclusive. I am yet to see the Urban Orchestra approach become as sustainable as the many county youth orchestras and ensembles across the country but feel that it is only  matter of time before this type of musically inclusive approach becomes the norm. Urban Orchestra is a good model for musical inclusion. I have included our project principles which we refer to if we ever feel the project is getting too conventional. We’ll be uploading the Urban Orchestra toolkit soon and continually updating and revising it as we learn more.

  • Inclusive and open access orchestra of young people.  – Anyone who wants to play in the orchestra can – provided they participate in the devising process and rehearsals.
  • Live performance using the symphony orchestra model.  – Each performance should be unique and fully integrate orchestral, traditional, band and music technology elements.
  • Collaborations between young people from different musical and social backgrounds.  – The orchestra should always include young people who have never performed as part of an orchestra before.
  • Fusions of musical styles, approaches and methods. – Mixing and matching of compositional styles, genres, improvisation techniques and performance methods. No style should dominate.
  • Original music devised with the young people.  – The orchestra performs its own material. All the thematic and structural elements come directly from the young people.
  • Collaborative working between young people and professional musicians.  – Young people are actively involved in the arranging, scoring and orchestration process.