Music program teaches Philadelphia students social activism

Play On, Philly! began its new session on Monday with upcoming sessions on improvisation and social activism in music.

Play On, Philly! participants practice music in May. Play on, Philly! Is an education program that encourages the personal developments of children through music. | COURTESY/JESSICA ZWEIG

Stanford Thompson saw a need for a high-quality, affordable music education program in Philadelphia, but wasn’t sure how to provide it to kids, especially those in underserved communities.

“In a city where we can spend hundreds of millions of dollars on our art museums, on our theaters and we can’t find $10 million to help support arts learning…I don’t think that’s cool,” he said.

A new session of Play On, Philly! started Monday. The program, which Thompson launched in 2011, is a free music education organization for K-12 students. Several Temple University students and faculty members work with the program participants. 

Play On, Philly! will start its new year with a collective composition workshop with composer and educator Daniel Trahey and the music education nonprofit Archipelago Project. At the two-day workshop on Friday and Saturday, local high school students will experiment with improvisation, learn about social activism through music and record their own compositions. 

Play On, Philly! also offers special programming for K-8 students that focuses on developing music skills for ensemble performance. The high school program, POP Academy, further develops the students’ skills through a flexible schedule that accommodates older students’ part-time jobs and other extracurricular activities. 

Through daily music lessons, the program aims to help young people acquire skills like listening and accepting criticism that help them develop character, do well in school and be successful.

“While kids are working toward mastering their instruments, these are the skills we see transfer in the classroom,” Thompson said. 

Students get the chance to display their skills at 30 concert performances around the city during the year. On Sept. 7, the previous session performed at the Pennsylvania Convention Center as part of The Arena Summit, an event that encouraged people to run for public office and become civic leaders. 

Program participants played their own rendition of the “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which included an original fourth verse pointing out the controversy in the third verse, which is about the death of slaves who joined the British army during the War of 1812, Thompson said. 

The rewrite’s inspiration stemmed from social justice protests at sporting events during the national anthem, which were spearheaded in 2016 by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

“These injustices that are being protest[ed] around police brutality…are things that our kids have experienced first hand, and also things that have happened to their family members and friends,” Thompson said. “It’s something that is very real to them.”

For most Play On, Philly! instructors, teaching music and social justice go hand in hand.

Devin Diaz, a master’s urban school leadership student, has been teaching Play On, Philly! students how to play the clarinet, flute and saxophone for two years. His students use songs to understand how groups of people experienced oppression in the past.

Diaz said he had students study jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald to learn how racism affected her career in the 1940s and 1950s.

“We go really in depth [on] why peoples’ lives were harder if they were women or if they were African American in the U.S. during those times,” Diaz said. “We…see how it was portrayed in music [then] and how it is portrayed in today’s music.”

He hopes the program will encourage students not just to enter the music field after college, but also to incorporate the skills and concepts they learned from Play On, Philly! in their future endeavors.    

Students interested in the program don’t need previous music experience or tuition money to join Play On, Philly! Thompson said the program is funded through donations from philanthropists and private foundations and about 350 students from five schools will participate this year. 

Danielle Garrett, who served as the string orchestra director for Play On, Philly! from 2014-17, was immediately drawn to the organization’s philosophy and outcomes.

“I said to myself, ‘Wow I wish I had a program like this when I was [their] age,’” said Garrett, an ensemble librarian for the Boyer College of Music and Dance and the conductor of the string orchestra OWLchestra. “I would have been all over it.”

Thompson said the Play On, Philly! staff works hard to bring a sense of pride to program participants and prove youth do positive things, dream big and accomplish their goals. 

“Our young people have a lot of ideas,” he added. “We…want to use our program to help students amplify their own voices and do that in a musically responsive way.”

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