Look to the music

It’s a sultry weekend at London’s South Bank Centre and the newly refurbished concrete spaces are teeming with sexy young Venezuelans in concert blacks amidst hordes of children and their family entourages carrying assorted instruments and wearing souvenir Venezuelan flag jackets.

The Simon Bolivar (formerly Youth) Orchestra is in town (or was, recently) and Boli-mania is palpable, as it has been since their legendary first visit to London in 2007. They are now international stars, touring the major venues of the world, a staggering success story.

A couple of years back, I joined the packed Festival Hall audience to hear the Bolivar’s founder, economist (note, economist) José Antonio Abreu (right) tell us how it all began in the mid 70s with his radical music education system, El Sistema.

He kicked off by quoting Plato:

“If you want to test the spiritual temperature of a nation, and individual, look to the music”.

Abreu is that rarest of creatures in our politically moribund world; a true visionary. His dream is to overcome social deprivation through the didactic model of the symphony orchestra, creating a school of life.

In the El Sistema deal, any child who walks through the door, including/especially those from Venezuela’s crime-saturated slums, is offered a full and free music education, including access to instruments. At the start, teachers were shipped in from abroad, including former Head of Music at the South Bank Centre and now full-time international Sistema activist, Marshall Marcus.

“Culture for the poor should never be a poor culture”.   Abreu

Teaching teachers is integral to the system, each student passing on what they learn to those in the grade below. All those in the current Bolivar orchestra teach. A far cry from our own maxim that “those that can, do; those that can’t, teach”.

Since the 70s, a powerful musical pedagogic pyramid has been created, and there are now several 100 orchestras in Venezuela where virtually none existed before. AND large, enthusiastic audiences.

According to their celebrated artistic director, El Sistema-trained conductor Gustavo Dudamel (right), if you now ask the average young Venezuelan boy what he would like to be when he grows up, he will say, “I’d like to play in the Simon Bolivar Orchestra”.

Not the football team.

But Abreu’s priority was not to create great musicians, although this is a wonderful by-product. He spoke of bringing about nothing less than a generation of “ambassadors for a new humanity,” a world league of educators for the arts, using beauty to change the lives of alienated and dispossessed children, creating profound social change through music.

The symphony orchestra, he says, is the most potent tool for social change on the planet.

Playing in a symphony orchestra fosters discipline, physical and mental coordination, social skills, self –confidence, mutual support and happiness, goddamit, all vital components of a successful society. All must work together harmoniously (literally) for the whole to function.

Music can be a lifetime’s path of excellence: there is always further to go, more to strive for. Something to live for. And for the barrio boys, it has also proven to offer a real alternative to a life of crime and violence.

In 21st century Venezuela, to be a professional musician is considered a dignified way of life.

Nearly forty years on, there is now a thriving economic infrastructure created by all the new orchestras and choirs, including work for instrument makers/repairers, concert hall builders and designers, PR/concert and stage managers and so on.

It works.

Abreu’s vision is on a big scale: pilot Sistema schemes have been started in poverty stricken spots around the world, including the UK. Reports are glowing.

Fact: it costs £2000 to give one child a year’s full music tuition, with instrument, at Sistema Raploch in Scotland.

It costs up to £185,000 to send a child to prison for a year.


The Bolis may not (yet) be the greatest orchestra on the planet, but the idea behind their very existence is staggering. Without our 1000 yr old Western classical DNA and symphonic tradition going back to Haydn, our symphonic rep can sound (to my ears) strangely accented in their hands. But hey, they’re just getting started.

The thing the crowd go nuts for is the way the entire orchestra sways together to the music, transmitting an infectious love of what they are hearing. A palpable sexual frisson ripples through London audiences as they drink in the life force emanating from these glossy, black haired Latinos.

Beautiful Venezuelan eye candy. Absolutely nothing to do with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra.

So here I am at South Bank Centre  (NB the definite article seems to have been banned in titles. WHY?) with a bunch of London instrumentalists “grade 5 and above” who have signed up for an orchestral “creative day” inspired by this extraordinary orchestra and its history.

So why the hell are we sitting in the Festival Hall listening to the SBO listlessly “rehearsing” (they clearly know it backwards) wayyy sub standard Girl from Ipanema-type grooves with string schmaltz slurped all over some of the worst easy listening clichés of a seriously off-day Radio 2 afternoon?

For some of the kids sitting around me, aged between 9 and 16, this may well be the first, and possibly last time they get to hear a decent symphony orchestra play live.

The Bolis have just been performing Beethoven, Strauss, Britten, Elgar. Why on EARTH do we have to listen to this toss?

Is there a management view that the kids won’t be able to cope with the real thing?

NB. Shirley, my PA, has just told me that they were rehearsing Venezuelan composer Esteban Benzecry‘s “Rituales Amerindios for that night’s performance.

Oops. Sorry, Esteban.

But still, my Dumbing-Down Radar remains on full alert. And it’s important that the orchestra’s now-legendary Mambo moves (click for 2007 Prom performance) don’t obliterate their potentially life-changing message of symphonic musical excellence for children.

Our group is hustled out of the rehearsal as several other education project teams are hustled in. We are divided up into instrument groups across the building to create material based on what we’ve just heard, to be shared with our ad hoc “orchestra” an hour later that then will be shaped into a piece to be performed in the RFH foyer at the end of the afternoon.

In public.

This is a formula I know backwards, having taken part in countless such education projects over the years.

It goes like this.

The “animateur” (group leader) will start with introductory games that usually involve participants being invited to say their name in rhythmic fashion over a regular beat set down by a clave or foot stomp, egged on with aerobic instructor gusto. There will be little hello songs, rhythm clapping, and usually a crowd-whipping combo of the two.

The idea of the day will then be introduced, usually involving a piece the ensemble or orchestra connected with the project is playing. The group then splits into groups led by the assisting musicians (my bit) to “create material” based on said piece.

Usually there are huge differences in skill and enthusiasm and invariably one ends up with heavily compromised material that is neither yours or theirs, and rarely anything to do with the source piece of music.

It’s never very good.

In most cases the project relies heavily on a percussion collection – tambourines, djembes, claves, xylophones and the odd triangle.

The end results always sound strangely similar. There’s invariably a group groove over a pedal note, usually around 140bpm – the default setting for most commercial pop and dance music, doubtless relating to the average club heart rate; a few individual “freely creative” sections, which often feature “atmospheric” glockenspiel glissandos, a couple of unrelated solos from intrepid instrumentalists or the odd meta-amplified guitarist desperate to play Led Zeppelin licks, rounded off by the inevitable group groove recap.

Some brave animateurs have taken their art into the darkest music-free places, somehow managing to persuade inmates of the roughest housing estates to cooperate. In every case, the projects that work best are those that have been well thought-out in advance, with set material and definite structures to work around, not to mention hard-core crowd control skills.

London housing estate horror. Hats off to ANYONE getting music making of any kind going here. 

Alas, many projects (in my experience) are not led by trained leaders, but by reluctant musicians obliged to undertake such activities in order to fund their concerts. Results can be disastrous. I have countless hilarious and tragic (for music) stories (for which there’s fortunately no room in this post) of white middle class classical musos attempting to win over rightly sceptical kids with toe-crunchingly embarrassing attempts to be funky, get down and relate innit.

It’s a lose lose situation where neither side is learning anything of real value and all are heavily compromised in PC box-ticking mediocre form over real musical content.

At the end of our performance in the noisy RFH foyer, many participants and parents are wearing a “was that IT?” expression, mirrored on the faces of parallel project folk across the hall. The one next to ours is led by the (otherwise highly distinguished) Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment who are playing samba rhythms on guiros.

For the record, pretty much every UK orchestra now has its fully-staffed education department that has a regular programme of such education projects.

Of course, SOME experience of music making is still better than none, and it’s heartbreaking to have witnessed just how life-giving even this lowest common denominator music can be to kids who have nothing else to go by. But my concern is that this kind of education project is now simply glossing over the aching hole left by the death of peripatetic music teaching and access to free instruments in our schools.

Because we DID have our own brand of El Sistema.

Oh yes.

In 1988 Thatcher committed one of her gravest crimes by stating to Local Education Authorities that music was officially  “inessential” – ie they were no longer obliged to provide a music service. Given a choice between funding a new school trombone or set of football colours, history now dictates which way most LEA decisions went.

A very large number of my colleagues would now not be playing professionally – or going to concerts – were it not for state funded resources.

There is now an entire generation who know nothing at all about classical music other than the Myleen Klass Nessun Dorma Katherine Jenkins toothpaste pumped over tannoys to imply corporate class, the “relaxing”  slow movement mix album their mum might buy with the Chardonnay, or that used as a crime deterrent in London Underground stations (eg “Rococo Variations” at Euston Square station yesterday.)

Katherine Jenkins. It must be amazing to look like this. But I still prefer Barbara Bonney’s Purcell recordings.

In case it sounds as though I’m dissing other kinds of music, I’m SO not. There’s tons of fantastic stuff out there, including the kaleidoscopic technological and genre fusions now available to the i-generation.

But with deeply unfashionable voice I cry out that our great classical music, art music, whatever you want to call it, STILL has the capacity to touch people. Deeply.

In my experience, children have an acute bullshit barometer. If they are presented with crap, they know it.

Countless times over 20 years working with autistic kids, in drug rehabilitation centres, schools, prisons, universities and summer camps I see the effect that the Real Thing has on people, regardless of age or social and cultural background.

I’ve seen recordings or live performances of Scheherazade, The Rite of Spring, La Mer, Ligeti’s Volumina, Xenakis’ Psappha, Ravel and Shostakovitch piano trios, Janacek’s Sinfonietta and even unaccompanied 21st cent. cello music have a powerful effect on uninitiated listeners of all ages when presented without apology. Experiences intensify exponentially with live performance.

Does it not make more sense that those of us who have spent our entire lives practising classical music to high levels should joyfully share what we know best without having to compromise, and that other forms of music, be it hip hop, jazz, beat boxing, pop, should also be presented/taught at the highest level, rather than a watered down politically-acceptable amalgam?

The value of music in improving literacy, numeracy and overall physical and mental aptitude is well documented.

“Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful.”  


The enlightened Finnish school curriculum has incorporated daily musical training (based on Kodaly’s methods) from kindergarten upwards since the late 60s. They now have not only the highest per capita head international level composers, instrumentalists and conductors but also top the world’s academic charts.

Socrates 496 – 399 BC. The Louvre, Paris.

China, wayyyyy ahead of the UK in academic world league tables, currently has an estimated 10 million children learning the piano alone. Music is not seen as isolated from the academic syllabus but incorporated into daily activities.

Are we all so scared of being called un-cool by this new generation that we will quietly disinherit them from the opportunity to experience something truly profound? Classical music will always be perceived an elitist art form as long as children are denied the opportunity to make it their own.

“Art is a human right”. Abreu

Take children to concerts! It will cost less than funding a day’s education project.

Go to the Proms! It costs a fiver if you stand! (and sometimes you can even lie down). And you get to hear some of the world’s greatest music and musicians.

There are, of course, angels of music all over the UK who are doing just this:

eg. In Hackney, the extraordinary Apollo Music Projects, founded and directed by cellist David Chernaik, has been training children from nursery age up how to listen to classical concerts. I’ve seen an entire class of 6 year olds listen to a Beethoven symphony. And they LIKE IT.

Pianist Dominic Harlan has been entrancing school kids across the country with his dramatic introductions to exquisite Lieder music.

And there are the countless unsung saints of UK music education who keep classical music afloat via oceans of selfless unpaid overtime. If you know one of them, snog them heartily and give them all your love and cash.

Tom Service rightly warned us (duly heeded, Tom!) of ignoring this splendid work going on against all odds in the continuing tide of Sistema evangelism.

However. Back, briefly, to the Bolivars:

I find it supremely ironic that this orchestra, trained (in part) by volunteers from my own state funded music generation, is now invited back here to light the classical music fire in the generation Thatcher lost.

They didn’t get there via PC education projects. They have achieved excellence by sheer hard work from a young age combined with an absolute love of the music they play instilled by a fully funded training system from which we still have much to learn. They are an elite.


Arrest me PC police if you dare.

Our own marvellous National Youth Orchestra are an elite. They must be guarded at all costs against the rapacious predators of artistic dumbing down in the name of popular culture.

The 2012 British Olympic team are also an elite. They are trained to excel from an early age. And they were fully educationally funded. ( I’m not going to start on the mythological cost of the Olympics. It’s too upsetting.)

Dear Mr Gove*, please, please understand the profound importance of music to our spiritually desperate nation, and persuade your government to find a way to re-instigate free instrumental lessons, instruments and music education in our schools and communities.

It may even make economic sense.


*current British Secretary of State for Education

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