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Using classical music to help children out of poverty
22-10-2011 - David Vaughan
In this special programme, David Vaughan looks at a unique project to encourage children with musical talent who come from some of the poorest families in the Czech Republic. The project enables primary school children to learn to play with some of the country’s foremost classical musicians. Its success is a reminder of the power of music to cross boundaries of language, class and culture.

The idea of using classical music to help children to break out of the cycle of poverty is not a new one. Back in 1975 the Venezuelan economist and musician, José Antonio Abreu, decided to try to fulfil his dream, in which a classical orchestra represents an ideal society and a perfect environment in which to nurture a child. He called his idea “El Sistema” and it has proved resilient, surviving different political regimes in Venezuela and today including a quarter of a million children in Venezuela alone.

“There were lots of poor children on the streets and one day he thought – how can I bring those kids together? He started with eleven children and later on the project became immense, with huge numbers of kids. They are divided in townships, they have little orchestras and they start very early.”

Milada Cholujová was inspired when she saw a television documentary about his work in 2009.

“I think the principle was to start teaching groups of children classical music and to bring them together to create an orchestra. The idea was that they would introduce classical music to kids who in other circumstances would only encounter it much later on or maybe never. Part of the idea was to teach them all together.”

Was the idea of teaching them together primarily as a way of being able to teach children who wouldn’t be able to afford to have individual lessons, or is there also a philosophy behind it?

“I think it’s a combination of both. The philosophy behind it is that if you create something together as a team, you start working together and you start to feel more self-confident, you feel what you created together.”

Jiří Sládek Milada Cholujová discovered that a similar project was up and running with great success in Britain under the patronage of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and she decided to bring the idea to the Czech Republic.

“Well, I thought that there are lots of talented kids and we enable them to find their talents and help them to continue to develop their talents. Also there are lots of talented musicians. We are very lucky that we have teachers from the Prague Philharmonia, from the Melody Makers orchestra and others. We’ve got professionals who are very good at teaching children.”

And so, you set up the Harmonie Foundation with the aim of raising money to be able to pay teachers who are top musicians and to pay for the instruments for the children to play on in schools…

“Exactly. It’s very difficult to find the funds, but this is the idea behind it. We will need more funds as we go along, but the project is getting on very well, the kids enjoy it and the musicians who are the teachers are excellent, so I think we will raise the funds in the end.”

So far a pilot project is up and running in two Czech schools here in Prague. I’ve come to the primary school in Grafická Street in Prague’s inner suburb of Smíchov. The school is in the middle of an area where some of Prague’s poorest families live and many of them are Roma. This school has been unusually successful in integrating children from very different backgrounds; pictures by the children decorate the walls in 19th century school building, and there’s a hugely friendly atmosphere here. So it is no surprise that this school leapt at the opportunity to take part in the Harmonie project.

[Sound of children and teacher practising]

I’ve joined a class of five to nine-year olds, most of whom only started learning the violin a few weeks ago – and their violin teacher is one of the Czech Republic’s top classical and jazz violinists:

“My name is Jiří Sládek and I am 41 years old. I play in the big band called Melody Makers.”

A lot of the children you are teaching here are from poor families and from families where they have not been brought up to take education and musical instruments for granted. Some of these children are from really quite deprived families, aren’t they?

“Yes. This was one of the reasons why I went for this project, because I like very much being able to help children who can’t go to classical music school and to open for them the door for music. If we did not have the violin lessons they would be perhaps somewhere on the street.”

[Sound of children practising and laughing]

It’s obvious that the children are really enjoying themselves. This is quite an unusual way to teach the violin – to have half a dozen or a dozen children all practising together and reacting to each other, and yet they seem to be learning pretty fast. Do you think this is a method that can work?

“Well, the children will not develop as fast as in individual lessons, but as you can see they are enjoying it very much. They are helping each other and when they play together I feel that they are happy.”

And the majority of the children who are playing today are from Romany families. The violin is absolutely central to the tradition of Romany culture and Romany music. Do you sense that the Romany children have a particular affinity with the violin, or would it be a cliché to suggest something like that?

“As you say, the Gypsies have a very strong feeling for the violin and it’s really a pleasure to work with them. Not everybody, but most of them are very talented and they are going really very fast.”

Tereza is a 6-year old Romany girl. She can only just see over her desk, but she can already name all the parts of violin, and is beginning to play some tunes. “Was Mozart a Gypsy?” she asks, when Hana Kubisová from the Prague Philharmonia, who is another of the professional musicians taking part in the project, plays a couple of bars from A Little Night Music…

Jakub is nine, and he says – and I think in all sincerity – that he really loves the violin.

And I’m surprised to come across one girl who speaks English:

“My name is Antonia and I’m eight.”

And you’re half Czech and half New Zealander…

“Yes.”

How long have you been learning the violin?

Hana Kubisová “Two years.”

Are you enjoying it?

“I’m enjoying it very much.”

It’s pretty difficult, isn’t it?

“A little bit.”

What about your teacher? We’ve heard him play and he’s amazing. Do you hope that one day when you’re a bit older you’ll be able to play like him?

“Yes.”

[Jiří Sládek:] “I’m happy if I see the children smile and if we all succeed to play a song together and everybody is happy from this. That’s what gives me satisfaction. For me the principle thing is that they will like music and will enjoy their time here. So that’s what makes my satisfied – if I see them happy and playing together.”

[Children play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”]

Milada Cholujová is delighted with what has been achieved in cooperation with the primary school in Smíchov:

“We were lucky, because we were looking for a place to start the project and in the end we decided that it was best to start in the schools themselves, because these are really little children and you can’t take them through Prague and get somebody who would bring them to your place. This school especially is very well organized. They have lots of Roma kids who are extremely talented. To start with, we went through five primary schools and we did talent tests. This school is the pilot project, together with one more school. And I think that at the start of this project with this school we were very lucky.”

What do you think is the social impact of something like this – of the opportunity that the children are given to play at a school like this?

“I think it offers children the opportunity to learn about something they would never have a chance to learn. If their teachers are the leading musicians of classical music orchestras, they give them something that the usual teachers cannot do. There is something extra and that’s why I think the kids like it so much, because there is something special, above the usual level, and they sense it.”

In the Czech Republic there are tens of thousands of children who are from poorer families or are living in areas of the country where there are big social problems – for example, in many parts of North Bohemia. In order for this project to work, it really needs to expand enormously. Is your next step going to be to find major sponsors – individuals and organizations who are going to support you?

“We are now working very hard in organizing fundraising and the coming two or three months will be very intense for the Harmonie Foundation. We would love to go to North Bohemia, because there are philharmonic orchestras there and there are huge problems there with socially excluded families. We do believe that if we get enough funds the project can grow even more than the pilot programmes here in Prague.”

If you would like to find out more about the Harmonie Foundation and its work in the Czech Republic, or would like to help in some way, go to: www.nfharmonie.cz.

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