Scenes from the birth of an orchestra:
“Jingle Bells” played by 80 six- to 13-year-olds, materializing first in tentative entrances, but quickly growing in volume and confidence.
A standing-room-only crowd of relatives and other well-wishers snapping photos with cell phones held in the air.
One of the city’s major philanthropists - and others - reduced to tears.
Tune Up Philly, the ambitious new after-school music program at Saint Francis de Sales School, raised the public curtain for the first time Saturday with an afternoon concert of orchestral and mixed ensembles. Most of the students have been playing their instruments only since the beginning of the year - ten weeks.
And yet they drew raves.
“It takes your breath away,” said Carole Haas Gravagno, the program’s major benefactress. “If we can show the rest of the city what’s possible…”
That’s the plan. The brain-child of 24-year-old Curtis Institute of Music graduate Stanford Thompson (pictured) and adopted by the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, Tune Up Philly started at St. Francis de Sales this school year with the aim of replicating itself at other sites - perhaps next year, or sooner.
Modeled on the widely praised and emulated El Sistema program that has educated millions of children in Venezuela, Philadelphia’s upstart is already gathering considerable support. Since initial coverage in The Inquirer and subsequent media attention, the program has received donations of cellos, clarinets, double basses, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, trombones, violas, violins and other instruments, plus about $13,000 in cash and $10,000 in in-kind services.
Although no additional schools are yet signed, Tune Up Philly is in talks with philanthropists and other funding sources to start up new programs in North and Northeast Philadelphia. Each site, with about a dozen instructors, costs an estimated $300,000 per year to run. It is free, or nearly free, to the families it serves.
Promising though the musical progress may be, more human metrics are beginning to show themselves in children enrolled in the program. Many of the St. Francis students come to the West Philadelphia school from challenged sections of Southwest Philadelphia and chaotic home lives, say sisters who run the school. And like its Venezuelan counterpart, Tune Up Philly comes with hopes for repairing the social structures in the lives of many of these children
“Something more is happening than playing ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ well,” said Thompson, who, through a competitive fellowship, traveled to Venezuela this year to study the El Sistema program for eight weeks. “We've already seen changes in their grades, in their attitudes. A girl's mother says she no longer wants to play video games and watch TV. We've watched connections between parents and kids we haven't noticed before. They have something to talk about. “
Talked they did Saturday – an audience of about 200 parents, grandparents, other relatives and friends who roared with approval at the end of each of the 20 or so pieces.
“I can’t see exactly how it’s going to apply, but music is going to play a role in her life,” said Roxanne Caines-Thomas, whose daughter, Morgan Thomas, plays both trumpet and trombone. “When she’s upset she plays the trumpet. It’s another language.”
About 80 students are enrolled in the St. France program. (A waiting list of 120 at the start of the year has grown to 140 as word has spread.) Not a single student has dropped out. They receive instruction in their primary instrument, plus voice training and theory, after school five days a week for 2 ½ hours a day.
“Hopefully it will lead to something bigger and better,” said Cynthia Curby, whose 5th grade granddaughter, Destiny Curby, just started clarinetist.
It was so for Thompson, who grew up in Decatur, Ga., and ended up a 2009 graduate of the elite Curtis.
“That trumpet back there in the orchestra saved my life,” he told Saturday’s audience. “I have no idea what I would be had it not been for my involvement in music.”
Anyone who doubted the depth of his sincerity only needed to catch him wiping his eyes as the city’s newest orchestra reached the last notes of Jingle Bells.
He was in good company.
Said the school’s principal, Sister Mary McNulty: “It moved so many of us to tears.”
See a video here.