Fortune took her to work for Sistema in Stirling and, 13 years later, not only is Vicky still with Sistema – she starts this week as the organisation’s new chief executive officer.

Listening to her talk about her role, as we sit in the headquarters of Big Noise Govanhill in Glasgow’s south side, it’s very difficult to imagine her anywhere else. 

The Herald:

Vicky began playing the cornet at the age of nine, becoming part of the rich tradition of brass bands in the ex-mining towns of West Lothian.

The bands, she said, were “part of the fabric of the town” and, listening to her talk, there sounds like parallels with that experience and the way the Big Noise orchestras aim to embed music in their communities. 

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She said: “We had a really good regional band. 

“West Lothian Council at that time completely took away the barriers to playing and had buses that came to all the little towns and took us to a central place to rehearsals.”

“I probably hadn’t realised how much that was in me until I started working for Sistema.

“There was a lot of things they got right in terms of being inclusive but at that time that wasn’t how we thought about it, it was just what we did.”

For local young people who went on to study music further, as she did, it was “not because you got an A at Higher but because the music was part of you”.

Vicky studied trumpet at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and initially struggled, finding it a “quite tough and restrictive environment” but she quickly found her feet and went on to study for a Masters degree while working as a peripatetic brass teacher.

She taught brass all through college and first heard about Sistema, which was then in its first year in Scotland, through someone who told her about the concept. 

Sistema Scotland runs Big Noise orchestras across the country.

The music education and social change programme teaches children to play in a symphony orchestra, which then becomes a community supporting those young people to gain vital life skills such as confidence, resilience, creativity, and aspiration.

Independent research has shown how Big Noise helps children reach their full potential, tackling inequalities and strengthening community ties.

Now, a total of 3500 children and young people from babies to teenagers are part of the scheme in Raploch and Fallin, near Stirling; Govanhill in Glasgow; Torry in Aberdeen; Douglas in Dundee; and Wester Hailes in Edinburgh.

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At the time of its launch, Big Noise was focused on strings.

Vicky added: “When I heard about it I thought, ‘If that ever expands to have brass that’s my perfect job.'”

Fortunately for Vicky, Big Noise introduced brass and percussion. So, 13 years ago, she applied for a post-graduate course in primary education – and to Big Noise in Raploch.

Big Noise invited her to join the team and from there, she said, was a few “turbulent years” as the charity expanded its instrument tuition.

She said: “We were expanding to 14 different instruments and it was complicated so there were a lot of meetings on what the curriculum would look like – and that was fascinating to be part of.

From being a brass teacher, Vicky, who also plays in the brass quintet Alba Brass, was then promoted to head of centre at Raploch where she has been for 10 years.

She is replacing founding CEO Nicola Killean OBE, who stepped down last month after 15 years to become Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People.

As Vicky prepares to take over from interim CEO Maggie Cunningham, she acknowledges she has a daunting job of work ahead of her to get across the scope of her new role.

Big Noise started in Raploch in April 2008, with six musicians supporting 35 young schoolchildren and now, across Scotland, employs 175 members of staff and supports 40 volunteers. 

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Vicky tells how children she taught in the early days in Raploch come back to volunteer and visit because Big Noise still has a big part in their lives. 

Three young people are now undergraduates at the RCS but, while teachers are delighted when pupils want to go on to study music, the project is not about producing musicians.

It does, though, give job opportunities and this is something Vicky would like to expand in her new role.

Some 12 young people are employed in the programme at Big Noise in various capacities and she would like to find ways to further integrate opportunities for young people post-school. 

Vicky says this is part of an ambition to further embed Big Noise in communities by “handing over” the orchestras to be run by people from the communities themselves.

It’s a significant ambition and one she is in the early stages of planning for.
One of the main challenges, across the arts and charity sectors in Scotland, is funding and Sistema Scotland has had difficult moments this year with financial support being withdrawn by three local authorities.

Big Noise in Stirling, Aberdeen and Dundee faced an uncertain future earlier in the year after local authorities cut funding as part of tough budget decisions.

There was outcry about all three and the Scottish Government eventually stepped in with £1.5 million to bridge the breach. 

Vicky is optimistic about future relationships with the councils, however, and says the funding discussions, while “frustrating and disappointing” gave the opportunity to look again at how Sistema Scotland and councils work together.

Now she is focused on learning more about the charity’s other centres, away from her home turf of Raploch, and focusing on coming to her new role with fresh eyes.  

She said: “What I love about Big Noise is that it was set up to have high aspirations musically but was also focused intentionally on bringing out the confidence of young people and building that community.

“It wasn’t a default, it is intentional to try to build them a community that parallels the communities we all live in.”

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