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June 27, 2012

Music as the instrument of social change

Four years ago, only one child on the Raploch estate in Stirling played a musical instrument.  Today, it’s hard to find one that doesn’t.  Based on the phenomenally successful Venezuelan programme, El Sistema, the Big Noise has already produced some stunning outcomes for this community. According to Big Noise chairman, Richard Holloway, next stop is Govanhill.  Sistema founder, Jose Abreu, describes music as “an agent of social development….. it has the ability to unite an entire community and to express sublime feelings"


Charlotte Higgins, The Guardian, 20th  June 2012

Video clip here

In the Community Campus of Raploch, a housing estate on the outskirts of Stirling, 120 children aged between six and 13 are rehearsing the Rondeau from Purcell’s Abdelazer – familiar to most as the imposing opening theme of Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. This is the Big Noise Orchestra; but before the music can begin, this rustling, restless, excited gaggle of children must be calm.

“Let’s have some Big Noise silence now,” says the conductor, Francis Cummings, a former violinist with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

“We are going to sit in silence until you listen. What we need to do is start from silence.”

Eventually, through squeaks and shuffles, through parps from the brass and bashes from the timpani, through the grunts from the basses and jitters from the violins, peace comes. And then the music starts.

In another part of the building, beyond the gym and the hairdressers, a second orchestra is preparing to rehearse in the sports hall. The musicians of Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, most of whom are in their 20s and early 30s, are making as much noise as 200 people with musical instruments can. There’s a clatter of chat and tuning; lads in jeans and baseball caps are swapping violins, trying each other’s instruments by turning musical tricks of insouciant virtuosity.

Then Gustavo Dudamel, their 31-year-old conductor, comes to the podium and sits down on his high stool. He looks up, and slightly raises both arms. At this simple gesture, all sound falls instantly away.

The two orchestras are rehearsing for the same event: a concert to be held on Thursday, 21 June in Raploch. It will open the London 2012 festival, the summer of cultural events ushering in the Olympic Games: an open-air concert for 8,000, to be broadcast live on BBC4. After that, the Venezuelans travel to London, where their concerts at the Southbank Centre on 23 and 26 June will be streamed live on the Guardian website.

Although the two orchestras appear so different – the Venezuelans with their grown-up professionalism and absolute concentration; the Scottish children still fresh to their instruments – they are related. Later Dudamel, who is also the much-fêted chief conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, calls the Scots “our little sons and daughters”.

The children are the young members of Sistema Scotland, a radical social-intervention programme based on the model that produced these Venezuelan musicians. Like its Latin American exemplar, Sistema Scotland is hoping to change the lives of the children of an underprivileged community through immersion in classical music.

The Venezuelan El Sistema was founded by José Antonio Abreu, who began teaching music to 11 students in a Caracas garage. Thirty-seven years on, two million people – including, most famously, Dudamel and the players of the Simón Bolívar Orchestra – have passed through the programme.