While the rest of the world comes to Scotland to display a range of (sometimes obscure) Celtic Connections during January - starting next Thursday - the young people from the Big Noise project in Stirling's Raploch departed these shores on Wednesday to spend a chunk of the month in Venezuela.
The excursion, somewhat predictably dubbed The Big Trip, stemmed directly from an invitation that, amusingly, caught the organisers and supporters of Sistema Scotland (the initiative to replicate the South American country's globally-admired music education system) on the hop. It was issued by the venerable Maestro José Antonio Abreu, founder of El Sistema, at a reception preceding the Stirling concert by the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra that launched London 2012's Cultural Olympiad in Scotland.
With an audience of the great and the good (as well as the very talented) from West Kilbride to Westminster to play to, the wise old man picked his moment. There was no way that anyone in the room would want to be held responsible for disappointing the children, and there were others there ready to make sure they did not. From the moment he said it, 55 Scots youngsters were off to Caracas, where they now have three days of rehearsal with their Venezuelan counterparts before a joint Scottish-Venzuelan orchestra performs in the concert hall there, under the baton of El Sistema's most famous son, Gustavo Dudamel, now music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
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Meanwhile, at home in central Scotland, music tuition looks not so much like grinding to a halt as sliding into reverse. With local authorities once again looking to cut budgets, instrumental lessons for school pupils are in the firing line everywhere but in Raploch. Money-saving proposals before Stirling Council include the complete withdrawal of visiting specialist teachers to primary schools. Neighbouring Clackmannanshire - which has many communities as impoverished as Raploch, and a couple almost as notorious for their drug-related crime problems - has a budget proposal to raise the cost of instrumental tuition to parents by over 100% from £220 a year to £450, which would be by far the highest charge in Scotland. A generation ago, and even as far back as when I was at school, that provision was free if you showed an interest in and aptitude for music.
Readers may detect some contradiction here at the heart of government in Scotland. Not only is the highly regarded Sistema model being rolled out in Glasgow, and perhaps Aberdeen, but the question of the restoration of free instrumental tuition for every child in the country has been an aspiration of the Scottish Government almost since its inception.
First Minister Jack McConnell, he of the St Andrew's Day cultural policy speech that the present administration does not acknowledge but often echoes, gave an undertaking that Labour would give every primary school pupil the opportunity to learn an instrument. At the end of the last school year, on June 21 if memory serves, this government launched a new report into instrumental tuition at Leith Academy in Edinburgh. It took a much broader look at a way forward for musical tuition, including traditional as well as orchestral instruments, and singing. It also suggested very specific ways to advance the goals it set out, but to the best of my knowledge they have yet to be pursued.
That, sadly, seems to be the way of it. While Richard Holloway's driving of Sistema Scotland has produced the remarkable Big Trip this week, and the National Youth Choir of Scotland's network of extra-curricular Kodaly music training has produced a now evident generation of musically literate young Scots, Holyrood produces fine words but little in the way of action, with which local government appears far from in tune. Excuse the inevitable metaphor, but is it not time our elected representatives were singing from the same hymn-sheet?