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Why learning to play music helps kids learn everything else better

After performing with a world-renowned orchestra, Stanford Thompson returned to Philadelphia to start Play on, Philly!, a free, afterschool music program for young children in under-resourced neighborhoods that helps them go back into the classroom and become better learners. Thompson gives his Brief but Spectacular take on how music can create harmony and opportunity.

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  • Stanford Thomson:

    I grew up in a musical household in Atlanta. And I have seven siblings. We all played music. My parents are both retired music educators.

    And we always had a rule in our house that you only ate on the days that you practiced.

    They taught me and my siblings growing up that we would have opportunities that they didn’t. And if we took advantage of them, then we could see ourselves on a path to become a professional musician.

    I was able to study with musicians with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and worked really hard to earn a spot at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. I was able to play the staples of the orchestral and chamber music repertoire with world-renowned conductors and musicians just about every week.

    I went back to Philadelphia in 2010 and founded “lay On, Philly!, which now serves over 300 students every day after school for three hours. We work in under-resourced neighborhoods, mainly in West Philadelphia.

    And each student is able to access our program tuition-free, and able to get access to get high-quality instruments and teachers on a daily basis.

    It might sound like that our aim is for these kids to become professional musicians. We really care most about them becoming really great people. Our kids are still performing a letter grade ahead in every academic subject.

    And we know it’s because we teach them to expand their memory, to control inhibition, to help them lengthen the amount of time that they can focus on something.

    These are skills that they learn the moment they begin to make music.

    Take a violinist. They have to figure on their left hand where to put their finger to create a certain pitch. Their right hand, of course, will then control how long they’re able to hold that note. They also have to look at the music and determine which note they are supposed to play, how loud, how fast or how slow.

    When you stimulate the brain like that for hours every single day, then that’s what helps to turn the clock on some of the damage that is done because of the amount of stress they live with and, of course, brain development.

    That’s really important, especially for younger kids, to make sure that they can go back into a classroom, focus for a longer period of time, be able to memorize the information, so they can go home and do the homework, and then recall it later at the end of the year on a standardized test.

    We all have the responsibility of providing the best instruments to the poorest kids, that we provide the best teachers to the most marginalized kids, and that we continue to provide the best musical opportunities for the most vulnerable kids.

    My name is Stanford Thompson. And this is my Brief But Spectacular take on how music can create harmony and opportunity.

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