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Tune Up Philly: Finding Purpose Through Music.

June 3, 2011

Images and text by Rick Kauffman.

Tune Up Philly is the first of its kind in the United States, an intensive after-school program aiming to nurture urban school children by engaging them with music.

Director Stanford Thompson aspires to ingrain in the students a level of confidence, to teach them to learn more effectively and to foster their musical talents.

“The skills they learn after school everyday make an unmistakable impression on them,” Thompson says. “It’s a cost-effective way of bringing change to a Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood.”

Starting in September 2010, 85 students at St. Francis de Sales school, ranging from kindergarten through eighth grade, began learning how to play string, woodwind, percussion and brass instruments.

Nearly 200 students had applied to be a part of the first-year program. There are only 500 students at the small Catholic school located on Springfield Avenue at 47th Street.

“I thought we’d be lucky to get 50 students to participate,” said Thompson. “But when almost 200 signed up in less than a week, I knew we were onto something.”

Out of the 85 students accepted into the program, only seven of them had played an instrument previously.

“You’re going to plan an instrument,” Thompson tells the children. “And you’re going to play it well.”

TUP did not lose one single child throughout the school year. All have stayed in the program, adhering to the strict regimen of study. Thompson says that over the past year, the students have matured both as musicians and young people.

In May, TUP was awarded a $150,000 grant from the Knight Arts Foundation. That money was matched by arts patron Carole Haas Gravagno, ensuring that TUP will continue during the next school year.

“Kids need two things to become whole adults,” says Haas Gravagno. “To feel confident that they’re good at something. And they need to know that somebody cares about them.  In this program they get both.”

Thompson, 24, began playing the trumpet at age 8. The seventh of eight children, Thompson cites music as being the earliest driving force in his life.

By the time he was in high school, he was performing around the world – China, Germany, across the United States. He came to Philadelphia to attend the Curtis Institute of Music. After graduating, he continued to travel the world, thanks to his horn and his talents.

“Playing music gave me a purpose in my life that I never had before, “says Thompson. “And it hasn’t left since.”

Thompson enjoys the travel, he says, but what has really inspired him has been his visits to schools, where he can see the impact of music upon children.

In 2007, Thompson traveled to Venezuela to oversee an El Sistema youth orchestra. The El Sistema approach to music education emphasizes ensemble participation and peer learning, a community approach intended to make learning fun.

Thompson came back to America inspired. He tried to create a  similar program in his home state, Georgia, but he couldn’t find a good fit. So he looked for partners in Philadelphia and connected with the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra.

Within three years, he found partners, raised money, hired instructors and launched the program.

Over the past year since TUP started operating, Thompson has overseen every detail of the program.

“I never quite understood why, with everything my brothers, sisters and I put my mother through for nine months and 18 years, she was always there,” Thompson says. “She told me it was because she loved us that much.  And I feel this way, along with all of our teachers, about our children in Tune Up Philly.”

TUP is more than an after school program. The instructors  have become mentors , friends and surrogate parents of the students. They inspire hope in children who may not have otherwise been optimistic about their futures.

“We’re here to help fill the void these kids may have at home,” says Thompson. “Some are missing fathers or other role models in their lives. We’re here to not only teach them but we also aim to challenge them to achieve more.”

The students are given intensive, hands-on training from for more than two hours every day after school. There are eight instructors plus Thompson, so the workshops are small and personal. The training goes beyond music – punctuality, attentiveness, and compliance of the rules are strictly monitored. In addition, all of the work is done as a group, so there is a lot of peer-to-peer instruction, support and encouragement.

“If the kids take their mind off what they are doing for five seconds, that could ruin what could happen to the entire group,” Thompson says. “This is all a metaphor for life.”

Students have improved musically and academically, Thompson says, and some have developed strong leadership qualities.

Lanese Rogers says that her daughter, first chair cello player Simone Rogers, a 7th grader, finds herself in random situations where she offers to teach other kids how to play instruments.

“We spend a lot of time in church,” Lanese Rogers says. “She sits at the piano, teaching the younger ones notes. It’s amazing to see her confidence. It’s like she’s getting something she wants to share. She doesn’t want to keep it to herself.”

That is why the program exists – to facilitate social-emotional, behavioral and cognitive development. Through music training, the students are supposed to develop teamwork skills and self-esteem.

“What we do with the children for two and a half hours every day,” says Thompson, “is that we tell them, ‘You’re going to do you’re best,’ and ‘You’re going to care about one another.’”

He’s building a model he wants to see replicated around the city. He thinks this program can help young people deal with the ills of the difficult urban environment.

The connections these children have made with each other wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the connections made between people eager to make a change in the way children are taught.  After Thompson’s stay in Venezuela he was introduced to Philadelphia-area philanthropist and champion of the arts, Carole Haas Gravagno. Her initial contribution enabled TUP to function it’s first year.

“I think the arts – not just music – play a very big role in education,” says Haas Gravagno. “There needs to be a reason to learn to read and to learn mathematics. Through the arts, kids can really see the reason to do it.  When they can express themselves through the arts, it makes learning come alive.”

During difficult economic times, though, funding for the arts is often sacrificed. And with the state budget threatening massive cuts to education spending, music and other art programs around the city are in danger.

“It breaks my heart to see music essentially taken from schools,” says Haas Gravagno. “Music made school a much more vibrant place for me and I want to share that.”

Mayor Michael Nutter visited a recent TUP performance and even guest conducted.

“Now that you’ve been given this gift, please don’t you ever forget it,” he told the student musicians. “You might go far away to school but promise to come back, right here. Because we need you here to give something back to another young person.”

The TUP students want to come back. Most of them don’t actually want to leave.

“My oldest, she’s about to be in 8th grade, the last year of the program,” says Eleanor Rooks, mother of second seat cello player Anjelica Rooks. “She already wonders, ‘Do you think there’s a way I can still be a part of Tune Up Philly? There’s got to be a way! I’m going to ask Mr. Stanford if I can still play in the orchestra.”

Rooks says that her daughter has formed bonds with the TUP instructors, as well as with her fellow performers. She has matured by working collaboratively with her classmates, including her sister, Christina Rooks, a fourth grade trumpet player.

“She’s upset that it’s going to come to an end,” Rooks says. “It’s not every day that you see kids wanting to go back to their former school to teach the younger kids what they’ve learned.”

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