Today the renowned Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra and its dazzling conductor Gustavo Dudamel are coming to town. But the town isn’t London, or Manchester or Birmingham. It’s Raploch, a tough estate on the outskirts of Stirling in Scotland, where the “Bolívars” will be playing a concert in front of 8,000 people.
Raploch has long been notorious for poverty and crime. Four years ago only one child among the 3,000 people living there learned a musical instrument. Now it’s 450. That’s because the estate has become the testing ground for Sistema Scotland: an extraordinary social experiment aiming to transform a community by immersing it in music. And it seems to be working.
The experiment originated as El Sistema in Venezuela 37 years ago, teaching children to play orchestral music in groups, and so to build self-discipline and teamwork. These days more than 300,000 young people are enrolled; 80-90 per cent of them from poorer backgrounds, in particular the shanty towns around Caracas. As violence and gang warfare engulf the country – with 53 murders a day in the capital last year – El Sistema has become a crucial source of peace and stability for many families.
How can this be? Music is a deep mystery. But consider this: we are the only musical species – the only species that self-consciously produces music for its own entertainment and delight. We are immersed in music: in the home, in the car, in the workplace, in our public spaces. We use it to memorialise our experiences – think of Desert Island Discs – and to communicate our deepest feelings. We sing in the bath, and on the football terraces.
Music generates billions of pounds for this country in wages and earnings. It is an industry in which the UK is an unquestioned world leader. But it is also a social policy tool of enormous power, which we have barely begun to use.
The evidence is clear: music confers a huge range of cognitive, behavioural, emotional, therapeutic and social benefits. It offers models of discipline and focused practice whose value is now being understood by scientists and management theorists alike. It encourages aspiration to reach the highest standards. It is open to all, and no respecter of persons. It can be hugely competitive, or intensely co-operative. Occasionally individualistic, it is more often about teamwork and shared spirit. Its value flows past individuals into families and society. But – and here’s the crunch – to enjoy the benefits fully, you have to do it. You can’t be a couch potato.
Other countries understand the social power of music far better than we do. El Sistema is one example. Nearer to home, Finland has long had a comprehensive musical culture, which has resulted in a profusion of world-class talent from a country of just over five million people. It may be no coincidence that Finnish schoolchildren are, on almost every measure, some of the best educated in the world.
Unfortunately, for all its pervasiveness and passion, music is set about with myth and misunderstanding. An Amadeus mythology has grown up in which musical talent is thought to be a divine gift to a few favoured souls, from which the rest of us are and must ever be excluded. Music has often been identified with “classical music”, creating the impression that it is and must be the preserve of the middle classes, who alone can afford instruments and lessons. Futile culture wars have long consumed the energies of musicians, educators and critics.
The truth is that virtually everyone has innate musical ability, but that ability fades if it is not used and developed. Of course, lessons and instruments cost money. But properly understood, the lesson of El Sistema is that music is not an elitist activity open only to the wealthy few, but a massively empowering activity for the many. The classical music tradition is one of the greatest glories of human culture; but so is that of jazz or of Indian raga.
Thirty years ago there was little public understanding of the social value of sport; now it is a commonplace. Why not with music? Yet there is an important difference between sport and music. Sport is fundamentally about aggression, competition and winning. As Gareth Malone and The Choir remind us, music is about teamwork, joy, mutual respect and, ultimately, love. It faces outwards, not inwards.
The Raploch experiment hasn’t finished yet. It’s not cheap, but its annual cost is less than 1 per cent of the price of keeping a young person in secure accommodation.
The Government has done well in its efforts to protect and promote musical performance and education. But their true potential to transform society remains to be discovered.
[A version of this article originally appeared in The Telegraph on 20/6/12]