Music, we are often told, is powerful enough to change the world. Powerful enough to change peoples’ lives.
At this point, these are clichés. Like many clichés, however, they happen to be true. If proof is needed, you don’t need to look further than Philadelphia’s pioneering music education program Play On, Philly!and its founder and Executive Director, Stanford Thompson.
Play On, Philly! describes itself as “a music education program with the priority of serving the social and cultural needs of at-risk children in the City of Philadelphia.” It’s an accurate enough description, clinical enough to slot neatly into the sort of academic report or presentation that government agencies or funding organizations might require. It does little to convey Play On, Philly!’s energy, appeal, or transformative power. To begin to understand those characteristics, it helps to have a conversation with Thompson.
For Thompson, it wasn’t quite enough. While reaping the personal benefits of a performing career, he wanted to find a way to give something back.
In conversation, Stanford Thompson is thoughtful, deliberate, measured in his responses. He also sounds a little tired. Not surprising, considering the effort required to found, fund, maintain, administer, and operate a significant arts-centered nonprofit that has grown from concept to maturity in a scant six years. Add in service as chairperson, board member, or contributor for a veritable Who’s Who of musically-oriented organizations: Besides Play On, Philly!, Thompson serves as Chair of El Sistema USA and the Curtis Institute of Music Alumni Council, a board member of the Interlochen Center for the Arts and the Philadelphia chapter of the American Composers Forum, and a contributor to TED and the League of American Orchestras. It’s a lot of work, demanding a lot of dedication. Fortunately for Thompson, dedication is a resource he seems to have abundant reserves of
Born into a musical family, Thompson began playing trumpet at eight, and “got serious” when he turned thirteen. “For ten years, trumpet was just what I did, all the time. I can only remember a handful of days when I missed a day of practice.” It was a level of dedication and discipline that led Thompson to excel at his instrument, leading him to attend the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music and later the New England Conservatory of Music’s Abreu Fellows Program before embarking on a professional performing career. Thompson’s instrumental mastery led him to perform and solo with major orchestras worldwide, while also dabbling in chamber music and jazz. In and of itself, it was a remarkable achievement, and a solid start for what looked to be a promising performing career. For Thompson, it wasn’t quite enough. While reaping the personal benefits of a performing career, he wanted to find a way to give something back.
A casual comment by the legendary British conductor Sir Simon Rattle planted the first seeds for the project that was to become Thompson’s consuming passion. “It all started when I was a student at Curtis Institute of Music. We were working with Simon Rattle, who is the music director of the Berlin Philharmonic. As good as the Curtis Symphony is, he said to us ‘You’re playing all perfect notes. There’s no energy in the room,’” Thompson recalls. “He said a group of kids in Venezuela would outplay us. I thought to myself that there was no way that was possible.”
That moment marked Thompson’s first glancing contact with El Sistema, a program begun in Venezuela that provides free music instruction to over 600,000 schoolchildren. El Sistema was conceived as a means of providing needy children with opportunities for musical education and cultural enrichment, as well as the chance to develop an array of other personal, intellectual and social skills. El Sistema provided intensive daily group instruction and performance opportunities to children from early elementary to the secondary levels. As Thompson learned more about El Sistema and its successes in not only nurturing a growing body of outstanding performers but building community and affecting social change, he became more and more impressed.
“Those were the things that resonated with me: High quality orchestral music, social change, collaborating with the community and celebrating who they are with this art form.”
“It didn’t really hit me until about a year later when Dr. (Jose Antonio) Abreu, who founded El Sistema, won the TED Prize. As part of that, he gave a TED talk explaining how classical music, and specifically the orchestra, can be a positive driving force for social change. Those were things that resonated with me: High quality orchestral music, social change, collaborating with the community and celebrating who they are with this art form. So all of these things came together.”
In 2009, Thompson began the process of bringing a modified version of El Sistema to the United States, working on his own at first to strategize the program, create a supporting nonprofit organization, and garner support. Two years later, Play On, Philly! came into being.
It was no easy task. “We planned for eleven months to get POP launched, and it was halfway through month nine that I found our current board chair, Carole Haas Gravagno. She shared a vision of helping kids, as well as a love for education and for music. She saw a program like this as being a good tool,” he explains. “Essentially in our first year, she was one of the only investors. Slowly, with hard work and with the ability to demonstrate good outcomes, we have expanded that group of people to over 300 donors who help on an annual basis, enabling us to do this. It’s hard! It’s really hard to do this.
“I’m very happy we met a lot of the right people at the right time who saw our work’s value and that we needed the help.”
Five years later, Play On, Philly! operates intensive education programs in three Philadelphia area schools where children have the opportunity to train with established professional musicians at nearly no cost. “Kids can start as early as kindergarten, and can go all the way through 12th grade. The majority of our kids are starting in the third through fifth grades. As a member of the program, it’s tuition free – we do ask the families to contribute between $25 and $125 per year as a registration fee, but if they can’t pay within that range, they can request a waiver,” Thompson says. “It is essentially a free program, but it’s a small investment for buy-in from the families. The biggest investment is their time; they are committing to come every day, Monday through Friday after school, for an average of two and a half hours. Between rehearsals, performances and activities, it comes out to 600 hours per year, which also includes a five week summer program where we work with the kids all day each weekday.
“We loan them instruments, and we provide all standard orchestral instruments – harp, woodwinds, brass, percussion, strings, all of them. We have forty teaching artists who are all professional musicians and music educators in the Philadelphia region. We are able to bring in a specialist for each instrument or each area of study, whether it’s choir or general music. And it’s the level of mentorship – these teaching artists are there every single day, and the kids know they’ll be there. They develop really strong relationships. And they hear things like ‘Hey, I just had this great weekend gig with Aretha Franklin,’ or ‘I just got back from Italy with my string quartet.’ These are adults who are not their parents, but who are pushing them hard to do some tough things and keeping the bar really high. And our guest artists – we’ve had people like Wynton Marsalis, Bobby McFerrin, and Simon Rattle, who has conducted the kids twice. And they perform all over the city. They give about thirty performances per year. They’ve performed in Baltimore, Harrisburg, Boston, Providence, New York, Washington DC – they have those opportunities.”
Play On, Philly!’s investment in its young charges is paying off in both expected and unexpected ways. Despite the substantial time demands, the program retains 90 percent of students year to year; of POP’s 110 original members, 85 have remained with the program. Thompson speaks with pride of students and former students who have succeeded through the program. “We have one kid in college in Temple University’s school of music. He got a scholarship there. … last year one of our students went on a tour of Italy with the All City Orchestra of Philadelphia. We had students studying at prestigious music summer programs such as Interlochen, Kinhaven and Brooke Valley Bassoon Days. We have students playing in the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, Philadelphia Sinfonia, playing at the Kimmel Center. Currently, they play in some seven different music programs in the city.”
What would the chances have been of these students achieving these successes without Play On, Philly!? “Zero percent. Instrumental music is not available in the schools. We have a lot of hard working parents who don’t have the time or money to go out and get an instrument, to pay for a teacher on a weekly basis, or make sure the kid is practicing and staying motivated.
Thompson is quick to note that the benefits extend well beyond musical excellence. “We see a lot of evidence of improvement in self esteem and confidence, and their ability to take on big challenges and take ownership, even of their mistakes. We see a greater sense of teamwork and camaraderie; they have the sense that they are part of a team. We get great evidence from family members, school teachers, opportunities we give to kids to speak at events – the meetings we have with funders or others we work with, and it’s really neat to hear them articulate what else they’re learning from our program besides notes and music.”
Thompson sees a close correlation between POP students’ growth through music and its influence on him during his formative years. “I was just a weird kid, and music was a really strong outlet. I never fit in elementary or high school; I didn’t think the same way as everybody else. But with music, it felt like everyone understood me. It also gave me a work ethic: If I put in concentrated time every single day, when performance time came my confidence came from my preparation. I do think confidence is a thing you can grow, along with the skill set of perseverance. I felt that I learned all of those things, and I felt a deep sense of responsibility in giving back to that somehow.”
“We see a lot of evidence of improvement in self esteem and confidence, and their ability to take on big challenges and take ownership, even of their mistakes. We see a greater sense of teamwork and camaraderie.
“I’ve worked so hard to figure out how to articulate myself to my team or to the board or donors – I have to use words out of my mouth, or written words in grant proposals and plans, and I still struggle to do that. But when I play trumpet, I can interact in a universal way that everyone can understand. I find that expression to be extremely important.”
Since founding Play On, Philly! and assuming his other duties, there’s less room for that expression in Thompson’s life than there used to be. His own playing and performing has taken a reluctant back seat to the day-to-day struggle to move POP and other El Sistema programs forward. He speaks slightly wistfully of his former career. “The work I did as a professional musician requires a degree of execution. To make a long story short, I don’t consider myself to still be a performing musician. I still play in a couple of groups, and play a couple of concerts each year. But the number of concerts I play in a year now is what I used to sometimes play in a week. I think the balance is that I play a lot for myself. I still need that outlet. That’s one thing I’ll never stop doing.”
“The people that I met, all of my friends, that whole world – I miss it a lot.” Was the growing success of Play On, Philly! compensation enough for the sacrifice of his performing career? “Oh yeah. I sleep better at nights. It’s something I just wouldn’t trade in for anything else. I feel really, really proud of what is happening, and I know it’s a level of satisfaction I wouldn’t get anywhere else.”
Play On, Philly! and Thompson’s newer national initiative, El Sistema USA, would seem to offer Thompson opportunities to compound that satisfaction. “In Philadelphia; there are more than 200,000 kids here to serve. Not that we could serve 200,000 kids, but we definitely have a lot of room to grow.”And according to Thompson, there are now 115 other emerging programs scattered throughout the United States built on the El Sistema foundation. “The arts, and music specifically, is something that I think every child in this country and around the world needs to be involved in – some type of artistic expression,” he says. “We just don’t have enough of that for our young people. Cell phones and computers and everything else just can’t replace that. We’ve talked about the skills and character traits that music and the arts can teach – it’s an old fashioned approach, but I think it’s very important for parents to do everything they can to advocate for these types of programs. If their kid is participating, support them – don’t let them give up on themselves. There were many times I wanted to quit, and I’m so glad my parents didn’t give me that option.”
Thompson hopes that larger, better funded arts organizations will also see the value of investment in programs like these. “We see a lot of human and financial resources go into our largest cultural institutions, especially in major cities. While this is great, a lot of that work only reaches a small sliver of the community in an impactful way. I view the work we do at POP as an outlet – a different way to invest their money, or invest their time if they are a professional artist, and these things are incredibly important. I want to encourage my colleagues who run these types of organizations to get involved with community work that has deep impact. Just maybe if we solve their problems first, they can come to us and help us solve our problems. And there is a tremendous amount of joy in watching these kids perform, and being able to say ‘Hey, it’s working. It’s worth it.’”
Photo credit: Stand Magazine