Charlotte Higgins, chief arts writer 

Big Noise orchestra’s classical music proves instrumental in social change

El Sistema and Gustavo Dudamel's Simón Bolívar Orchestra turn musicianship into citizenship in Stirling's Raploch estate
  
  

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In the Community Campus of Raploch, a housing estate on the outskirts of Stirling, 120 children aged between six and 13 are rehearsing the Rondeau from Purcell's Abdelazer – familiar to most as the imposing opening theme of Britten's The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. This is the Big Noise Orchestra; but before the music can begin, this rustling, restless, excited gaggle of children must be calm.

"Let's have some Big Noise silence now," says the conductor, Francis Cummings, a former violinist with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

"We are going to sit in silence until you listen. What we need to do is start from silence."

Eventually, through squeaks and shuffles, through parps from the brass and bashes from the timpani, through the grunts from the basses and jitters from the violins, peace comes. And then the music starts.

In another part of the building, beyond the gym and the hairdressers, a second orchestra is preparing to rehearse in the sports hall. The musicians of Venezuela's Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, most of whom are in their 20s and early 30s, are making as much noise as 200 people with musical instruments can. There's a clatter of chat and tuning; lads in jeans and baseball caps are swapping violins, trying each other's instruments by turning musical tricks of insouciant virtuosity.

Then Gustavo Dudamel, their 31-year-old conductor, comes to the podium and sits down on his high stool. He looks up, and slightly raises both arms. At this simple gesture, all sound falls instantly away.

The two orchestras are rehearsing for the same event: a concert to be held on Thursday, 21 June in Raploch. It will open the London 2012 festival, the summer of cultural events ushering in the Olympic Games: an open-air concert for 8,000, to be broadcast live on BBC4. After that, the Venezuelans travel to London, where their concerts at the Southbank Centre on 23 and 26 June will be streamed live on the Guardian website.

Although the two orchestras appear so different – the Venezuelans with their grown-up professionalism and absolute concentration; the Scottish children still fresh to their instruments – they are related. Later Dudamel, who is also the much-fêted chief conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, calls the Scots "our little sons and daughters".

The children are the young members of Sistema Scotland, a radical social-intervention programme based on the model that produced these Venezuelan musicians. Like its Latin American exemplar, Sistema Scotland is hoping to change the lives of the children of an underprivileged community through immersion in classical music.

The Venezuelan El Sistema was founded by José Antonio Abreu, who began teaching music to 11 students in a Caracas garage. Thirty-seven years on, two million people – including, most famously, Dudamel and the players of the Simón Bolívar Orchestra – have passed through the programme.

Since that orchestra's sensational UK debut in Edinburgh and the Proms in 2007, it has exploded many British people's ideas about what classical music can be: these players perform with a fiery passion and joyous exuberance that counters the reputation of classical music as a polite pastime for the middle-aged middle classes.

The man behind the Scottish version of El Sistema is Richard Holloway, the author and former bishop of Edinburgh. Tipped off by the Guardian in 2005 about how El Sistema was trying to tackle social inequality in Venezuela, he travelled to Caracas, and was impressed.

"I felt in my bones it was what was needed. It was incremental, it was organic. It wasn't quick. To create a great orchestra is by definition slow. It's like growing hard, hard wood … Scotland, like other parts of Britain, has a problem with deprived communities that nothing seems to shift … I've been interested to see if there's not something in the world that would turn that around."

At the same time as Holloway was discovering the Venezuelan Sistema, Stirling council was trying to tackle the problems of one of its most deprived areas: Raploch. In 2004, it began a regeneration project in an area where, at the time, the average income was £6,240; a fifth of the residents were on incapacity benefit, and half of them had no formal educational qualifications.

"All the things that happen in deprived communities were happening here: underachieving children, unhealthy adults, a drug problem, kids fed into the criminal justice system," said Holloway. "But it also had a lot of feisty eager people who loved their children and wanted the best for them."

Holloway approached Stirling council and "they were as mad as we were". In 2008, Sistema Scotland began its work in Raploch, and now 450 children from the area (whose population is a little over 3,000) are learning how to play musical instruments. The scheme costs £750,000 a year – just 14% of which comes from the public purse.

But can classical music really be the instrument of social change? The truth is that the effects of Sistema Scotland will only really become clear when the children who started in its 2008 cohort grow up: will they escape the poverty trap and what Holloway calls the "revolving doors" of the youth criminal-justice system?

Even now, walking round the streets of Raploch – whose idyllic position on the banks of the Forth, beneath the benign gaze of Stirling Castle, stands in stark contrast to its history of social deprivation – it is impossible to find anyone with a bad word to say about Big Noise.

It is a tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone, which means everyone knows a young musician. Taf Magoche, whose daughter Chantelle plays violin, says: "It's a thing that brings the community together, and in the long run it's sowing a lot more benefits because when the kids get older there will be more options.

"It's not the best community, but for the future it will be a lot better because of the project. When you look at the social unrest, people on benefits, drugs and all that … this programme has brought something new and different for the kids – something that's not running around the streets causing mayhem."

Elizabeth Martin has a grandson who plays the double bass – "bigger than he is". "The mothers are so proud of their kids," she said. "The wee tears will be in my eyes on Thursday night."

A report commissioned by the Scottish government found that all the parents of pupils in the Scottish Sistema felt their child's confidence had improved as a result of their involvement, and more than 90% felt that their child was happier.

What makes the Scottish Sistema different from other music education schemes in Britain, according to its director, Nicola Killean, is the fact that it is completely immersive.

"We have everything from baby classes to orchestral rehearsals," she said. The children involved play three times a week, for nearly three hours. It is also collective: "about being part of a community from the very beginning".

Unlike traditional European and north American music education, it does not focus on individual tuition: children play in an orchestra from the beginning.

Verónica Urrego, who teaches violin and viola in Raploch, and is herself a Venezuelan product of El Sistema, says: "We are not here just to teach them how to play an instrument, but also how to behave in a community, in a society.

"We have to give them the whole package – the discipline to behave in an orchestral rehearsal … It's not an extracurricular activity, it's a way of life," she says.

In Venezuela, the Sistema has grown organically as children grow up and feed back into the system as teachers. Holloway wants the same for Scotland, and a new scheme is on the cards for Govanhill in Glasgow. According to Dudamel, the orchestra can act as a microcosm of wider society.

"It has changed not just the lives of the individuals involved – but also of their families, the communities around the children.

"And it changed because they have access to beauty; because they have access to sensitivity; because they have access to creativity; they have access to discipline. We are talking here about the elements of a good citizen."

In Raploch, preparations continue for the big night and the big concert. Bartek Bialuckie, an 11-year-old cellist, professed himself "amazed at the sounds I can make" and excited about being conducted by Dudamel – "one of the best conductors on planet Earth".

The 20 best musicians from the Big Noise orchestra now join the Venezuelans to rehearse Beethoven's Egmont Overture together. Four years ago, these children were a handful of restless five-year-olds holding their instruments for the first time. Now, they are sitting alongside professionals.

One tiny blonde bass player is almost exactly half the size and heft of the huge Venezuelan sitting beside her. In the viola section, an 11-year-old girl called Nyree Davidson is playing with total focus and confidence. She has the indefinable poise and alertness of a true musician. She looks as if she has come home.

Both of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra's sold-out London concerts will be live-streamed, free, on the Guardian. Join us on 23 and 26 June at 7.30pm guardian.co.uk/bolivarlive