“Yes! Yes! That’s it. That’s the sound!”
Philadelphia Orchestra Acting Associate Principal Bass Joseph Conyers has his arms in the air, body arched, feet lifting off the floor as he exuberantly conducts a string ensemble at the Mann Center. The group before him is a welcome sight: young musicians from the Philadelphia region who are taking part in the inaugural All City Orchestra Summer Academy (ACOSA).
Philadelphia Orchestra Acting Associate Principal Bass Joseph Conyers leads musicians in a rehearsal at the first-ever All City Orchestra Summer Academy at the Mann Center.
A free two-week program for rising eighth to 12th graders, ACOSA provides opportunities for music education during the summer months when instruction is typically on hold until the school year resumes. The camp—the first of its kind in Philadelphia—is a unique partnership of The Philadelphia Orchestra, the School District of Philadelphia, the Mann Center, and Project 440.
To Conyers, who also serves as director of the All City Orchestra and executive director of Project 440, ACOSA is more than just a summer camp. It is, to some extent, a moral imperative.
“To be able to provide an opportunity at a high level, free of charge, for children of the School District of Philadelphia is something our kids deserve,” he says. “And for some of the largest arts institutions in Philadelphia to come together in this way is really exciting for the city, and something we must be doing.”
It’s 8:30 AM on a Wednesday in July. Many teenagers on break are likely sleeping in, enjoying the lazy days of summer. But the students at ACOSA are already awake, on site at the Mann Center, ready to begin their day.
“I usually show up around 8:30, and there are always at least 20 students already here practicing,” says Dr. Michael Albaugh, director of education and community initiatives for The Philadelphia Orchestra. “Camp doesn’t start until 9:30.”
This level of motivation is not unusual among the 60 students participating in the Summer Academy. Many have come to improve their skills.
Sonya Dobi, age 12, plays the violin and is hoping to work on her vibrato. Valeriy Bespartochnyy, age 14, plays the flute and wants to master staccato. Tristan Bouyer, age 14, is a percussionist who is eager to learn more about music theory and mallet instruments, “because that’s my weakness,” he explains.
Sonya Dobi, far right, with fellow All City Orchestra Summer Academy campers. Photo by Jordan August
Gevon Goddard is 17, a rising senior at Franklin Learning Center. College is on his mind. “I want to go to school for music education,” he says. “This camp will help in the way I approach things and how I interact with other people.”
As part of the immersive experience, each student participates in orchestra rehearsals conducted by Conyers, sectionals led by guest coaches from The Philadelphia Orchestra and teachers from the School District of Philadelphia, and life skills and entrepreneurial workshops led by members of Project 440.
“To have all of these elements come together in this way is the perfect recipe for a beautiful program for the young people of our city,” says Conyers.
Through this holistic approach, ACOSA organizers hope that the students will learn how the discipline of music carries over into other life skills.
According to Conyers, “Not all of these young people are going to become professional musicians, and that’s not the goal of this program. By honing their life and career skills, music becomes more of a gateway or a lens through which they see possibility and opportunity in their lives.”
The camp also provides a rare opportunity for students to receive advanced musical instruction over the summer.
“Sometimes I don’t practice over the summer, and when I go back to school in the fall, it’s more difficult for me to play stuff that was easy for me before,” says Bouyer. “This camp will help keep my skills fresh so I don’t forget my technique.”
Just as the camp itself is a shining example of groups coming together to achieve a common goal, the students, too, are learning how collaboration is key to success. The experience culminates with a full orchestra performance on the Mann Center stage to showcase the students’ talents and growth.
“You have to learn to focus not only on your own playing, but also on how to come together as a collective unit,” says Goddard.
Gevon Goddard during one of the Summer Academy rehearsals. Photo by Jordan August
Valeriy’s twin brother, Boris, a clarinetist, also feels inspired by his fellow campers. “It’s a really satisfying feeling to be surrounded by others who push you to be better,” he says.
Also encouraging the students to excel are 15 dedicated coaches from The Philadelphia Orchestra who have taken time out of their busy schedules (the camp coincides with the Orchestra’s residency at the Mann Center) to give back to the students of Philadelphia.
For two Orchestra musicians, the experience is especially personal.
Principal Timpani Don Liuzzi and horn player Jeffry Kirschen are graduates of the School District of Philadelphia.
Liuzzi attended Franklin Learning Center in the Spring Garden neighborhood of Philadelphia. At the time, the school was focused on the performing arts, having just created a new arts wing.
“I felt like I got a great head start on basic music theory, music history, and chamber music, and the All City Orchestra was my larger musical family home,” Liuzzi says.
Philadelphia Orchestra Principal Timpani Don Liuzzi leads a rehearsal.
Kirschen is a graduate of Northeast High School. He, too, feels fortunate to have been part of the Philadelphia School District at a time when the music education program was particularly strong.
“I’m always happy to encourage and support any young musicians who are aspiring to play and enjoy the opportunity to play,” he says. “I didn’t have a summer opportunity to play either, so it’s important to me to give back in this way, to share and pass on a legacy.”
Their participation in the camp is profoundly important to the students. Each day, the campers get to sit side-by-side with their musical heroes, learning from them, receiving support from them, and being inspired by them.
Philadelphia Orchestra Co-Principal Trombone Matthew Vaughn sits side-by-side with musicians from the All City Orchestra.
“Kids see pop artists and sports heroes all the time, but they rarely get to see highly trained classical music icons,” says Conyers. “To be able to not only observe but also have these folks sit right next to them in a sectional giving them instruction—that’s a priceless experience.”
Upon learning that Liuzzi was a graduate of the School District, percussionist Sarah Casonova, age 15, lit up.
“Is he really?” she asked. “That makes me think I can do it, too!”
Sarah Casonova (far left) and other All City percussionists get some pointers. Photo by Jordan August
Casonova hopes to pursue music performance, joining ACOSA to hone her skills. Liuzzi has given her some “serious homework” to help her in her journey. He knows firsthand how important it is for young musicians to have such an opportunity.
“I got to study with a member of The Philadelphia Orchestra when I was part of the All City Orchestra,” he says. “It was invaluable. Today, to work with these students in this way is a dream come true. This will help bridge the summer and elevate the level of performance.”
Kirschen agrees that summer is a critical time for making music and improving technique.
“You’re not distracted by other school obligations and time restrictions,” he says. “Having a program like this gives students an opportunity to be fully immersed in a concentrated program.”
Clarinetist Mariyah Janard, age 16, is planning to audition for the All City Orchestra next year and joined ACOSA in preparation.
“To hear The Philadelphia Orchestra perform is amazing,” she says. “They sound so beautiful and it gives us goals for how we should sound.”
Like Mariyah, many of the campers are eager to join the All City Orchestra, if they aren’t already members. Liuzzi hopes ACOSA will also inspire some of the musicians to apply for The Philadelphia Orchestra’s All City Fellowship program, which intensively supports 12 All City Orchestra students each year who are selected through a rigorous audition and interview process.
“[ACOSA] is really a bridge to opportunity,” he says.
Building a Legacy
Though only in its first year, ACOSA has already been a resounding success. And camp organizers have plans for developing and sustaining this summer music education resource on an annual basis so that the program can “grow and grow,” according to Conyers.
“We want these students to know that they have a whole cheerleading squad of support from these four organizations to help them reach the goals they want to achieve.”
“This is a perfect example of community building through the arts,” says Albaugh. “Having four incredible organizations working together is crucial to the success of a full-bodied program like this. And by eliminating barriers based on means and access to transportation, we’ve been able to open this up to everyone who is interested.”
Members of the All City Orchestra Summer Academy Class of 2019. Photo by Jordan August
What’s particularly inspiring is that the students are also eager to be part of ACOSA’s bright future.
When asked why she wanted to attend ACOSA, Dobi, one of the youngest students at the camp, stated her intentions beautifully.
“This is the first year this is happening, and I thought, ‘I want to be a part of something for the first time and I want to start the legacy that this camp can provide.’”