The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.
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Codi’r To: El Sistema in Wales, and in Welsh
Sistema Cymru—Codi’r To (Welsh for “raising the roof”) is a Welsh-language community project that delivers the world-renowned El Sistema program in areas of multiple deprivation in North Wales. Specifically, we seek to tackle disadvantage and educational underachievement in two communities of multiple deprivation. We hope to provide inspiration and transformation for children, families, schools, and communities, changing lives for the better through music.
We work in two primary schools, Ysgol Maesincla, in the town of Caernarfon, and Ysgol Glancegin, in the town of Bangor. The schools are located in two of the most deprived areas in County Gwynedd, according to the Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation, and the majority of the children who attend these schools live in poverty. Our pre-COVID enrollment was 400 pupils weekly—a significant growth from the 2014 pilot project, which saw 69 pupils participate. (Lockdown has impacted us greatly. We are now exploring how best to move forward with both socially distanced learning and online learning.)
We are somewhat unique in the international Sistema family, because the music education we provide is distinctly Welsh in its culture and is provided through the medium of the Welsh language. The instruments our students learn are in the brass and percussion families, because in our communities, brass bands and samba bands are highly popular. Our percussion tutor was a member of one of the local Samba bands, and we soon realized that Samba is a very inclusive form and lends itself well to local community events, carnivals, processions, fun days, festivals, and workshops, offering many performance opportunities for our young musicians. One of our long-term goals is to equip our young musicians to join secondary school brass bands and local community bands, since we don’t yet have the capacity to offer our older pupils more advanced musical opportunities.
Why do we teach in Welsh? The Welsh language is a key part of Wales’ culture and identity. It is the primary language spoken in some of our communities, and it has a significant presence in many workplaces, learning institutions, and cultural events. All learners are immersed in the Welsh language from an early age in Wales, with pupils given the appropriate skills in Welsh and English to enable them to participate fully in the bilingual society of which they are a part. Codi’r To works in partnership with the schools, raising pupils’ confidence to use the language as part of their everyday lives and promoting the value of Welsh as a social language among families and young people.
Participants learn to play brass and samba instruments; to sing and perform; to work on self-expression and movement using the principles of Dalcroze Eurythmics and Kodaly; and to perform regularly for audiences that include fellow pupils, parents, and community residents. We deploy a range of styles from various musical periods—e.g., classical, folk, contemporary, and samba—to develop and enrich our students’ musical experiences.
Our program provides both weekly in-school music sessions in the two primary schools and out-of-school activities that engage the wider community throughout the year, including students who have made the transition from the participating schools to secondary education.
While initially aimed at older pupils within the participating primary schools, the project had such a transformational effect that the delivery model was revised in order to engage with pupils at their point of entry into the school. This means that we currently teach Nursery, Reception, and Years 1–5, as well as delivering after-school clubs (Samba Club and Jazz Band) for pupils that have transferred to secondary school. We are working toward adopting a whole-school approach.
Activities not only develop musical and creative skills; they are also proven to offer a range of wider benefits, including increased confidence, pride, social skills, wellbeing, and attainment levels in traditional curriculum subjects. The program thus has direct potential to contribute to a number of Areas of Learning and Experience within Wales’ new curriculum.
Codi’r To is funded by a mix of government and private institutions, with our two schools also contributing support. It has been subject to two evaluations by Bangor University. These evidenced the project’s positive impact on participants’ academic achievement, wellbeing, transferable skills, attendance, and engagement. The Social Return on Investment (SROI) analysis, conducted by Bangor University’s Centre for Health Economics & Medicines Evaluation (CHEME) in July 2018, placed monetary values on all aspects of the benefits deriving from our activities with pupils in the two schools, and found that every £1 spent in our program generates a social value return of £6.69.
Professor Sally Holland, the Children’s Commissioner for Wales, has said, “The distance in attainment and opportunities between the children in the poorest income brackets and those in the wealthiest groups is an enduring social problem in Wales, and I am convinced that this project is a positive and creative method to tackle this issue.”