Partnership Aims to Mend Funding for School Music Programs

Partnership Aims to Mend Funding for School Music Programs

Looking for a creative solution to a longstanding problem, the Philadelphia public school system has turned to an unusual source for help, the New York Times reports.

Tight school budgets have long put a squeeze on extracurricular activities such as music and sports, especially in big-city school districts. But in Philadelphia, where the school system has more than a thousand broken musical instruments and little money to fix them, the situation looked hopeless. Then, Temple Contemporary, the art gallery at Temple University, came up with the idea of commissioning an orchestral work to help solve the problem. Enter Pulitzer- and Grammy-Award winning composer David Lang, whose "Symphony for a Broken Orchestra" will be performed on December 3 by four hundred musicians, a third of them public school students, on some of the broken instruments at a fundraiser for the district. Donations inspired by the performance, which is free to the public, along with online gifts made through an "'adopt' an instrument" site, and financial support from the Pew Center for the Arts & Heritage and Barra Foundation will be used to repair as many instruments as possible and establish a legacy fund for future repairs; to date, $100,000 has been raised toward the district's $1 million goal.

The concept behind the event was born in 2013, when Rob Blackson, the director of exhibitions at Temple Contemporary, stumbled on dozens of pianos in various states of disrepair after twenty-three schools in the district were closed. Blackson contacted Lang, whom he had known from the latter's work with Bang on a Can, a music-focused nonprofit. "He's the kind of composer who would take on a challenge," Blackson told the Times. "He immediately saw [in it] something meaningful to him, not only as artistic expression but also meaningful personally."

Lang told the Times that the symphony will include both notes produced by broken instruments as well as those they were intended to produce. "You will be able to hear how wounded they are," said Lang.

Blackson added that the piece will present an alternative way of thinking about music education — as well as public-private partnerships. "I hope people get from this a sense of possibility," he said. "It's too easy to write something off."

Ted Loos. "One Way to Fix Broken School Instruments: Call a Composer." New York Times 11/06/2017.