Melody makers

12th June 2009 at 01:00
Classical music is expanding horizons for primary children from poor backgrounds. Meabh Ritchie reports on how a project in Venezuela provided inspiration here

John lives above a pub, just round the corner from his south London primary school. His middle name is Franco Zola and he loves Chelsea, just like his dad. The six-year-old also loves playing the violin. "I wish I could stay at home and play with my instrument all day," he tells me during one of the music sessions at the Herbert Morrison Primary in Lambeth. "I'm gonna practise every day, yeah? `Cause then I can play in an orchestra."

John and his Year 1 classmates are among the first groups to take part in the In Harmony project, which is being piloted in socially deprived areas of Liverpool, Norwich and Lambeth. Introduced in May, the project is inspired by El Sistema, the Venezuelan music service of more than 30 years standing, which has seen children from poverty-stricken areas go on to perform with the nation's Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra.

Numerous music education projects, many funded as part of the Government's music manifesto, have been set up in the UK. Earlier this year, members from the Sing Up campaign got together for a concert at the Royal Opera House that was filled to the rafters with children singing their hearts out. But it's fair to say that nothing has captured the hearts of audiences as much as the exuberant Venezuelan performances.

This is largely because of the social drive at the heart of the Venezuelan model. The accomplished orchestra gives heartfelt, passionate performances around the world, which is all the more extraordinary for the fact that 90 per cent of the children involved are from poor socio-economic backgrounds. The high standard of performance is almost a by-product of the fall in crime and new-found aspirations of the youngsters involved.

The project began in 1975, when maestro Jose Antonio Abreu started giving music lessons in a multi-storey car park to children from shanty towns in Caracas. Generous government funding, granted because of its proven success in social transformation, has allowed the programme to expand, and a quarter of a million children are currently enrolled.

It was Richard Holloway, chair of the Scottish Arts Council, who brought the model to the UK and established Sistema Scotland in August 2007. The pilot project, which started in June 2008, was brought to the Raploch estate in Stirling, where the average income is pound;6,240 and just 4 per cent of children go on to higher education. By all accounts, Sistema Scotland has been embraced by the whole community. The charity sent six musicians to Venezuela to see the teaching methods in action. These musicians now work with around 200 children each week. Nursery classes up to P1 (reception in England and Wales) are taught three hours a week as part of the curriculum and P2 to P5 pupils aged 5-9 years old can attend three after-school sessions.

Instrument teaching in the UK is traditionally carried out on a one-to-one basis, with children expected to practise for hours at home in between lessons and only joining an orchestra when they have reached a certain standard. But youngsters with problematic home environments are less likely to be able to devote time to practise alone, and Sistema does not expect them to. The Venezuelan approach is one of immersion, so children get together a couple of times a week and have musicians with them constantly when they play.

Nicola Killean, director of Sistema Scotland, says: "Some live in chaotic homes and it's up to us to be understanding, not judging. We really engage with the families so that a child will make it here if they really want to come. We'll text parents to remind them about rehearsals, arrange transport or provide snacks so they're not playing on an empty stomach."

Immersing children as young as nursery level in an orchestral sound normalises classical music and is essential if the project is to have a long-term effect, through secondary school and beyond.

Anna* is a secondary music teacher in east London and is all too aware of the obstacles facing music teachers in the sector. "The majority of our pupils are from disadvantaged backgrounds and just don't relate to classical music because they haven't been exposed to it before," she says. "I wouldn't say it's a reluctance necessarily, but they are more familiar with pop music or Bollywood songs.

"Socially, economically and culturally, music is low down on the priority list in my school. But to be realistic, I do think it's more important for them to be able to read and write, and a lot of them even struggle with that."

Anna's dilemma is a familiar one. Too often, schools have to prioritise getting good results in core subjects over teaching non-compulsory "soft" subjects. But anyone with an understanding of music believes it has a role to play in the curriculum and is actually beneficial to a child's capacity to learn, as well as their co-ordination, social skills and even IQ.

Daniel Davies, one of the In Harmony tutors working at Herbert Morrison Primary in Lambeth, says: "It's bizarre that music can have a secondary role, because it's really so much a part of what it means to be a person. Singing is so natural. Music should be included in the same way as learning to read, to write, to draw.

"When we met Maestro Abreu a couple of weeks ago, he kept saying, `The culture for the poor shouldn't be a poor culture,' and that's the main focus of this idea of early immersion."

The areas involved in the Sistema Scotland and In Harmony projects were chosen for their social deprivation and because they emanate what cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, In Harmony's chair, calls "a spiritual poverty".

He describes what happened when some performers from Brazilian favelas came to Norwich for a music-making project: "Very interestingly, they said, `You think we're poor, but this to us is poverty.' They saw something different; they saw a lack of community spirit."

Another crucial difference between El Sistema and traditional UK music teaching is that children play in an orchestra from day one, even if they are just beating out a rhythm or playing one note. This creates a music- making community for them to belong to from the start.

"Everything we do goes back to the Venezuelan message - being in a community. They are in an orchestra from the word go, so there's a communal feel and they can be involved if they want to," says Ms Killean.

Playing an instrument demands discipline and a certain level of competence, especially when playing in a group, and this is why in the UK it is generally left until pupils are a bit older. But discipline is just as important to El Sistema and its sister projects in the UK.

"Everyone can be involved, but you do have to work hard," says Ms Killean. "That doesn't have to be done without the discipline that you need to learn an instrument, which is one of the keys to success - wanting to work harder and wanting to achieve."

As far as El Sistema is concerned, the orchestra is a metaphor for working together towards a common goal, and its members learn that through hard work individuals become more than the sum of their parts.

Gill Walshaw, a senior tutor from In Harmony, says: "One of the best ways to run a social model (through music) is to get people to come together and feel that group dynamic, and it's ideal to use an orchestral model.

"It's also such a sensory experience. Fundamentally it's a physical and mental process and a whole experience for the person. It's extremely engaging, and then to do that with your friends is even more rewarding."

Mr Lloyd Webber is passionate about the restorative power of music and a firm believer in the benefits of playing in an orchestra. "You have more than 100 musicians working together at something that's bigger than they are individually," he says.

"It's an equal thing - music is about equality really. When a conductor puts down the baton for the first beat of a big symphony, everybody is equal."

Equality isn't something usually associated with classical music in the UK. In fact, it is normally associated with elitism and the white middle classes. Funding cuts to music education in the late Eighties meant that local authorities in England and Wales weren't required to provide music lessons, so only children whose parents could afford it took up instruments. As a result, a generation has grown up alienated from classical music.

"I've just got back from Korea, and in the audience there are more under- 30s than over," says Mr Lloyd Webber. "People find that really hard to believe here, but it's like that in much of eastern Asia and it's the same in Venezuela - everyone wants to learn an instrument."

This time last year, the Sistema Scotland performers were busking in the town centre, and a passer-by asked them to "turn it up". Many of the listeners didn't have any experience of music that wasn't electronic, but their lack of knowledge about classical music performance did not stop them enjoying it.

Nicola Killean's experience has been nothing but positive. "I think that sometimes we think there's this elitism and we create it through our own mindset," she says.

"When we came to speak to people in Raploch, we said, `We're going to start an orchestra and we'd love you to take part.' Everyone was really excited by that and by the musicians' performances.

"Children love to be involved in everything if you give them the attention, the enthusiasm and find out what motivates them. We've found that they absolutely love it and their enthusiasm spills out. Some of them haven't missed any rehearsals."

At the end of the Year 1's music session at Herbert Morrison, In Harmony's senior tutor Ms Walshaw puts on a recording of Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King. It starts quietly, with only a couple of instruments playing the main theme, and gradually gets louder and louder as more instruments join in.

The children are moving around the hall on their hands and knees, responding to the music and moving faster as the music gets louder. By the end, they are beaming and surprise their teachers by leading the sing-song goodbyes without any help.

Ms Walshaw tells them that they will be going to watch a real orchestra in a couple of weeks' time. One pupil asks: "Are we going to get to play in an orchestra?" and when Ms Killean answers yes, she is met with a resounding chorus of the children's excited amazement: "Wooooaaahhh!"

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