In 1838, the Mayor of Boston asked the masters at the Hawes School for a progress report on an experimental program there offering music instruction for the first time in an American public school. They responded that music seemed to have a good effect:
“It excites the listless, and calms the turbulent and uneasy,” the overseers wrote. “It seems to renerve the mind, and prepare all for more vigorous intellectual action.”
In today’s Philadelphia, where the beleaguered school district has cut arts and music instruction to the bone, an extremely friendly but determined trumpeter from Atlanta named Stanford Thompson is working to relay roughly that same message—though he doesn’t use the term “renerve”—to enlist support from parents, school administrators, foundations and other potential donors to an unusual, intensive after-school music program inspired by something called El Sistema. That’s a 40-year-old Venezuelan concept of bringing free classical music instruction to children in the worst barrios in that country. The ultimate goal goes well beyond learning Bach and Beethoven, to what it’s founder, an ascetic, priestly economist named Jose Abreu, has described as “the social mission of art.”
Since El Sistema’s premier graduate, the dynamic young conductor Gustavo Dudamel, was appointed musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and hurtled to international stardom, the El Sistema idea has become a darling of the music world and media. There are now Sistema-inspired programs sprouting around the world. The local version is called Play on, Philly!, and has established beachheads at a parochial grade school in West Philly and a charter middle-school in Center City. The more than 200 students participating receive three full hours of after school lessons and rehearsals (there is also a five-week full-day summer program) guided by professional musicians. The music is utmost, but the program directors say they’ve also produced proven benefits in academic performance and social behavior.
More than 200 students participating receive three full hours of after school lessons and rehearsals guided by professional musicians. The music is utmost, but the program has also produced proven benefits in academic performance and social behavior.
The 28-year-old Thompson first heard of Abreu and Il Sistema when he was studying at the Curtis Institute, America’s most selective music conservatory. The seventh child of two music teachers who’d converted to Mormonism, Thompson had other goals beyond heading for an orchestra job like many of his talented classmates. One Curtis teacher remembered him as the most community-minded student in the conservatory. After graduation, Thompson became one of the first Abreu Fellows studying the El Sistema method and philosophy at the New England Conservatory. Then he headed back to Philadelphia and became the co-founder and guiding spirit of Play On, Philly!
“Our theory of change is no different than most organizations that are using arts to help learning,” Thompson says. “Because we are with the kids every day for three hours, we are in that way the parent who sits down with them and practices with them, shows them how to build a technique and use discipline. That’s where we get out of the arts conversation and put ourselves in a social development arena.”
Having long been a rare black kid progressing into the top ranks of classical music, Thompson knew first hand that the achievement gap had a strong economic component and that poor children often lacked the so-called “executive function” skills like focusing attention, memorizing information, delaying gratification and setting goals.
“They just don’t learn these skills,” Thompson says. “So that’s why they’re behind. Not reading at grade level. That’s why they’re in trouble much more. Translate that into teenage years and kids getting into puberty and then it translates into girls getting pregnant and diseases getting swapped. Young men ending up robbing a store and get into the juvenile justice system. That has really big costs for us all down the road. We believe that we can rewire these kids much younger. So when they hit puberty and get to high school, they have the skills to do it.”
“If we can keep this program in their lives,” Thompson maintains, “we can literally save their lives.”
In 2011, after failing to drum up any serious interest with city School District officials or charter school operators, Play on, Philly! (POP for short) started its first program with 110 first through eighth grade students at a Catholic parochial school in West Philly, St. Francis de Sales. (A year later it expanded to Freir Charter Middle School.) The response was so strong at St. Francis that they had to run a lottery for admission.
During the next academic year, the kids who signed up for POP received three hours each day of music instruction after regular school hours, divided into small group lessons, music theory and rehearsals. To keep them motivated and results oriented, they performed in public frequently, in settings as varied as a brass band marching in the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, to a full orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, playing Brahms in Verizon Hall as a warm-up band for the Philadelphia Orchestra.
28-year-old co-founder and guiding spirit Stanford Thompson, the seventh child of two music teachers, had other goals beyond heading for an orchestra job like many of his talented classmates. One Curtis teacher remembered him as the most community minded student in the conservatory.
Meanwhile, POP hired the arts consulting firm WolfBrown to conduct a study of the students in the program compared with a group of their peers who didn’t win the lottery. By the end of the 2012-2013 school year, the POP participants showed a half a grade advantage across a full range of academic subjects and an average 10 point improvement on standardized tests compared with non-participants. They were absent from school one-third less than other students.
“In an ideal world, the musical education of children and the perpetuation of an art would be enough to ask of any organization,” wrote Steven Holochwost, a musician and educational psychologist who conducted the study. “In the real world, funders demand that ancillary benefits be realized. Fortunately, we can say with confidence that engagement in Play on Philly is associated with genuine and positive differences in academic achievement, behavior, and some of the more fundamental cognitive processes that underlie performance across a host of domains.”
Play on Philly’s most significant funder is Carole Haas Gravagno. She has a master degree in educational psychology herself and has taught in public schools. She is married to a retired Philadelphia Orchestra member and uses her Haas family money to help a number of arts and education organizations. Gravagno met Stanford Thompson at a conference for El Sistema-inspired organizations in Los Angeles, and they came back to Philly and co-founded POP.
“My contention is that music helps with all learning,” she says. “It absolutely astounds me that our society doesn’t understand how important the arts are to our well being.” Thompson reports that the bulk of the financing for POP so far has come in roughly equal amounts from Gravagno, Gerry Lenfest’s foundation and the relatively new Seed the Dream Foundation.
The organization recently hired its first full-time development director to build a broader base of financial support. Right now, there are nine full-time employees, and nearly 40 part-time music teachers. With operating costs well north of $1 million, POP is expensive on a per-student basis, approaching $6000 per pupil. Larger scale should bring those per-capita costs down. Next fall, POP will expand to include a high school program at the Freire charter school in Center City. Thompson says he wants to be training 1000 students by 2020.
“We just have to convince local philanthropists and foundations to provide the capital so we can grow to that,” Thompson says. “Once we reach about a thousand kids we really hit a sweet spot in terms of per student costs.”
“My dream,” Gravagno says, “is to be available to every kid in Philadelphia. If we are able to show the gains that can be made when children are involved in these programs, even the School District would have to notice. They want kids to learn, but they’re so strapped, even with the basic things. To me this is a basic thing.”
Gravagno has also helped finance a documentary film that focuses on POP, directed by Jamie Bernstein, daughter of another Curtis-trained musician, Leonard Bernstein. The film, “Crescendo! The Power of Music” had its premier at last year’s Philadelphia Film Festival, and won an audience award.
One of the “stars” is Raven Burckhalter, who the filmmakers meet as a sixth grader at St. Francis de Sales, a skinny and stylish girl who is being raised by a grandmother in West Philly. Raven is talented and charming and ambitious and so energetic that even the normally indulgent Stanford Thompson at one point complains on camera that “Raven needs to ratchet back.”
Raven plays the violin and has moved from POP and St. Francis to the performing arts oriented String Theory Charter School. Though in the film she tells her classmates that her ultimate goal is to become a pediatrician, she says something about her personal El Sistema effect that no study could accurately measure: “Music is a gateway to life for me.”