Bellingen Youth Orchestra

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The Bellingen Youth Orchestra was formed after some local music teachers were inspired by a visit from the Australian Chamber Orchestra. The BYO has gone from strength to strength, growing from just 16 members when it began, to currently over 90 members, including the recently established junior training orchestra (String School).

FOCUS spoke with Ann Phelan and Rainee Herron about the positive effect the orchestra is having on its student members, as well as the local community, and about the very exciting upcoming concert, Symphony Under The Stars.

What is the Bellingen Youth Orchestra, and how did it start out?

In 2007, a special visit from Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra inspired Anne Phelan and Liz Scott to establish the Bellingen Youth Orchestra. Our students perform at least four performances a year, one alongside the wonderful world renowned concert pianist David Helfgott, the orchestra’s patron, along with his beautiful wife Gillian. The opportunity to be a part of this wonderful orchestra has paid off for many students, with some students becoming involved with programs run by the Australian Youth Orchestra, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Acacia Quartet. 

What sort of age range are the kids who make up the orchestra?

Our core orchestra has students from different schools ranging in age from 13 to 18. However, we have also recently established a junior training orchestra (string school) that draws on students with musical ability unable to be met in the general school setting. These students range in age from eight to 12. 

What do you think the young musicians get out of being part of the BYO?

The BYO’s mission has many dimensions. These include: 

  • Providing young musicians with the joy of making music together and inspiring young musicians to stretch themselves and aim higher than they would if playing alone. 
  • To encourage students throughout the Bellingen shire to learn an instrument and in so doing, give some disengaged students a hook back into education and with others, improve their participation in school and overall academic performance. 
  • To give local people in rural Australia the opportunity to hear live performances of classical music that would otherwise be unavailable to them. 
  • To nurture and provide a safe haven for neurodiverse kids; students who struggle to find their footing socially; and those who have no ball skills but yearn for the sort of camaraderie that is familiar to those on a football team. 
  • To develop a culture in which leadership and organisational skills in students are fostered by encouraging older students to assist and mentor younger ones.
  • To support community causes by performing at fundraisers and in so doing, inculcate a sense of responsibility for others in students by enabling them to be providers as well as receivers; 
  • For music to become a focal point for acts of generosity which foster relationships between people of goodwill (past examples include local clubs and people contributing to the purchase of a $10,000 violin for a local prodigy who went on to become a professional concert performer, and strangers paying for primary school children’s music lessons); 
  • Inclusion is a fundamental tenent of the BYO. All members are included in all orchestra workshops, performances and trips, irrespective of any disadvantage. Assistance is provided for tuition where necessary.

What has the community response to the group been like? 

Our local community is highly supportive of our orchestra. We have a strong committee of volunteer parents who help with grants, managing funds, marketing, providing food for afternoon tea, ticketing and food sales at concerts. Our public events are always booked out. The BYO has fostered important relationships with other community organisations. Locally, Camp Creative has provided scholarship opportunities a couple of times a year to assist students with tutorial and maintenance of instruments costs. Rotary and the Lions Club have contributed to the purchase of instruments and uniforms for the orchestra, and the Fine Music Festival has provided resources to support music composition by local students. Nationally, enduring partnerships with the Australian Youth Orchestra, ACO and SSO have elevated local students’ understanding of performance to an unprecedented level. 

The benefits of these connections have been extended far beyond the student participants to the many hundreds who have attended their concerts over the past 11 years. A particularly moving example of this was a concert at which the orchestra, together with Brisbane Birralee Voices and local choirs (singing in the local Gumbaynggirr language) performed Wuuban Barri, a work composed and conducted by Paul Jarman. About 40 Indigenous people from the Kempsey, Nambucca and Bellingen LGAs, none of whom had ever seen an orchestra before, attended the concert. Many in the audience (Indigenous and non-Indigenous), shed tears at the beauty of what they saw and heard that night.

The BYO will be performing a concert which you could say is one-of-a-kind for the Coffs Coast. Where will you be performing, and what can we expect? 

We are offering our local and wider community a Symphony under the Stars – an event only usually accessed in larger metropolitan areas. 

The show will start at 5:15pm and conclude at 9pm. It will take place at the Bellingen Showgrounds, under a beautiful starry night sky (we hope). The program will include an array of talent and choirs from the local community. The finale will be Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, performed by the Bellingen Youth Orchestra, accompanied by cannons and fireworks. This will be an event unparalleled to anything that has ever occurred in this area. 

Where can the Coffs Coast community get more information on the BYO and this event?

 The best place to find any information on the Bellingen Youth Orchestra is their Facebook page:

Any further questions or queries about donations can be directed to

Thanks Ann and Rainee.

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