Posted by Elizabeth Devereux
It’s thrilling to feel that you might be witnessing the start of fundamental and lasting improvement in a community. It’s even more thrilling to talk with children who will be the agents and voices of these positive changes.
Earlier this week, I got the chance to visit Tune Up Philly, the new after-school music program based in West Philadelphia inspired by and modeled after Venezuela’s El Sistema.
Tune Up Philly was started in the fall of 2010 by Stanford Thompson, a native of Georgia who first moved to Philly to attend the Curtis Institute of Music, from which he graduated with a BM in trumpet performance.
On my visit this week to the St. Francis de Sales School at S. 47th and Baltimore, home of Tune Up Philly, Stanford showed me around the program. We peaked in on six violinists rehearsing Simple Gifts with one of the Teaching Artists in the auditorium; six cellists in a classroom across the hall were also working on Simple Gifts with another Teaching Artist; and in a classroom upstairs we got a run-through performance by five violists of a piece called German Dance (sorry, I didn’t catch the composer!), which they’ll be playing at this Saturday afternoon’s concert.
Stanford filled me in on some of the program’s stats as we chatted in the hallway before returning to the auditorium to watch the individual groups of students we’d seen practicing in their orchestra sections (violins, violas, cellos) congregate for the full String Orchestra rehearsal.
The celli tune up before string orchestra rehearsal
Tune Up Philly comprises 12 faculty members and 80 St. Francis de Sales students. The students range in age from 6 to 13 years old, from 1st to 8th graders. The parents pay $100 for a year of participation in the program, $60 snack fee, and in return Tune Up Philly provides the students with an instrument and instruction. The classes are Monday through Friday for 2.5 hours after school in the following: violin, viola, cello, flute, clarinet, trumpet, horn, trombone, percussion, choir, and music exploratory classes.
I got to see the students’ progress after about 5 months of playing their instruments. The students have not only learned how to hold and produce sound on their instruments (in itself a hard task for any string, wind, or brass instrument!); they have also learned basic note-reading, music terms, ensemble skills, and orchestral etiquette. They only JUST got the opportunity to start taking their instruments home 3 weeks ago, so they have learned most of these skills only through the rigorous instruction of Tune Up Philly’s teaching artists five days a week.
As he showed me around, Stanford stressed that he resists any temptation to play up a “cute” side to the program (the temptation arising from the pure fact that kids are cute, and 80 kids playing instruments can easily be viewed as “cute” by adults).
In Stanford’s own words:
“We provide the region’s most talented teaching artists, quality instruments, and intense daily instruction to our kids. In a world that won’t accept ‘cute’ after puberty, we hold our children to a high artistic standard from the first day they touch their instruments. Through this process, this is where we believe the social development will happen.”
Here are some highlights from my visit:
I love those full bows, 2nds!
* Chatting with a couple of the 2nd violins about what they’ll be playing at Saturday’s concert. One of them had even composed her own piece in two violin parts! It was titled “AJ’s New World” and was inspired by the New World Symphony Theme (an arrangement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony by Michael Allen) which the orchestra will perform on Saturday.
* Seeing Ms Andrea (the string orchestra director) use terms like marcato and legato with the children. There’s no dumbing down here–she speaks to them as if they have been playing their instruments for a few years already. She clearly holds high expectations of the students’ behavior and performance level, and she expresses those expectations with clarity and directness.
* Observing how comfortable the children are speaking with “Mr. Stanford” as they pass by him in the halls or when he visits their sectionals and rehearsals.
Mr. Stanford reminds the 1sts to keep their eyes on the conductor
To the children of Tune Up Philly, Stanford is not only a director and teacher; he is also a neighbor (he lives just around the corner from St. Francis de Sales!) and a devoted member of their community.
* Getting a private pre-concert performance from the viola section as they played German Dance. The piece was in two parts–that means twice as difficult to play together!–and the violas gave a strong and lively performance! Stanford gave some feedback after the performance, including that the piece will “seem more fun to the audience” if each individual player is completely confident of h/her part. I heard one of the violists, Zebediah, respond with an emphatic, “It IS fun!”
In my book, Zebediah’s comment illustrates that Tune Up Philly is already a huge success.
Come check out Tune Up Philly for yourself THIS Saturday in concert!
WHERE? St. Francis de Sales School. 917 S. 47th St. Philadelphia, PA 19143
WHEN? Saturday, March 12th at 2pm
HOW MUCH? Free and open to the public
WHY? Whyever NOT!?!