Music saved the street children of Venezuela – could it work for Scotland too?

From The Times
August 13, 2007
Music saved the street children of Venezuela – could it work for Scotland too?
Ben Hoyle, Arts Reporter

In the violent slums of Venezuela, free classical music lessons have transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of children and created an unlikely production line of virtuosos.

For 32 years El Sistema (the System) has tackled the “spiritual poverty” among some of South America’s poorest street children by teaching them to play Bach, Beethoven and Mahler in orchestras.

Now El Sistema is coming to Britain, where project organisers hope that it will rescue a generation of children on one of Scotland’s most notorious housing estates.

On Friday the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, El Sistema’s dazzling standard-bearer, is to play a rare British concert at the Edinburgh International Festival.

Families from the Raploch estate in Stirling will be at the rehearsal, dreaming that their children might one day follow in the footsteps of Gustavo Dudamel or Edicson Ruiz. Dudamel, 26, is music director designate of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Ruiz is a double-bass player who was plucked from the ghettos of Caracas to become, at 17, the youngest-ever member of the Berlin Philharmonic.

Raploch could use a few success stories. On the outskirts of Stirling, overshadowed by the castle, hemmed in by the Forth River and the M9 motorway to Perth, rows of crumbling pebble-dash houses testify to years of decay.

Half a century ago children played in the streets and factories lined Raploch’s main road. Now there is widespread unemployment and parents are scared to let their sons and daughters outside.

Mechelle Kerr, 32, a mother of three, said that parents would do anything to keep their children off the streets. El Sistema is the answer to her prayers, she said, watching her middle child Stuart, aged 5, ride past on his tricycle. “There’s nothing for the bairns at that age except the swing park, and that’s full of 14-year-olds drinking Buckfast [tonic wine].”

Stuart wants to take up the trumpet and learn the music for the Sonic the Hedgehog video games.

Raploch’s fortunes are already being slowly transformed by a £120 million regeneration project, including 900 new homes, new schools, nurseries, sports facilities and a health campus. It is hoped that the regeneration programme and El Sistema will support each other.

Judy Barrow, of the Raploch Urban Regeneration Company, said that the area’s poverty does not compare with the conditions that many of El Sistema’s current pupils grow up in.

“We don’t have shoeless starving kids in Raploch but we do have kids who don’t have the same opportunities as other kids to go to ballet classes or music lessons because their parents can’t afford them.”

In Venezuela, El Sistema embraces more than 200 orchestras, reaching 250,000 children. It attracts more than £15 million a year of government funding. But it started humbly, with a handful of children playing in a garage.

The Scottish pilot will follow this modest model. A company has been set up to run the five-year scheme in Raploch, backed by the Scottish Arts Council, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Stirling Council. If the pilot is successful there are plans to roll it out across Scotland.

Susan Carragher, who is responsible for communities and culture at Stirling Council, travelled to Venezuela in May to see El Sistema at work. She was struck by the passion of the children. “We saw one student with a bandage on. She’d been shot but she didn’t want to miss a class.”