Play On, Philly is an innovative music program modeled after Venezuela’s network of youth orchestras known as "El Sistema." Curtis Institute of Music graduate Stanford Thompson first brought the program to 4th through 8th graders attending St. Francis de Sales School in West Philadelphia in 2010. Two years later, it expanded to include students at Freire Charter Middle School in Center City.
Music lives in West Philadelphia, home of Play on Philly, a program modeled after Venezuela’s El Sistema, in which under-served children are taught to play classical music. As WRTI’s Susan Lewis reports, the program is as much about social change as it is about music.
Lewis: Pictures at an Exhibition was the music behind a life-changing moment for trumpet player Stanford Thompson, who was a student at Curtis rehearsing the Mussorgsky work with visiting conductor Simon Rattle:
Thompson: He finally stopped the orchestra and he said, you guys sound like robots. Everything’s perfect, mechanical, in tune. He said, there’s a group of students in Venezuela who could outplay you all any day.
Lewis: After graduating from Curtis, Thompson went to Venezuela to study El Sistema. He returned to Philadelphia, and founded Play on Philly, which he describes as a social program:
Thompson: I think putting kids in an orchestra, having them play with one another, is one of the best ways for them to co-exist in the same space. For them all to have a voice, but not be a jumble of noise. I also think it can build a lot of pride within each child, within their families, and within the community. That’s the main goal of what we do.
Lewis: Music, says Thompson, is an ideal vehicle to teach the kind of responsibility that can change lives:
Thompson: It’s the only art form that I know that you can put 100 – 200 – 300 people in a room with a common goal. Even on a spiritual level, there are things you can’t really express in words, and I think that emotion can come out of these instruments. That’s why I think music is unique.
Lewis: Play on Philly currently has 27 teaching artists, working with 225 students at 2 schools.
Simon Rattle, the British-born conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, is one of the best-known classical musicians alive. His influence shows up in all sorts of places: at the Metropolitan Opera, where musicians still speak of his presence there in reverent tones, and in West Philadelphia where his advocacy of Venezuela’s El Sistema helped inspire trumpeter Stanford Thompson to create Play On Philly, a music education program that touches hundreds of lives.
WRTI's Meridee Duddleston returns to St. Francis de Sales school in SW Philadelphia to check in on TUNE UP PHILLY - a unique after-school classical music program launched in 2010. Program Director Stanford Thompson, teaching artists, and parents share their thoughts on this Phila. Youth Orchestra project modeled after Venezuela's youth orchestra system.