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Art as a tool for activism


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The Citizen Recommends: Young at Art

Throughout the week of April 26, enjoy free daily online mini concerts borne out of a collaboration between three iconic local arts groups: Play On Philly, Astral Artists and Mural Arts Philadelphia

The Citizen Recommends: Young at Art

Throughout the week of April 26, enjoy free daily online mini concerts borne out of a collaboration between three iconic local arts groups: Play On Philly, Astral Artists and Mural Arts Philadelphia

It’s the smiles that tell the real story.

For all of the rigor, sophistication, and seriousness of classical music—and for all of the challenges of the last year—the 64 students who’ve been participating in Young At Art, which will culminate in five daily online concerts next week, manage to transmit pure joy while playing their instruments.

They’ve been working since January on the program, a collaboration between Play On Philly, the 10-year-old nonprofit that has empowered nearly 1,400 Philly youth with five days a week of music education and training; Astral Artists, which nurtures extraordinary adult classical musicians; and Mural Arts Philadelphia, which for 35 years has beautified our city with more than 4,000 pieces of public art that bring communities together.


For Young At Art, students were grouped together by instrument family—strings, brass, woodwinds, percussion, harp—and paired with a professional musician at Astral Artists. Mural Arts curated a selection of 15 murals, three for each instrument family; each “family” studied their three murals and selected which ones would serve as inspiration.

During a year like no other, the murals the students selected as their inspiration were particularly meaningful: “Philly Rising,” portraying the city in colorful splendor, by Nilé Livingston; “Staircases and Mountaintops: Ascending Beyond the Dream,” portraying Martin Luther King, Jr., by Willis “Nomo” Humphrey and Jonny Buss; “Jackie Robinson” by David McShane.

Astral Artists flutist Annie Wu worked with the MLK mural group, which felt particularly profound in these times. “We thought about this idea of togetherness and collaboration, and steps forward, and I think all of those concepts really resonate with this moment,” says Wu, an Astral Artists musician who, among other honors, is a U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts.

“Jackie Robinson” mural in Philadelphia by David McShane
David Shane’s Jackie Robinson mural served as inspiration to youth in the Young at Art program

Wu says the opportunity to be a part of Young At Art was a welcome departure from the isolation of the pandemic. “Young At Art allowed us all to be in community with other people and recognize that we’re constantly growing, despite how every day has started to feel the same during the pandemic,” she says. “We were able to look at what we are in control of, and what you can do to empower yourself to change.”

Astral Artists is a nonprofit, intensive mentoring program that specializes in developing the early careers of extraordinary classical musicians. Central to their work is community engagement and education—nurturing others while honing their own craft.

Prior to the pandemic, they worked with Play On Philly on a program called “Playing and Preserving,” a collaboration between Play On Philly, Astral Artists, and Partners for Sacred Places. Together, they organized a series of family-friendly, community concerts at St. Mary’s Hamilton Village at Penn, which aimed to generate public support for the preservation and active use of Philadelphia’s pipe organ heritage by building relationships between congregations, artists, music lovers, and the greater community.

“It’s exciting for us to grow as artists and teachers through this program, but it’s equally rewarding to see the students light up when they learn new things,” Mesa says.

In preparation for those concerts, Play On Philly held mentoring visits with Astral Artists where they built musical skills and relationships between student musicians and these world-class artists.

For Young at Art, Zakyya, an eighth grader at Saint Francis de Sales School who’s been involved with Play On Philly since she was in second grade, says her group of woodwind players paired the MLK mural with Andante Cantabile from Petite Symphonie by Charles Gounod. “The mural is so powerful,” she says. “We played our piece powerfully to match that.”

Zakyya hopes to someday become a professional clarinetist, and has found the training and mentorship she’ll need to get there through her time with Play On Philly. “POP [Play On Philly] teachers have really given me the opportunities to pursue my dreams for my future,” she says.

But the goal of Play On Philly has never been about cranking out professional musicians.

“Although inevitably we will create some professional musicians, our goal is to provide a vehicle for life-skill growth and social-emotional learning, and we do that through the orchestra and through music education,” says Jessica Zweig, Play On Philly’s program director. Studies of the program have shown, among other positive outcomes, the strong correlation between students who practice their instruments every day and an increased ability to persist on tasks.

Astral was pivotal to Young At Art—and the professionals involved say they benefited from participating just as much as their very young co-collaborators did.

Staircases and Mountaintops: Ascending Beyond the Dream section by Jonny Buss
A section of “Staircases and Mountaintops: Ascending Beyond the Dream” by Jonny Buss

“It’s definitely a symbiotic relationship,” says cellist Tommy Mesa. “It’s exciting for us to grow as artists and teachers through this program, but it’s equally rewarding to see the students light up when they learn new things. Whether or not these kids end up ‘doing music,’ they’ve developed this appreciation for it through the eyes of people at Astral who are crafting their lives around art.”

Mesa says music has always offered him an escape, and he believes it was an outlet for everyone involved in Young At Art as well.

“Life is hard for a lot of people in a lot of different ways. And I think music—whether it’s classical, rock, rap, hip-hop—it doesn’t matter what the music is, it’s a break from whatever reality people are living. It’s a way to learn about something else and involve yourself in something that is so foreign to you that it sort of erases a lot of the cobwebs of the day and the issues you might be having,” he says.

Everyone involved hopes that people log on next week and that they tell a friend to do the same, to experience the arts from the comfort of home, to feel the joy of the musicians as the music emanates from your screen. Each performance is just 15 minutes—the perfect dose of inspiration.

Because, really, couldn’t we all use a break from the cobwebs?

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