Our first musical visit to the Caribbean islands of Antigua and Barbuda came in the Spring of 2017. Being of Antiguan descent, we had been regularly staying with grandparents and visiting family in Antigua since early childhood, but for these two weeks we were arriving with violins, borrowing cellos and finding available pianos to perform for the children of every school on the island. We also took a boat from Antigua to Barbuda to play our instruments there. This all came from the vision of the incredible High Commissioner, Karen-Mae Hill, who wanted to encourage Antiguan and Barbudan children and young people to take up instrument-learning themselves and enjoy the benefits of playing music together.

The first step was inspiration. For two weeks, we travelled around Antigua, going into schools or bringing different schools and year groups together in church halls and town buildings in St John’s and taking the stage- or playing in the schoolyard, under a gazebo or in a church sanctuary- so young people could hear and see first-hand the music we had to offer. We performed together as a family, or played duets, trios, solos on piano and strings, showcasing the classical music we love and playing our arrangements for the family sextet or septet. We also played our arrangements of Caribbean music and listened to performances and demonstrations of steel pans from the schoolchildren we met.

As well as playing, we talked to the children and teenagers who came to hear us in our packed morning and afternoon sessions, taking questions, discussing our music and instruments, and talking about why and how we work and practise. The 2017 ‘Playing to Inspire’ tour culminated in the big concert at the Moravian Church in St John’s, where children, parents and the public crowded in for our sold-out performance.

The following year, in 2018, began the major part of the extraordinary vision of Her Excellency, Karen-Mae Hill, with the unwavering support of The Governor-General, Sir Rodney Williams and Lady Williams. A new youth orchestra was going to be started from scratch for the children and young people of the islands. It would begin mainly as a string orchestra, as that was the expertise we had to offer, and the first task was to source the violins, violas, cellos and double basses we needed. We gave lessons to many of the children, who wanted to learn, organised sectionals and discussed repertoire, and spent most evenings travelling round Antigua to give family concerts and spread the news of the burgeoning Antigua and Barbuda Youth Symphony Orchestra.

Since then, the orchestra has become a full symphony, with brass, woodwind and percussion sections, the Inspire Youth Choir,  local and international music teachers and guest artists arriving each year from around the world for rehearsals in the Sir Vivian Richards cricket stadium, and the much-loved and always sold-out Playing to Inspire grand concert, now held in the largest church, St John’s Pentecostal Church.

During the Covid pandemic, we and local teachers taught the orchestra members on Zoom, and instrument teachers were recruited worldwide to give lessons to the young people, all of whom remained passionate to learn. The project has continued its collaborations with teachers and musicians from the USA, the Dominican Republic, the island of Jersey, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and guest artists and conductors including Julian Lloyd-Webber, Natalie and Ashok Klouda, Tom Fetherstonhaugh, Sophie Biddell, J’nai Bridges and Ryan Bancroft.

In 2023, we were incredibly proud as a family to each be made Cultural Ambassadors to Antigua and Barbuda by the Prime Minister, Gaston Browne, but the hardest work and the greatest visionary energy comes from Karen-Mae Hill, Claudine Benjamin, the team and board of ABYSO (Antigua and Barbuda Youth Symphony Orchestra) and the extraordinary, talented and committed children and young people of the orchestra. We now have a Junior Orchestra who perform at the concerts each year and who, after their training, can audition to join the full ABYSO.

Every year, we are utterly amazed at the orchestra’s progress. The standard continues to rise, and the pride, love and inspiration in the music, the community, and what can be achieved with belief and faith in our young people touches us all. This year, the Playing to Inspire concert was again sold out, crowded with people from Antigua and Barbuda who came to see what their brilliant young people had achieved together, and it was breathtaking. Isata played the final movement of Clara Schumann’s  piano concerto and the sound of ABYSO rose around her like the full, mature voice of a professional ensemble, everyone inspired by each other.   The orchestra was filled with the young people of the islands, joined by the fabulous Inspire Youth Choir (with three wonderful soloists), young people from the Jersey Music Service, members of The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (who fulfilled an intense rota of rehearsals, sectionals and chamber music performances with us!), a young dancer, our exciting guest artist, the American mezzo soprano, J’nai Bridges, and our conductor for 2024, Ryan Bancroft, whose vitality, devotion and effect on the orchestra was electrifying.

As musicians, and as a family, we are humbled, privileged and inspired by our association with ABYSO, and inordinately proud of the children and young people of the orchestra, who continue to demonstrate the power of community, the importance of music and the fact that what we achieve together is far greater than what we can do alone.

March 2024