Philly’s $2.5 million youth effort to diversify classical music training

The Philadelphia Music Alliance for Youth is about to announce its first set of young scholars.

Cassie Owens, Reporter/Curator

In 2014, 88 percent of musicians, 84 percent of conductors and 92 percent of board members were white, according to the League of American Orchestras. The Philadelphia Music Alliance for Youth wants to fix that.

Making classical music more diverse is the goal and today, the alliance — a local consortium of groups focused on offering resources for music education — will welcome its first cohort of scholars set to receive a collection of educational services well through high school. The City Hall announcement will feature remarks from Mayor Jim Kenney, as well as performances from young musicians in the inaugural class.

The first group will include 75 fifth- through 12th-graders from 10 partner organizations. The member orgs recruited students, who then had to pass an audition process. All scholars will hail from the Philadelphia area. Adam Johnston, director of strategic initiatives at Settlement Music School, said that 65 students have been picked for the program so far, with another 10 in the final stages of the selection process. Settlement, an all-ages community music academy with branches around the city, is one of the 10 partner institutions forming the alliance.

Johnston said the partnership is one of the program’s key selling points. “The kids that are most successful are the ones who have experience with not just one organization, but the whole ecosystem,” he said.

Here are the 10 participating organizations:

  • Philadelphia Youth Orchestra
  • School District of Philadelphia Office of Music Education
  • Musicopia
  • The Primavera Fund
  • Settlement Music School
  • Play On, Philly!
  • Philadelphia Sinfonia
  • The Philadelphia Orchestra,
  • Project 440
  • Temple University Music Preparatory Division

Each scholar will receive a personalized education plan to identify the areas of support needed, whether it be private lessons or guidance specializing in a particular sub-genre. Students will receive workshops to prepare them for auditions, assistance for attending music camps in the summer and meetings with their parents on career development. The idea is that children from underrepresented communities may lack the social capital to better navigate the field.

“I’m a first-generation classical musician. I think many of these kids are first-generation,” said Najib Wong, a manager of the initiative, who acquired his skills through similar music preparatory programs. “They don’t have support where they are and we’re trying to build that around them.”

The Philadelphia Music Alliance for Youth will be mentoring students through a $2.5-million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Inside Philanthropy called the gift “unprecedented” in February: “Overnight, the grantmaker has become one of the preeminent funders of the city’s music organizations.” Mellon is backing a number of arts-based diversity efforts around the country.

Settlement CEO Helen Eaton called the gift unique for an American city. She’s excited about what the academy will be able to implement through the program. With collaboration across their consortium of organizations, Eaton said she believes they’ll be able to make a “much more sustainable change to the issue of diversity.”

Johnston said they hope to grow the cohort further in coming years, starting with another 15 students in 2018.