Thursday 2 May 2013

A social programme that uses music to enrich the lives of students and their families

Children from IHSE Lambeth performingIt says something for the respect and admiration in which In Harmony Sistema England is held that their reception and presentation yesterday (1 May 2013) was almost over-subscribed. A large crowd gathered from all over the arts to watch a film about the recent In Harmony Sistema England visit to Venezuela and to hear about a new agreement with El Sistema. In Harmony Sistema England (IHSE) was set up by Julian Lloyd Webber four years ago to emulate the Venezuelan El Sistema in England, using music teaching for social change. It is a testament to IHSE's hard work and success that so many people, including Ed Vaizey, Minister of Culture, and Jude Kelly of London's South Bank Centre, were there to show support. Those present represented not just IHSE but other organisations on the El Sistema model such as Sistema Scotland and Sistema Norwich, as well as Sistema-like groups.

Conversation was at first general, as people caught up with each other, learning about the progress at the various IHSE projects. The children from In Harmony Liverpool will be playing alongside members of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall in the 2013 Proms. And in Norwich, where the In Harmony project lost its Arts Council Funding, the project has been re-born as the independent Sistema Norwich. I talked to programme director Marcus Patteson and he told me how they were hoping to use internet link-ups to expand their contacts with other groups. And in Scotland, IHSE's sister organisation Sistema Scotland has successfully placed 10 children in the National Youth Orchestra of scotland.

Ed Vaizey, the Minister of Culture, spoke briefly emphasising the government's believe and support for the project, highlighting the extraordinary transformations to children's lives. IHSE is unusual in that it was initiated under the previous government, yet still receives such strong support from the present one; this bi-partisan support was something that was echoed in speeches later on during the presentation.

'more amazing than anything he had been led to believe'

Julian Lloyd Webber re-iterated his belief that music was for everyone. He pointed out that when he attended the Royal College of Music junior department, he was one of a very few pupils from a fee paying school, whereas nowadays the position is reversed. He talked about how the government's support in expanding the projects from three to six would have to be balanced by tangible results, but that these are already being seen. The IHSE Liverpool project has seen a drastic increase in literacy rates in the two years it has been going. This highlights one of the points which different speakers came back to, the IHSE isn't simply a music teaching programme, it has wider benefits, both personal and social.

Lloyd Webber commented on how far IHSE has moved in such a short time. To deepen the connection with El Sistema, 14 project leaders and tutors visited El Sistema in Venezuela in January and Lloyd Webber found that for him the reality was more amazing thing anything he had been led to believe.

'swapping guns for clarinets'

Marshall Marcus spoke of being intimately associated with El Sistema since his first  experience of it in 1979. he has seen 1000's of young musicians pass through the Venezuelan system. swapping guns for clarinets. Reynaldo Trombetta, IHSE's director of communications, grew up in Venezuela and he talke of how when he was growing up, El Sistema was seen not so much as a musical organisation as a place to send your children if you wanted to get them away from guns. He made the point that IHSE is not about changing the music education system but about making making sure that children who have no opportnities do get music education.

Transposing El Sistema

Trombetta's film of the IHSE visit to Venezuela, Transposing El Sistema, enabled us to see El Sistema in action. The group visited the Simon Bolivar Centre as well as a number of nucleos. The music performed varied from folk music to classical and included quite a lot of choral singing, which wasn't something I'd expected. But always the music was inspiring. To hear and see Handel and Elgar played by Venezuelan children, many of whom had nothing but their music, was touching and inspiring.

The participants of the tour were similarly moved and short filmed interviews with them brought out quite how transformative the visit had been, both in emotional terms and in being able to take away methods and ideas for use in the UK projects. The video is available on YouTube.

'social action only works if the standard of music is high'

A number of important points were made by the Venezuelans interviewed in the film, that El Sistema was a social programme that uses music to enrich the lives of students and their families. And that social action only works if the standard of music is high. El Sistema is the consequence of serious hard work.

Whilst the IHSE group was in Venezuela they signed a new co-operative agreement with El Sistema, so that they can work together more closely; adopting and adapting El Ssitema for the UK and adding new nodes. There will be an increasing exchange of imformation, teachers and tutors between the organisations. The IHSE projects and Sistema Norwich will establish links and communications with El Sistema and there are plans to pair individual projects to nucleos in Venezuela. They hope, in five to six years' time, to be mounting joint concerts.

'social action achieved through the pursuit of excellence in music'

Richard Hallam, one of the IHSE trustees, reiterated that the project took the long view; that the sistema inspired programmes aare social action achieved through the pursuit of excellence in music, but that this only happens over time. As music education, the IHSE programme is expensive, as social regeneration the programme is good value.

We were then treated to performances of three pieces of music played live by a young quartet from IHSE Lambeth. Introducing the pieces themselves, they were confident and intensely serious in their music making. The results were joyfully inspiring.

During the following Q&A, the subject of funding came up. Julian Lloyd Webber admitted that there was an awfully long way to go, but that El Sistem had taken 40 years (and survived under 10 different regimes) whereas IHSE had been going a mere four years (and served under just two regimes). And he re-iterated the point that the coalition government has been strongly supportive of IHSE even though it was created under the previous government. The only way forward was to get reslts, by demonstrating that IHSE programmes can save money by their social action.

The new agreement is intended to bring support to other Sistema inspired organisations in the UK. Lloyd Webber emphasised that only by working together could we achieve results. One of the IHSE project leaders brought things to a close by reaffirming that the project was about the children themselves and that they created a symbol of hope in the community. The immersive nature of the programme, with performances in people's houses, between three and ten hours per day rehearsal by the children, established a level of trust within the community.

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