Running a children’s orchestra

 12 October 2012

With a history of high unemployment, Raploch is one of Scotland's most deprived neighbourhoods. The Big Noise orchestra's mission is to give Raploch's children access to a classical music education.

As well as in Scotland, El Sistema has run music education projects in South America and the USA.
As well as in Scotland, El Sistema has run music education projects in South America and the USA.

It's 9.30am on the Raploch estate in Stirling, Scotland, and children from The Big Noise orchestra summer school are getting ready to rehearse.

First comes breakfast, followed by a busy morning of orchestra practice, music classes, drawing and play.

In the larger orchestra, violinist Joëlle Fenna is taking the rehearsal, momentarily taking on the role of the temperamental conductor when the children get a little noisy.

“This is not the way an orchestra behaves,” she shouts in a fake German accent. “You will all be fired!” The children roar with laughter, but they clearly respect her authority and quickly settle down.

Giving children access to music 

Launched in 2008 and run by the charity Sistema Scotland, The Big Noise orchestra is inspired by El Sistema, a groundbreaking Venezuelan music education programme.

“We aim to start these orchestras all over Scotland.”

The programme began in 1975, when José Antonio Abreu began running music lessons for children in Venezuela. Since its humble beginnings on the streets of Caracas, it has become a social phenomenon.

There are now many branches, enabling thousands of children to play in orchestras internationally. 

El Sistema's mission is to help children to fulfil their potential and escape cycles of poverty, drugs and violence.  Its most famous student is LA Philharmonic conductor and musical director Gustavo Dudamel.

At the heart of El Sistema is the belief in the orchestra as an organ of social change as well as an artistic structure. 

Creating a children's orchestra

“We aim to start these orchestras all over Scotland,” says Sistema Scotland's Director, Nicola Killean. "This first one was to demonstrate what we can achieve. Raploch is bang in the middle of Scotland, so it's easy to get to for people who might come to see what we're up to. Symbolically, we liked the fact that it's at the heart of the country.” 

'The Raploch', as it is known locally, is known as of one of Scotland's most deprived neighbourhoods. It has a history of high unemployment and social problems. But Raploch is changing.

As the result of a physical regeneration project, Raploch is in the midst of a major transformation. “What we are doing very much compliments that, and the council got what we were about and saw our potential.” 

An inclusive approach to music education

In Raploch, the Big Noise team see their work as much more than just providing free musical education.

“Grown-ups will often have all sorts of prejudices about what music children will respond to. They're totally up for challenging material."

In a traditional classical music education, children play in an orchestra only when they have reached a certain standard of playing or have passed an audition.

However, in the Sistema method, children are introduced to the orchestra from day one.

“The whole point about Sistema is that it's a social project. We are using music to get social benefits,” says Nicola. “Through playing together in the orchestra, the children learn how to cooperate with each other, encourage each other, and get along.

"Music lessons teach music. The orchestra teaches music and life.”

The challenges of working with children

The Big Noise team work with nursery children and primary school children in school curriculum time, for around three hours per week. Classes for older children run three days a week after school, along with daily summer schools. 

Levels of discipline are impressive – the children are focussed and keen to learn, and above all are having a lot of fun. “The most dramatic difference for us is their behaviour,” says violinist Jennifer Nicholson.

"When the project started, we were still feeling our way with boundaries. We didn't have as many staff – the children didn't know us, and we didn't know them.

"There are some children you have to nurture. With others, you have to say, 'If you're trying it on, stop it.' We've got a much better idea now.

"They're coming to play their instruments, and they're very clear about that."

Later in the morning, the summer school children listen to a Bartok quartet and are encouraged to draw and explore what the music makes them feel and think of. 

“Grown-ups will often have all sorts of prejudices about what music children will respond to,” says Nicola Killean. “The children have none. They are totally up for it.

"Parents have seen what a huge opportunity this is for their children."

"While we will play them lullabies and nursery rhymes, we also play them quite challenging material - before long we hope they will be playing it too.

"We've had them drawing the northern lights while listening to Sibelius, but we also love 'Peter and the Wolf'. We think there is a place for all music.”

Bringing classical music to the community

The Big Noise also reaches out into the community involving families and neighbours. Its 'Take a Musician Home for Tea' events are a good example.

During school holidays, teams of musicians from The Big Noise visit families in the community. They play to them, have a cup of tea, and take their child's instrument so that they can play along.

The response from the community to The Big Noise has been hugely positive, Nicola explains. “Everyone has been so welcoming and supportive. Parents in particular have seen what a huge opportunity this is for their children.” 

“It's been hard work but great fun. The children are a joy, and they are just fizzing with creativity. In terms of playing music they have gone from zero experience to the concert stage and even the recording studio.”

"They bring their instruments in and say 'I've been practising, I've taken it out, I've played to my neighbours.' They are really proud of themselves.”

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