A life shaped by music from Day 1

Posted: December 06, 2011

When Inquirer music critic Peter Dobrin asked Play on, Philly! founder and Curtis graduate Stanford Thompson for a bit of biographical information about his childhood, family, and training, Thompson responded in a lengthy e-mail, which follows:

My parents are music educators. Father is a retired middle school band director (and Vietnam Vet) and my mother currently teaches middle school orchestra. Both taught/teach in Atlanta, with my father teaching in the worst neighborhoods in the city. Parents met at Indiana University where my mom was pursuing an MBA and my dad a masters in performance. My mom was very interested in Stanford's business school, didn't have the opportunity . . . Guess what I was named after? Her ambition to go to Stanford.

I grew up in a musical household. There was ALWAYS music playing, parents teaching lessons, or classical, jazz, or NPR playing on a radio. I have seven siblings; I am number 7 of the 8. We joke and say that half of us played jazz instruments (my dad is a professional sax player and we played sax, bass, drums, and trumpet) and the other four siblings played orchestral instruments: piano, violin, viola, and cello. However, only half of us took music seriously as a profession . . ..

The "jazz" side: My oldest brother, Marcus, went to the New School in NYC for jazz alto sax but died during his junior year in 2000; my next oldest brother, Eric, went to Curtis and studied bass with Hal [Harold Hall Robinson] and graduated in 2007, and my little sister, Donna, percussion, was a runner-up at Curtis and ended up at the Manhattan School.

We almost had three of us at Curtis in the same year. However, Eric went on to play in the Charlotte Symphony and Donna transferred to Spelman and is pursuing jazz vibes. She currently teaches in the El Sistema-inspired program in Atlanta, the Atlanta Music Project. (That program was started by my Abreu Fellow colleague and then-roommate Dantes Rameau). My other siblings have pursued other non-musical careers.

I grew up in Decatur, Ga., and started playing when I was eight. I wanted to play trombone, but my dad convinced me that my arms were too short and that I would need to wait. The trumpet was suppose to be a temporary step to the trombone, but I forgot to follow up with switching. When I was in my second year at Curtis, my dad admitted to only having an extra trumpet in his band closet and no more trombones. My dad was my first teacher; we practiced together every day for a half hour. We did long tones and music theory. He'd always tell me that I would thank him later for what I thought was boring and irrelevant at the time.

When I was 10, I started taking lessons with Gordon Vernick at Georgia State University and he pushed me hard, but very lovingly. He agreed to teach me for $10 a lesson and didn't complain when my family couldn't pay him. Dr. Vernick taught me to work hard and practice smart. After all, working with someone other than my dad was most desirable :).

When I was in the eighth grade, Chris Martin became principal of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and that's when I decided that I wanted a career in an orchestra. We talked a little about Curtis when I studied with him in high school, but it was always described at being my reach school and a place where the best of the best went. He would always compliment the sound of the Curtis strings and told me that's where prodigies were bred.

My senior year of high school, Chris was taking auditions and didn't have the time to be consistent, so I studied with the ASO second trumpeter, Joseph Walthall, who put the polish on me. He was tough. A perfectionist. Every note had to be articulated well, everything would be in time and in tune. If it wasn't for that year with him, I would not have had a shot at getting into Curtis. Chris left [the Philadelphia Orchestra] for Chicago Symphony the month I moved to Philly and I thought I was on my way to finally getting into a professional career.

However, the hook that kept me engaged in middle and high school were the ensembles I played in. By the time I graduated, I was playing in the youth orchestra, youth wind ensemble, youth brass quintet, and trumpet ensemble . . . which has provided the same inspiration (alongside El Sistema) to structure Play On, Philly! the way it is.

Ha - looks like reflecting on the past helps me to make sense of why I am doing what I am doing now, and why I was so compelled to choose a different path from many of my peers.

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