Last Tuesday, Josh Anderson was out on the streets hunting for flutes.
He met his connection at a second-floor storage unit at a secret location on the edge of Center City, Philadelphia, spilling with hundreds of musical instruments in various stages of repair.
As an itinerant music teacher for the School District, Anderson travels between seven public schools. At Finletter elementary in Olney, his kids want flutes.
“They can fit them in their school bags,” he said, visiting the storage unit during his lunch hour. “It’s easier for them to go on SEPTA busses, you’re not lugging around large cases and stuff. So, yeah, the flutes, the clarinets, they’re pretty popular.”
Anderson’s connection is Musicopia, a music education organization providing both in-class and after-school music training for schoolchildren throughout Philadelphia. It also receives donations of musical instruments, repairs them, and distributes them to schools. Over the last 10 years Musicopia has given away about 5,800 instruments to schools, to be put into the hands of children.
In pre-pandemic times, the organization would deliver instruments directly to the schools that need them. But in the past year, staff have not been allowed inside schools due to COVID-19 restrictions, so the organization started arranging daylong events wherein teachers sign up to come to the storage unit, pick out instruments they need, and haul them away themselves.
Musicopia’s executive director Catherine Charlton said she started these giveaway days in January 2021, on Martin Luther King Day, as a Day of Service action. Since then she has done four more, including most recently on November 30, the Tuesday following Thanksgiving.
“We’re giving away instruments as our act of service for Giving Tuesday,” said Charlton.
Most of the thousands of instruments Musicopia has received over the years have come one at a time, from individuals who no longer have a need for them.
“Perhaps their children have grown up. They’re not using them. They’re retired musicians who aren’t using the instruments anymore. It’s people clearing out their family homes and finding instruments,” said Charlton. “The beautiful thing is that all of these instruments have stories. Instruments are so special to the people who have played them and held them and created through those instruments. To be able to give them new life is just extremely rewarding.”
Charlton would like to track the stories of each instrument. Toward that end, Musicopia is developing a new database system for all the instruments it gives away: Each instrument is given an identifying bar code so it can be tracked through the repair and donation process. The system is set up to collect information so that, one day, Musicopia will be able to connect the story of the instrument’s life with the previous owner, to its new life in the hands of a young student.
“In certain situations we do know the stories. We had a family recently, their mother had been in the Delaware Symphony for over 30 years and a school teacher in the School District of Philadelphia: the Loder family,” said Charlton. “They donated their mother’s violin and viola, which we were able to place with students who were going off to conservatory. One young man is at the Peabody Institute now with Dory Loder’s violin.”
For many kids, however, the provenance of the instrument is less important than the instrument itself. Kelly Knittle, a music teacher at MaST Community Charter School in Northeast Philadelphia, came to the storage unit. A horn player, she checked out the action of the valves of some French horns available, but she went away with an armload of flutes.
Knittle said her students have been clamoring for these instruments.
“I have been overwhelmed,” she said. “I have a lot of guitar students. Most of them were able to obtain an instrument. And then, flutes and woodwinds I’ve had a lot of interest in, which is great.”
Charlton herself was once a flute player, but has not picked up the instrument in at least a decade in favor of the piano. She tried out one of the available flutes, running through a couple scales before improvising a tune. Her sound bounced lively off the concrete floor and metal doors inside the storage facility.
“This flute is amazing. It’s beautiful, and it’s echoing in these hallways in a beautiful way,” she said. “This is better than the flute I have at home.”
Saturdays just got more interesting.