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The Long-Term Impact of What We Do: A 12-Year Perspective
Abigail Dance, Teacher Musician, In Harmony Lambeth
The program In Harmony Lambeth, in London, England, began as the brainchild of cellist Julian Lloyd Webber following an iconic BBC Proms concert in 2007 that introduced the U.K. to Venezuela’s incomparable Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra and its conductor, Gustavo Dudamel. The energy and fresh life this Venezuelan orchestra brought to the stage, and the story of the intensive, inclusive music education of these remarkable musicians, inspired Lloyd Webber to advocate for an English núcleo network modeled on Venezuela’s El Sistema. The result was England’s In Harmony network, in which In Harmony Lambeth is one of the programs. This has been my creative home for the last 12 years; I am one of the original members of the small teaching team that creates and delivers the program for our community.
I have been fortunate enough to teach many of our students from their first day in nursery class, at age three, right through to their membership in our senior ensembles as young adults. Over the years, there have been many memorable and defining moments for me at IHL. The ten-year-old student I chanced upon playing his violin on the street, not busking for money, but playing for the community “to make them feel happy on their way to school”; two young students who took their instruments to church the Sunday after their second viola lesson, to share with their congregation the four notes they had learned; the trip to Canada with our senior students, where we joined with other Sistema organizations for a huge orchestral celebration in our shared language of music; and many more.
Although our program is defined by the powerful togetherness and shared narrative of our orchestral family, I would like to share the stories of two talented and hardworking young artists who had their first taste of music-making through IHL nearly 12 years ago—Simi and Elijah, good friends who are now in their early 20s. Elijah joined the program first; Simi snuck into the school library to try out Elijah’s cello when Elijah had gone for lunch. Simi loved the sound and the instrument, and he joined the program the next day. During their first semester at IHL, the two boys made a video titled “Resonate,” in which they play a cello duet and interview each other while sitting in their community park. “We are best friends for life,” says Simi. “Whatever I like, he likes, and we do everything together.” Then he asks Elijah, “Why should young people attend In Harmony?”
Elijah responds, “To keep them off the streets and to give them a good environment. If everyone was playing cello, they would not be thinking about gang violence but just playing together.”
Ten years later, Simi and Elijah are performing, writing, and producing music professionally on the vibrant London music scene, as well as teaching the next generation of talent. Elijah is a sought-after drummer and music producer working with major artists; Simi is a sax player, cellist, and music creator. Looking back on their journey with IHL, both young men speak about the positive changes that happened for them when the program came to their community. “We always loved music, but we would not have known there was an option for us to learn to play music or pursue it as a career,” they told me.
How did IHL make such a critical difference in these students’ lives? Both young men say that their time at IHL prepared them for professional success in a multitude of ways, including cost-free intensive lessons in a supportive environment, orchestra tours, performances at high-profile venues such as London’s Southbank Centre, and summer school classes in performance and music production. Both were given “signposting” opportunities with a variety of musical partners: Simi took the initiative to arrange for and conduct IHL’s senior orchestra, while Elijah found the confidence and strong work ethic required to join the band at his church and found mentorship with his band leader in addition to that offered at IHL. The confidence they gained from playing in large spaces—and through their adventures on trips that nurtured bonding with other students and orchestra members—expanded their worlds and empowered them to succeed in this challenging industry. Even those who do not pursue music as a career take with them the lessons learned during their time at In Harmony—teamwork, resilience, increased self-esteem, pride, and aspiration.
It’s interesting to note that the life-changing factors in these boys’ stories involve not only the musical learning in the classroom and after-school program but also the wealth of outside-the-classroom experiences that enlarged their world, deepened their cultural and social learning, and increased their self-confidence. This opening of new pathways, both at home in their community and in the diverse worlds to which music can transport us, gave them new outlooks. In the young Elijah’s words, music can “keep us off the streets and give us a good environment.” It can take us to new places and provide a safe space and a musical family, and it also gives us an international language and a connection to others beyond words.
Both Simi and Elijah returned to join us onstage as guest artists at our tenth anniversary concert in 2019, playing a fusion jazz-inspired piece that Simi had written for the senior string ensemble he and Elijah had been part of in their student years. As I sat on the main stage of the Southbank Centre playing among this group of accomplished young adults whom I had known since their childhoods, it was moving to see such a clear trajectory of growth, engagement, and empowerment, as well as the community and lifelong friendships forged at In Harmony Lambeth. As more and more programs grow beyond their tenth year, our movement will gain a sense of the long-term power of creating musical community throughout childhood and youth.