A Raploch Rhapsody


by George Anderson

In the mid 1970s in a car park in Venezuela a remarkable man called José Antonio Abreu began running music lessons for a handful of children.  His organisation became known as El Sistema ‘The System’ and today involves over 300,000 children in centres across the South American country.

El Sistema has produced some of the finest classical musicians in the world, but behind these musical achievements is an even more exciting story.  El Sistema uses the symphony orchestra to benefit society.  It produces not only musicians, but also happy and well-equipped citizens, often from the poorest and most chaotic backgrounds.

Learning any artistic skill can have knock-on benefits in self-esteem, discipline and pride.  But Maestro Abreu took this to a whole new level by making all of his orchestras first and foremost engines for social change, transforming not just individuals but whole communities.

In the summer of 2008 the charity Sistema Scotland established its Big Noise orchestra in Raploch, Stirling.  Officially partnered with the Venezuelan programme, it has the same aim – to transform lives with music.

The Sistema approach is not simply free music lessons.  There are two things that make it different and maximise its power to change lives – concentration on ensemble playing, and immersion.

The children are in an orchestra from the very start.  Even if they are only clapping, they are clapping together.  They learn and play together rather than the more traditional hour a week with a tutor and lone practice in between.  They learn to cooperate and that everyone has a contribution to make, to the orchestra and to life.  They spend a great deal of time in orchestra activity – three after-school sessions a week during term time and five mornings a week during holidays.

Big Noise is now well established in Raploch where learning an instrument has become the norm for a new generation.  Over 300 children are taking part – eight out of ten of the nursery and primary pupils schooled in the estate.  There are classes for adults and babies too.  In less than three years Raploch has become steeped in music, and the non-musical effects are beginning to be felt.

The findings of an independent evaluation commissioned by the Scottish Government state:

“As a result of Big Noise, children have improved confidence, happiness, social skills, and concentration.  These impacts can be even more marked for children with Special Education Needs or who are facing personal or educational challenges.

“In the longer term there is an expectation that Big Noise may lead to reduced anti-social behaviour, improved health and wellbeing, improved employability, and greater levels of active citizenship.”

Big Noise is for everyone regardless of ability, but real talent is being uncovered.  Sistema Scotland is now stepping up efforts to maximise its musical excellence.  A Director of Music is currently being recruited to up the artistic stakes in Raploch.  Not that they weren’t already pretty high.  As well as the 17 terrific musicians who teach the children, there is an ongoing relationship with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, which regularly sends members to mentor Big Noise children.  Celebrated Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti is also a regular visitor and has now joined the Sistema Scotland board, as has Berlin Philharmonic horn player Fergus McWilliam.

Its remarkable to think that this children’s orchestra in a small Scottish housing estate now has direct ties with not just Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, perhaps the most thrilling young orchestra in the world, but also with the mighty Berlin Philharmonic, which is arguably the greatest.

We tend to have a negative view of children in this country, especially children from places like Raploch.  Too often we think of them as a problem first and forget about their potential.  Perhaps the greatest gift the Venezuelans have given us is a reminder that children can do anything.

Sistema Scotland hopes to establish more Big Noise centres around the country and is actively looking for communities which want to be the next chapter in this amazing story that began in a South American car park.

Photographs by Marc Marnie