Concert Halls Disrupted: A Talk21 with Stanford Thompson

Stanford Thompson was always a super-achiever. As a talented young trumpet player, he took private lessons with members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, attended the highly prestigious Curtis Institute of Music and knew that he wanted to establish “something big” before he turned 30. But soon he realized that he also wanted to be a part of something truly substantive, something that was about more than himself.

So Thompson founded Play On, Philly!, or POP, a music program modeled after El Sistema. El Sistema pursues a mission to provide children with the tools they need to succeed in life through the study of music. After decades of success in Venezuela, its founder, José Antonio Abreu, won the 2009 TED Prize with a proposal to extend his program to the United States. As a result of that effort, the New England Conservatory launched its Abreu Fellowship program (now known as Sistema Fellowships) to train musicians in running Sistema-type programs around the country. Thompson was one of the inaugural fellows. 

Now running for five years, Play On, Philly! has touched the lives of hundreds of students in the Philadelphia area – and it’s only growing. Stanford Thompson shared his personal story and the reasons why he’s passionate about POP in a recent talk given at the 21CMposium, hosted by DePauw University.


On noticing the disconnect with audiences … 

When I was a student at Curtis, I did a lot of outreach [to schools]. And a trio I was performing in went to the Northeast. We did the normal demonstrations of the instruments. We worked through a transcription of the Beethoven Oboe Trio for two oboes and English horn. We sounded great. Like, perfect. And about halfway through, one of the kids raises his hand and says, “Why the hell should I care about Beethoven?” Now, the rest of the class snickers and laughs. The teachers escort the student out. Two days go by, and I start to think, why should that kid care? … That was one of the first times I felt disconnected. And I started questioning everything after that day. Why should people really care about what we do? 

On the most compelling problems of a city… 

In these communities we work in, the most compelling problem is not that the Philly Orchestra might not be able to pay its musicians. The most compelling problems are things like: Education is falling apart, infrastructure of the city, crime – of course all of the negative effects of poverty. That’s what’s on the minds of the majority of people. … So, looking at some of the biggest challenges that a community faces, I believe there’s tremendous opportunity. If we can solve society’s problems, they might care about what we do as artists.

On the impact of Play On, Philly!…

[Our] kids perform 30 times a year. We’ve been very fortunate to work with the best artists around the world. … But the way we look at impact is completely different. Music doesn’t make you happier or smarter. It doesn’t. Period. 

[But] we know that music can help with executive functioning. That’s your ability to set a goal and achieve it. We look at it in three areas: working memory, inhibition control and selective or flexible attention. So when you tell a kid to keep playing a scale over and over again, you trigger parts of the brain that help build memory. When you tell a kid, don’t play in the rest, [but] observe it and then continue the pattern – you help build things that control inhibition. And as a kid sits in an orchestra, and they have to take in everything around them from what they hear to what they see, that helps with attention. 

Because of that work in executive functioning, the grades go up, and our kids are a letter grade ahead in every subject in comparison to kids that do tutoring. … They [also] come to school 30 percent more, and they’re hardly ever in trouble. So what I want to leave you all with is this idea that music can be an extremely powerful tool to help students achieve.

The above excerpts have been edited for clarity and length.

Stanford Thompson

Born and raised in a musical family, Stanford Thompson began playing trumpet at the age of 8 and studied with members of the Georgia State University faculty and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. …more 

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