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Postcards from Scotland

El Sistema - Venezuela and Scotland

The Scottish Government have now (March 2011) published a report on the impact of Sistema Scotland's orchestral music project Big Noise on youngsters in the Raploch Estate on the outskirts of Stirling. It reports sizeable changes in young people's confidence, happiness and well-being as well as benefits to the wider community.

Background to the project

In 1975 a pioneering Venezuelan economist, politician and musician José Antonio Abreu set up the State Foundation for the National System of Youth and Childen’s Orchestras of Venezuela - more usually known as 'El Sistema'.  Venezuela now has 125 youth orchestras, 57 children’s orchestras and 30 adult performing orchestras. There are also music schools located throughout the country. Over 250,000 children are involved in urban and rural areas and more than 400,000 in total have benefited from their involvement.

Over the years El Sistema has produced a number of internationall renowned classical muscians but cultivating musical talent is not the main aim. Abreu’s vision has always been to use music as a development tool which would teach children about responsibility, hard work, respect and sacrifice. These are all necessary to achieve anything in life. Abreu’s intention was always for the orchestras to have most impact on the life of young, poor, marginal young people for the slums – the ‘barrios’. Many have become involved from juvenile detention centres or from living in the streets.

Children do not require any previous musical experience to become involved. They are given an instrument – usually a violin – to start. If this doesn’t suit then they try out others until they find one that suits them best.  There are also opportunities to support the orchestra in other ways. For example, by mending instruments. 

As this initiative is a tool of human development it is funded by the Ministry of Health and Social Development, not the Ministry for Culture.

In 2009 Jose Abreu was awarded the Ted Prize and his accepance speech outlines his vision of the project.

Impact of the orchestras

A major research study into the impact participation in the orchestras has on young people revealed that their involvement does indeed support the development of positive attitudes. For example, self-esteem rises and so does internal locus of control and motivation. Interestingly, the research also shows similar increases in the parents of the children who take part.

Other benefits have been reported. Making music has now become part of the daily lives of many families. This may not have made them better off economically but it has created ‘spiritual affluence’. Other studies have shown that the young people who take part are much less likely to get involved in crime or drug taking. In the communities which have young people’s orchestras, studies have shown that deliquency and drug abuse has fallen by about 30%.

JOse Abreu believes that their are three circles of benefits to El Sistema. First there are a whole  number of personal benefits to the children who become involved. He argues that their involvement in playing classical music aids their emotional and intellectual development. It also teaches persistence, self-control and other personal qualities. The second circle involves the family. The family needs to support their child's involvement but the child's transformation is such that he/she becomes an inspiring role model for his/her parents. The third circle involves the wider community. Involvement with the orchestra means the development of community and solidarity. It can bring about cultural transformation. Indeed Abreu argues strongly that empowering and developing these children is one of the best ways to tackle poverty. It makes them spiritually rich and resilient.

What we find so compelling about this project is the way that it develops a strong sense of individual indentity and positive sense of self but that this is allied to communal goals. This gives children what Abreu calls 'a noble identity'. As a Centre we find this approach so refreshing to much of the modern, false self-esteem building because it is about -

  • Children learning real skills and being challenged.
  • Children learning about the importance of discipline and ethics.
  • Children's time being absorbed in engaging activities. It is estimated that often as much as six  hours a day – is taken up by the orchestra.
  • Children learning about real commitment and solidarity.

The Centre is particularly keen on approaches such as this as they are muti-faceted and their success results from the way in which the different types of benefits interlock and reinforce one another.

Sistema Scotland

Sistema Scotland was initiated mainly by Richard Holloway who now chairs the Board. The first orchestra was in the Raploch and they aim to have three children's orchestra centres by 2013. They have strong links with those involved in Venezuela. Their website has further information and also some videos of the children performing.  Make sure you watch some of  the videos of the youngsters performing. The positive Scottish Government review of the Raploch project shows that it is possible to get real benefits for children in Scotland, living in a culture which is substantially different from Venezuela's.

The pictures are by Marc Marnie.


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