Stanford Thompson is the director of Play On, Philly!, a Philadelphia music program inspired by Venezuela’s national system of music education, El Sistema. Play On, Philly! students had their first classes just two years ago, and since then they’ve been visited by a handful of greats from the music world, and even received a standing ovation for a performance given under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle at Philadelphia’s Verizon Hall. Thompson’s proactive response to the lack of musical resources available for young people in his community is an inspiration to citizen musicians everywhere. For more information, please visit PlayOnPhilly.org.
Play On, Philly! was a few years in the making. What triggered your initial inspiration?
I was surrounded by music growing up in a large family of seven siblings and parents who were music educators in the public school system in Atlanta. I began my musical training at age 8 and received private lessons and exposure to classical music through the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s Talent Development Program. With the guidance of my teachers and support of my parents, I earned a spot at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, where I received a Bachelor of Music in Trumpet Performance.
Throughout middle school, high school, and college, I received the best musical training possible and the right structure of support to help keep on the right track to success. However, the definition of success changed over the years and I found myself spending more hours in the practice room and less making meaningful connections with my colleagues, fans and community. It bothered me to watch school kids get music programs slashed while I was loading a bus for my sixth performance in Carnegie Hall. I was saddened to see street corners of kids just hanging out while wasting valuable time they could be doing something productive. However, I was disappointed to find too many people who thought it was someone else’s job to provide them with musical opportunities.
During my last semester at Curtis, a friend sent me a video of the founder of Venezuela’s El Sistema program, Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu, accepting the 2009 TED Prize. In this video, Dr. Abreu makes a compelling case for the role classical music could play in a young person’s life and why that is important to society. His message made me reflect on the opportunities I received growing up and created a strong desire for finding a way to pay it forward.
What do you feel is unique about POP’s approach to musical training?
We consider our work to be life-skills training and that is what sets our program apart. We provide three hours of musical training each weekday because kids need to learn the discipline of building positive routines that keep their minds engaged. We have the kids perform multiple times each month to hold them accountable for what they are learning. We bring in top guest artists like Sir Simon Rattle, Wynton Marsalis, Marin Alsop and Bobby McFerrin because our communities need to be exposed to world-class musicians. We engage the best local professional musicians as teaching artists because we demand that our art be dignified with creating better human beings in our community and not just concerts throughout the region. We are simply passing down the knowledge we have as musicians to these kids. The approach is not special. The approach is simply full of passion and purpose.
What would you recommend for your colleagues who are interested in using their talents for the service of others?
Listen to that voice inside of you that yearns to do something more with your talents than reproducing them in concert. Just like you search for your musical voice, spend the same amount of time searching for ways to give other people the opportunity to find theirs. Most of our issues in the classical music world could be solved by following that one piece of advice. Volunteer at local programs, intern with an organization that you respect, expand your networks by getting to know those around you, challenge yourself to question what is inside the box and dare yourself to step out of it.
Stanford Thompson has been blogging for ArtsJournal on the topic of music for social action.