"Some have dealt with hardships in their young lives that I can't even imagine," says McNulty, principal of West Philadelphia's St. Francis de Sales. "They need someone or something to lift them up, and this program is doing that. I see smiles on faces I haven't seen smiles on in a long time."
This social salve, admittedly untested, comes from an unlikely source, one experiencing its own mighty struggle: classical music. St. Francis de Sales is the front line in a new war on social ills, an intensive after-school program called Tune Up Philly.
Curtis Institute graduate Stanford Thompson, 23, the engine behind the brand-new program, says, "Even within these few days we've seen some kids described as difficult turn themselves around."
A project of the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, Tune Up Philly is giving 85 students in first through seventh grades free or nearly free musical instruction - chorus, ear training, and concentration on a single, chosen instrument - 21/2 hours a day, five days a week (plus five weeks of summer all-day sessions).
Brought to the school by Thompson, the program is a localized strain of the famed El Sistema program from the slums of Venezuela, a network of music-education sites, or nucleos, that has been hailed as both a revolutionary approach to music education and a powerful engine for social change.
Thompson says the program is about "casting the net" for talent as wide as possible and making instrumental music accessible to everyone.
"When I take the trolley home to West Philadelphia, I look around at all these people and I think, 'Why can't this trolley be filled with people having just heard the orchestra?' That's what you hear on the PATCO train, people talking about music. But why can't you hear this on the trolley to West Philly?"
El Sistema-inspired programs are gaining U.S. popularity in part because of winsome poster boy Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a product of the program.
U.S. variations on El Sistema are popping up - about 15 programs are more than a year old, 20 started this fall, and 15 are in the planning stages, according to Mark Churchill, director of El Sistema USA. This is Philadelphia's first.
In Venezuela, three million students have gone through the program since it was launched 35 years ago by economist, politician, and musician José Antonio Abreu, producing a vast network of music schools and youth orchestras envied worldwide.
Disciples importing the system are well aware that differences between the two countries make exact replication impossible; El Sistema is publicly financed by a socialist government in an environment lacking many of the distractions available to children here. But that hasn't stopped the march of idealism.
From Thompson's program proposal:
"The year is 2020. . . . The lives of thousands of Philly's children, largely from underserved inner-city communities, are being transformed by music. By striving to participate fully in communal music-making, youth are developing intellectual, emotional, and social skills that lead to success in school, and family and social life. Orchestras, bands, choruses, and instrumental ensembles are the pride of the communities that support them, and young musicians are the new heroes to their peers, families, and neighborhoods."
His goal, in short: "Orchestras everywhere."
After graduating from Curtis in 2009 with a bachelor's degree in trumpet, Thompson, a native of Decatur, Ga., won a coveted Abreu Fellowship from El Sistema USA that sent him to Venezuela earlier this year for a firsthand, eight-week encounter with the program.
No one is declaring victory yet, but in the three weeks since lessons started, St. Francis de Sales' nascent musicians are showing impressive focus, not to mention musical progress.
And the program is attracting attention. Jamie Bernstein, daughter of conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein, is visiting several times a month to gather material for a film about the project. Philadelphia philanthropist Carole Haas Gravagno, often an early investor in causes that eventually garner widespread private and foundation support, met Thompson at an El Sistema conference in Los Angeles and subsequently pledged up to $500,000 to underwrite the first year's operation of Tune Up Philly.
"I've been upset about this forever," Haas says of the lack of music education in schools. "That's why I'm here, because I think kids need an opportunity to play an instrument. To be comfortable in this world, you need to feel loved and capable, and that's what this program does."
It was Haas who steered Thompson to St. Francis de Sales, where she has been involved for years. His prospective hosts in North Philadelphia fell through, though project leaders haven't given up on other sites.
Tune Up Philly plans to replicate the West Philadelphia nucleo elsewhere in the city. Which neighborhoods? How many?
"Is that number 10? Is that number 15? Ask me in six months," says Louis Scaglione, president and music director of the Philadelphia Youth Symphony.
St. Francis de Sales is in a prosperous West Philadelphia neighborhood, on 47th Street near Baltimore Avenue, close to Clark Park and such trendy restaurants as Milk & Honey Market and Vietnam Cafe. But most of its 500-plus students come by trolley from the chaotic blocks of Southwest Philadelphia, McNulty says.
That aspect of the program, its challenged target population, is central to its mission. Here, as in Venezuela, the program is built up as a social program first, a safety net in a society that has left children bereft of structure. A "sprinkling" of St. Francis de Sales students do have parental support, McNulty says, but the majority do not.
"This isn't even about the music; it's about societal change. If we would invest in children now, we wouldn't have to deal with them becoming juvenile delinquents," says Haas, who is marshaling the support of other philanthropists.
The focus and discipline required to play an instrument is key to the experience, El Sistema acolytes say.
"If at the first concert all they do is walk out in a straight line, play on an open string, bow, and walk off, that might be the entire concert. But it's about the process," Thompson says.
That process means starting from scratch.
"If you get too close to the bridge, that's the sound it makes," Kathleen Krull says to a group of four students sitting in a circle around one who is trying out a violin. "If you don't like how high it sounds, you may want to play the viola."
Some students already have had some musical instruction, others none at all. The first week of the program, they got to try out trumpets, French horns, and stringed instruments. Twelve teachers - some of whom have moved to within a five-minute walk of the school - listened with an ear for aptitude; because of size or more mysterious matters of disposition, a child may be more suited to one instrument than another.
Krull stands close to one novice, guiding the girl's bow arm over the strings with her right hand, pressing on the fingerboard to get the right notes with the other.
Together they produce a slow, step-wise tune.
"I can't do it," says the girl.
"Never say can't," says Krull. Then she triangulates, using a more experienced student to offer advice to the beginners.
"The peer-to-peer aspect blew me away," Haas says.
Creating an El Sistema nucleo is not easy or inexpensive. Thompson talked to several potential community partners before finding a viable one, and each local program costs about $300,000 - an annual budget that must be covered with essentially no earned income (tuition is nominal or free).
That means either raising the entire amount each year or building an endowment large enough to defray some of the costs.
"If we had 10, it would be $3 million a year, and that's the challenge," Scaglione says. "It's easy, or relatively easy, to get the initial investment. But what about year three and year five?"
It will be his job to develop a business plan with answers.
Robert Capanna, who recently retired as director of the Settlement Music School after 27 years, says there is nothing revolutionary in El Sistema's curriculum. The key is finding dedicated time for serious music education in a child's schedule - and, as always, money.
"Philadelphia in the '60s and the '70s had probably the best-funded, most-articulated, and most-successful music-education program of any district in the country, and the difference between then and now is that then there was a decision to spend money on it, and now there's a decision to not spend money on it," he says. "After 35 years of wrestling in this field, it really boils down to: Is the society writ large willing to make the financial commitment to make this part of every child's education?"
Of Tune Up Philly in particular, he says it's a good thing. "More is more, but the trick will be, is it sustainable over time?"
The program seeks not only cash, but also donations of instruments. Luthier David Michie, owner of the eponymous Center City string shop, has given 15 violins, and has agreed to repair, gratis, other stringed instruments.
Tune Up Philly will prove its worth in human terms, but beyond that, it aims at secondary and tertiary benefits. The most widely accused villain in slouching attendance for classical concerts, sluggish cultural philanthropy, and indolent boards is a lack of early involvement in the arts.
The program hopes not only to train musicians, but also to promote engagement on the other side of the footlights as well.
"We're developing audiences and future supporters of the arts," Scaglione says. "Unless a population or segment of the population knows something, you can't expect them to appreciate it. We're talking about a long-term goal. It would be great if one of these students becomes a member of the orchestra, or a board member at the Art Museum or a supporter of the ballet."
Music, though, is a tough discipline whose moments of payback can be sparse, unpredictable, and far off.
Tune Up Philly's leaders know that and, in these first weeks, take a sense of accomplishment where they can.
"Everyone's made a noise so far," says Scaglione, observing one flock of raw clarinet potential, "so we're ahead of the game."
Tune Up Philly seeks donations of all kinds of musical instruments, including:
Violins, sizes quarter through full
Violas, sizes 12 inches through full
Cellos, sizes half through full
Assorted percussion instruments, including Orff instruments, buckets and drumsticks, and Boomwhackers (pitched plastic tubes).
Contact: Philadelphia Youth Orchestra at 215-545-0502, or Tune Up Philly: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact music critic Peter Dobrin
at 215-854-5611 or email@example.com. Read his blog at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/artswatch/