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February 8, 2012

The transformational power of music

Three years ago an unlikely experiment kicked off in Stirling’s Raploch estate.  Is it possible to transform levels of confidence, self-esteem and the life aspirations of children from one of the country’s most disadvantaged areas simply by teaching them to play in an orchestra? The Big Noise is a close partner of the phenomenally successful El Sistema from Venezuela and three years down the line, the Big Noise is about to get louder. Govanhill Housing Association wants a piece of the action


Phil Miller, Arts Correspondent, The Herald

A REVOLUTIONARY musical tuition scheme that has transformed the lives of children in South America and Stirling could soon be heading to Glasgow.

The Govanhill area of the city is bidding to become the latest to adopt the intense tuition scheme based on the lauded El Sistema method in Venezuela.

Since 2008, children in the deprived Raploch scheme in Stirling have been taught classical musical instruments under the Big Noise scheme, and now other towns and communities in Scotland are looking to launch their own orchestra – with Govanhill aiming to be in the lead.  Anne Lear, director of the Govanhill Housing Association (GHA), said the plans were in the earliest stage of development but said: “We are working hard, along with Govanhill Community Development Trust, to have Sistema come into the area.  We think it would be perfect for the area, and would bring a lot of people together.”

Ms Lear believes the El Sistema system, run like the Big Noise project in Raploch, could be based in one of the buildings owned by the housing association or the trust. There would be no shortage of young musicians – there are four primary schools and one of the biggest secondary schools in the city, Holyrood Secondary, in the area.

To work on the same scale as Big Noise in Stirling – which costs around £600,000 a year to run – the Govanhill scheme would need support from Glasgow City Council. The Govanhill area is ethnically diverse – 40% of the population are from a minority ethnic origin, with nearly 30% of GHA’s housing stock let to people from a minority ethnic background.

Last year a Government report found that Big Noise had transformed self-confidence and self-esteem in children in Raploch. The report found “a sense of achievement and pride, improved social skills, team-working skills and expanded social networks”.

In Raploch, children learn to play the violin, viola, double bass, cello, trumpet, trombone, French horn, euphonium, clarinet, oboe, flute, bassoon and percussion, all free of charge. The Olympics has honoured the project’s work by choosing the Big Noise children, along with the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra – led by perhaps the most famous product of El Sistema, Gustavo Dudamel, now music director of the LA Philharmonic – to open the London 2012 festival with The Big Concert on June 21.

George Anderson, of Sistema Scotland, the charity that runs the Big Noise in Raploch, said: “There seems to be a real head of steam building up in Govanhill and it looks like a very strong contender to have its own Big Noise orchestra.

“Big Noise Raploch was launched to demonstrate that this idea from Venezuela could work here in Scotland.  Three-and-a-half years later we can see that it is doing just what we hoped it would – transforming the lives of a new generation of children who are happier, better-behaved and more able to concentrate thanks to the orchestra.”

He added: “We are keen to spread this effect and get some more Big Noise centres up and running as soon as we can. We are in advanced talks concerning a number of areas around the country.”

Any new orchestra will be overseen by Sistema Scotland, which will help establish further Big Noise centres or “nucleos” as they are called in Venezuela.

Sistema Scotland will raise 25% of the costs of each new centre, and look to local authorities – in Govanhill’s case, Glasgow City Council – to be responsible for arranging the rest of the funds, which would not necessarily be public money but could include money from private sources, trusts and charities.

The individual orchestras, with their teams of dedicated musicians and tutors, will also be run by Sistema Scotland.

Govanhill Housing Association was formed in 1974 and the Govanhill Community Development Trust is its subsidiary that owns and manages commercial properties in the area. Last week Stirling Council’s executive agreed unanimously to continue support for Sistema Scotland’s Big Noise children’s orchestra in Raploch.