Posted November 29, 2017

Mending the music

Local musicians will perform Dec. 3 using damaged instruments as part of Temple’s Symphony for a Broken Orchestra, which seeks to repair more than 1,000 instruments for the School District of Philadelphia.

Hands holding a drum with a slit in it
Photography By: 
Betsy Manning
Composed by David Lang, 'Symphony for Broken Instruments' will be performed by a specially assembled orchestra of 400 musicians from the classical, contemporary, jazz, hip-hop and improvisational music communities of Philadelphia.

Studies show that early exposure to music can help children achieve academically. So when Temple Contemporary’s director Robert Blackson and assistant director Sarah Biemiller, happened upon a storehouse in South Philadelphia full of broken pianos from the Philadelphia School District, they were taken aback by the untapped potential.

That’s when the idea behind Temple’s Symphony for a Broken Orchestra was born: Temple Contemporary wanted to ensure access to music education for students attending already underfunded city public schools. This weekend, as part of the ongoing project, musicians from across the city will come together for a concert during which they’ll play the broken instruments.

“The concert will allow us to give the city an idea of the scope of the problem,” Blackson said.

He said funding for music classes in schools has dwindled in recent years. 

“Back in 2007, there was a budget of more than $1 million to support music education in the School District of Philadelphia,” Blackson explained. “Roll the clock forward about 10 years, and now the budget is at about $50,000 for music education in the entire school district.”

That means that often, instead of even small repairs being made, damaged school district instruments go into a closet, onto a shelf, into the school basement or to storehouses that Blackson calls “instrument graveyards,” where they are at risk for rotting into further disrepair.

But even in their state of disrepair, the broken instruments are full of potential.

With the help of Found Sound Nation, a nonprofit that works to bring music to inner city schools, volunteers from across Philadelphia played each broken instrument recovered by Temple Contemporary for the project. The sounds from the instruments were recorded and sent to Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang, who arranged the score for this weekend’s performance, titled Symphony for Broken Instruments.

The state of the instruments gave Lang an opportunity to find ways to make nontraditional music: Violins with no strings are played as a percussion, for example, and percussion instruments without drum heads are tapped with objects.

The broken orchestra’s symphony doesn’t end with the weekend performances: Next, Temple Contemporary, in collaboration with instrument repair professionals, will mend all of the fixable instruments and return them back to their rightful homes in Philadelphia public schools.

Symphony for a Broken Orchestra is a really cool project that I wanted to be a part of,” said Joshua Gittelman, Class of 2020, a music education major who volunteered to help record music played on the broken instruments. “Giving back to communities is one of the main reasons I want to teach.”

Get involved: Adopt an instrument to help pay for the cost of repair kits, which will be installed in every public school offering instrumental music classes to ensure any instruments broken in the future will be repaired.