Playing a different tune, repaired instruments return to Philly classrooms

Leo Zhang, a student at Mayfair Elementary, will learn to play on a flute repaired through the Broken Orchestra program. Behind him is Tobie Hoffman, who played the flute in the

Leo Zhang, a student at Mayfair Elementary, will learn to play a flute repaired through the Broken Orchestra program. Behind him is Tobie Hoffman, who played the flute in the "Symphony for a Broken Orchestra." (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

Last winter, several hundred broken musical instruments languishing in the Philadelphia public school system were given center stage. The “Symphony for a Broken Orchestra” rounded them all up for an experiment to see what they sounded like, en masse.

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang wrote a piece tailored to their sound, and an army of volunteer performers played them during a celebrated concert.

Then, the instruments were sent out for repair.

The performance was a more or less successful effort to put their plight – and the state of music education in public school – in the public’s eye.

As the new school year begins, the newly repaired instruments are finding their way back into the hands of students.

The sound of a broken instrument can be hard to love, but Tobie Hoffman fell for one. The lifelong flute player pulled an instrument out of a broken pile; it was tagged #375. The flute had bad pads under the keys, which means the brass tube leaked air. It took tremendous lung power to wring a note out of it.

“I got to know this instrument,” said Hoffman. “I became attached to it. I’m so glad to hear it now singing its true voice.”

Like many of the Broken Orchestra performers, she left a note inside the velvet-lined case holding the flute:

“I am looking forward to a session at the flute spa so I can help a new student fall in love with music and art,” said the flute. “Be tender. I just need some extra padding and a good scrape and off I go.”

A note written by Tobie Hoffman from the flute's point of view says the instrument wants to "help a new student fall in love with music."
A note written by Tobie Hoffman from the flute’s point of view says the instrument wants to “help a new student fall in love with music.” (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

The flute was “adopted” by Suzanne Duell, who donated money toward its repair. She played flute as a teenager before giving away her instrument.

“I wasn’t very good. It was more for fun,” she admitted. “I felt my flute could be better served with somebody else using it.”

Both Duell and Hoffman were at Mayfair Elementary School last week to present the newly repaired #375 flute to Leo Zhang, 10. He’s been playing for almost a year, and is still trying to master A, B, and G – the key notes for “Hot Cross Buns.”

He tends to rest the mouthpiece on his shoulder while playing, because it’s hard to hold the flute still in his small hands.

“I heard it was a challenge,” he said. “I like to do things that are difficult.”

Leo gets a lesson once a week from Daphne Saatchi, an itinerant music teacher hopping between seven district schools every week, teaching about 140 students total. The “Symphony for a Broken Orchestra” project put about 30 newly playable instruments at her disposal.

But that is not enough.

“Some instruments in the district are over 50 years old. That’s a big no-no,” she said. “Especially winds and brass. Instruments need to be replenished at least after 10 years. I have instruments from the 1920s that are not usable.”

One of the goals of the “Symphony for a Broken Orchestra” was to create a permanent repair fund. That is still in the works.

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