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November 14, 2007

Raploch Youth Orchestra

A radical new music project based on the famous youth orchestra of the slums of Venezuela, is coming to the Raploch housing estate near Stirling. The Scotsman’s Tim Cornwell tells the story and an inspiring one it is.


INFANTS as young as nine months will be introduced to music across Scotland when the country becomes the first in Europe to sign up to Venezuela’s grass-roots approach to youth music, The Scotsman can reveal.

A Scottish delegation in Caracas will next week finalise a five-year partnership to import El Sistema, an initiative that has taught music to 400,000 Venezuelan children.

When the project gets under way next summer four or more Venezuelan tutors, graduates of the teaching system, will be brought into the deprived Raploch area of Stirling.

Teaching methods for the first group of children, aged 0-8, range from group music, rhythm and singing sessions, to making papier-mâché models as a way of getting to know violins, cellos or wind instruments.

Infants may be taken to concerts or have instruments played to them. The idea is to instil an early love of music and a feeling for playing in an orchestra.

The Scottish delegation is taking two music advisers to look closely at El Sistema’s methods.

Pioneered by the revered maestro Joe Antonio Abreu 30 years ago, its intensive tuition system has spread across the country and delivered spectacular results. Children caught up in the drug dealing and gang warfare of the barrios have reached the highest level as musicians.

Until recently, it seemed the Scottish side was swept up with enthusiasm for the system, with little clear idea of what methods lay behind it.

But the advisers will carry out “focused observations”, said Nicola Killean, the young music teacher picked to lead the Venezuela in Scotland project.

“We believe it’s a philosophy and approach to using music for social development. It’s using music as the tool to transform people’s lives,” she said.

The Scottish delegation includes Peter Stevenson, a former investment banker and musician, and Irene Tweedie, former head of finance at BBC Scotland, on the project’s board.

The visit will coincide with the triumphant return of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, El Sistema’s showcase, from a United States tour. This summer, its performances were highlights of the Edinburgh International Festival and the Proms. It is the flagship of some 300 youth orchestras in El Sistema’s network.

Raploch has suffered poverty, high unemployment and low educational achievement, but is the focus of a £120 million regeneration project.

Ms Killean said most of the music teaching would be done in groups, not sitting alone with a tutor in a room. In the system, after children choose what instrument they want to play, they make a papier-mâché version, then progress on to the instrument itself. “That’s one of the steps, and it’s fun for the children,” Ms Killean said. “There is a big early emphasis on singing.”

In Raploch the programme will begin with children aged 0-8, expanding to work with all children of primary school age.

“We are looking at children from age 0-2, singing, introduction to musicianship, and working with parents, developing positive parenting skills through the music,” Ms Killean said.

In Venezuela, children have worked their way through the system to become tutors themselves, Ms Killean said.

The start-up Scottish Arts Council funding for the Venezuela project has been £120,000 – enough to hire perhaps four Scottish music teachers for a year. In Venezuela, it costs £16 million a year, and employs 15,000 music teachers.

Since the Simon Bolivar Orchestra’s Proms performance, the Scottish project has been flooded with calls from other orchestras.

“For years there have been lots of organisations inspired by El Sistema but we are the first that have said we want to do it with you,” said Ms Killean. The link would include exchanges of musicians, teachers, and technology, she said. The Venezuelans were very proud of what they had created and wanted to share it.

“The partnership with Scotland is one of their most exciting developments. A lot of them can speak English. A lot of the tutors speak English. The majority of their teachers were raised through the system.”

Of the Venezuelan system, she said: “It’s a combination of so many different elements. It’s using the power and beauty of the orchestra as an instrument for positive development, and give the children, regardless of where they are from, the best start in life.”

JUST one child among 190 at Raploch Primary School takes private music lessons.

For the rest, music is limited to a lesson every two weeks, on the one day a full-time music teacher visits.

In one measure of the area’s circumstances, almost half of the Raploch children receive free school meals.

Few parents want to pay for music lessons for more than a term, said headteacher Anne Stewart.

Ms Stewart’s pupils will be first in line for teaching under el sistema imported from Venezuela. She said the idea of intensive teaching was “absolutely tremendous”, but said Scottish conditions were very different from the absolute poverty in Venezuela.

Ms Stewart, who first came to Raploch as a class teacher in 1970, said old-fashioned practice was still the key. “The biggest challenge will be that the children commit to practice that is necessary. If you are going to learn any musical instrument, you have to stick at it,” she said.

She supported the idea of teaching music to the very young “to get them into the mindset” with percussion or clapping along.

“In this project tuition is entirely free, musical instruments are entirely free, so children who do want to learn a musical instrument would have every opportunity to do so. This is much more intensive than what children could possibly get from an hour’s session.

“I would hope there would be a big take-up of it, but that remains to be seen.

“There will be initial enthusiasm, whether that can be sustained is the big question.”