Hidden from small

Schoolhouse Classical: The Philadelphia Orchestra Gives Back

January 03, 2019

It’s no secret that The Philadelphia Orchestra spends a lot of time away from Verizon Hall. Every summer it heads to the Mann Center, Vail, and Saratoga. There are regular visits to New York’s Carnegie Hall and community concerts around Philadelphia, plus frequent overseas tours.

Violinist Hilary Hahn, The Philadelphia Orchestra’s 2017-18 artist-in-residence, gives a strings master class to students at KIPP West, as part of the Orchestra’s School Ensemble Program. Photo by Pete Checchia

But some of the Fabulous Philadelphians’ most important performances are available only to a lucky group of youngsters: the school children of the Delaware Valley. According to Director of Collaborative Learning Dr. Michael Albaugh, it’s through initiatives such as the School Ensemble Program, the School Partnership Program, and the All-City Orchestra Fellowship that the Orchestra works to be not just in the community but of the community.

Albaugh, a trained musician, composer, and nationally recognized arts educator, has extensive experience in this type of community involvement. Prior to coming to Philadelphia last year, he had a similar role at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York; he’s also created jazz academies at Bard College and Juilliard, and he was a faculty administrator at Montclair State University and director of music at the Interlochen Center for the Arts.

“When I got here, I met a lot of people from multiple organizations who were working together without stepping on each’s other’s toes,” Albaugh says. “There’s a great sense of collegiality. We all know at the bottom of our hearts that we’re trying to do the right thing. In fact, most of the people in Philadelphia are trying to do the right things to help students, especially in the arts. That’s a part of Philadelphia I really love!”

Here in the City of Brotherly Love, Albaugh oversees the School Partnership Program (SPP). Since 2005 it has cultivated in-depth relationships with elementary schools in underserved neighborhoods. During this 30-week program, currently in two Philadelphia public schools, Orchestra teaching artists (musicians with specific teaching skills) work with classroom teachers to build students’ knowledge and appreciation of orchestral music, at the same time developing their interpersonal and language skills. Participants also enjoy a Philadelphia Orchestra School Concert, visits from Orchestra musicians, and cross-cultural programs designed to explore how music can bring people of diverse backgrounds together.

School Ensemble Program Teaching Artist Peter Oswald with students at KIPP West.

The School Ensemble Program (SEP) is in its third year. Based on the famed El Sistema program started in Venezuela, SEP operates in two West Philadelphia KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools. It offers intensive, ensemble-based music instruction, targeting students from under-represented, under-served, “high-need” communities. It starts with kindergartners; by 6th grade, the students are learning instruments. Twelve teaching artists, provided by the Orchestra, are helping the kids with keyboards, drums, violin, and string ensembles. Winds and brass are being introduced this year, with bassoons in the pipeline.

Ensemble-based music education has been shown through academic research to aid and improve cognitive development, learning, social development, civic participation, and overall educational outcomes.

“We hire the teaching artists,” says Albaugh, “who work in collaboration with the music teachers at the schools. We’ve bought a whole bunch of brand new instruments; we take care of maintenance as well.” (Young children have been known to break instruments!)

The School Partnership Program includes Gesu School, where Teaching Artist Rebecca Harris works with some of the students.

Another way the Orchestra helps aspiring musicians is with the All-City Orchestra Fellowship. This program intensively supports 12 children who are involved with the School District of Philadelphia’s All-City Orchestra (led by Acting Associate Principal Bass Joseph Conyers). Selected through a rigorous audition and interview process, these highly talented young musicians get additional help to overcome the obstacles that can challenge students from disadvantaged communities. That help includes individual lessons and mentoring from Philadelphia Orchestra musicians; tickets to Philadelphia Orchestra concerts; and opportunities to interact with some of the internationally acclaimed artists who appear with the Orchestra in Verizon Hall as soloists and conductors.

According to Albaugh, “The nice thing about the All-City Fellowship is that they are really our students. I see them frequently. I get them tickets. I meet them at our concerts.”

Double bassist Gregory Padilla, currently a senior at the High School for Creative and Performing Arts, says: “The Fellowship has given me the chance to take lessons with Joseph Conyers and it’s been a life-changing experience.”

One major success story this year was Akili Farrow, who graduated from the String Theory School. “Kim Fisher [Principal Second Violin] worked with her several times a week to get her ready for college auditions,” says Albaugh. “Now Akili is studying at the Royal College of Music in London!”

Other 2018 graduating seniors include Davey Hiester, a bassoonist attending the University of Texas at Austin on scholarship; Malique Bennett, a trombonist now at Carnegie Mellon with a full scholarship (and a trombone donated by Paul Bryan, the Dean of the Curtis Institute of Music); trumpeter John Polanco, on full scholarship at the University of the Arts; Derrick Pondexter, a violinist studying at Temple University; and Dan McCain, a bassist with a full scholarship at the University of the Arts.

The 2018 All-City Fellows. Photo by Pete Checchia

“I want to thank the All-City Fellowship for helping me and guiding me through the college application process and providing me with lessons with my amazing trombone teacher,” Bennett says. “I am achieving my goals and I’m excited for what’s coming next.”

Albaugh: “It’s nice to see these successes. We offer the fellows all these interactions with Orchestra members and guest artists, basically telling them, ‘this is what you can aspire to.’ And even if they don’t choose to become professional musicians, just experiencing this path is so valuable for them.”

None of this would be possible without the fervent support of the Fabulous Philadelphians. “The musicians really care about what we’re doing educationally,” says Albaugh. “That’s been very inspiring, and it’s one of the big reasons I’m glad to be involved with the Orchestra. They care very much about making a difference, even though their schedules are very busy. If I need teaching artists they’re the first to recommend people they know. They jump on board whenever I ask for help. They talk very proudly of the kids they’ve worked with, about how much dedication they’re showing.”

Summing up, Albaugh is bullish on the future of the Orchestra’s unique role in its community. “We have a long way to go, but as some of these programs grow we have a great opportunity to make a very important difference here in Philadelphia.”

Steve Holt, managing partner at re:Write, is a veteran journalist and musician.