Life lessons taught out of classroom

Instructors at the free program “Play On, Philly” teach more than music.

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The commotion that filled the halls of St. Frances de Sales, a Catholic school in West Philadelphia that teaches kindergarten through eighth-grade, was not out of the ordinary. However, after a ruckus that could only be caused by a recently freed group of elementary schoolers died down, a momentary silence was replaced by a chorus of violins.

After the final bell, many students ages six to 13 are choosing to pick up a bassoon or a viola instead of an Xbox controller. This is possible thanks to a music program in its third year of existence, Play On, Philly.

The inspiration for Play On, Philly was a Venezuelan program by the name of El Sistema. Started by trumpeter Stanford Thompson in 2011, the Philadelphia iteration offers often-underprivileged youth in a direly underfunded school system the opportunity to learn how to play classical music. Among the kids, it’s been a hit so far.

“She loves it,” said Erica Dill, the mother of a young bassoon player. “She has friends that were a part of the program, and she was excited to play an instrument.”

Tuition and audition-free, Play On, Philly is intense and comprehensive. Five times a week for three hours a day, students are given group lessons and prepped to play in ensembles or improv jazz groups. In addition, the kids have the opportunity to take classes in music theory and musical history.

Many involved in Play On, Philly said without the program, giving kids in Philadelphia a solid musical education would be impossible.

“Without the program, they wouldn’t,” said Josh Popejoy, a trombone instructor and three-year veteran of Play On, Philly. “They just wouldn’t. They’d take general music here and they’d go onto high school. And high schools hardly have any programs left as it is, unless they go to a specialized school that they wouldn’t have gotten into since they wouldn’t have played. These kids would’ve never had an instrument.”

But thanks to Play On, Philly, a new generation is getting the chance to experience classical music.

“The more people we could bring that to the better,” Popejoy said. “There’s kids here — they’re so far ahead of where I was. Light years. Seventh and eighth graders that are playing better than I played as a junior in high school. And I went to school and got a degree in performance. It’s pretty remarkable.”

Attached to bassoons and trombones that often dwarf them, students learn the fundamentals of notes and scales through popular melodies such as “Hey Jude” and “Jingle Bells.”

But the goals of Play On, Philly expand far beyond just musical education. Instructors in the program said they hope to instill life lessons into their students that they can take outside of the classroom.

“My No. 1 goal is to teach them to teach themselves,” Popejoy said. “I want them to be able to process on their own. Whether it be from musicianship, from a technical aspect, from something that’s not related to music, problem solving, it’s all about just being able to teach yourself. And that’s something that carries through life.”

This principle of instilling values that have little to do with music was a motif amongst Play On, Philly instructors.

“It is really more than music,” said Naomi Gonzalez, a Play On, Philly violin instructor. “It is really a social program. Kids that come from a little bit of a disadvantaged background really get exposed to working as a group, setting goals, working hard. I mean, what kid really wants to just not be in front of the TV right after school? But this is really giving them a sense of belonging and a sense of accomplishment. Also as teachers, we’re not just teachers. We’re there to address any social situations that happen.”

Program Director Kathy Krull concurred.

“I always believed that the No. 1 thing I was teaching my students was not music,” Krull said. “It was teaching them how to dedicate themselves to something, how to succeed at something, how to get past hard times and be successful. And I definitely saw that in some of the communities I taught in, that these skills could transfer over to other parts of their lives.”

Krull said every graduate of Play On, Philly has continued their musical education after eighth grade.  In addition to this, Play On, Philly alumni are receiving high school scholarships, performing with community programs and returning to the program as mentors.

Recently, the folks at Play On, Philly quantified the effect the program was having on its participants’ grades. They calculated the average change in grade between students enrolled in Play On, Philly and students enrolled in the school’s afterschool tutoring program. Kids participating in Play On, Philly, on average, experienced a change in grades nine points higher than those receiving tutoring. Play On, Philly officials chock this up to a principle they refer to as delayed gratification.

“In the world of video games and Xbox, you see the screen and your action directly makes a move,” Krull said. “But with learning an instrument there’s absolutely delayed gratification in that the kids, especially when they’re first learning an instrument, you don’t get a perfect sound. But what they learn is that they have to work toward getting to that point and that it’s important to think through that process and think through those steps.”

Dill was quick to reiterate the benefits of the program that her daughter has been reaping.

“It’s beneficial across the board,” Dill said. “She definitely learned more responsibility, she learned how to read music, she’s into classical music. It’s helping her think better and problem-solve better.”

Dave Zisser can be reached at

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