West Philly: Music Education Improves Academic and Social Skills

A student prepared to show her teacher a piece she was working on.

With the $304 million deficit facing the Philadelphia School District this year, music education was among the first programs to get cut. However, one special after school program is encouraging students to play on.

Students eagerly ran to their after school music classes.
Students eagerly ran to their after school music classes.

Play On, Philly!, known as POP, was established in 2011 at St. Francis de Sales School and since then has expanded to a second location at Freire Charter Middle School. It is a music education program in which students in kindergarten through 8th grade learn an instrument and perform together in a full orchestra. While many talented students have come out of the program, the focus of POP is not on creating professional musicians.

“We really want them to learn the skills that they need to go forward in life so that they will be successful and stay in school and graduate school,” explained communications director Ilene Miller. “The study of music intensifies your executive functioning skills and those are a lot of the skills that you need to succeed, like short–term memory and inhibition control.”

There has been extensive research on the connection between the study of music and intelligence. While there are still no solid answers as to whether playing a musical instrument actually makes students smarter, musical training from a young age does have its benefits.

A student prepared to show her teacher a piece she was working on.
A student prepared to show her teacher a piece she was working on.

In fact, a recent study established that a significant relationship exists between long-term musical training during youth and development of cognitive skills. The findings indicated that adolescents who learned to play instruments had higher academic performance than their peers who had no music training. They also were observed to be more open and ambitious.

Play On, Philly! gives students, who would otherwise not have access, the opportunity to develop these skills. Their priority is to serve at–risk children in the city of Philadelphia. The 230 students enrolled in the program received full tuition scholarships. Funded by donors and partner organizations, they cover the cost of 10 to 15 instruction hours each week, an instrument and all of the supplies and maintenance for the instrument.

“In music it’s really mathematical and abstract, so they have these concepts that they have to figure out and put abstract ideas into sound,” said viola instructor and strings orchestra conductor Naomi Gonzalez.  “That in itself is a huge deal. That’s very powerful. When you’re in a situation where you cannot control anything else, you have music and you can control that.”

Members of the orchestra  to learned to play in harmony.
Members of the orchestra to learned to play in harmony.

The staff members, teachers and volunteers who make up the POP team are all dedicated to seeing social and academic growth in their students. Many students who have been through the program have demonstrated an improvement in their grades, ability to socialize with other students, and overall behavior.

Play on, Philly! will accept anyone who wants to enroll but with limited resources, there is currently a long waiting list. According to Fund Philly Schools,one in four public schools do not have a full time music teacher. Miller expressed the importance of making musical training accessible to Philadelphia youth, saying that it has the potential to change lives.

“You see these kids, who some of them have discipline problems, some of them don’t perform well in school, and then they come to POP and they just improve, and improve,” she said with a smile. “It’s just so rewarding, especially when you hear them perform at a concert and you just realize that these kids worked so hard.”

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