50 pianos, 75 kids, one classical superstar and a big win for three Philly schools [video]

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This week, the Philadelphia Orchestra will perform with soloist Lang Lang, the superstar pianist in the classical world. While in town, he performed with 75 young players in a room full of pianos.  

On Tuesday, at Temple University’s Performing Arts Center, Lang wrangled a roomful of children and teenagers dressed in recital clothes through Schubert and Brahms for performance of 101 Pianos (there were supposed to be 100 kids doubling up on 50 pianos, but some didn’t show).

The event was part of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s community outreach program, PlayIN, inviting amateur musicians to play en masse with professionals. In the past, a clutch of cellist played with Yo Yo Ma, and a herd of harpists played with the Orchestra’s Elizabeth Hainen.

The event allowed the young musicians to ply Lang with questions about this musical education. The Chinese-born musician moved to Philadelphia at age 13 to study music at the Curtis Institute, while completing his academics at the private Rittenhouse Academy. He said he was dismayed to discover many of his peers at Rittenhouse had little or no classical music education.

The 101 Pianos event was an opportunity for Lang to advocate for music education in public schools, and to put his money where his mouth is. His Lang Lang International Music Foundation will contribute piano labs — dozens of full-sized keyboards networked electronically — to three schools in the Philadelphia School District, and provide a stipend for each to have a full-time music teacher for three years.

The three elementary schools receiving the grants are Fox Chase, Edward T. Steel, and Southwark. Their music education programs range from relatively robust to nonexistent.

“Rolling out in Fox Chase, where the climate has been stable for years, as well as Steel with a new principal and recent turmoil, will enable us to measure the consistencies and differences,” said the school district’s director of music education, Frank Machos. “That will help us scale the model across the district.”

The Edward T. Steel elementary school, in the Hunting Park neighborhood, is one of the district’s lowest-performing schools. After a hotly contested debate in 2014, the School Reform Commission decided against turning it into a charter school.

Fifty-six schools across the country applied for the Lang Lang Foundation grant, “Keys of Inspiration.” Four were selected; three of them are in Philadelphia, one in Chicago.

Foundation CEO Lukas Barwinsky determined that the Philadelphia schools were most likely to continue music programs after the three-year grant ended.

“This is what we found, this energy and support from every principal, really fantastic,” said Barwinsky. “This is exactly what Philadelphia needs.”

The schools will have new pianos, teachers, and materials for the fall semester.

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