Annette John-Hall: All-city performance makes case for keeping music education in public schools

On their big day at the Kimmel Center , students perform in the All-Philadelphia High School Music Festival.
On their big day at the Kimmel Center , students perform in the All-Philadelphia High School Music Festival. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 09, 2012

The orchestra's overture swells into the opening notes of Leonard Bernstein's haunting standard "Somewhere" from the award-winning Broadway musical West Side Story. Soon the harmonies of the choir seamlessly fold in, and the cascade of sound seems to literally descend from the rafters of Verizon Hall.

It wasn't the Philadelphia Orchestra that gave goose bumps to a packed house Monday night. It was the All-Philadelphia High School Orchestra and Choir, which each year borrows the orchestra's Kimmel Center home to perform its High School Music Festival.

If your view of the city's public school students has less to do with achievement and more to do with violence, deprivation, and underperformance, just go to an all-city concert.

Talk about balancing your perspective. Hearing these kids will blow you away.

"This never ceases to amaze," says Paul Bryan, an associate dean at the Curtis Institute of Music who has conducted the concert band for five seasons. The festival "provides a wonderful opportunity for players in this area. . . . They've gone on to do great things."

But with the district suffering a $600 million hit last year and facing a deficit that could be anywhere from $140 million to $400 million this year, music education is in serious jeopardy of falling by the wayside.

"We've been able to retain music programs because it's something parents and students want," says Dennis W. Creedon, director of comprehensive arts education for the School District. "But this budget crisis is unlike anything we've ever experienced."

"There were 15 high schools involved in this year's concert. There used to be 30 to 35 schools in the 1970s. That's how far back music has taken a hit," says Philadelphia Orchestra percussionist Don Liuzzi, who conducts the all-city orchestra.

Truth is, music education has been slowly eroding since the 1960s.

Musical incubator

Used to be that public schools served as incubators for the city's vibrant and diverse musical institutions.

In 1944, Louis Wersen, then the district's director of music, arrived from Tacoma, Wash., and raised the level of music education in the schools. He saw to it that each region of the city had a music supervisor, and every middle school and high school an orchestra, complete with music teacher.

"That's why Philadelphia has never been a marching-band town," explains Creedon. "This has been an orchestra training center much like El Sistema," the Venezuelan children's orchestra considered a model for music education.

"Before El Sistema," he says, "there was Philadelphia."

But then came the '60s. Budget cuts forced reorganization, which meant a reduction in music teachers. By 1977, all 96 teachers were laid off. (Some were eventually rehired.)

While the district has worked to rebuild its programs, the all-city orchestra, choir, and band programs have continued, auditioning the best students from schools all over the city for its concerts.

"It's really nice because they get to fellowship with kids from other schools," says Pam Redmond, whose daughter Jordan, a sophomore at Girard Academic Music Program (GAMP), is a choir member. "I try to remind her that this is a privilege; not everybody gets to do this."

Redmond, who lauds arts schools like GAMP as living, breathing high school musicals, can't imagine the all-city programs drying up. Their lists of alumni read like a Who's Who of musical excellence, including: the late Anthony Gigliotti, principal clarinetist for the Philadelphia Orchestra; Jules Eskin, principal cellist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra; Metropolitan Opera bass Eric Owens; and Liuzzi.

Not to mention bassist Christian McBride and organist Joey DeFrancesco, two of jazz's biggest stars.

"Music brings joy," Creedon says, "and joy is why kids come to school."


Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or Ajohnhall@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Annettejh.

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