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Music as an instrument of change

30 November 2012

A Welsh vicar is helping to transform the lives of inner-city children by teaching them how to play music. Gavin Drake meets Jan Gould


Musical youth: the transforming power of music

Musical youth: the transforming power of music

IF YOU were to devise a scheme to build community cohesion, and tackle social exclusion and crime, the teaching of classical music might not be the first idea you came up with.

But the Revd Jan Gould, Vicar of the inner-city parish of Ely, in west Cardiff, knew from personal experi­ence what music can do - it was playing the violin that got her through her own teenage battles with anorexia and alcohol.

And so, building on the work of the El Sistema musical education programme in Venezuela for disadvantaged children, she set up Making Music Changing Lives, to work across both Ely and the neighbouring parish of Caerau.

She has the backing of teachers, clergy - including the Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan - and, perhaps more significantly, the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD), and the Welsh National Opera (WNO).

After just three years, teachers are already seeing a significant change in the behaviour and efforts of pupils involved with the scheme. 

Mrs Gould had no doubt that classical music could make a difference. "The aim of our project is to give children who wouldn't other­wise have the opportunity, through lack of finance, the chance to learn a classical instrument, and for music to become a part of their lives," she says.


"But, beyond that, there are also bigger aims with the project - to create more community cohesion within our parish. It's a very socially deprived area of Cardiff, with a lot of the usual problems that go with poverty-related living. Hopefully, as these children grow, they won't turn to crime when they get to their teens, because they will have another interest."

THE project began with a series of "Feel-good Friday" concerts, to ex­pose children to classical music. Students from the RWCMD gave a series of interactive concerts that featured a mixture of light classical pieces, from composers such as Mozart, with scores from Disney films, and other music with which the children would be familiar.

"They see that this music, which they love, is actually played on classical instruments, and they are learning that, when playing a classical instrument, you can play fun stuff as well." 

The concerts ran for a year, and then the children were asked if they would like to have a go themselves. Then, a summer school, teaching children violin and cello, was held. "At the end of that week, we did a concert for all the children to play in, even if they were playing only open strings on the violin without a bow," she says. "It sounds horrendous, if you've been doing it for only a week - but we got a really good jazz pianist to improvise over the top of what they were plucking.

"They got to perform at a concert in the church. About 100 people came, and they were amazed that their children could do this after just a week."

In subsequent years, the project added woodwind, and then brass sections; and now an inter-genera­tional community choir has also been added to the project's en­semble.

The project's link with the RWCMD happened early on, and they were keen to help, because of the undoubted success of El Sistema.

"El Sistema started with 12 children, 30 years ago; now, they've got half a million. When they began the programme, there was one professional orchestra in Venezuela, with mainly European players; they have now got more than 40 professional orchestras of home-grown players. And, in 30 years, Venezuela has been transformed from a nation of slums to a nation of culture.

"Nothing but music could have done that. And, about three years ago, there was a young guy from Venezuela who got a job with the Berlin Philharmonic - arguably the best orchestra in the world. He was their youngest-ever player, at 17. When he was 11, he was on the streets of Venezuela, hooked on heroin. Music turned his life around. And if it can do that in Venezuela, why can it not do it elsewhere?"

MRS GOULD already knew about the transforming power of music. Earlier this year, she gave an emotional speech to the Governing Body of the Church in Wales, in which she spoke about how her world was turned upside down when her parents divorced in her teens.

"Mum remarried what turned out to be a very violent man," she told the assembly. "Domestic violence became the norm in our house, with no escape from it. Out of all the chaos of our life at home, I became anorexic; I turned to heavy drink; and, when I was 16, my stepfather kicked me out for good."

She describes this period in her life as "a difficult few years", but says, "along with my faith, it was my music that helped me to survive."

"Music gave me a means to process my feelings about what was happening in the home," she says. "It allowed me to work through those feelings, and express them in a way that was creative. A lot of these children in Ely come from very dysfunctional homes - much more dysfunctional than the home I grew up in - and they need to find ways to let off steam about that, to express it and to be able to channel those feelings in a positive way."

AT A school where Mrs Gould was a governor, a ten-year-old boy, whose parents were drug addicts, was on the point of permanent exclusion. He had already been excluded three times. "When you do that with a ten-year-old, you know that, by 13 or 14, they're going to be in a young-offender institute," Mrs Gould says; so she suggested that they give him cello lessons instead.

They introduced the boy to a "practice pal" - a mentor from the RWCMD who would visit him in school once a week to support him. "To start with, he was bit bolshie, like he was with all his teachers," Mrs Gould says; "but, after a few weeks, he started getting on with him, and, after a while, he asked the practice pal: 'What do you do in college all day?' He said: 'I play my cello.'"

The practice pal explained that, eventually, he wanted to get a job in an orchestra. The boy was shocked that someone could be paid to play music, and asked: "Do you think I could ever do that?" His practice pal replied: "You can do anything, if you put your mind to it."

"Instantly, his behaviour trans­formed in school," Mrs Gould says, "and, two years later, he went to a high school. He would go only on condition that he would have a cello teacher.

"That's one life. Music gave him somewhere to channel all of what he was struggling with. It gave him role models, something to aim for, something to aspire to, and a belief that he could do it, instead of being constantly told that he was useless, and a troublemaker."

She is firm in her belief that "music is a language that anybody can speak.Whether or not you can read or write, you can understand music."
 And she is quick to point out a correlation between the breakdown in community cohesion across South Wales, with the fall in the number of community music outlets.

"ONE of the things I learned, moving to Wales, is that people have music in their genes here," she says. "There's no doubt about that. They just instinctively have music in the fibre of their beings.

"All the South Wales valleys, when the pits were open, had colliery bands, they had male-voice choirs. They had music at the heart of their communities. Since the pits closed, most of that has gone. There was all the camaraderie down in the pits, as well as the whole shared life, but music was such an integral part of those communities."

Students from the RWCMD vol­unteer their time as teachers, and can use their teaching experience in Ely as part of the skills required for their music degree.

"Students come to music college with this great idea that they're going to be a performer when they leave," she says. "The reality is, that most musicians have to teach to earn a living. And they have really dis­covered a love for teaching while they have been with us, because they've realised that it is not just about teaching somebody a technique. It's about working with a whole person, and transforming a whole person. They have seen the response that they get from these children, and they absolutely love it."

In addition to the RWCMD, the success of the project has attracted the interest of the WNO, and the Opera's head of outreach has just joined the project's board. "The other week we took 25 children, and their parents, to the opera."

She admits to having been apprehensive: "How are the kids going to respond to opera? It's one thing playing Mozart." She needn't have worried: "They were on the edge of their seats. They loved it. It was Così Fan Tutte, which is a comic opera anyway, and it was done in a very modern way.

"In February, they are doing Madame Butterfly, and some of the cast are coming to do workshops with the children. We're going to write some of the better-known songs in a very simple form, so that the orchestra can learn them. And then we are going to take them to see it."

Mrs Gould's vision for the children on her inner-city estate knows no limits. "They've got a youth opera at WNO, and who knows whether we might feed some of our children into that," she says.

El Sistema Scotland has been launched by the former Bishop of Edinburgh, the Rt Revd Richard Holloway, with funding from the devolved Scottish Parliament. Julian Lloyd Webber has established the project In Harmony in London and Liverpool; and there is a similar scheme in Norwich.

The trustees of Making Music Changing Lives are continuing to expand the project in several ways. These include: reducing the age of the children they work with; establishing music-based mothers- and-toddlers groups; and expanding to other areas in Wales. They are already in discussions with a group in Caernarfon about an initiative there.

Mrs Gould does not see the music project as a distraction from her parish ministry, insisting that it is an integral part of her ministry. "This is mission in a different language. It's not preaching the gospel to them, in one sense, but, for me, living the gospel is about transforming lives. That, ultimately, is what Jesus came to do.

"And, by transforming these lives - by enabling these people, these children, to become all that they can be - I believe we are living the gospel."


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