Classical review 2012: Sistema’s success in Raploch is something to be truly proud of

In June children from the Raploch estate took part in a triumphant concert alongside Venezuela's Simon Bolivar Orchestra. Picture: Getty
In June children from the Raploch estate took part in a triumphant concert alongside Venezuela's Simon Bolivar Orchestra. Picture: Getty
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ON A SUMMER’S evening in June, heavy clouds gathered over Stirling, and the heavens opened. But not even the torrential rain could drench the thrill, pride and excitement felt by the families of Stirling’s Raploch Estate.

Their children are lucky enough to be learning to play musical instruments free of charge as part of the pioneering, socially-driven Sistema project. Despite the weather, they were performing alongside Venezuela’s legendary Simon Bolivar Orchestra under its most famous “graduate”, the conductor Gustavo Dudamel, now music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Compare this euphoric night to the misfortunes facing the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland 12 months ago. It was clear then that 2012 would be a critical year for NYOS. It was reeling from a swingeing, and completely bonkers 50 per cent cut in foundation funding from Creative Scotland, NYOS and its beleaguered chief executive Julian Clayton had, in euphemistic terms, “amicably parted”, and a replacement was being sought who could steer the ailing ship on a more even course.

Fast-forward to September, when our sister newspaper Scotland on Sunday launched a campaign to highlight the plight of instrumental tuition in schools, where 24 out of 32 local authorities in Scotland currently charge tuition fees ranging between £95 and £340 a year. The whole scattergun system, viewed from the national perspective, is nothing short of a postcode lottery.

Worse still, the campaign revealed that some local authorities were even charging SQA certificate candidates (those sitting Standard Grades and Highers, etc) for tuition on the instruments they are required to play as a compulsory major component of these certificate exams.

On the face of it, these might seem like three separate issues, but they aren’t. Each has a bearing on the other, pointing to the unalterable fact – highlighted by the SoS campaign – that until Scotland has a policy for music tuition that is influenced, governed, and accounted for at ministerial level, the current situation will remain arbitrary and iniquitous.

Look no further than Stirling for a stark and obscene example. While those living in Raploch are enjoying free tuition, free instruments and the custom-built facilities and specialist tuition provided by the Sistema project, others living on its periphery, some in equally socially deprived areas of Stirling, have to stump up £309 a year, one of the highest charges in Scotland.

Given that the same local authority inputs a large proportion of funding to the Raploch project, and is expected eventually to become its major funder, what kind of message does that put out to families in neighbouring parts of the region?

Such an anomaly will not happen in Glasgow, where the city council recently announced it is to back the first Sistema project outside Raploch, located in the multicultural Govanhill area. Like Edinburgh and several other councils, Glasgow is among the few who still provide free music tuition.

How does NYOS feed into all this? There are two issues that connect it, the first of which has a direct link with instrumental tuition charges. NYOS, as a result of its funding cut, has had to increase its own course fees, creating a potential double hit on the parental purse, and certainly making it much more difficult for families of lesser means to consider sending their children. Applicant numbers, says NYOS, are noticeably, if marginally, down.

Secondly, its relationship with Sistema has historically been prickly, a ridiculous state of affairs when you consider that the ultimate aim of Sistema pupils should – as in sport – be to play for the national team. Historically, personalities have played a part in souring any potential relationship.

But NYOS is a very different animal than it was 12 months ago, despite still having to survive the 50 per cent reduction imposed last year. At its helm is new chief executive Joan Gibson, who moved to NYOS from her previous position in charge of the National Youth Choirs of Scotland. She has conducted a major restructuring of the NYOS orchestras, ranging from the new NYOS Junior orchestra (primary school level) to NYOS Senior (secondary level) and the flagship NYOS itself, for 13-25 year-olds.

Gibson has also undertaken a wider strategic review aimed at convincing Creative Scotland to restore its full funding. “I am hopeful that will happen,” she says. “Creative Scotland has been backed into a corner where I think it really has to acknowledge the national companies.” Time will tell.

But that’s not all. Gibson has moved quickly to heal the proprietorial riffs that plagued the previous NYOS administration. In particular, she has formed a relationship with Sistema that should have been there from the word go. In August, Gibson made it possible for 100 of the Sistema kids to attend NYOS’s Perth concert. But most importantly, and for the first time ever, pupils from Raploch have auditioned for places in NYOS orchestras.

So could this be the first indication that the Raploch project is reaching a point where its success can be truly measured, and where it might finally be seen to emulate the achievements of its Venezuelan model? There’s something to look out for when NYOS meets for its Spring Courses next April.

None of that, of course, addresses the nationwide problem of the tuition fee postcode lottery. But there are recent signs that Holyrood is now serious about sorting it out.

The announcement by the Scottish Government last weekend that a working party is to be established under ministerial stewardship with the ultimate aim of scrapping all local authority tuition fees, and that £1 million will be earmarked to buy new musical instruments for schools, is fantastic news.

So as 2012 draws to a close, things are certainly heading in the right direction. But they have to move fast, they have to move decisively, and above all they have to move nationally. Otherwise we will be left with a situation in which local authority instrumental provision is governed by a disconnected menagerie of political and fiscal whims; with a fragmentation that sees Sistema isolated and an object of envy; and with a national youth orchestra that represents only the children of families who can afford it.