Making Music Again

February 23, 2018
Broken instruments from Philadelphia's public schools are on display at Temple University.

A project to repair damaged instruments is bringing music back to public schools.

In December, 400 musicians, young and old, marched onto the stage of the 23rd Street Armory, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. One hauled out a cello with dangling strings. Another cradled a trumpet wrapped in duct tape. Others carried broken violins, flutes, and drums. They took their seats. Then they played music written specifically for broken instruments owned by the School District of Philadelphia.

The concert was part of a project called Symphony for a Broken Orchestra. The damaged instruments had been sitting unused in the city’s schools. “There was no money to fix them,” Robert Blackson told TFK. He is the director of exhibitions at Temple Contemporary. It’s an art gallery at Philadelphia’s Temple University. In March 2015, Blackson created Symphony for a Broken Orchestra to give the instruments a second chance at life.

“The goal is to get the entire city of Philadelphia to care about these broken instruments,” Blackson says. “With the money raised, we can repair [them all] and get them back into the schools, where they belong.”

Raising the Bar

Since Blackson began the project, his team at Temple Contemporary has collected more than 1,000 broken school instruments. Blackson worked with musicians and recording engineers to record people playing them. Instrument photos and audio clips are posted on the project’s website. Music lovers can look online to pick an instrument to sponsor.

So far, these efforts have raised more than $250,000. That’s enough to cover the cost of 800 repairs. “At this rate, we will have all of the instruments fixed up [for] the start of the school year in the fall,” Blackson says. In addition, Temple Contemporary will furnish schools with instrument repair kits. The kits will allow teachers to make basic repairs themselves.

But Symphony for a Broken Orchestra is restoring more than just instruments, says bass player Joseph Conyers. He is a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Conyers believes the project is highlighting the importance of school music programs. Funding for music education in Philadelphia dropped from $1.3 million in 2010 to $110,000 this year. “Repairing the instruments is the start of a conversation about the role music can play to help young people,” Conyers says.

Blackson hopes the project helps people see the broken instruments as opportunities rather than as problems. “Learning how to play music transforms us,” he says. “We hope that every child can be transformed through music.”

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