‘If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, Muhammad must go to the mountain’.

To rephrase less eloquently, if people won’t go to concert halls bring the concert hall to them. Here in a snowy UK The Guerilla Orchestra plan to do just that.

On Friday December the 10th at 6pm orchestras will spontaneously appear in London, Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Cardiff and Liverpool, perform Lalo Schifrin’s Mission Impossible, pack up and leave. The venues will be shopping centres, squares, high streets, parks, wherever.

The aim isn’t just to confront ordinary folk with something mysterious and unfamiliar (an orchestra) but to protest against wide ranging cuts in music education in the UK (the new Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government have targeted virtually every public expense in attempt to reduce our somewhat paunchy deficit).

Guerilla-in-chief Heather Bird, an orchestral musician and teacher, studied at the Royal Northern College of Music. She’s concerned about how future generations will be able to afford a music degree without the government subsidies she benefited from. If the planned cuts go ahead university tuition fees are expected to rise from around £3000 ($4700) to between £6000-9000 ($9450-$14,200) per year and many local arts organisations and music outreach projects will lose their funding.

“What the axing of all funding to higher education arts institutes says is that art is not important. What we do is not valid. That music plays no valuable part in this society. Of course this is ludicrous. There is no incentive for kids to practice, put in the hard work and dedication if they have no possibility of paying tens of thousands of pounds to go to somewhere like the RNCM.

I went to the RNCM and there’s no way I would have been able to go if I’d had to pay such fees. I had free double bass lessons as a kid and would not have been able to play or attend the heavily subsidised Cumbria Youth Orchestra courses if I’d have had to pay for them. So I would not have been doing what I love today, or teaching kids to do the same.”

The government’s proposals have sparked a wave of protests up and down the country and the issue is driving a wedge between the two parties in the coalition government. The junior partner in the coalition The Liberal Democrats made a pre-election pledge to phase out all tuition fees within six years and many people voted for them partly on that basis (especially students and those involved in education). Since coming to power the party leadership have backtracked creating a rift between the leadership, its backbenchers and other members.

Wondering what musicians could do to demonstrate their opposition to the cuts Heather had something of a brainwave.

“I watched that video on YouTube of  Dutch radio orchestra musicians doing the same thing in a railway station playing Mambo from West Side Story. I thought it was an inspired idea. Then on Thursday [25th November], I thought it would be great to have something similar but simultaneously all over the country…

…I thought I’d start a Facebook group to see if there would be any interest. Thought of the name and came up with a logo. Within one day we had nearly 600 members. Now we’re close to 900 and it’s increasing by the hour.”

At time of writing the group now has 1157 members and counting. If you’d like to get involved visit the Facebook group here or email Heather directly.

“If you think you could play Mission Impossible, and make it sound great, we want you! From non-musicians, I am very much doing this by the seat of my pants so any help with PR, advice, thoughts, would be very very gratefully received!”

Heather is also planning a “phase two” and suggests this could be an ongoing project rather than a one-off demonstration. And why not? It’s about time classical musicians brought their wares into public spaces whether it’s to protest about government policy or simply to allow the public to experience the music in a more familiar, if unexpected context.

P.S. If you enjoyed the Mambo clip then have a look at Chorus Niagara performing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus in a Canadian mall. Also check out European ensemble Spira Mirabilis who are “a group of young musicians are reshaping and remaking the modern classical music concert with a remarkable spirit that crosses world-class performance standards with a rebellious, almost anarchistic, streak.” (quote from The Guardian).

8 thoughts on “The Guerilla Orchestra!”
  1. Thanks, I’m with you all (except Steve). I just hope that more of us can show up to every little conversation on this topic with good information and ready to make a rational case that takes into account both economic realities and the needs of our comrades who work in other critical fields.

  2. Joseph: I think you have a point however you’ve misunderstood the nature of the article.

    It certainly doesn’t represent or contain the ‘best arguments’ that can be made against the planned increase in university tuition fees. That would require a much longer treatment and wouldn’t be appropriate for this site.

    I agree that anecdotal evidence on its own isn’t enough, however it is valid, very much so. The experiences of musicians and students in general forms an important part of the case against the goverment’s proposals. But ‘real data and measurable results’ are necessary too, agreed.

    The issues we face in democratic societies in terms of achieving consensus on economic/fiscal issues are complex and numerous. Two primary issues come to mind, firstly the electorate don’t receive an education in economics and consequently struggle to make informed choices about where budget cuts should be made (there *is* consensus however about the fact cuts are necessary in the UK given our current deficit). Secondly the information about where government money is spent is not as available and user friendly as it could be (an understatement, probably).

    As a result every economic sector believes cuts should fall elsewhere (‘not in my backyard’ behaviour). This is, obviously, not a rational or properly democratic way to run an economy. If the electorate had a grasp of the basic economics involved and had the proper information upon which to make a decision at least we’d have some form of consensus about how to move forward, sadly this is not the case, we ‘muddle through’.

    It remains to be seen what will happen to university tuition fees and the Welsh Assembly have recently voted against it, keeping the subsidised cap where it is currently. The Scots currently pay no tuition fees and as far as I know Northern Ireland haven’t decided yet. Hopefully on December the 9th when the vote takes place enough politicians will realise (as the Welsh have done) an increase in tuition fees of this magnitude will do a great deal of damage to the economic future of this country in an increasingly competitive global economy where ‘knowledge’ is at a premium.

    Until we have a more rational and functional democratic system it’s probably the best we can hope for (we’ll certainly move further away from that goal if we restrict university attendance).

    Finally (slightly different topic) regarding ‘practical’ subjects like mathematics and science versus the arts and humanities etc most informed opinion suggests our rigid curriculums are outdated and ineffective, an interdisiplinary approach seems to be the way forward (I think I would have enjoyed and understood maths at school at lot better if it had been applied to art and music for instance, the connections are obvious and would increase understanding in both areas).

    This famous TED lecture by Ken Robinson makes some good points…

  3. Good points. The ‘real data’ is out there.

    Anyone who works as a music teacher, solicits donors and writes grant applications for funding for educational outreach, and/or has performed on an instrument in front of human beings – be they in a cafeteria or a correctional faciltiy – can provide you with the ‘real data.’

    My feeling is that the blowback re: music and it’s benefits to young people and society vs “lean times” comes from people who haven’t done or their homework or served in the trenches.

  4. The phrase ‘knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing’ springs to mind Joseph.
    As a musician who had the benefit of free lessons and the privilege to study at the RNCM, I must say I’m grateful to at least have the opportunity to show my disgust-by putting my clarinet where my mouth is!
    I’m sure there will be plenty of people providing ‘real data’, whilst the rest of us just try to do what we can to be heard.

  5. Joseph I gave a lot more information about why music education benefits kids but it wasn’t published. There are hundreds of studies if you’d care to look them up. It’s pretty much a no brainer as the benefits are so widely known.

    The most draconian governments through history have attacked the arts. We are moving into a society where only making money matters. I want to show that it’s not the only thing of worth. Children learning music gain so much. Yes, they learn to play- something that requires great skill. They also learn dedication. How to work at something and perfect it. They learn to problem solve. Pay attention to detail while seeing the bigger picture. They learn to express themselves.

    If they play in ensembles, they learn how to work as a team. How to take a leading role, and how to blend in with others and cooperate. They learn what it is to be part of something bigger than the sum of it’s parts. They make friendships that last a lifetime.

    It helps with maths, language development- I could go on forever and the evidence is overwhelming. To stop children benefiting from all of this would be a tragedy.

    What art gives us is not quantifiable, or measurable in neat spread sheets. But that doesn’t make it less valuable. Yes there have to be cuts. But to cut all the funding from music colleges and all other arts HE institutions is a step way too far and will do irreparable damage. So that’s ju I set this up. Hope that’s clearer for you.

  6. If this is the best argument that can be made for not cutting funding we should expect deep cuts all around the world. The only hope is real data and measurable results. Without facts how can people and governments make tough choices during lean times? Anecdotes just won’t do.

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