Trumpets, concerts and Kanye West: Sheffield orchestra toasts 50 years

Sheffield Youth Orchestra
Sheffield Youth Orchestra
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What links Kanye West to Sheffield Youth Orchestra? Colin Drury discovers the group’s history...

It was, it’s fair to say, an inauspicious beginning.

In 1964, Dorothy Barlow, a Welsh music teacher recently arrived in Sheffield, wrote to schools across the city to say she was starting a youth orchestra and asking for interested pupils to attend a rehearsal at St Mark’s Parish Hall in Broomhill. Just 11 youngsters turned up.

The group played what Dorothy noted was a “strange” version of Shubert before the participants were sent home, deflated.

“To put it in context,” says Neil Robertson, “the smallest orchestras generally have at least 40 people.”

Yet from small acorns, do large woodwind sections grow: in 2014, that orchestra - Sheffield Youth Orchestra as it was named - is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

There are now more than 50 members playing violins, violas, cellos, flutes, oboes, trumpets, trombones cornets and drums. They rehearse once a week (at Central United Reformed Church in Norfolk Street, city centre) and play three concerts a year. During what has become an illustrious history, they’ve performed at venues across the UK (Jersey, Guernsey, London, Edinburgh Fringe, the Crucible), appeared live on radio and had members go on to become professionals. Most successfully, perhaps, Lizzie Ball, who played violin with the group between 1990 and 1992, has since performed with everyone from Kanye West to Nigel Kennedy.

Now this year, to mark its half century, the group has cut its first CD - with sale profits going to The Children’s Hospital. They recorded eight songs “from the films” at Yellow Arch Studios, in Neepsend.

“It’s not quite Arctic Monkeys,” Neil, the orchestra’s current director, tells The Diary. “We had one day to get it right so there’s a few errors but that adds to the charm.

“It was a nice day. The very first conductor from 1964, Andrew Clark, came down and gave the actual baton he used in the Sixties to our current conductor Stephen Vickers. That was a lovely touch.”

Dedication and enthusiasm are key to the success.

“And the kids love coming,” says Neil, who joined the organising committee five years ago when daughter Hannah (violin) and son Alex (trumpet) signed up. “They make friends for life, improve at their instrument and grow in confidence.”

All abilities are welcome, while members range in age from 10 to, er, one in his mid-40s. That’s John Martindale. Daughter Amy joined the orchestra, John came along, mentioned he played trombone, and was whisked in to fill a post.

“He looks a little incongruous in rehearsals,” notes Neil, a 50-year-old business development manager, of Lodge Moor, by day.

And it’s not just about music either. When members are asked for their favourite memories, almost all talk about the annual weekend away where morning rehearsals are followed by afternoon socials.

“The best times are those weekends away at places like Critch ,” says member Camelia Yousefpour. Pause. “The actual music making is great too of course.”

* An anniversary concert will be held September 13 at Central United Reform Church. Details and £7 CD available at