What Doomsday Signs?

A local musician gives Philly kids something to look forward to

Amid the piles of gleeful Christmas greetings my family received this year, one card struck a weirdly discordant note. On cheery green paper, it proclaimed (to paraphrase) that an awful lot of End-of-Days stuff had happened in 2010, and well, we’d just better cling hard to our faith and prepare, oughtn’t we. And p.s., fa-la-la-la-la and happy 2011.

I’m no doomsdayer, but the idea followed me into the new year. For sure, a year full of volcanoes, war, terrorists, floods, earthquakes, giant fireballs, oil in our oceans, and, recently, birds mysteriously falling dead from the sky doesn’t exactly make for a banner year of hope. And those are (mostly) things we can’t control — in my gloomier moments, the local news also seems to prophesize a demise of our own doing: one out of three Philly kids living in poverty, teen pregnancies galore, low graduation and high crime rates, children needing help and guidance, and not getting it. Assuming the physical world doesn’t implode within the year, how bright a future can we expect, anyway, when so many kids have so little hope? (And p.s., fa-la-la-la-la, and happy 2011 to you.)

But while that card brought to mind the lowest lowlights of 2010, I’ve been cheering myself with the highlights — one of which, for me, was Philly’s TEDx conference in November. There, as at all TED conferences, the roughly 600 attendees got to listen to a handful of individuals doing something to make the world better. It was a day celebrating good ideas, and the people putting them to work. That’s where I heard the musician Stanford Thompson speak, and, had I written a little green note to send out to friends and family this Christmas, I would have included at least a footnote about him.

Thompson, a 24-year-old Curtis School grad and professional trumpet player, is the founding director of a Philadelphia Youth Orchestra program called Tune Up Philly, which, since September, has taken children from “challenging social and economic conditions” and taught them to play classical music. Two and a half after-school hours every weekday for 40 weeks, the children of West Philly’s St. Francis de Sales School get intensive training from professional musicians. The little orchestra, Thompson promises, will change their lives: The proof is the program’s original model, Venezuela’s world-famous El Sistema. Led by a musician and economist called Jose Antonio Abreu, El Sistema started as a free music program in the 1970s for the poorest and most neglected kids. The millions of children who’ve played in Abreu’s orchestras have grown into goal-oriented, successful, happy young adults (many even finding careers as professional musicians).

Thompson, an Abreu fellow, stood on a stage at the Kimmel Center, and introduced Tune Up Philly to a rapt audience.

“When you put anything in front of a kid,” Thompson said, “they want to play with it. If we can put something in their hands now, and develop the right challenges, then they learn to think, ‘Well maybe I can do this,’” Thompson says. If you catch ’em in time, it translates to self-esteem, he says, and education about setting goals and teamwork and responsibility and, almost invariably, passion. (The Inquirer reported in December that none of the 80 children had dropped out thus far — and that there was a waiting list of 140 more kids ready to learn to play.)

The coolest part of the whole thing, though, was Thompson’s grand finale: a small string symphony of tiny, plaid-clad grade-school children who, after just eight weeks of practice, carefully played several verses of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, to a standing ovation, and to more than a few tears.

Ask anyone who was there: Of the things in this world we can still control, at least, there is hope.