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After-school music program raises its curtain

Scenes from the birth of an orchestra:

Music instructor Joshua Popejoy goes over some last-minute points with 9-year-old Khiyam Hayes before going on at the St Francis deSales School on Saturday. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)
Music instructor Joshua Popejoy goes over some last-minute points with 9-year-old Khiyam Hayes before going on at the St Francis deSales School on Saturday. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)Read more

Scenes from the birth of an orchestra:

"Jingle Bells" played by 80 children, ages 6 to 13, materializing first in tentative entrances, but quickly growing in volume and confidence.

A standing-room-only crowd of relatives and well-wishers snapping photos with cell phones held in the air.

One of the city's major philanthropists, and others, reduced to tears.

Tune Up Philly, the ambitious new after-school music program at St. Francis de Sales School in West Philadelphia, raised its curtain publicly for the first time Saturday with an afternoon concert of orchestral and mixed ensembles. Most of the students have played their instruments only since the beginning of the school year - 10 weeks.

Yet they drew raves.

"It takes your breath away," said Carole Haas Gravagno, the program's major benefactor. "If we can show the rest of the city what's possible . . ."

That's the plan. The brainchild of Curtis Institute of Music graduate Stanford Thompson, 24, and adopted by the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, Tune Up Philly started at St. Francis de Sales this school year with the aim of replicating itself at other sites - perhaps next year, or sooner.

Modeled on the widely praised and emulated El Sistema program, which has educated millions of children in Venezuela, Philadelphia's upstart already has gathered considerable support.

Since initial coverage in The Inquirer and subsequent media attention, the program has received donations of cellos, clarinets, double basses, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, trombones, violas, violins, and other instruments, plus about $13,000 in cash and $10,000 in in-kind services.

Though no additional schools are yet signed up, Tune Up Philly is in talks with philanthropists and other funding sources to start programs in North and Northeast Philadelphia. Each site, with about a dozen instructors, costs an estimated $300,000 per year to run. It is free, or nearly free, to the families it serves.

Promising though the musical progress is, more human effects are beginning to show themselves in children enrolled in the program. Many of St. Francis' students come from challenged sections of Southwest Philadelphia and have chaotic home lives, say the Catholic sisters who run the school. Like its Venezuelan counterpart, Tune Up Philly comes with hopes for repairing the social structures that encompass many of these children.

"Something more is happening than playing 'Twinkle, Twinkle' well," said Thompson, who, through a competitive fellowship, traveled to Venezuela this year to study the El Sistema program for eight weeks.

"We've already seen changes in their grades, in their attitudes," he said. "A girl's mother says she no longer wants to play video games and watch TV. We've watched connections between parents and kids we haven't noticed before. They have something to talk about."

On Saturday, the audience of about 200 parents, grandparents, other relatives, and friends roared with approval after each of the children's 20 or so pieces.

"I can't see exactly how it's going to apply, but music is going to play a role in her life," said Roxanne CainesThomas, whose daughter, Morgan Thomas, plays trumpet and trombone. "When she's upset she plays the trumpet. It's another language."

About 80 students are enrolled in the St. Francis program. (A waiting list of 120 at the start of the year has grown to 140 as word has spread.) Not a single student has dropped out. The children receive instruction in their primary instrument, plus voice training and theory, for 21/2 hours after school, five days a week.

"Hopefully, it will lead to something bigger and better," said Cynthia Curby, whose fifth-grade granddaughter, Destiny Curby, just started as a clarinetist.

It was so for Thompson, who grew up in Decatur, Ga., and ended up a 2009 graduate of the elite Curtis.

"That trumpet back there in the orchestra saved my life," he told Saturday's audience. "I have no idea what I would be had it not been for my involvement in music."

Anyone who doubted the depth of his sincerity needed only to catch him wiping his eyes as the city's newest orchestra reached the last notes of "Jingle Bells."

He was in good company.

Said the school's principal, Sister Mary McNulty: "It moved so many of us to tears."