Why do black urban children in Amsterdam Bijlmer play classical music?

Black Children playing classic music in Amsterdam

On June 11th in 2009 black urban kids from the Amsterdam district Bijlmer, in The Netherlands, performed in the Amsterdam Concert Hall. In a orchestra they played on violins, tuba’s and bassoons. The idea is called the ‘Leerorkest’ (learning orchestra) and it’s a huge success.

Five years ago  the director of the local music school, Brazilian Marco de Sousa, started searching for a violin instructor. At one point he was asked, why do you need a violin teacher in the Bijlmer? He replied: “It's children's enthusiasm for something that they normally would never touch. Not because children are from Africa it means that they are more connected to a djembe then to a bassoon. Sousa:” Children have a different view. They choose a bassoon because it’s funny and a tuba because it’s big.”

In the Amsterdam Bijlmer children of three primary schools are getting music lessons on violins, tuba’s and bassoons. De Souza, saw that black children were not going to the music school, so he decided to take the music school to them.

De Souza, "The number of children that attends the music school is very small. In Amsterdam only 4.5 percent of children attends a music school, in neighbourhoods such as the Bijlmer it’s about 2.7 percent.  Music costs money, books should be purchased, and a child must be brought and be picked up. Many parents don’t want to make that effort."

Five years ago De Souza began a pilot with forty students. Now four hundred children in the Bijlmer play a classical music instrument. The lessons are given in primary schools. Everyone in the class chooses an instrument. Then the children get compulsory music lessons from a professional musician, one hour every week. Four years in school group five to eight." In the Netherlands it’s in the age from 8 to 12years old.

Child and instrument are carefully linked together. "We start with a visit of a rehearsal of Dutch Philharmonic Orchestra," says De Souza. This is followed by a workshop where children can speed date with a few instruments. After four months, the final choice is made.

Black presence in classical music in the UK

In 2002 cellist Julian webber wrote in the Telegraph in the an article entitled 'Who says classical music is for whites only' that there will be no improvement in musical education until the myth that classical music is white, middle-class and elitist has been debunked.

Webber: “What chance does a young British black child have of coming to know classical music? In many urban primary schools, they would be lucky to find two sides of a triangle in a back cupboard.

It may seem an obvious question, but how can anyone like any kind of music if they never hear it? White people decided that they liked MOBO - music of black origin - (jazz, rock and roll, r'n'b) because they had easy access to it - and they particularly liked it when it was "legitimised" by one of their own colour. To interest black people in classical music, we need more young black role models like the organist and conductor Wayne Marshall. Our present system is not designed to produce them.”

Keeping it real?

You may ask why black children are learning classical music? We have are own music tradition. So why can’t they play Caribbean or African music or just rap. From a black socio political point of view you may even think it looks like an attempt to ‘civilize’ black children with Bach.

In an interview award winning Dutch Black Cellist Steven Bourne was asked why he played chello. “ My parents, who are from Surinam Caribbean origin, just wanted me get to get in touch with other cultures. They listen to Caribbean music, but they also liked classical music. “ Bourne is the 19 year old winner of the Avond van de Jonge musicus (Evening of the young musician) of 2008. His sister is also a talented piano player.

But the real answer came from the young musicians of the Leerorkest. “You just feel terrific when you play contrabass. Because this is biggest instrument of the orchestra. “ And, "I feel the music. And I realise that I can do that."

Classical music is not Hip Hop or pop, but for black kids it’s a way to look beyond of what is perceived to be black. And maybe that's a part of growing up in Europe.

Black presence in classical music in the UK

See Steven en Daniëlle Bourne play sonate for cello and piano of Debussy, lente, sostenuto e molto risoluto.


  1. As a former competitive violinist, growing up in a middle class African household in New York, I would say that classical music gave me a deep appreciation for "good" music. By this I don't mean Anglo or civilized (whatever that means, I'm still not quite sure), but rather music that survives for centuries and is based on a melody, chord structures, and variations -- the antithesis of pop music, it is evocative, seeking to make an emotional, visceral, almost limbic connection with the listener.

    Black music has always had melody, not to mention polyrhythms, which make it quite sophisticated in a lot of ways as compared to classical music. You could listen to any traditional music and feel a deep visceral connection -- or any Fela, James Brown, Marley, Makeba, I could go on -- but hip hop, I think, ran into some problems when it began devolving into just a beat and rhyme. That kind of music may be cool for awhile, and maybe even infectious, but certainly doesn't last centuries.

    I think if these kids can broaden their perception of "good" music, and even conceive of "better" urban music by playing classical (I'm making a lot of judgments here), they should certainly play on.

    However, if it leads them to ghettoize their own cultural forms as somehow less than classical music, they need to throw their instruments away immediately.

  2. Thanks for the comment. Your view on the music was very interesting.

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