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With a working life of more than 30 years, Kirsteen Davidson Kelly explores how her early career in performance has informed her present leadership role in the music world.  

Headshot of Kirsteen Davidson Kelly

Sustaining a musical career has had its challenges, particularly when bringing up children and living in a rural community. But it has also brought amazing rewards and last year I had the privilege of moving into a job which not only aims to engage a new generation of musicians but also to reach new and diverse audiences, inspiring young people across Scotland to realise their potential.

Chief Executive, National Youth Orchestras of Scotland (2022 – now)

On my second day in post at the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland (NYOS) - in January last year - I took the decision to re-start our live programmes, which had been on hold throughout the pandemic. This meant a fast-paced start as we prepared for the return of our residential courses and presented a series of joyful performances at venues around Scotland.

One of my key ambitions for NYOS is to place greater emphasis on hearing the voices of young people and developing youth leadership. Over and above the development of musical skills for which we have long been recognised, we want to diversify the ways the organisation learns and evolves, and to support the growth of our members. To this end, we have recruited three Young Trustees to the board and are working with them to design a Youth Forum.

Having navigated the pandemic and a change of leadership, it was time for a strategic review. One of the strongest themes to emerge was inclusion and accessibility. In response we are designing a new strand of work - NYOS Engage - to extend our offer to a greater diversity and number of young people through a variety of projects around Scotland. 

Creative Learning Director, Scottish Chamber Orchestra (2014 – 2021)

Previously, as Creative Learning Director the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (SCO), my role involved devising and directing musical and multi-artform projects for people of all ages. They brought together musicians and other creative practitioners in a wonderful and varied programme for schools and colleges, hospitals, community venues and concert halls. 

One participant at a standout SCO project - Incredible Distance - beautifully sums up what I hope to achieve through all the programmes I am involved with: "Your input and injection into our community really does have a positive effect. It makes us look at ourselves in a different way. It opens up new avenues for us to express ourselves and I feel that we are blossoming as individuals!" SCO Participant, 2018.

National Youth Orchestra Scotland. Photo: Ryan Buchanan

Co-founder, Piano Circus (1989 – 2002)

Although I have worked in arts management for nearly a decade, my early career was very different. I studied music at the University of Edinburgh and, on graduating, co-founded Piano Circus, a six-piano ensemble formed to play Steve Reich’s Six Pianos at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1989. 

A huge opportunity came almost immediately in the form of a multi-album deal with Decca Records so, after a year of piano study at the Ecole Normale de Music de Paris, I moved to London to work with Piano Circus. 

I stayed with the group for 13 years, performing internationally, recording, producing, and commissioning innovative works for this unusual line-up. I also developed and co-directed Piano Circus’ international education programme. We worked as a collective, sharing responsibility for artistic direction and planning.

The in between years (2003 – 2013)

After the birth of my first daughter, I could no longer sustain the workload required for Piano Circus, so I left to work independently. And a couple of years later, my family moved to rural Scotland. It was challenging to establish a network and make a freelance living while bringing up two young children. I felt quite isolated until my return to Edinburgh University to undertake doctoral research. 

My PhD explored how expert pianists use mental imagery during rehearsal. It included a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study which was the first in a series of collaborations between the university’s Music Department and Clinical Research Imaging Centre.

During this decade - between Piano Circus and management - I led a variety of creative projects with a particular interest in involving girls in music production. I also continued performing including concerts and recordings with Max Richter; a Remote Performance, live in Glen Nevis, commissioned between London Fieldworks and ResonanceFM; and the two-piano duo KDKDK with pianist Katharine Durran, performing some of the most exuberant and virtuosic 20th and 21st century repertoire for two pianos. 

Most of my creative energy is now invested in developing spaces in which others can flourish. It is a privilege to lead NYOS in its mission to nurture, celebrate and widen access to outstanding classical youth music-making. 

Kirsteen Davidson Kelly is Chief Executive, National Youth Orchestras of Scotland.
@NYOScotland | @KirsteenDK

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Headshot Kirsteen Davidson Kelly