By now, most of you reading this column will know that my wife Chryselle and I began and run a music charity Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org) with the objective of instilling positive values and social empowerment to disadvantaged children through music education to the highest possible standard.
Our inspiration for this came largely from the El Sistema music revolution, the social action music programme that was founded in Venezuela in 1975 by Maestro José Antonio Abreu and that has taken the world by storm ever since, being emulated and replicated all over the globe.
We have been on the worldwide Sistema grapevine from the very start. This is how Chryselle heard of ‘Side by Side’, the international music camp for children run by Sistema Sweden in partnership with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra.
This international music camp is possibly the world’s largest, now in its sixth consecutive year. To quote from their website: “During a few immersive summer days, children and young people gather from all around the world in Gothenburg to play in an orchestra, sing in a choir and develop their creativity. Participants rehearse, socialize, sing and play together. The camp ends in a magnificent concert side by side with musicians from the Gothenburg Symphony!
As a flagship for the Swedish National Orchestra´s Children and youth activities the camp is an important international meeting place for children and youth.
With the vision that all children should be given the opportunity for positive development through musical practice in a choir or orchestra, the foundation works to spread and develop El Sistema in Sweden.”
There are six ‘levels’ of orchestra: Beginner; Basic; Intermediate; Upper Intermediate; Pre-Advanced; and Advanced; and six choirs: Beginners; Children; Upper Voices; Youth; Open; and Volunteer. And the total number of children in this year’s camp? A mind-blowing 2500!
We tried hard to get one of our more advanced Child’s Play children to participate in this initiative. His application to join was accepted, (which in itself was a significant step, considering that places are limited at his level, despite the large scope of the camp) and had it been possible to sort out his passport documentation and absence from his academic year, he would certainly have benefited from the experience. But sadly it didn’t happen this time.
But, having invested so much time and energy researching this project, we decided to self-fund a recce trip to experience it ourselves. Our son Manuel, who took up cello barely a year ago, was thrilled to be granted a place in the project, and as a parent able to play an orchestral instrument, I was invited to join as well.
The camp was splendidly organized and co-ordinated by a team of some hundreds of volunteers and staff. As you can imagine, with so many levels of orchestras and choir, each working on completely different concert programme repertoire, and the sectional rehearsals involved, the rehearsal venues were scattered all over the city of Gothenburg, although pretty much within walking distance from each other and the dormitories (basically empty classrooms with folding mattresses on the floor for beds) where children, parents, guardians and teachers were staying for the duration of the camp.
Each year, a colour is assigned for the Side-by-Side T-shirts, emblazoned with their logo, a large crotchet rest. It was purple last year and orange this year. All through the days of the music camp (15-19 June), and well into the night (the sun doesn’t really seem to set in the summer months in Sweden), the city came alive in a sea of orange, everywhere: children jauntily walking to and from rehearsal with instrument cases on their backs or in hand, Side-by-Side tote bags brimming with music and what-have-you slung over their shoulder. After the last rehearsal for the evening was done, the orange brigade was out in force in all the public spaces, parks, gardens, amusement parks.
The level of civic participation was really heartening to see. The Gothenburg Concert Hall (Konserhuset), the University for Music and Drama (Högskolan för scen och musik), the World Culture Museum (Världskulturmuseet), the Gothenburg School of the Arts among many others willingly shared their space and resources for rehearsals, while schools and halls of residence provided accommodation space and dining areas. The whole city seemed to be proud to be part of this upbeat music education programme.
There were participants from sixteen countries from all over the world, for the most part from the home country, the other Scandinavian neighbours, and the rest of Europe, although I also met children from Ghana and Lebanon. We seemed to be the sole representatives from India. It was a moment of great pride when our tricolor flashed across the screen at the closing concert among the flags of all the participating countries.
The experience showed me, to an even larger extent than my visit to Sistema Scotland many years ago, what can be achieved in music education when everyone works together. The level of parental, guardian and teacher commitment was outstanding as well. Although the camp was timed to coincide with the Swedish school summer break, many other neighbouring countries were back at school. Parents had taken time off work to accompany their children to this event, and in some cases their music teachers had come along as well. Impromptu rehearsals and practice sessions could be heard all over the dormitories in the evenings. You could see and hear old friendships being renewed (many children come to this camp every year since its inception), and new ones being forged. My son is now friends with Christian, his Danish desk partner, and they have already begun to correspond.
An unforgettable sight and sound for me was listening in on a woodwind rehearsal. I’ve never seen or heard so many scores of bassoons (close to seventy) in one crowded room before. As someone next to me remarked, “It’s a forest of bassoons!”
It was an emotional experience for me, watching and hearing children of all ages and ability working hard to give of their best. In this our tenth anniversary year, it only strengthens our resolve to bring such a dream to fruition. We have seen and heard the power of music as a force for collective good, as a source of great fun and enjoyment. You will have read in the press recently how yet more scientific studies have proven the “predictive relationship between music education and academic achievement,” and most significantly, “regardless of socio-economic background, ethnicity and gender.” This continues to be our raison d’être at Child’s Play: Every child is noteworthy. Every. Child.
(An edited version of this article was published on 07 July 2019 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)