Orchestral manoeuvres in the Raploch

CAN an ambitious project to bring classical music to a notoriously troubled estate turn these children’s lives around?

IT IS teatime in Stirling but not all the children of the Raploch are having their tea. Around 40 of them are, instead, still at school. Aged between six and 11, they are grouped in semi-circles around their music teacher, Veronica Urrego, each clutching an instrument – various strings, woodwind and brass – rehearsing the powerful overture to Beethoven’s Egmont. One little girl, 11-year-old Amileigh Jones, frowns intensely at her score, pink baseball boots tapping out the rhythm as she bows her cello. “Eez a Highlan’ coo,” Urrego suggests in her vivid mix of native Venezuelan and playground Scots, trying to convey the strength and aggression she would like to hear in the playing. “Come on everyone, I want to see you sweat.”

Egmont was written in 1810 and went on to become the unofficial anthem for the Hungarian revolution of 1956. Now, more than half a century later, the overture is soundtracking another revolution of sorts. On Thursday, midsummer night, as part of the Big Concert, the opening event of the London 2012 Olympic festival, these children will perform Egmont with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel – the hottest and most acclaimed conductor in the world. That the concert will take place, not in London, but in front of up to 8,000 people on a patch of waste ground in Raploch, a housing estate once synonymous with crime, poverty and violence, is the latest remarkable step in the progress of Big Noise.

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The Scottish version of El Sistema, a long-running project in Venezuela that has changed the lives of thousands of children from the barrios by immersing them in classical music, Big Noise began in Stirling in 2008. At that time, just one child among 3,000 people living on the scheme was learning a musical instrument. Now 450 are part of the children’s orchestra. The idea is that if children are taught to play from a very young age, and – crucially – coached within an orchestral group rather than individually, they will grow up to value themselves and the people around them.

This would be true anywhere, but such early intervention is thought to be especially important in areas of deprivation, which is one of the reasons Raploch was chosen. It has an unemployment rate almost three times higher than Scotland as a whole, and those living there are approximately three times more likely to be hospitalised for alcohol or drug misuse. There are also significant mental health issues within the community. It is worth noting, perhaps, that the Big Noise building on Drip Road has, as neighbours, a betting shop, an off-license and the council office dealing with children recovering from domestic abuse.

Within the Stirling area, and at times nationally, the Raploch has long been a byword for hardship. The council housing development dates from 1919, but the area was in centuries past a village peopled by fishermen, farmers and weavers. Mass immigration from Ireland in the mid-19th century saw the population increase massively as men and their families arrived to work in the coal industry, leading to problems with overcrowding and – when the pits no longer needed miners in such numbers – large-scale unemployment.

Against this historic backdrop, a four-year-old project must inevitably still be considered as being at an early stage. However, last year, an independent report commissioned by the Scottish Government concluded that the children of Big Noise – which reaches around three-quarters of the primary school population – have experienced increases in self-esteem, social skills, concentration and feelings of security. In the long term, it is expected the project will contribute to reduced rates of crime and anti-social behaviour and help the children grow into adults with better employment prospects. There are plans, within the next two years, to roll Big Noise out into other deprived communities, in Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen and Fife.

Vincent Connelly, 45, an unemployed father of nine, is certain it is having a positive impact. “When I was wee, the Raploch was just violence," he says. “Nowadays, it's violins and violas. That’s all the weans talk about. It’s taking away the image of them as layabouts hanging about the corners. You walk down the street and you hear them practising.”

Three of his sons – Brad, five, Aaron, eight, and Vincent, ten – are involved with Big Noise, and he himself plays double bass in the adult orchestra, the natural instrument for such a huge fan of 1950s rock ’n’ roll; he jokes about them forming a band in their own right and going busking up the town one Saturday. “I've got the name – The Asbos.”

The Big Noise programme begins in nursery with musical games – clapping and singing, learning about rhythm and pitch. In primary one, the children make their own model instrument, learn the different parts and how to hold it properly. They become full members of the orchestra as primary two looms. The programme is compulsory in nursery and primary one, and thereafter children have the choice to opt in.

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Big Noise runs five mornings a week during the holidays and three afternoons a week during term time. There are 16 musicians on the staff, including violinist Urrego, herself a product of Venezuela’s El Sistema. The programme costs £1,866 per child per year. So far, £3.6 million has come from private and charitable donations, and Stirling Council has agreed that, from 2013, it will look at strategies for funding the orchestra on an ongoing basis.

The argument is that investment now will create savings later by diverting children from paths of criminality and anti-social behaviour; the cost of keeping a young person in secure accommodation is £270,000 per annum. “That is not to say that any of the children featured would be on such a negative path without us,” says George Anderson, of Big Noise.

“We are for every child in Raploch, and it is that whole-community approach that helps support the few children who really need it. The secure children in the community help the vulnerable by their participation in the orchestra. To learn how to get along with your community, you need your community.

“This is not about a dozen challenging children in a room together being kept out of everyone else’s way. It is about a handful of challenging children learning to take part in a common cause with hundreds of their peers.

“Hundreds of people playing a complicated piece of music is a massive exercise in collaboration and cooperation. That is the essential fact of El Sistema.”

The Big Concert, which will be broadcast live on BBC Four, Radio Scotland and on outdoor screens across the UK, is an opportunity for Raploch to show off this spirit of unity. The programme includes a full performance by the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, around 140 children performing Purcell’s Rondo from Abdelazar, and the best players from Big Noise joining the Bolívars for Egmont – all this against the dramatic backdrop of Stirling Castle, high on its crag. It is an exceptionally big deal, and thus demands have been made of the children in terms of extra rehearsal. “We have been treating them like Olympic athletes,” says George Anderson.

“If they are going to stand on that stage with Gustavo Dudamel, they’ve got to have earned it.” The wild-haired, charismatic conductor is something of a Justin Bieber figure round these parts.

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Amileigh practises every day for two or three hours. She is thrilled about the concert; first fretting she wouldn’t be good enough, then shrieking with excitement on learning she had been picked. Maureen Jones, her mum, is a 31-year-old single parent. She chooses not to work because her priority is to look after her children herself. Had her daughter’s cello and tuition not been offered free of charge, she would not have been able to afford them. “When I first heard about Big Noise I thought, ‘Classical music?’ I wasn’t really sure. But I let her go and she loved it. And she has got so much more confidence now. She was a shy wee lassie before.

“Now they’re at school in the morning and here until quarter to six at night, so it gets them used to working. Maybe they won’t be cellists or violinists when they’re older, but it teaches them to try hard and not to be lazy.”

“We will be cellists and violinists,” says Amileigh, who would rather like to be a professional musician, though perhaps not in the classical world.

“She’s going to be a pop star. Jessie J’s her favourite,” confides her mum, as Amileigh rolls her eyes. “I’m just really proud she can play the cello like that. And the more she learns and the better she gets, the prouder I get.”

We should be careful not to overstate the impact of Big Noise on the Raploch. It is too easy to romanticise the project as a sort of Billy Elliot come to life. It may be another five years or more before we see whether it has achieved its aims of social transformation. But make no mistake, there is a need for it. The generation now growing up needs some hope for the future. Spending time talking to locals is to encounter a general feeling that the much-vaunted regeneration programme has not delivered. What you hear is that the new housing is unaffordable, that there are no jobs and that dealers are selling drugs openly in the older parts of the estate. Meanwhile, due to the economic downturn and the need for public spending savings, social projects without the profile of Big Noise are struggling to cover costs.

On the other hand, Raploch has always had a strong spirit, a sense of itself as a distinct community, which may be why the idea of musicians playing together towards a common end has flourished. Mindful of this, Maureen Jones is weary of the area’s poor reputation. She argues that Big Noise has strengthened the feeling of integration by including in the one orchestra children from the Catholic, non-faith and special educational needs schools. It has brought them all together,” she says.

“If you walk down the street here, everybody you see will talk to you. And if you’re not from here and you move in, they’ll make you feel welcome. See if it was full of junkies and robbers, wouldn’t everybody’s bairns be in care and there wouldn’t be a Big Noise? Maybe there’s a few, but is there not a few in other places as well? This is made out as a bad, bad place. Well, I was brought up here, and everybody knows everybody.”

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Watching Big Noise rehearse is fascinating. What’s striking is how quiet and focused they are. They do not behave perfectly, of course, but for a room full of more than 100 primary-schoolers, the discipline is remarkable.

Listening to them play Beethoven, though, is the real revelation. There’s something undeniably moving about music of such ferocious sublimity and grandeur being performed by children. Sadness, joy, anger and love are felt so strongly and suddenly at that age, and those emotions can be heard very clearly in the playing of these youngsters. That’s what takes this beyond being an important social project and into the realm of something rather more mystical. It’s as if the music itself is somehow ennobling.

William McVey is 11 years old and has been learning the cello since he was six. At night, he puts on a Beethoven CD and drifts off to sleep. His instrument appears to be profound. “No matter how I’m feeling, I pick up that cello and it changes my mood instantly,” he says. “At first, I wanted to play the violin, but when I tried the cello I felt connected to it.”

And how does it make him feel that he is good at this? “Really happy. I didn’t believe I could play like this. You don’t think Raploch could play classical music, but it has made a big difference to everybody here. It has brought music into here, it has brought happiness. People go up and down the corridor at school whistling Ode to Joy.”

William’s mother, Charlotte Stewart, has four children, all involved with Big Noise. She herself is 30 and grew up in Raploch. “Who knows where I’d be if I’d had this when I was growing up,” she says. “I think people round here would have gone a wee bit further if we’d had this. We would have had more confidence, discipline and respect.”

The Big Noise team works hard to ensure that any child who wishes to play can do so. Those whose circumstances prevent them from attending are the very children for whom attendance is most important. Parents with drug issues might find it difficult to get their children to Big Noise in the morning during summer school, so staff pick them up from home or text a reminder. Knowing the family backgrounds is helpful in understanding why some children might sometimes be disruptive during lessons.

Iain Sandilands, one of Scotland’s top percussionists, plays in Mr McFall’s Chamber and in Scottish singer/songwriter Karine Polwart’s band as well as teaching with Big Noise. “We’ve all had examples now when we’ve had to react in the most positive and encouraging way to challenging behaviour from a child, whether that be bad language or a child who doesn’t have a very long attention span,” he says. “I’ve heard some really creative abuse coming out the mouth of a ten-year-old. But over the two years I have been here incidents of notable aggression or violence have become fewer and less frequent. One of the rewarding things is to have that responsibility of being a positive influence and to notice little by little a difference is being made.”

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Why is it so important that children are not excluded from Big Noise even when they are very disruptive? “Many of the children I encounter have had an adult in their lives that has rejected them in some way,” Sandilands explains. “Some of them might even come from a home where they share the attention of an adult with many siblings. Inclusivity is what we are all about. We will never give up.”

Back in the rehearsal room, the early-evening sun is slanting in the windows. Egmont is coming together. Urrego’s eyes widen and her black curls fall forward as she conducts, the baton rising and falling like a cleaver.

In just a few minutes these children will be going home to tea and homework and telly and bed, but for the moment, as the strings surge and the horns mourn, each is caught up in the spirit of Beethoven and El Sistema, lost in their own joyful noise. There is, as the piece ends, a moment of weighted silence as each child waits to hear Urrego’s thoughts. Finally, the judgement arrives.

“Eez no’ bad,” she says with a sly grin. “OK, faster. Again.”

The Big Concert is on Thursday, in the old schools site, Drip Road, Raploch, Stirling. Gates open at 6:30pm and the programme begins at 7:45pm. Adult tickets cost £12. Tickets for children aged 16 and under are £5. For further information, see www.makeabignoise.org.uk