I have never thought of motorways as beautiful, but two journeys along a sun-kissed, deciduous M9 this weekend gave me pause for thought – if you can truly pause at 70 mph. I travelled to The Raploch Community Campus
for the Sistema Scotland International Conference. International it truly was with delegates from as far afield as Venezuela, Colombia, Portugal, Sri Lanka, Syria and Iraq.
Venezuela’s El Sistema – now a 34-year old programme of social transformation through music – is the result of the vision of Maestro José Antonio Abreu. You may have seen the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra take the Proms by storm in 2007, under the electrifying baton of Gustavo Dudamel – possibly El Sistema’s best known son.
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It was around this time that the Scottish version, ignited by the inspirational Richard Holloway
began to take light. Funding, none of it so far governmental, was secured for five years and, in the turmoil of present times, it’s not difficult to imagine the trepidation which must surely accompany thoughts of the future. That future will certainly include opening other centres in Scotland. Although any new initiatives will be keen to learn from the experience of what has been achieved so far, the grass-roots, community-led nature of the idea means that carbon copies of the Big Noise initiative, specific to Raploch, are unlikely. Perhaps one of the main reasons for this is the unique nature of the Raploch Community Campus. Indeed, fact-finding visits of the Scottish team to Venezuela revealed a wide diversity of style and content within the Venezuelan model. One might expect this when 250,000 children participate in 125 youth orchestras across the country. Nicola Killean,
the tireless Director and CEO of Big Noise, embodies the flexibility necessary to work of this nature: genuinely predisposed to incorporating the varying views of those involved without losing touch with the original vision; allowing the project freedom to grow and to follow its own destiny, while keeping an eye on how its users will dovetail with existing local authority and community initiatives e.g. youth orchestras.
The conference featured a stimulating balance of talks, discussions and practical music sessions, in which we experienced (in one case along with the children) games intended to enhance musicianship and aural skills. In these well thought-out, fun sessions, run by the Big Noise musicians, we were kept on (and off) our toes by a style accessible only to those who love what they do and who are attuned to the mercurial minds of the very young. That said, the team were very honest about difficulties experienced in adjusting to this necessarily experimental process and the ethos of teamwork essential to success (perhaps even to the survival of the project) was unmistakable. Being more hands- and feet-on than theoretical, there was limited in-depth analysis of teaching methodology. One thing which came across, however, was the openness to mixing methods – Kodály, Suzuki and traditional notation-based teaching.
Key delegates included members of the Cuarteto Millennium:
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Beneficiaries of the original Sistema and, to this day, members of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, their next stop was Paris, to catch up with the orchestra’s tour of Europe and Canada. In addition to working with the children they put on a concert along with the Big Noise musicians. Ollantay Velasquez, the 1st violinist, took part in panel discussions in which, to my mind, he displayed the essence of the sistema approach – simultaneously serious and playful. He was very clear that social integration was key to the process and the fact that many who have passed through el sistema do not go on to follow musical careers in no way undermines the value of the experience. In many cases, the community of music saved young people from a life which would have made it impossible for them to enter the career of their choice – possibly any career at all. Ollantay was aided in the discussions by the very impressive simultaneous translation skills of Melanie Beaumont.
One of the presentations/discussions I found the most striking was Education, Community and Social Services Working Together. Lesley Gibb, Stirling Council’s Early Childhood Link Officer, gave a short, inspirational presentation in which she outlined the ethos, policies and evidence of the early years work in the area. Key to understanding ethos was a very moving poem (which appears here in parallel text) by the Italian educationalist Loris Malaguzzi.
Invariably, the word elitism came up over the weekend – on several occasions. Why classical music? Why orchestras? My own supposition was that this format, allowing the largest community of people to play simultaneously, seemed the natural choice – in addition to being the proven format in Venezuela. It was also pointed out, by Richard Holloway, that Maestro Abreu believes there to be something transcendental in the Western-European classical canon. One articulate commentator, in a large discussion group, pointed out that the Venezuelans, carrying less baggage than us, simply listened to the music without becoming bogged down with our own notions of class and cultural imperialism. I was reminded of a remark I heard on the radio (sorry, details a little misty now) where a speaker sought to put paid to the argument with these few words: music isn’t elitist – people are elitist. The question broadened out to “why not other art forms – or even football?” Helena Lima, Vice Director of Portugal’s Orquestra Geração-EMCN brought up the wealth of neuroscientific research indicating that music engages and connects more areas of the brain than any other activity. It is present in every culture and in every person. If transforming lives and enhancing child development is the aim, then this consideration is key.
One of the nice touches was that lunch on the Friday included a seating plan which encouraged us to mix with the children involved in the project. This is something which does not happen in schools I visit, where apartheid prevails. I can understand that many pupils like to get away from us at lunchtime and that, on some days, staff hunger for a few moments of adult company with their meal. However, perhaps one area of the canteen could be set up for mixed dining?
There was so much more to this brilliantly organised conference than this short report can possibly portray (several events ran concurrently). The welcome was very warm and I found the experience enriching, inspiring and moving. I hope to return some day, perhaps to visit any new centres which open and I look forward with great interest to future developments.