In a large family of seven siblings, headed by parents who were music educators in the public school system in Atlanta, my future as a musician was pretty much inevitable. Everyone in my house played an instrument and we were all pretty good at it! 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 had the opportunity to learn from the best musical training possible, giving me the required structure of support to ensure my 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 utilizing in a more productive way. Most of all, 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 to find a way to build a similar program in Philadelphia. After attending the New England Conservatory’s Abreu (Sistema) Fellows Program, I returned to Philadelphia to establish Play On, Philly!, an El Sistema-inspired program which currently engages over 250 youth, 40 Teaching Artists, and 10 professional staff.
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 give real meaning and significance to what they are learning. We bring in 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 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.
Over the past several years, I’ve talked to some of the top leaders and musicians in classical music who yearned to do something more with their talents than reproducing them in concert. However, as they were searching for their musical voice, there was never enough time, money, and support to give other people the opportunity to find theirs. Eight years ago, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra helped me find my voice as I made my solo debut with the Hummel Trumpet Concerto, and the impact is living on to the lives of hundreds of children in Philadelphia.
In the following posts, I will discuss what actually happened over the past several decades in our field, what issues our art form and society struggle with today, and why I believe programs like Play On, Philly! could solve all of our problems.