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Play On, Philly! nurtures musical possibilities

An after-school music program in Philadelphia is trying to create better citizens, one musician at a time.

Stanford Thompson and his roster of classically trained musicians teach 120 kids at St. Francis de Sales Catholic School in West Philadelphia.

“Every child is an asset,” said Thompson, the founder, director, and chief cheerleader of Play On, Philly! “There’s no such thing as musical disability, only possibility.”

A roomful of kids playing wind instruments puts that theory to the test as the young musicians try to master the complicated Latin rhythms of Leonard Bernstein’s “America” from “West Side Story.” They each know their parts, but they have a hard time figuring out when they are supposed to come in.

“You can’t set your ambature when you hear, one, two, one, tw- oops,” Thompson tells the children. “You can’t set on beat two. So get set, get your fingers ready, and get the air moving.”

Play On, Philly! is the local iteration of El Sistema, a revolutionary music education program developed in Venezuela that trains 400,000 public schoolchildren in that country, 25 hours a week. As a model of both music training and social reform, its most successful student is Gustavo Dudamel, now the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The kids in Play On, Philly! are not necessarily being groomed for the podium.

“If we were going to train the next generation of professional musicians, we would completely change our model, to having daily private lessons and master classes,” said Thompson. “Here, in Play On, Philly!, and there in Venezuela, you have group instruction. All the kids are included. It takes the competitive edge off the program. You’re not fighting; you’re learning in context.”

More than music at stake

The point is not to create better musicians. Thompson says three hours of a musical discipline every day will make better kids. Play On, Philly! is measuring the effects of music instruction with an ongoing survey, tracking the childrens’ academic performance, their attendance, and their behavior.

“We have very easy ways to measure their musical progress,” said Thompson. “But we are putting a magnifying glass on their musical involvement and how that shapes their life away from their instruments.”

Play On, Philly! began in 2010 as Tune Up Philly, a program created by Thompson in partnership with the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra. The two entities did not see eye-to-eye on the mission of the program, so they split.

Tune Up Philly, still run by the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, is teaching 70 kids at People to People Charter School in North Philadelphia. It also operates the Musicopia String Orchestra, which itself began as an El Sistema-inspired program.

Play On, Philly! considers music instruction as primarily a community mission, to lower the rate of kids falling into poverty and crime.

“The worst rates are the ones that will become dependent on government subsidies,” said Thompson. “This is in the form of $40,000 to $50,000 of aid in housing vouchers, day-care vouchers, welfare, food stamps, the list goes on. That’s what we think they are at risk for.”

Thompson’s students are gearing up to perform in City Hall, and to play under the baton of Simon Rattle, the celebrated conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.

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