Why you should care about Beethoven: A talented trumpeter makes his case

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Stanford Thompson, a trumpeter from Atlanta and graduate of the Sistema Fellows Program, sees music as a powerful tool for social development. Photo: Anna Wu

By Stanford Thompson, Sistema Fellow, Class of 2010

The Sistema Fellows Program, inspired by the world-famous Venezuelan musician and 2009 TED Prize winner Jose Abreu, recently graduated its last class of Fellows in May. Housed at the New England Conservatory, the training program was designed to equip 50 young musicians to create El Sistema-inspired youth orchestra programs in their communities. Stanford Thompson, a graduate of the first class of Fellows, is featured in the documentary “Crescendo! The Power of Music,”  produced by Jamie Bernstein and Elizabeth Kling, slated for release later this year. Stanford shares his inspiring story below.

Five years ago today, I decided to put a performing career on hold to chase something that I’d grown more passionate about. After spending more than 15 years of my life honing my craft as an orchestral and jazz trumpeter, the sudden change of heart in my final year of college left me devastated and in serious doubt. The doubt was not about my ability to continue to rise to the top of my field, but I was losing faith in the ability of my colleagues and major arts organizations to do more to make the art form accessible to children from disenfranchised communities.

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After his Sistema fellowship, Thompson launched Play On, Philly!, an innovative education and social initiative that provides opportunities for personal development to children through the study of music. Photo: Albert Yee

For decades, I’d been provided access to our art form at a premium. I paid that premium with the support of my family, mentors, and supporters since I began studying trumpet at the age of eight. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia with seven siblings and parents who are public music educators. Since I was the second-to-youngest, I needed a way to make people notice me, so I am sure that’s what attracted me to the sound of the trumpet.

Over the next ten years, I had a private lesson each week, paid tens of thousands of dollars in tuition for summer programs and local youth ensembles, and thousands more on instruments, music, and supplies. My parents were extremely resourceful in finding scholarships to help me along the path in becoming a professional musician. However, I would soon learn that my experience was the exception, not the norm. As I quickly climbed the ranks of youth ensembles in Atlanta, the top groups had very little people of color. Most times, my family members consisted of the only black people in the ensembles.

By the time I entered college, I had performed in a half dozen countries in Europe and Asia, appeared in a major motion film [Drumline] performed as a soloist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, a major American symphony orchestra, and collaborated with world-class musicians in just about every musical context imaginable. These accomplishments weren’t because I paid the monetary premium, but were rewards for my hard work, support from my family and guidance from many mentors along the way. The hard work and sacrifices from my family paid off as I found myself at one of the top music conservatories in the world, The Curtis Institute of Music, with all expenses paid.

Enrollment at Curtis is limited to approximately 165 students, all of whom receive merit-based full tuition scholarships. When I arrived at Curtis, I was walking in the shadow of colleagues who were winning major competitions and jobs in the world’s leading orchestras before they finished their degree. The place was crawling with prodigies and I was determined to be among that crowd by the time I left.

A sixth grade student in a rough middle school in Philadelphia made me question everything I was doing when he interrupted a presentation I was giving on instrumental music, as part of Curtis’s outreach efforts. He asked me: “why the Hell should I care about Beethoven?” The question not only threw me off balance, but it seemed to haunt me for many years to come. Really, why should he, or anyone else, truly care about classical music?

When Jose Antonio Abreu won the TED Prize in 2009, I was months away from graduating and found myself following the path that was expected of me. I was being considered for a major orchestra in Asia and was juggling which graduate school to attend. I was following the crowd so to speak. A good friend and mentor sent me Dr. Abreu’s TED Talk and I finally found the answer to the question that had been haunting me for years.

The next morning, I turned down all of my future employment and educational opportunities. I knew the answer would not be found along the path everyone else was taking, but on a new path that was emerging through the fulfillment of Dr. Abreu’s wish. I wanted to be part of it somehow and I put everything on the line. I applied and was selected to be part of the inaugural class of Abreu Fellows at the New England Conservatory.

[This early version of the film's trailer tracks a handful of kids exploring music in an impoverished community in West Philadelphia. Since then, the film - now entitled "Crescendo! The Power of Music" has expanded to include a second program in Harlem, NYC]

For the first time, I found myself in a room with people who had the same burning desire inside to figure out how our art form could be a powerful tool for social development. I was the youngest at the age of 22 and the oldest was twice my age. What I lacked in practical experience, I made up for in passion and drive.

We covered everything that year: non-profit management, pedagogy, a two-month tour of El Sistema in Venezuela, six weeks of visiting similar programs in the United States, updating the TED community at the 2010 conference, and serving as ambassadors at conferences and in the media. I can’t say that I was an expert upon graduating the fellowship, but I left with deep understanding of the task ahead, lasting friendships and the fortitude to press forward.

Launching an El Sistema inspired program in Philadelphia was no easy task. Raising seed money, building trusting partnerships, navigating complicated relationships with stakeholders, and delivering a product to a community that had very little connection to classical music presented tremendous challenges. However, we slowly built a great team of supporters, board members, staff, and teachers who all helped in delivering an unparalleled education program to the most vulnerable youth in our city.

So as I look back at the decision I made five years ago, I knew I wanted to be part of the big picture that Dr. Abreu painted for the US as he delivered his remarks to the TED community. The decision I needed to make was so clear that day and I haven’t looked back since. As the Chairman of The Curtis Institute of Music’s Alumni Council, I celebrate the accomplishments of all of my colleagues. As Chairman of El Sistema USA, I am honored to help support the work of over 50 El Sistema inspired initiatives throughout the country. As the Founder and Artistic Director of Play On, Philly!, I am humbled to work with the most amazing children our city has to offer.

The words Dr. Abreu shared with me during the fellowship will always stick with me for the rest of my life: “Culture for the poor should not be a poor culture”. It is our responsibility to provide our communities with the opportunities our children need to face their daily challenges and I am determined to blaze a path for the generations to follow.

Coming full circle, if I could go back and answer that sixth grader knowing what I know now, I would challenge him to come hang out with me each afternoon at Play On, Philly! and he would figure out for himself why Beethoven matters so much.

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Thompson, who started playing the trumpet at the age of eight, is “determined to blaze a path for the generations to follow.” Photo: Steven Krull

Watch Jose Abreu’s TED Talk »

Read more about the US Sistema Fellowship program »

Read more about TED Prize-winning wishes »