88 keys to bringing music back to Philly schools

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Jazz pianist and singer Tony DeSare serenaded a small crowd in front of the Sounds of Philadelphia Mural in South Philly on Wednesday to launch a new School District campaign to innovate music education in city schools.

The free performance at the Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s Pop-Up Garden at Ninth and Wharton Streets kicked off Keys for Philly Kids, the fundraising arm of a new District initiative that seeks to bring music programs into schools that lack them and take a more modern approach to music classes, beyond band, orchestra, and chorus.

“The Keys for Philly Kids campaign will help us move our music programs into the 21st century with a major focus on engaging the 80 percent of kids that don’t traditionally enroll in an instrumental music program,” said Frank Machos, the District’s director of music education.

South Philadelphia High School will serve as the location of the pilot program, which Machos said would "serve as a scalable, replicable model throughout high schools across the District."

“As a large, comprehensive, neighborhood high school, [the school] provides all of the challenges facing successful implementation of urban music education programs," he said.

For a school that has produced well-known musicians like Marian Anderson and Chubby Checker and can tout 13 alumni as sitting members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the absence of a music program has been especially painful.

“We were hurt more by this because of all of the icons we had produced," said Marc Adelman, archive chair of the South Philadelphia High School Alumni Association. “It’s only just, right, fair, and appropriate that the launch of a reinstituted music curriculum begin with the ‘School of the Stars.’"

Students there arrived on the first day of school to a reinstated music program with instruments on loan from Yamaha and Jacobs music. Machos said an introductory music course was added to the 9th-grade curriculum. Electives based on growing careers in the music industry, such as therapy, education, and production, could follow.

The campaign would rely on “microphilanthropy, benefit concerts and other mechanisms” to help raise the more than $3.5 million needed to innovate music education at schools, said Machos.

The money will go toward buying traditional, as well as modern instruments, and sustaining future programming. A partnership has also been formed with the Philly Pops orchestra to supplement District music programs.

In a move that is part promotion and part public art, Keys for Philly Kids will be working with local communities to create street exhibits by taking outdated pianos from schools that receive upgrades and placing them in city streets for the public to interact with them. The street pianos, which will be technologically enhanced, will illustrate the power of bringing music back into Philadelphia neighborhoods and raise awareness of the District’s goal to keep it there.

Starting small at South Philadelphia High School, the music education innovation strategy seeks to find a permanent solution to the need for growth and innovation in music education in the face of the continued budget deficit.

"It’s going to awaken the community to a sense of pride,” Adelman said. “It’s going to help the community realize the potential of their children.”

Brianna Spause is an intern at the Notebook.