Blog – My Sistema Debut

For those of you who attended Sistema’s End of Term Winter Joy! Concert and who were wondering who the buffoon clattering away on the eponymous item during Leroy Anderson’s The Typewriter, my name’s James and I’m one of the Administrators here at Norfolk Community Arts.

It was our Musical Director’s idea to include this piece in the concert and, having a published author on staff, it seemed only logical to rope him in to play the wretched thing. Logical to Juan, that is. To me, it was just terrifying. My musical training shuddered to a halt at Grade One Piano, and my only performance experience is a couple of gigs as vocalist for a rather regrettable college band. However, it seemed churlish to refuse.

Despite missing a few rehearsals thanks to a brief blast of Covid-19, I managed to familiarise myself enough with the piece to take a crack at it in public. And what an absolute thrill it was (for me). A real object lesson in saying ‘Yes!’ – even when your head’s saying ‘No!’ – to new opportunities.

I’m a big believer in the Sistema programme. As we often say, it’s not just about teaching music. It’s an orchestra programme, not just a music programme. Yes, our students learn to play an instrument but, crucially, they learn to play it with other musicians. I started off by listening to the piece to get the rhythm, then by clattering away to myself in one of the practice rooms, reminding myself how to read a score and trying to instil some muscle memory. But it’s only when I sat down to rehearse for the first time with the orchestra that I started to find my feet. That act of playing with other people was the final goal – to know my part was one thing, but to fit it in with everyone else was the measure of success.

And playing the instrument is only one part of that. When our students play together, they learn a range of skills, not all musical. They learn to listen, to the conductor and to each other. They learn the value of practice, of putting the hours in. They learn commitment, as they find out, by the impact on them when one of their colleagues misses a session, what it means when they don’t show up to a rehearsal. They become part of something bigger than themselves, and discover what’s possible when they defer a fraction of their (important) independence to service the needs of the larger group. They learn to support each other.


Can you see the terror in his eyes?

I can testify to this. Having lost my place several times in rehearsals (and finding it again is really hard when everyone else carries on and you’re trying to find a moving target on that confusing page of squiggles in front of you), I was frequently told “Don’t worry, you’ll get it” and “Keep going, you’re doing fine”, not just by Juan but by the students. I was encouraged, lifted, by the support of the others in the orchestra, working together to create something wonderful, and helping me to play my part.

And you can see it in the faces of the Da Capo students, watching the older students, seeing what they have and wanting to be part of it. It’s not just technical ability on offer, it’s opportunity. I can’t wait to see what our new recruits might achieve as they begin their orchestral journeys.

I’m hugely grateful to have been invited to be (a small) part of it at this year’s winter concert. It was a privilege to share the stage with not just great musicians, but great people. Getting that little taste of what it means to be part of it cemented my admiration for what the Sistema team achieve with our students. They take budding musicians and turn them into well-rounded, skilled young people. Bravo to that.