Ah, the sound of music is soothing to the soul, isn’t it? Especially when it’s the sound of orchestral symphonies riding on a wind of change. That these sounds are coming from an area that usually doesn’t listen to this type of music makes it all the more remarkable. These are the sounds that were created by an amazing collaboration between two different countries with divergent cultures, though both carry a single hope.
There is a very beautiful chord that connects Venezuela with Scotland, and it is bringing some brilliance to a place in need. Raploch is a city that is surrounded by thriving modern neighbors, and yet it shares little of their wealth. Ranking as one of the poorest communities at the heart of Central Scotland, it is an area that is struggling to catch up to the rest of the UK.
Until recently, the story of the people who live there was one of lost hope, with education, health, poverty, and just about every other indicator pointing to a dead end. In 2004, the Scottish Executive recognized the need to help, so they created a master plan that is slowly trying to change this area’s fortunes. But then in 2008, something significant happened. A musical program, El Sistema, was introduced from Venezuela to the children of Raploch.
Richard Holloway, a former bishop of Edinburgh, started the program in Raploch after a 2006 visit to Venezuela showed the success stories that came from El Sistema. Nicola Killean was selected to be the school’s director, and she set out to hand-pick the talented musicians who work hard to instill a fire into these once-forgotten children. The community came together in unexpected ways, as the children learned in group sessions and then took their new found passions home with the help of the school when it was necessary.
Everyone involved knows that this is a long-term project, just as El Sistema took time to take firm root in Venezuela. But the musicians’ visions are fast becoming the hope of an entire community as they see opportunities for their children that hadn’t been present before. The children are now actively engaged, proud, enthusiastic, and helping one another to achieve their best. That they’ve come a long way is an understatement. They’ve reached new heights after having played for Her Majesty The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, as well as performing with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. And the best part is that their families have been standing next to them through the entire process.
The cost for running this program is £474,000 per year with 11% of the funds coming from public sources. In this time of austerity, it’s worrisome to think of what could happen if the governments lose interest in these types of arts programs. A 2011 report produced by the Scottish Government stated the following in its evaluation:
Big Noise activities are achieving short and medium term outcomes and there is overall agreement that it will achieve and sustain longer term outcomes. If it is able to continue to work with children from an early age, to provide holistic support to take care of the whole child, sustain engagement over time and engage with the majority of children in Raploch, then it has the potential to achieve more than a series of positive outcomes. It may, as part of a programme of regeneration, achieve social transformation.
And yet, it’s easy to see the success of this program by simply looking at the faces of the children and their teachers. They don’t need a government to tell them that it’s working just fine. Sistema Scotland plans to open three orchestra centres by 2013 with the help of supporters from around the world.
It’s clear that the arts impact our lives in more ways than most want to admit. The smiling faces of children who are inspired should be just the motivation that we all need to support the arts. And if that’s not enough, then look at the tumultuous riots that spread throughout the UK this past August. It’s an ugly reality that we’re all coming to grip with, though the UK is far from being the only nation with this debilitating social problem. But that picture just might change with programs like El Sistema. Isn’t our future worth the types of opportunities that the arts can provide?
Here is just a little of the Sistema Scotland coverage since its inception:
- The Scottish Government evaluation report (2011)
- 2011 Guardian UK coverage
- 2011 newsnetscotland coverage
- 2009 Guardian UK coverage
- Big Noise Raploch 1st anniversary memorial program (2009)