The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra Goes to Govanhill

by Kirsty Yanik, Communications and Marketing Manager, Sistema Scotland

Two double basses. Credit: Martin Shields

In autumn 2019, a collaboration between Sistema Scotland, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and Holyrood Secondary School brought about a unique residency. For a few days in early October, the BBC SSO, Scotland’s oldest orchestra, decamped from their prestigious base of operations at the City Halls in Glasgow to a school in Govanhill, a neighborhood on the south side of the city. This was not the BBC SSO’s first community-based residency; however, it was one of its largest ones, with over 80 musicians participating over the four days.

Govanhill is one of the most densely populated communities in Scotland and faces a significant range of economic, social and environmental challenges. Life expectancy is lower than the national average and instances of violent crime are significantly higher. It is recognised as one of Scotland’s most disadvantaged communities. Yet it is also a vibrant, exciting, and highly diverse area; recent surveys indicate that over 52 nationalities live in the community, speaking over 30 different languages. Sistema Scotland has worked in Govanhill since 2013, when the charity opened Big Noise Govanhill (the second of four Big Noise centres across Scotland).

Big Noise Govanhill works with 1,200 children across Govanhill, from babies up to children in their second year of secondary school. The centre works in close partnership with Govanhill’s Holyrood Secondary School, the largest school in Scotland (with over 2,000 students), to deliver the Big Noise programme for older participants and has strong links with the school’s own music department.

Children from the Big Noise Govanhill program play alongside their counterparts from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Jeff Holmes

Sistema Scotland and BBC SSO have worked in partnership since the charity was first established in 2008; in 2016, children from Big Noise Govanhill travelled to the City Halls for a side-by-side performance with BBC SSO musicians onstage. This year, however, the three organisations (Sistema Scotland, BBC SSO, and Holyrood Secondary School) were committed to working together to create a truly inclusive orchestral experience by bringing the orchestra into the heart of Govanhill itself. From 2nd-5th October, after many months of planning, the BBC SSO took up residence in Holyrood Secondary School.

The short residency featured a densely-packed timetable of activities, from specialist performance and composition workshops delivered by music presenter and singer Lucy Drever, to tailored performances for local schools, side-by-side rehearsals, and the grand finale of a huge community concert led by noted French conductor Chloé van Soeterstède. Children from all the primary schools and the two main secondary schools in Govanhill were able to take part, over a thousand in total, including over 100 children from Big Noise Govanhill. Pupils at Holyrood were also able to use their participation in these activities to help them achieve part of a qualification in music.

This was a particularly intense project for the Big Noise Govanhill team, who were responsible for managing much of the operations and logistics required to ensure that as many children as possible from across the community were able to take part in the residency. The residency was based across two large venues, Holyrood Secondary School and Club Holyrood (a venue serving as the community’s council-run leisure facility as well as the school’s main sports hall), neither of which was experienced in hosting a large-scale orchestra. Making sure the residency ran smoothly took a huge amount of planning from all partners, plus long working days through the residency itself and a creative response to unexpected challenges along the way.

Children forge friendships with their counterparts from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Jeff Holmes

The children who took part in the residency reported that they found the experience challenging and a bit nerve-wracking, but also exciting and motivating, citing the impact of having the BBC SSO in their own community as truly inspirational. Learning from these musicians and playing alongside them, in front of an audience of their family, friends, and community members, is an experience that will stay with the children for many years to come.

The learning during the residency was reciprocal as well. Some musicians from the BBC SSO relayed that they had found the experience to be memorable and emotional, as much from the sharing of stories and experiences with the children as from the music.

Media coverage of Govanhill tends to be very negative, highlighting the challenges in the community. So it was encouraging to see positive coverage of the residency in the Scottish media, with major features in local and national newsprint and radio, focusing on the involvement of local children and the diversity of Govanhill.

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