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Beautiful noise

12th Awst 2020

by Richard Jinman

Senior Creative Editor

The chance to play an instrument is changing lives in Scotland with the help of The National Lottery

Symone, a trombonist, photographed at Big Noise, Stirling, Scotland

Symone, a 17-year-old trombone player from Stirling, has an unconditional offer to study at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow. Her dream is to become a professional musician and travel the world as a member of a top orchestra.

The teenager, who grew up in Raploch – an area of Stirling often ranked as one of Scotland’s most deprived communities – is full of excitement for the future. So much so, she can barely recognise her withdrawn younger self. “As a child I was always very insecure and lacked confidence,” she says. “Nowadays, I can’t imagine my life without music.”

Symone’s journey from introverted, unhappy child to a gifted young musician brimming with confidence, was achieved with the help of the Big Noise programme. Launched by the charity Sistema Scotland in 2008, it seeks to transform the lives of children and young people in disadvantaged communities by giving them the opportunity to learn and play an instrument.

When Big Noise began in Raploch 11 years ago it had six staff and worked with 35 children. Since then, it has been expanded to disadvantaged communities in three more Scottish cities: Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen. The organisation now employs about 130 staff and works with more than 2,500 children every week.

Everything in the programme – from tuition and instruments to T-shirts and trips to see orchestras - is free. As a result, funding from sources such as The National Lottery is essential.

Big Noise was set up in 2008 with the help of a £45,000 National Lottery grant from Creative Scotland. Four years later, a further £100,000 grant from allowed Sistema to expand the programme to communities beyond Raploch.

Hannah, 10, practices cello at Big Noise, Stirling, Scotland

The organisation received an even bigger grant in 2012 when it was awarded £220,000 to fund a Big Noise Orchestra in Raploch as part of the Year of Creative Scotland 2012.

Since The National Lottery’s first draw took place on 19 November 1994, more than £40 billion has been raised for good causes in the areas of arts, sport, heritage and community.

Symone admits she had “no clue” about instruments or classical music when members of the Big Noise team visited her primary school seven years ago. The flute seemed appealing at first, but after trying the mouthpieces of various wind instruments – and realising long arms were an asset for a trombone player – she opted for the brass instrument.

Despite her ability, the unconditional offer to study at The Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow came as a shock. “I didn’t expect to get in at all, so I was really excited,” she says. “My mum was at an airport when I phoned her to tell her and she started crying.”

While Symone seems destined for a career as a professional musician, the identification of talent is not the primary purpose of Big Noise says David Sinclair, Sistema Scotland’s Fundraising and Business Development Officer. “This isn’t about producing amazing musicians,” he says. “It’s about using music as a way of working with children and the community and as a result the outcomes are much broader. It [the programme] helps them with life skills like concentration and co-operation and helps them engage with education. It also helps them build friendships and social networks.”

Big Noise was inspired by an established scheme in Venezuela called El Sistema. Adapted to suit the needs of some of Scotland’s most disadvantaged communities, it is a long-term project that begins when participants are infants and keeps engaging with them until they finish secondary school.

“Some of the communities we work with have a history of being let down,” says David. “Projects go in, funding disappears and the project has to withdraw. We were determined to make long term generational commitments to the communities we work in.”

Symone, a trombonist, photographed at Big Noise, Stirling, Scotland

Big Noise lessons begin in school classrooms using instruments the children make out of paper. The students graduate to real instruments and when they reach the age of 8, the scheme becomes a voluntary, after-school programme. The aim is to retain as many participants as possible and of the 3000 people who live in Raploch about 480 young people are enrolled in Big Noise.

One of the younger participants is Hannah, a ten-year-old who was introduced to the cello when she was at nursery school. She says the programme has helped her make friends and have fun.

Last year, she was part of the Super Strings Sessions, a giant string ensemble formed as part of Big Noise’s tenth anniversary celebrations. “It was very loud,” says Hannah, who performed with about 320 other young musicians in Dundee.

The Super Strings Sessions illustrate another important facet of Big Noise: music lessons are only one of the activities on offer. Last year, Symone went on a Big Noise trip to Berlin where she met Sir Simon Rattle, Chief Conductor of The Berlin Philharmoniker, and had a one-on-one lesson with one of the orchestra’s trombonists. “It was so cool,” she says.

Ask Symone about her musical heroes, however, and she names several of her tutors at Big Noise alongside classical music luminaries like Joseph Alessi, Principal Trombone of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

Strong bonds between Big Noise tutors and participants are common. Says David, “They develop long term relationships with our professional musicians and for many children that’s a very important additional adult role model. In some cases it can be one of the longest standing relationships in their life.”

Symone is extremely grateful for the opportunities provided by Big Noise. She has joined the Youth Board of Sistema Scotland and wants to return to the Big Noise project as a tutor. “I don’t know where I’d be without Big Noise,” she says. “It has helped me become a confident young woman who loves myself for who I am and what I do.”