Stanford Thompson: Creating Social Harmony
By his example, he’s helping the under-served through the power of music.
Change the Tune
For Stanford Thompson, music is more than notes and pitches. He believes, like many others, that music can heal broken communities, uplift downtrodden children, and make Philadelphia a better place. Unlike others, Thompson is a world-renowned trumpet player who uses his musical talent for social justice initiatives. His art is undeniable, he’s performed solos with Ocean City Pops Orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and the North Springs Philharmonic, and traveled as far China, Czech Republic, Germany, Kenya, and Austria playing his tunes.
But to Thompson, the sweetest sound doesn’t come from his trumpet, it comes from helping those in need. His organization, Play On Philly, pairs world-class musicians with students who are struggling academically due to life circumstances. He shares his results about the life-changing effects of music and remains committed to the arts through his many leadership positions on the board of the Marian Anderson Award, American Composers Forum, and the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. Due to his commitment to social justice through music, Thompson is known internationally not just for his skills, but for the many people he’s helped.
Thompson was born and raised in Decatur, Georgia. Music is in his blood, and classical music played a big role in his life. As the seventh of eight children, he understood the importance of individuality. And at the early age of eight, Thompson gravitated towards the trumpet. By thirteen, he began to take it seriously and by high school, he was performing as a professional musician.
His skill allowed him to become a member of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Talent Development Program, Atlanta Youth Symphony Orchestras, and Atlanta Youth Wind Symphony. His passion for music followed him to college, and he went on to receive a Bachelor of Music from the Curtis Institute of Music in 2009 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
He’s played with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, the Curtis Symphony Orchestra, and the Lancaster Symphony Orchestra. He also founded and ran the Reading Summer Music Institute and Philadelphia All-City Brass Symposium, a two-week brass music program for students in the Philadelphia School District with the assistance of his alma mater.
“I’ve always liked bringing people together for the sake of the arts,” he says. “It brings me joy to see music change lives.” As a regularly speaker of TED, League of American Orchestras, and El Sistema USA, he believes orchestras can teach us lessons in leadership, diversity, and inclusion.
Thompson’s music has taken him as far as Kenya, where he was responsible for the Town of Meru’s first music program. Responsible for more than 250 students for three months of music instruction was a challenge, he says. “You see how quickly music can become its own language when you have to teach students who don’t share the same culture as you.”
Meru is a very poor town and most of the students Thompson worked with were the first in their families to receive secondary education. After the students graduated from the program, two-thirds were referred for higher education.
Upon his return to the United States, Thompson was accepted to the Sistema Fellows Program at the New England Conservatory to explore a career in education and arts leadership. Here, he learned about the Venezuelan El-Sistema program, which gave free music instruction to over 700,000 Venezuelans in order to improve their education outcomes. This would serve as a model for his non-profit, Play On Philly.
Play On Philly
As a professional trumpet player, Thompson understood the role of music in his life and how it taught him hard work, goal setting, practice, and the pursuit of excellence. He wanted to instill these values in under-served communities throughout Philadelphia. In 2011, with the creation of Play On Philly, Thompson planned to achieve social justice through music using the El-Sistema philosophy of tuition-free music instruction, which asked for a small buy-in, a partnership with musicians, and loaning out instruments.
Play On Philly offers two-and-a half hours of music instruction daily to Philadelphia students at 4 locations, Monday through Friday. The program also requires students to perform throughout the community, totaling about 400 hours of music education each year.
The organization has certainly grown from its humble beginnings. It started at a Catholic school with 110 students, the next year, it expanded to another school, bringing its reach to 250 students throughout Philadelphia. By 2015, Play On Philly was available to high school students. Today, the program continues to grow thanks to over $13 million raised by POP through special events like an Evening of Harmony, which includes special guests, sponsors, and a performance by the Play On Philly Symphony Orchestra.