Showing posts with label Big Noise. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Big Noise. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Heat and light...

Kicking off the Olympic cultural festivities in style, The Dude and his Simon Bolivár Orchestra of Venezuela are back in Britain. Dudamel & co are taking over the Royal Festival Hall this weekend (concerts to be streamed live on The Guardian website, btw), and right now they’re in Raploch, Scotland, visiting the Big Noise project – Sistema Scotland’s own take on the Venezuelan music education scheme, revolutionising children’s lives through the making of music (an illuminating read about it here). We can see this concert on TV tomorrow, live on BBC4

But one question remains: why are we all so potty about Venezuelan young musicians when the UK has plenty of its own?

Britain’s got talent. And the real talent has little to do with Simon Cowell, but everything to do with our youth orchestras. The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain is a prime training ground for the best young orchestral musicians in the country; to hear them is to be bowled over and out by the standard of their playing, and the passion and dedication they show for their music.


Nor are they alone. The National Youth Orchestra of Wales claims to have been the first national youth orchestra in the world. The National Youth Orchestras of Scotland, the NationalYouth Choirs and the award-winning National Youth Choir of Scotland are all flourishing. The Aldeburgh Young Musicians, based at Snape in Suffolk, takes around 40 talented kids aged ten to 18 from the East Anglia area and provides them with high-level courses in school holidays, treating them not as children, but as young artists who compose, conduct and perform their own music. 

What’s the matter with us, then? Why do we fête the Venezuelans instead? What on earth do they have that we haven’t?

It would be easy to say “Nothing”. It would be easy to pretend that the Simon Bolivárs are all show and no substance: the twirling basses, the football shirts, all that Latin heat and light. But, though it pains me to say it, there is something. And it’s the other way round. It’s something that we have that they don’t have that’s the cause.

In a recent interview for The Strad, I asked Levon Chilingirian, leader of the Chilingirian String Quartet, what he thought about this. He and his three colleagues visit Caracas regularly to coach the students of El Sistema in chamber music. “One aspect which is very different from here,” he says, “is that they don’t have any limits set for them.” Many children learning music in the UK work their way through the Associated Board grade exams system by hook or by crook. “Mostly by crook as far as I can see,” Chilingirian adds. “It can be a case of: ‘You do your Grade V this year and next year I’ll give you a nice present when you do Grade VI’. And if you suggest to someone that they might learn a particular piece, they’ll say ‘No, no, that’s Grade VII and I’m only Grade IV.”

That doesn’t happen in Caracas. Chilingirian met a young violinist who’d been learning for only a year, but brought the Bruch Violin Concerto No.1 to a lesson and was determined to perform it with an orchestra soon afterwards. The group also told me about a 23-year-old taxi driver who, bored with his job, met some youngsters from El Sistema, heard about their work and decided to become a cellist, having never touched an instrument before. “Nobody said ‘You can’t’ - so he did it,” says Chilingirian. “He’s a very accomplished player.”

Music exams in Britain are an extremely mixed blessing. On the plus side, they provide a target to work towards, a chance for youngsters to prove themselves and gain a sense of achievement. The exams set by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music in particular are a global success story, a system embraced wholeheartedly in countries the world over, notably the Far East.

And yet, and yet... How many people in the UK have horror stories to tell about childhood music exams? How many youngsters who might have gone on to enjoy making music socially are left with a terror of performing after an unfortunate sojourn in the exam room? How many have had a bad experience and given up, because working for an exam is no fun at all? For many of us, these exams are our first-ever try at playing to other people, and an unhappy start can leave deep scars.

This set-up is satisfactory for very few. The examiner has little space to write notes and very, very little time in which to do so. Sight-reading tests rarely bear any relation to real music. The pieces offer a bit of choice, yet so little that often a child has to spend months practising something that he or she doesn’t even like – and then, of course, it often sounds like it, too. And sometimes a candidate’s chin wobbles or the eyes start to brim, but an examiner can’t take time to reassure them, because the system is a conveyor belt - the next candidates are in the waiting room building up their own store of nerves and mustn’t be kept waiting. This is an exam all right. But is that any way to make music?

It’s worth reflecting that in a target-oriented, achievement-focused society blighted by the class-ridden nature of the education system, children have to be very lucky to find themselves making music for the sake of enjoying it. Oftener than not they do so to please their parents, to win a music scholarship (few parents realise the hard work involved in that), to pass exams that will allow them to go on and pass more exams. It’s all about measurement and competition. But for El Sistema, it’s about personal and social transformation. 

Maybe it’s no wonder that many successful British professional musicians of my acquaintance never went through the graded exam system at all; if someone is more than averagely talented, exams quickly become an irrelevance. Do they hold the students back? I believe so. Just think about scales. You could learn them all. But if your grade prescribes only a certain number of them, you’re probably going to bother learning just those few, aren’t you? Levon Chilingirian is right: music exams instil the sense of an invisible ceiling that we dare not shatter. Rarely are we encouraged to chuck out the exam books, find a piece of music we love and damn well learn how to play it, even if it’s by Rachmaninov. That would be real motivation: a passion from within.

Plenty of other ways exist to learn and make music, and plenty exist in the UK. There’s Colourstrings, for example – a Saturday morning music school derived from Zoltán Kodály’s famous Hungarian system in which every child first learns to sing; they subsequently develop excellently trained 'ears'. The kids perform to one another in relaxed concert days, play in ensembles together early on and seem confident with their instruments.

And now we have pockets of El Sistema too: with enthusiasm for these schemes taking root around the country - the Big Noise in Scotland and In Harmony across England, in centres including Lambeth, Liverpool and more - there’s hope that our youngsters may also discover, like the Venezuelans, that making music is about joy, life and love. Not about quaking in your shoes alone with your half-size violin in a chilly school gym in Hatch End.

The Venezuelans are back? Bring 'em on. We need their inspiration. It’s working. It needs to work some more.

UPDATE, 5.40pm: This is clearly ringing some bells, and not just in the UK. Try this post by John Terauds from Musical Toronto: http://musicaltoronto.org/2012/06/20/music-exams-can-be-limitations-instead-of-goals/

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

SHOUT OUT! MUSIC EDUCATION FOR ALL #2

All this week here on JDCMB, some of the stars of British musical life share their firm conviction that musical education should be available to all children, regardless of wealth. They offer their personal memories and gratitude for the opportunities that were open to them, without which they might not be where they are today. And, just as the Big Noise of Sistema Scotland releases some truly astonishing statistics about the impact and beneficial effects of its programme at Raploch - eg, 100 per cent of parents reported their children's confidence increased by music-making - they remind us that music does more for the soul than can ever meet the eye...

Today we hear from James Rhodes, Errollyn Wallen and Nick van Bloss. Over to you, guys...




"Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Mozart, et al, are and always will be the musical equivalent of Shakespeare, Byron and Chaucer. To make cuts in our education system that will make music-making and even music-listening the preserve of the wealthy is an appalling indictment of our society. As a child I found it was these great composers that offered a rare glimpse of something bigger and brighter than the rest of my educational world. Being able to torture my teacher with my dire piano playing, listening to Peter and the Wolf, watching a talented ex-pupil play Chopin on stage - all of these things were vital and extraordinary experiences that in some way moulded and shaped my desire to immerse myself in music and, perhaps more importantly, gave me the feeling that there was something infinitely more exciting than my rather one-dimensional and painful schooldays. 

"To cut or remove classical music from the curriculum would be tantamount to substituting Shakespeare with Grisham - a cheapening and eroding of our cultural heritage that will have long-lasting and far-reaching consequences. Accessibility is a vital part of education. In the land that gave us Britten, Elgar, the Proms and Cheryl Cole, surely music education is a right and not a privilege. The success of El Sistema in Venezuela and the global inspiration it has produced should provide a clear message - the life-changing power of music is something to be treasured and supported. Music will always survive; far better it does so because of our government rather than despite it. "





"I was nine years old when, walking along my street in Tottenham, North London, holding my uncle’s hand, I confided that I heard music all the time in my head which I didn’t know what to do with. It was my Uncle Arthur who suggested that I might be a composer.

"It has been a long and winding road towards acquiring all the education and skills I needed but without the good start I had – a wonderful music teacher, Miss Beale, at our state primary school in Tottenham who taught everyone in the class to read and write music at the age of nine and who encouraged me to write my first ensemble composition for the class – Frogs and Toads – it would have been an even harder journey.

"I’ve just finished a day’s work on what is my eleventh opera. I still hear music all the time in my head and am full of plans for the future. I am never without a commission.  My music has been, on a NASA mission, to outer space.

"Every single day I give thanks for the musical education which made my career as a professional composer possible.  I believe that everyone who wants to, regardless of their background, should have access to the tools of this most remarkable trade."



"The days of considering music to be a mere hobby for the rich, a luxury, something of no intrinsic value, are surely over? Or are they...? Children of all ages are fascinated and stimulated by sound. They are 'wowed over' when they watch a virtuoso, thrilled when they experience a symphony orchestra. Given the chance, they're eager to pick up an instrument and ‘have a go’ - to engage, to 'create'.

"Budgetary cuts affect music education disproportionately.  Students are still being taught the full school curriculum but instrumental teaching is being slashed. It is obviously the funding structure which should be amended, so that when cuts have to be made, the basic building blocks of music education are not annihilated overnight.

"The Longfellow quotation, 'Music is the universal language of mankind', may sound like a cliche, but, can we, as a society, deprive children the chance of experiencing this 'language'? The benefits of music education are numerous. It has a multitude of applications physical, artistic, cognitive, creative, social, therapeutic, intellectual...  No matter who we are, it is a major force in our lives. 

"It would be a sad indictment of our society if we not only ignore the benefits of music education, but if we deny a generation the chance of experiencing even a few of the wonders music has to offer. Music itself is a great survivor, but the route of passing it on to others has rarely been more fragile."