‘These kids have matured by three years in one week,’ said one of the teachers as we walked through Gothenburg. That really is the best description of the effect that the trip to Sweden has had on this group of young musicians from In Harmony Telford and Sistema in Norwich.

They arrived on the 14th of June, clearly excited but also nervous about performing in the El Sistema Sweden Side by Side youth camp. Most of them had never travelled abroad. None had ever played in an orchestra of almost 600 children, surrounded by young musicians from all over the world.

The two groups seemed quite different, at first. Telford were younger and a bit shy, mostly wind players aged 10 to 11: Tiff (flute), Sam (oboe), Lucas (clarinet), Carris (bassoon), Marshall (tuba), Chloe (percussion) and Tia (violin). Norwich were a bit bolder and older (11 to 15), and mostly focused on strings: Alisha, Courtney, Debbie, Ellen, Janaya and Leigh (violins), Elhana (viola), Kayleigh (cello), Emily (double bass) and Joe (percussion).

Sectionals and rehearsals went on for two days in the spacious and well equipped premises of the University of Gothenburg’s Academy of Music and Drama and the huge convention centre of the Gothia Towers complex. The rehearsals, as well as the concert at Trädgårdsföreningen park, were led by the fun and inspiring El Sistema teacher Ron Alvarez, who previously spent five weeks in England working with the In Harmony programmes in Lambeth and Liverpool. The repertoire included In the Hall of the Mountain King (Grieg), Great Gate of Kiev (Mussorgsky), Ritmos Ciganos (trad.) and El Sistema Stockholm Suite (Vik).

For the second half of the week, the young musicians joined a choir that performed with an advanced children’s orchestra and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Joshua Dos Santos of Venezuela, at Frihamnen, Gothenburg’s port. The highlight of that concert was seeing the kids sing the choral movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in Swedish!

The trip, co-funded by Sistema England and the Culture Programme of the European Union through SMEEC, also included visits to the Gothenburg Zoo, a celebration of the Midsummer Festival in a park and a trip on a boat to Vrångö Island, where the young musicians enjoyed a barbecue… though some had to share their food with a very determined seagull.

Empowered and courageous

For us at Sistema England, as well as the tutors from In Harmony Telford, Old Park Primary and Sistema in Norwich that were accompanying the kids, the success of the trip had as much to do with the social and emotional growth of these young musicians as with the quality of their performances. The resilience they all showed when they were caught in the rain… Their mature and friendly behaviour during the whole trip… Their courage and willingness to explore new places, experiences and foods, and to make new friends… Their discipline during the rehearsals and performances… Their immense love for music… All of that made us feel extremely proud!

Steve Copley, Music Director of Sistema in Norwich, said: ‘I flew to Sweden with ten children – somehow I managed to lose them all! Luckily, the parents of those children seemed thrilled that I brought back ten mature, responsible and inspired young adults in their place! How is it possible for a group of children to become confident, empowered, broad minded and musically progressed in just one week? El Sistema… Achieving huge things alongside new friends, being given the space to make the right decisions and not be held back by the usual restraints in their day to day lives.’

During the trip, I particularly hoped to see the two English groups bond. And that did happen, as I realised while I watched them come together to play rounders, take selfie after selfie and share their food. The new friendships even went across ages and nationalities. Tiff became close to Sara, a Spanish flute teacher that works with a Sistema programme in Madrid. On the last day, Tia hugged with Alicia, a fellow violinist from Italy whom she met in the rehearsals. And as several kids from Norwich and Telford embraced, cried and said good-bye on our return to Gatwick Airport, I knew I had gotten my wish.

See the videos below for some short interviews with the young musicians and their teachers, including one with the generous and resourceful Malin Aghed of El Sistema Sweden, as well as a powerful bit from one of the rehearsals.

In Harmony Telford, delivered at Old Park Primary School and led by Telford & Wrekin Music, is funded by the Department for Education and National Lottery through Arts Council England.

Sistema in Norwich is an independent programme run by Norfolk & Norwich Community Arts (NORCA).

Reynaldo Trombetta is the Communications Director of Sistema England.

The SMEEC project was match-funded by the European Union’s Culture Programme.