Cue the violins: Philadelphia Orchestra partners with KIPP

Khaleem Brockington, a kindergartner at KIPP Philadelphia Elementary, listens as Tyreik Jones beats a drum while music teacher Peter Oswald strums his ukulele.

As a young girl growing up in Southwest Philadelphia, Cheshonna Miles discovered a lifelong passion for music and dance at the Point Breeze Performing Arts Center.

Miles, who is now the top administrator at KIPP West Philadelphia Preparatory Charter,  knows the arts can inspire children, ignite creative expression, and improve learning.

She’s elated that a pioneering new partnership with the Philadelphia Orchestra is bringing free instrumental music instruction to her students with a goal of building a school orchestra from scratch in at the fifth- through eighth-grade charter, which previously lacked a formal music program.

“Students don’t necessarily have adults or peers playing in the orchestra,” Miles said. “For them to see the potential may spark something in our students.”

The new Philadelphia Orchestra's School Ensemble Program has placed a violin or cello in the hands of every fifth grader at the school and provided two teaching artists to instruct them.

It also has introduced basic music classes to kindergartners at KIPP West Philadelphia Elementary Academy, including lessons on tiny box replica violins to help prepare them to play real instruments.

Miles' school hired Peter Oswald in August as a music teacher to work with the program. He also teaches the kindergartners at KIPP’s new elementary academy, which opened inside West Philadelphia Prep’s building at 5900 Baltimore Ave. in the fall.

Although the music classes began earlier this academic year, the School Ensemble Program is scheduled to have its formal launch at the school Friday morning with a concert for students, families, and supporters.

Hannibal Lokumbe, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Music Alive composer-in-residence, will be present when a quartet from the orchestra performs "Fanny Lou Hamer," a piece he composed about the civil rights activist. Lokumbe will hold a master class for the students after the performance.

“This was an easy thing to say yes to when this came across my desk, obviously,” said Marc Mannella, CEO of KIPP Philadelphia, a nonprofit that runs four charters in the city with a college-prep focus. "You never know what is going to light a kid’s fire as we think about college. It can’t just be all math and all reading all day.”

Nearly 200 children are involved in the program, but as they advance through the grades, the total will ultimately reach 800 students at the two KIPP schools, Mannella said.

To expose more children to orchestral music, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s School Partnership Program has been sending teaching artists to schools every week  for more than a decade to work with classroom teachers to integrate music and the arts into lessons.

Naomi Gonzalez, manager of collaboration and access for the orchestra, said the School Ensemble Program at KIPP is different.

“This is an ensemble-based program,” she said, that will not only expose students to high-quality orchestral music but give them the chance to learn to play on real instruments.

This year, there are violins and cellos, and other instruments will be added in later years to create a full orchestra.

Gonzalez said the orchestra wanted to begin the ensemble approach with KIPP because it was intrigued by the mission of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter network that focuses on grit, commitment, and excellence.

The fifth graders receive instruction three days a week, kindergartners 2½. And some of the most skilled fifth graders have formed an ensemble known as Orchestra Select.

Nearly a third of KIPP West Preparatory’s fifth graders are in that group, including Mehkai Pressley.

“I like the Orchestra Select group because I have a chance to learn real music,” said Mehkai, who is 10. “I never had a chance before.”

Already, he said, he has learned to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “We Shall Overcome.”

The instruments are provided through an exchange program the orchestra developed with the Eastman Music Co. that provides a free instrument to KIPP and the Philadelphia School District for every instrument sold in the La Scala line of string instruments.

The William Penn Foundation and Wells Fargo are providing financial support for the orchestra’s ensemble venture at KIPP.

“KIPP is so focused -- with good reason -- on academics and achievement and creating a culture of high expectations," said Aldustus Jordan, a senior vice president and community affairs manager at Wells Fargo Bank.

“This is a great opportunity to expose children to one of the great orchestras in the world and to create a school-wide orchestra at KIPP,” he said.

Gonzalez, of the orchestra, agreed.

“This exposes them and gives them a better chance to have a wonderful skill, whether they want to be a musician or not,” she said. “It is opening doors for them. They will choose to walk through the door or not, but at least they will have the opportunity.”