El Sistema: How a Venezuelan music scheme changed Raploch

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Maestro Gustavo Dudamel applauds as he conducts the children from the Big Noise Orchestra during the Big Concert on 21 June 2012 in Stirling, Scotland
Luke Barjoti, 12, receiving his ovation in 2012 with conductor, Gustavo Dudamel

In 2012, an estate near Stirling in Scotland hosted a famous televised concert that featured local children performing with Venezuela's famous Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. It was part of an experiment to see what impact immersive music education could have on a community. Ten years on, what has happened to those children?

"Raploch: Of persons: ordinary, plain, undistinguished; crude, uncouth."

Imagine growing up in a neighbourhood and discovering this in the dictionary. The Raploch, a small estate on the edge of Stirling, has endured a stigma that goes back centuries.

Robert Burns used the name as an adjective.

"The Muse, poor hizzie / Tho' rough and raploch be her measure / She's seldom lazy."

This cluster of grey houses at the foot of Stirling Castle has certainly had its struggles. However, something has changed.

Just over 15 years ago, when an attempt was made to find out how many children were learning a musical instrument, the research team found one.

Today, that number is over 400 and the estate has its own symphony orchestra.

In 2012, there was a televised concert in which a group of local children who were part of a new programme called Big Noise, which gave them intensive musical tuition, joined Venezuela's Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra - conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.

The performance in a grey wet field on the edge of the Raploch was watched by a cheerful crowd wrapped in waterproof ponchos.

A decade later, the musical tradition has only grown. Two of the children, Solomon and Dylan, are now regulars in the Raploch Symphony Orchestra.

Another, the trombone player, Symone Hutchison, who is now 20, is about to enter her third year at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Symone Hutchison of the Big Noise Orchestra pictured in 2012 and 2022
Symone Hutchison, aged 10 and 20

"I didn't really understand how big it actually was," she said, "but I was so excited, seeing Gustavo and seeing the Simon Bolivar orchestra play was incredible. I was just totally inspired."

Luke Barjoti, who was 12 at the time, took a bow on stage and 10 years on has just finished a music degree.

Did it feel like a moment in his life?

"I would say it played a huge, significant role," he said. "An experience I will never forget.

Luke Barjoti of the Big Noise Orchestra pictured in 2012 and 2022
Luke Barjoti, violinist, then and now

"Before Big Noise I had no knowledge of cellos, violins…it never entered my mind. My mum or dad or any family members never learned an instrument.

As we walked back to the Big Noise office we started to talk about what he might do next and he rather surprised me; he began to talk about wanting to know more about politics.

"You know," he said, "someone made this happen."

And it goes on. The oboe player, Lewis Sinclair, now 23, is studying music at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

Lewis Sinclair of the Big Noise Orchestra pictured in 2012 and 2022
Lewis Sinclair, oboe player in 2012 and 2022

The Big Noise Project began in Raploch in 2008. It was the first of what has become a series of projects in Scotland, inspired by Venezuela's El Sistema.

El Sistema grew out of the ideas of Jose Abreu who taught music in some of Venezuela's poorest neighbourhoods.

Its objective is social change and its most famous graduate is Gustavo Dudamel, who conducted at that famous concert in 2012.

We met during a break in rehearsals for an opera in Barcelona, and I showed him what had become of those children he had met.

"Wow." He smiled as he watched the video messages from the students. "This is what El Sistema is.

"I remember it as one of the most special moments in my life… that beautiful encounter with all of the children, with all their families with the community was, it was a really a very special and unique moment.

"I was transformed," he said, "by the power of doing music with others but what is poverty? We think it's about a material thing, we don't have money, we don't have possibilities but the worst thing about being poor is to be nobody, no one in the society.

"You are excluded that is the worst, the worst thing but when you are included, you know, with, with the power, with the beauty of the art, you know, it's everything.

"I'm a Venezuelan but when I play Beethoven or Mozart or Elgar or Stravinsky, I feel them like they are part of my DNA of my identity, because it's universal."

Our conversation in the rather majestic setting of a huge room lined with gilt-edged mirrored walls in Barcelona's Liceu was, however, a reminder that the trappings of the traditional opera house can all too easily feel a little off-putting.

But, perhaps, the Raploch offers one solution.

The Big Noise office on Drip Road has just become part of daily life.

Children from the Raploch estate Big Noise orchestra play at The Big Concert on 21 June 2012 in Stirling, Scotland
The children from Raploch's Big Noise orchestra in 2012

While we were interviewing Luke on the roadside, two little girls scooted up to us on their bikes to see what we were doing and what made this chap so special.

They were not impressed, they also played violin and cello, why were we not interviewing them? Perhaps the most remarkable achievement in 10 years is just how unremarkable it has now become.

Later that evening at the symphony orchestra concert at the Church of the Holy Rude, Ben Morrison, an 18-year-old tuba player, was celebrating his 11th year as part of the Big Noise project.

Amidst the hugs from his delighted family he showed me his certificate but his graduation from the orchestra came with a slight degree of sadness.

"I love it, I love every minute of it," he said. "I love all all the music. Unfortunately I've done my years, hopefully I can come back as a helper.

"I'm proud of where I come from and I'm proud of what I'm doing. The Raploch's a good place and you should be proud of where you come from. It's famous for its music now."

No-one is pretending there has been some sort of miracle here, but 15 years ago, if the Raploch was known at all, it was known for its problems; these days it is becoming rather better known for its music.

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