Play On, Philly!: Music for Social Change

Arts and Culture


Play On, Philly! is an after-school orchestral music education program started by Stanford Thompson, with funding from philanthropist Carole Haas Gravagno, at St. Francis de Sales School in West Philadelphia in the fall of 2011. Based on the long-successful Venezuelan El Sistema music education system, Play On, Philly! seeks to prove with a 3-year pilot study that music education can be a force for social change in Philadelphia. The music instruction is delivered by teaching artists, including accomplished musicians that graduate from the Curtis Institute of Music, and students are given multiple opportunities to publicly perform and learn from world-class artists. The system seeks to build on each year’s success so that as students become accomplished musicians, they then teach the students behind them in the program. The pilot plans to collect data to show that students in the program improve their self-perceptions; academic motivation, achievement, and school attendance; social-emotional and behavioral development; and complex cognitive processes, all while learning to play and perform a musical instrument. Thompson and his Play On, Philly! team are currently reviewing applications for new partner sites beginning this fall with plans to engage over 300 children each weekday in their 3-hour after school program.

The Issues

It is a tough time for public education in America. The United States trails many developed nations and has fallen to “average” in worldwide education rankings as of 2010 (OECD 2010). Philadelphia’s educational picture is particularly grim, with the School District having been taken over by the Commonwealth in 2001 because of poor performance and with gaping state and local budget shortfalls for public education that last summer saw full-day kindergarten, public transportation, and school lunches all on the budget chopping block, with a final decision to close eight schools at the end of this school year with plans to aggressively close more in the years ahead (current target: close 64 by 2017).

When seemingly key programs are at risk, music education—arts education of any kind—fares even worse, with skimpy budgets going to raise the all-important reading and math scores as measured by the PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) tests. Several Philadelphia schools do not have enough funding to open their libraries, let alone fund music education. Add to this high dropout rates, high crime and imprisonment rates, and high unemployment rates, particularly among the urban poor, and it is easy to get discouraged and think about just drowning out the bad news with something else—perhaps Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Pathétique.

And that is where Stanford Thompson’s Play On, Philly! comes in.


The music education program El Sistema was started in Venezuela in 1975 by economist and musician Dr. José Antonio Abreu. Today El Sistema (“the system”) teaches classical music to more than 400,000 children across Venezuela, and has inspired music education programs based on the El Sistema philosophy—called nucelos—across the globe, including more than 55 communities in the United States. Abreu was the recipient of the 2009 TED Prize, whose theme is “Wishes big enough to change the world,” that helped establish the Sistema Fellows program at the New England Conservatory, where Stanford Thompson studied. El Sistema today is publicly funded in Venezuela and has 200 state youth orchestras and choirs. (El Sistema USA website, n.d.).

In the years since it started with a handful of children—as legend has it, in a parking garage—El Sistema has gained recognition for success in meeting their mission of helping generations of Venezuelan children “in achieving their full potential and acquiring values that favor their growth and have a positive impact on their lives in society.” El Sistema has children playing classical music all over Venezuela today, being taught by former El Sistema students who are now teachers. The system has also produced a number of world-class musicians working in top orchestras, including, most famously, Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (El Sistema USA website, n.d.).

Thompson, like the original El Sistema pied piper, Abreu, is passionate about music and music education as a cure-all for the problems faced by Philadelphia’s youth: he believes in music for social change. Rather than a pipe, though, Thompson plays the trumpet; in fact, Curtis Institute of Music–trained Thompson plays the trumpet very well, although he admits maybe not as well as he did before his work to establish Play On, Philly! began consuming his practice time.

Known as the “music miracle,” El Sistema is a proven model of how a music education program can train thousands of poor young children as musicians while simultaneously improving their lives. The methodology focuses on learning sequence, instruction, learning through performing, the learning environment, teachers, curriculum, music, working with parents, and building community (FESNOJIV n.d.).

After seeing first-hand what children could learn, accomplish, and overcome by being a member of the El Sistema community in Venezuela, Thompson was inspired to see if he could replicate the program in Philadelphia. The Atlanta-bred Thompson could have gone home to start his program where he grew up with two musician parents and seven musician siblings (half strings, half brass); after all, Atlanta has plenty of underprivileged urban youth, too. But the Philly-educated Thompson acknowledges that his connections are here; and when you are starting a music education program without the massive public funding available in Venezuela, connections are key. With the Settlement Music School, founded in 1908 to offer music education to new immigrants to the city, this town already has an impressive history of using music education for social change. Philadelphia also has those “Fabulous Philadelphians,” the prestigious Philadelphia Orchestra. And with the Curtis Institute of Music—one of the world’s leading conservatories—churning out a steady stream of graduates each year, Thompson has a ready pipeline of talented musicians to form one of the key components of his program. Play On, Philly! employs professional musicians as teaching artists.

But despite the great reputation of classical music in Philadelphia, and the availability of and proximity to professional musicians, Thompson’s Philadelphia connections were probably the best reason to start the program here. Play On, Philly! originated in the fall of 2010 as a program under the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra (PYO) under the name “Tune Up Philly” with support from Carole Haas Gravagno, a prominent local philanthropist who has long been a champion for the Philadelphia Orchestra and music education in the city.  With seed money from Haas Gravagno, Thompson was able to take his pilot program to one school, St. Francis de Sales in West Philadelphia. Last summer Tune Up Philly reincorporated as an independent nonprofit separate from PYO with its new name: Play On, Philly (POP). And with continued support from Haas Gravagno, who structured her support as a matching grant, Thompson’s work last year was awarded a grant from the Knight Foundation, and recently received its largest grant to date, a $1 million grant from the Seed the Dream Foundation that will bring Play On, Philly! to an additional site in 2012 (Dobrin 2012).

What Is Play On, Philly!?

At its core, Play On, Philly! is a free after-school music education program whose stated mission “focuses on providing an environment of opportunity through the collective practice of music in orchestral playing and choral singing as models of academic and life skills development, social organization and community building. POP provides an educational and social preparedness program while developing musical knowledge and performance skills at a high level.” Play On, Philly! also has the following goals:

  • Developing goal-directed behavior and skills that increase academic and social success.
  • Improving self-esteem and self-perception so that students can achieve their full potential.
  • Increasing academic motivation, achievement and school attendance.
  • Imparting musical knowledge and performing skills at a high level.

Using the teaching artists, Play On, Philly! provides three hours of music training in after-school programs for children aged six through fourteen (K–8th grade), structured as  an hour each of group lessons, general music, and ensemble rehearsals. Each student is lent an instrument for personal use. Altogether the music instruction is the equivalent of a $3,500 full tuition scholarship for each student.

Eventually the work of the teaching artists will be supported by students who come up through the system and develop instrument proficiency and can then be tapped to teach younger children just starting out with their instruments. In fact, older students teaching younger students is one of the cornerstones of El Sistema. Thompson likes to point out that an orchestra may easily have 120 members led by one conductor. Compare that to basketball (the iconic pastime for urban youth), where a team has only five players on the court at a time, plus a coach and a referee.

Play On, Philly! launched in 2011 with a program for 110 students at St. Francis de Sales. Thompson readily admits that starting at St. Francis, a parochial school, was likely easier than starting the program in a Philadelphia School District school. St. Francis’ parents have already shown that they value their children’s education enough to pay for it, or to apply for a scholarship to cover St. Francis’ tuition. Additionally, St. Francis’ congregation and school community has a significant immigrant population, many of whom likely moved to this country because they sought better opportunities for themselves and their children. Education is important to these families. But the children that attend St. Francis often face the same economic challenges that their neighbors face attending public schools. And children in West Philadelphia have to live alongside the high crime and other impediments that block the opportunities and potential for so many Philadelphia youth. Thompson will get a chance to see how running his program in other types of schools—charter or public—differs from parochial St. Francis when Play On, Philly! identifies a new partner site this spring.

The Innovation

Play On, Philly! is based on a 37-year-old program that has taught instrumental music to millions of children worldwide, so the program idea is not new. Play On, Philly! may not even be that innovative for Philadelphia—St. Francis de Sales has long had a music program as do other schools. Anyone who was ever in a high school marching band has experienced how the culture and identity of being in an after-school music program does more than just teach you how to play an instrument; it influences your friendships, your place among your peers and even your self-identity.

By using his “industry” and arts connections and those of his teaching artists, other El Sistema programs, El Sistema alumni, or just plain fans, Thompson is able to create meaningful partnerships with the region’s finest arts, social, and educational organizations, so that POP students are provided first-class opportunities. The POP kids have racked up impressive performance rosters already, performing at the TEDxPhilly Conference, Brown University, Philadelphia City Hall, The Mann Center, Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall, The Curtis Institute of Music, and they even played the National Anthem to open a recent Philadelphia Phillies game. The POP Symphony Orchestra has been led by world-class conductors like Sir Simon Rattle, Marin Alsop, and Rossen Milanov, while guest artists like Wynton Marsalis, Bobby McFerrin, the Borromeo Quartet, and members of the Philadelphia Orchestra visit on a regular basis to play with and inspire the POP students. Many of their performances and artist sessions have been filmed and can be viewed on the Play On, Philly! YouTube Channel.

Thompson’s pilot launch plan, designed with the help of two Social Impact Fellows from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Ahoko Attoungbre and Rexford Asibuo, includes an emphasis on evaluation and assessment. Thompson understands that in a city with educational problems as big as Philadelphia’s and dollars stretched as thin as a hair on a violin’s bow, he must show that Play On, Philly! works in order to get the support needed to continue and grow his program. And Thompson doesn’t want to just prove that Play On, Philly! teaches children music, but that it keeps them in school, improves their attention and overall school success, increases graduation rates, improves college enrollment rates, keeps them out of jail, and generally improves the trajectory of their lives.

In a city like Philadelphia with too many underperforming schools, and a gaping school budget chasm, any program that does not obviously and directly improve PSSA numbers is a hard sell. Thompson knows that to gain the support of additional private funders, and eventually government funders, he will need impressive numbers to back up his claims. He is seeking to collect data for three pilot years in five areas of inquiry: student attitudes and self-perceptions; academic motivation, achievement, and school attendance; social-emotional and behavioral development; complex cognitive processes; and performing skills and musical knowledge.

The Impact

Play On, Philly! is based on some notable academic work and interesting research.

Psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci’s Self Determination Theory identifies autonomy, competence and relatedness as three essential psychological needs that, when met, significantly improve personal resilience, mental health and well-being, but when dampened have the opposite effect (Ryan and Deci 2000). Music performance and arts programs like Play On, Philly! are regarded  as a great way to improve individuals’ autonomy, competence and relatedness.

Shirley Brice Heath’s 10-year longitudinal study is another basis of the Play On, Philly! plan. Heath is a linguistic anthropologist whose research has focused on linguistic and cognitive learning, including theories of learning through participation in the arts. Brice found that of all the types of after-school activities, including arts-based, sports and community-service programs (e.g., scouting, religious groups, and environmental clubs) aimed at disadvantaged children, the arts-based programs had the biggest and best impact. Arts-based programs, Heath explains, encourage children to explore the creative process and allow “kids to play around with ideas in their head and then carry it out with degrees of success and failure” (quoted in Kellam 1999).

Following and building on Heath’s study, the RAND Corporation conducted Arts and Prosocial Impact studies that identified common factors among arts programs that produced the most enduring impact on students (Stone et al.1997). Play On, Philly! has identified five such factors:

Extended time-in-program. Students can repeat classes or are re-enrolled annually. Students may enroll early in elementary school and continue participation as they grow and develop. Time-in-program is measured in years.

Emphasis on performance and presentation. Students’ risk-taking needs are met by frequent performance. Students demonstrate their accountability before family and peers for the use of their time and for what they have accomplished.

Liberal use of mentors. Students become mentors to younger students. Mentors from within the larger community work with students on a regular and ongoing basis.

Programs collaborating with other community groups and organizations. Schools create a network of collaborating organizations and services, for example.

Other supportive services offered. Transportation, field trips, scholarship support, tutorial services and parent education are among the possibilities.

Even before hard data are available from Play On, Philly!’s program, it is easy to believe in favorable outcomes from having 110 school children participate in this program. Thompson is confident that with three hours of music education every school day—fifteen hours of music every week—the children are going to learn to play an instrument well. But more than that he’s hoping they will also learn how to be good students, good team players, good people who grow into contributing members of society and responsible adults.

The Social Return on Investment

Let us revisit some of the bad numbers. Children in Philadelphia have a high chance (1 in 73) of being the victim or perpetrator of a crime, and the Philadelphia homicide rate is three times the national average; the city has one of the highest incarceration rates of any city in the United States. Avoiding being on either end of crime is clearly very important, but children also just need to get through school: 42 percent of all Philadelphia School District students are below proficient in math, and 48 percent are below proficient in reading (Pennsylvania Department of Education 2012). Only 57 percent of Philadelphia high school students graduate in four years. This rough start to life comes with a real dollar cost. The cost of keeping one prisoner incarcerated is $33,000 a year. Simply not graduating from school costs society money, since someone who earns a high school degree makes $379,600 more in a lifetime than someone with no degree. The corresponding societal benefit is $305,000, which is the increase in lifetime state and federal taxes paid plus the decrease in government benefits received for a person obtaining a degree. (People who graduate from high school are less likely to need public assistance.)

Replicability and Scalability

There is no shortage of schools that would eagerly offer a Play On, Philly! program to their students. There is also no shortage of parents who would just as eagerly enroll their children, if for no other reason than it is free after-school care. Accredited after-school care centers in the West Philadelphia area offering an organized curriculum charge approximately $400 per month. And as Thompson launched his program in the fall of 2011, there was no shortage of students either; 350 students entered the lottery for 110 places in the Play On, Philly! program. The children were not required to have any special skills or abilities to be selected. Unlike in other music education programs, they don’t need to be able to pay for lessons, or be talented; they simply have to show up to school. Children who do not attend school are not allowed to participate in the after-school music program. Thompson reports that this requirement had a positive impact on attendance for Play On, Philly! children at St. Francis this school year.

The whole basis of Play On, Philly!, and of El Sistema USA overall, is to replicate and scale the already successful El Sistema program. Whether the programs can achieve the same success in the U.S. culture and in the U.S. funding environment is yet to be seen. Pennsylvania spent $1.66 billion on the state prison system in 2008, compared with $1.59 billion for higher education in the same year. There needs to be a sea change in public thinking and recognition that education truly is the basis of a strong and successful society. But Americans seem alarmed at how bad things have gotten, and are scrambling for solutions, many of which are unproven. In this time of trial and error, we could certainly do worse than to try to grow a program that has significantly improved the lives of so many children already.

While waiting for the data from the 3-year pilot to be collected, parents, educators and community members are excited and hopeful for this new program’s potential to improve the lives of Philadelphia school children through music education. In the words of Dionne Antoinette Caldwell, parent of a Play On, Philly! student at St. Francis de Sales, “Play On, Philly! is …the best experience my son has been offered.”

Heather Calvert is a full-time employee of the Botswana-UPenn Partnership of the University of Pennsylvania and a part-time student at the Fels Institute of Government at the same university. She played the French Horn—quite poorly—in her 7th grade public school band. 


Dobrin, P. (2012, April 1). A $1M gift will keep music going. Philadelphia Inquirer. Available at

El Sistema USA website. (n.d.). Accessed July 13, 2011.

FESNOJIV (Fundación del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela) website. (n.d.). El Sistema methodology. Accessed August 2 2011, 

Kellam, S. (1999, February 5). The Arts Are Basic to Achievement: An Interview with Shirley Brice Heath. Connect for Kids. Available at

OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development). (2010, July 9). Education at a Glance 2010: OECD Indicators. Available at,3746,en_2649_39263238_45897844_1_1_1_1,00.html.

Philadelphia Department of Education, Philadelphia City SD District Report Card 2010-2011 Available at

Ryan, R. M., and E. L. Deci. (2000, January). Self-determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-being. American Psychologist 55(1): 68-78. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.68.

Stone, A., D. J. McArthur, S. A. Law, and J. S. Moini. (1997). The Arts and Prosocial Impact Study: An Examination of Best Practices. RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, California. Available at

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