In the schools of Philadelphia and dozens of other cities struggling for basic resources, the realms of big ideas and arts education seldom overlap.

But something important is stirring here. In the fall, about 85 children at St. Francis de Sales in West Philadelphia began staying after school for more than two hours each day for an unusually generous dose of music: ear-training, chorus and instrumental lessons (plus snacks) in an intensive program, Tune Up Philly, modeled after Venezuela’s lauded El Sistema program.

Fruits of the $300,000-a-year program were evident in a December inaugural concert in St. Francis’ auditorium. Some of the trombonists and cellists had been playing their instruments for only 10 weeks, but their relative polish was surprising. Even more striking was the vibe. The musicians radiated glee and quiet pride. Parents looked tickled to hear what their children had been up to, siblings maybe a bit envious.

Many of these families live in down-and-out Southwest Philadelphia, and the triumph of after-school energies being diverted to the pursuit of something positive was lost on no one – least of all the nuns who run the school and are familiar with the often-trying circumstances of their students’ lives.

Everyone in the room knew something significant was happening, something more than musical baby steps. Music-making often aligns with achieving greater things in life. Classical music takes discipline, focus, consensus, and a well-developed kit of problem-solving skills. Perhaps there’s something, too, about re-creating the past that leads to being able visualize the future. You feel part of a bigger cultural continuum.

It’s quite something to sit in a room and sense fate perhaps changing the course of children’s lives. But there are implications far beyond the question of whether these particular musicians have a shot at someday playing Mozart and Mahler in Verizon Hall. This pilot program is not just about them – it’s about all of us, the long-term health of arts and culture in the city, and the proliferation of an art form.

As classical music fights for its life, it has spent most of the last two decades implementing quick fixes: image-refurbishing marketing, splashier halls, social networking, changes in concert times and formats. A younger presence on the podium may bring in first-time listeners. But as audience behavior demonstrates, getting people in the first time is no hurdle; getting them to come back is.

A lot of these superficial innovations were wonderfully creative and ambitious, and clearly sent the signal that classical music isn’t an art form content to live in the moldy past. But all by themselves, they still were only quick fixes. There’s no escaping the fact that the closest connection with the art – the kind that makes for deeply committed subscribers and financial supporters – is best developed early in life.

Listeners are surely missing in action, but it’s not just their disappearance that’s troubling. Arts groups are losing out on generations of board members, donors, and others whose energies and largesse increasingly go to social-welfare projects, hunger, religion, and other causes.

Those causes are worthy and urgent, and the rich have an absolute right to address issues that move them. But where are the really passionate gifts to American orchestras – the $50 million ones, the $100 million ones? Beyond a small handful, they don’t exist. On some basic level, orchestras aren’t considered essential. They have not become integral to the lives of a large swath of the public. Given the inherent community-building powers of an orchestra and the indisputably high level of playing at dozens of ensembles across the country, the fact that they still struggle for their daily bread represents a stunning failure.

The way to inculcate deep, sustained involvement on the part of audiences and donors is the hardest way – casting the net wide for talent when that talent is young, and sustaining involvement for many years. Not a quick fix.

Philadelphia has several important music programs for the young – the elite Curtis Institute of Music, the more egalitarian but no less ambitious Settlement Music School. But Tune Up Philly, brought to the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra by 24-year-old Curtis graduate Stanford Thompson, is something else entirely. It’s a program that deserves implementation across the city, in parochial, charter, and public schools, because it promises an utterly democratic, broad-based music education to anyone with talent. It responds rather beautifully to several deficits at once: It happens at school (the safest zone of the day for many children), is free, and does not require a parent to stand over them to make sure they practice. And it has another sly benefit: It’s an after-school haven that keeps at-risk youth out of trouble – a social program disguised as music lessons.

Thompson says benefits beyond music are showing up in Tune Up Philly’s first class, benefits the program will attempt to quantify.

“We’re going to show what’s happening academically, in their attitudes, their attendance, their relationships with parents and the school,” he said. “We’re going to do a very rigorous evaluation.”

Tune Up Philly, largely underwritten so far by local philanthropist Carole Haas Gravagno, is still trying to complete funding for its first three years of operation in a single school. But if Philadelphia embraced the idea on a scale commensurate with its promise, the city would be dreaming even bigger.

Let’s talk about what $100 million could do. Following standard nonprofit financial practice, $100 million placed in an endowment would generate $5 million a year in income, which would support at least 20 Tune Up Philly sites around the city. That’s still a long way from putting full-time music education back in all 176 of the city’s public elementary schools. But it would be a start – a highly visible one that could be built upon.

Gifts of that sort are not unprecedented. I suspect $100 million invested in Tune Up Philly would do more than the $100 million pledge by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to the Newark, N.J., public school system. It stands to succeed more promisingly than the $500 million Walter Annenberg aimed at education reform in the 1990s.

And generosity on that scale might soon seem almost quaint. In August, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett said they had extracted pledges from more than 30 billionaires to give away at least half their fortunes. That’s an enormous amount of money looking for a destination. Why not Philadelphia?

The wealth is there and so, presumably, is the will to effect big change. That change wouldn’t happen overnight. But if Tune Up Philly follows the trajectory of its impressive first three months, it won’t be long before Philadelphia achieves Thompson’s wonderfully economical articulation of the program’s grand vision:

“Orchestras everywhere.”

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By: Peter Dobrin, Inquirer Music Critic