|12 November 2015|

By Paul MacAlindin – conductor of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq 

Setting foot on the baking runway of Erbil Airport in 2009, I arrived to join a team of seven tutors, two interpreters and 33 young Iraqi musicians, Sunni, Shia, Kurdish, Arab, Turkomen, Assyrian and Armenian to create a national youth orchestra for Iraq. We had two weeks to build a music camp from scratch, perform a public concert and develop a five year strategy. We needed radical thinking, so I chose the Blue Ocean Strategy by Kim and Mauborgne  to tackle our insurmountable problems.

One evening, about 10 days into our punishing schedule, the whole orchestra got together in the breakfast room of our hotel to set out our dreams on paper. A trainer from the Iraq Peace Foundation started with her workshop on values. Unlike me, she spoke Kurdish and Arabic and didn´t need interpreting. Once everyone had grasped what I wanted, I asked four questions:

  • What are your personal values?
  • What do you value in music?
  • What values do you want the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq to have?
  • If you were to run your own youth orchestra, what would its values be?

Set out in front of them on the tables lay four different coloured piles of paper, one for each question. At the top, they wrote their answers anonymously in Kurdish or Arabic, with space below for a translation into the other course languages. What arose from those 45 minutes of reflection became our core values: love, commitment and respect. As we mounted the papers along the walls of our rehearsal room, we all clearly agreed to work hard, represent Iraq positively to the world, learn as much about music as possible and meet other youth orchestras. I had what I needed to make a start.

Back home in Germany, I faced the hard truth. Other national youth orchestras were much more accessible, available, euro-centric and accomplished than we were. Indeed, rebuilding music education in Iraq would take a good 30 years. Our competitors were Rolls Royces and we were a Mini. The only things we had in common were youth and love of music.  However, by not copying them, we could win hands down on national identity, exoticism, innovative use of social media and cultural diplomacy abroad. We could turn many antagonistic assets to our advantage whilst also winning on hope, leading out of war. I wasn´t idealistic; these players only had hope to offer.

Blue Ocean Strategy is about leaving the shark-infested Red Ocean of traditional competition and opening up new market space. There´s a four-box matrix we used for doing this:


  • focusing on other big names and competitors. We were the big name festivals and venues sought


  • barriers by playing side by side with each other, and eventually with partners like the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra
  • the relationship with imperial history, by playing Iraqi music on equal footing with Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert


  • exoticism, by being exotic in Iraq as an orchestra, exotic in the West as Iraqis
  • diversity, by performing Kurdish and Arab composers in every concert and profiling players from different backgrounds to the media
  • accessibility, availability and excellence over the long term as our reputation attracts more resources and sustainable partnerships


  • new interactive tools, such as instrumental lessons on Skype, video auditions, whilst our YouTube and issuu channels keep media coverage available
  • extraordinary new relationships with audiences in schools, hospitals and concert halls
  • meaningful intercultural learning, both for us and for our partner youth orchestras
  • clear cultural diplomacy, focussing positively on Iraq´s future
  • a profile of our back story, in defiance of endless negative media coverage, explaining who Iraqis really are.

So, with no obligation to copy others, we diverged strongly from the Red Ocean. Their solutions didn´t work in our unique geographical, cultural and historical context anyway. Our focus remained exotic, innovative, intercultural and hopeful. Our mission consistently improved the orchestral performance of young Iraqis so they could share their culture with the world; their joy, sorrow and passion as musicians, bringing a ray of hope to the future of the Middle East.

Did we succeed? Absolutely. Did it nearly kill me? You bet. Had I not lived our strategy every single day for six years, I would never have found the emotional commitment and paradoxical thinking that drove us through to 2014, the invasion of ISIL, and the untimely end of our operations.

As I prepare my book on our story, UPBEAT, out next summer by Sandstone Press, I realise that that Blue Ocean strategy gave me strength to persevere through our many dark days.