How music can provide a route out of poverty for young people

Music education can strike a chord for troubled youngsters

In 2009, London’s Southbank Centre hosted a week of extraordinary performances by young musicians. An estimated 60,000 people came to hear the exuberant Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, whose playing garnered such enthusiastic media coverage that it all but eclipsed the Sunday concert: a programme of Ravel, Rachmaninov, Thomas Adès and George Benjamin outstandingly well played by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain under its dynamic new principal conductor, Vasily Petrenko.

Beyond the fact that both the SBYO and the NYO perform to an exemplary standard, comparisons between the two are invidious. The SBYO is the product of El Sistema, the music education/social engineering project founded in 1975 by the visionary educator, economist and philanthropist José Antonio Abreu that has enabled more than 250,000 mostly impoverished children to learn musical instruments and play in orchestras. As Abreu, now 70, puts it, “I profoundly believe that culture for the poor should never be a poor culture. For the children we work with, music is practically the only way to a dignified social destiny. An orchestra means joy, motivation, teamwork, the aspiration of success.” To which end El Sistema now runs pre-school orchestras for children as young as four, more than 90 orchestras for seven- to 16-year-olds, 130 youth orchestras and the SBYO – all generously state funded.

By contrast, the UK’s 160-strong NYO, whose starry alumni include conductors Sir Simon Rattle, Sir Mark Elder and Daniel Harding, receives no direct public money. Instead it relies on corporate sponsorship, philanthropy (notably from car dealer Sir Peter Vardy’s foundation; the Weston family, who own Selfridges; and Sir Timothy Sainsbury’s family trust) and individual giving to raise the £1.1m it needs to function each year. Attend one of its concerts, and it’s not hard to see what motivates its supporters. I have seen conductor Semyon Bychkov moved to tears by its account of Strauss’s Alpine Symphony and an audience rise to its feet after a coruscating Rite of Spring at the Barbican.


In order to maintain its standards the NYO also needs gifted musicians, and the number of tuition schemes now running in the UK is encouraging. The downside is that none is secure financially.

In Scotland, a pilot for a Venezuelan-style scheme called Sistema Scotland is already under way, with a mission to “break the cycle of social blight which sees children in many areas at risk of growing up involved in crime, substance abuse and antisocial behaviour”.

In England, three similar pilots dubbed In Harmony have been launched in Liverpool, Norwich and London, where there are also various independent initiatives. In Southwark, Borough Music School, founded in 1995 by the late local councillor Anne Worsley, provides subsidised instrument tuition to local children. Meanwhile, London Music Masters’ Bridge Project runs 12-week courses for six- and seven-year-olds in south London primary schools, after which those with promise can join a programme of string and choral training. Founded and funded by Richard Sharp, former head of private equity at Goldman Sachs, and his wife Victoria, it aims to provide sustained music education to children who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it. “Education is too often thought of as a means to an end rather than a process of opening minds and enriching experiences,” says Sharp. “Performing together brings a sense of self-worth.”


And, of course, all the major UK orchestras run sponsorship-reliant education projects, not least the London Symphony Orchestra’s UBS-sponsored Discovery programme, which each year exposes 40,000 people to live orchestral playing. For training musicians is only half the equation; audiences also need to be nurtured in order that young people don’t, to paraphrase Disraeli, die like “most people with music still locked up inside them”.