My sadness at never having possessed sufficient artistry as a child in my quest to become a professional footballer did not really last all that long. In fact, if I was being honest with myself, I’d known from my early teens that no amount of dedication would ever replace the absence of anything resembling pace or my inability to locate any team mate with a pass without first consulting a map. I still have nightmares about my first representative game. My pride at being selected to represent my district began rapidly to diminish when I discovered that the little Merlins around me were doing things with the ball of which I was only capable in my fantasies. I found I had brought a whole new meaning to the word “immobile”.
Often since then I’ve had cause to wonder what might have unfolded if, instead of spending hours every week haplessly seeking the key that would unlock the mysteries of trapping a football, I’d chosen to attempt to play a musical instrument. I’m not fooling myself that I’d have been good enough to be let loose in a tuxedo with a violin or anything like that. But after a few years, I feel sure I might have got a tune out of a guitar. My ambitions would have been modest. It’s not as if Scotland doesn’t possess a sufficiency of public houses that at least one of them, on one enchanted evening, could not have given me a stage for a little while, before its audience knew what was happening.
It might have been different if something like the Big Noise Youth Orchestra had been around. This orchestra, which first captivated the Scottish public one rainy summer’s evening in Stirling in 2009, is a cultural gem. I’ve attended many concerts, mainly of the head-down-and-batter variety of heavy rock and even spent several years observing productions by Scottish Opera while trying to flog ice cream and programmes at the back of the dress circle in Glasgow’s Theatre Royal. But none of them moved me as much as watching those young people that night in Stirling.
They were almost all from the Raploch estate, a neighbourhood that has encountered more than a degree of social and health inequality and which does not feature on any of Visit Scotland’s guides to the historic and cultural delights of Stirling. Yet the noise they made that night in front of friends and families, many of whom will never have encountered any live orchestral performance, was simply beautiful. Who knows how many young lives, otherwise destined for troubled and uncertain futures, were turned around by the experience of that evening? The Big Noise Scotland initiative is inspired by the Sistema music project, originating in Venezuela. Its aims and philosophy are so clear and make so much sense that you wonder why it hadn’t been tried long before then. And, in the eight years since, you also wonder why it doesn’t feature at the heart of the social equality programme of every one of Scotland’s 32 local authorities. In its mission statement, it talks of “drawing a line under the past and nurturing a new generation of children who grow up in an environment saturated with intensive and immersive music making. We work with children from birth through to adulthood.
“While our most obvious triumphs are musical, our purpose is to use that music making to equip children with confidence, resilience, ambition and a multitude of transferable skills to support them across all areas of their lives. The ultimate goal is to boost educational performance, health and wellbeing so that children grow to achieve their full potential, contributing to positive communities with fewer costly problems.” It is all of that and more. For, underpinning this, is a sacred process of helping children discover the gift that accompanied them into this world, be it their musical talent or the equal status that began to evaporate moments after they were born. During this, they come to understand that they are worth something, that they matter.
It tells a world where, increasingly, an individual’s worth is measured only by his ability to make money, that no one has yet been born who can’t make a difference to someone else’s life. Yet, Stirling Council, whose financial backing has been crucial to the success of Big Noise Raploch, is reported to be considering a significant reduction in its backing as public service cuts start to kick in.
Since the Raploch orchestra was established, two others have materialised: in Glasgow’s Govanhill and in Aberdeen’s Torry estate. Each of these communities, like those in Raploch, experiences ingrained challenges in health and social deprivation rooted in poverty and inequality. The results they have achieved in helping children recognise their gifts and to acknowledge that they can be best utilised by being equal parts of a bigger whole, an orchestra, are beyond argument.
In last year’s evaluation report of Sistema Scotland’s Big Noise programme the economic worth to the nation was laid out thoroughly. This was commissioned by the Glasgow Centre for Population Health and Education Scotland and revealed in fine detail the hugely positive economic projections over a 70-year period, which began to materialise as early as year six of programme delivery.
The improvement in the lives of individuals and in the community of Govanhill, if the Big Noise programme is sustained for the long term, are not difficult to translate into the dismal argot of financial profit and loss. After six years this is estimated to be £9.18m then rises to £15.57m and £28.91m at years nine and 15 respectively. This is surely a conservative estimate for a sprawling community just south of the Clyde, which has become run down and delinquent over the past 20 years or so. It factors in thousands of lifetimes of health gains, employment activity, increases in social aspiration and associated reductions in criminal behaviour.
In the UK, we confer the title “national treasure” far too readily on mere troubadours and chroniclers. It is a title that ought to be reserved for Sistema Scotland and its Big Noise programme. As such, it ought to be ringfenced by Holyrood to protect it from the depredations of austerity.