More Than the Sum of Our Parts

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

More Than the Sum of Our Parts

Helen Eaton, Chief Executive Officer, Settlement Music School, Philadelphia, PA


We start with the premise, “Get comfortable with the uncomfortable.” Collaboration is not a simple process – it is so much easier just to insulate your organization and do everything in exactly the way you would like. But then the larger purpose that so many of us are working towards – life-changing opportunities for young people that are made possible by equitable music education for all – will never be achieved.

The Philadelphia Music Alliance for Youth, or what we call “PMAY,” went for that larger purpose. PMAY is a consortium of 20 music education providers in Philadelphia who came together for the first time in 2012 in an effort to work collaboratively to best serve students in the region. We are not a separate 501c3. We have kept it simple. The 20 providers range from community music schools to El Sistema programs, youth performing organizations, major performing arts venues, conservatories, professional symphony orchestras and, very importantly, the School District of Philadelphia. We approach our work with youth in different ways, but we have created a shared common purpose. We are all part of a music education ecosystem in the city of Philadelphia that works.

I’m often asked how to get started with collaboration. My answer is always the same. Start with a project. It does not have to be complicated, but you need to learn to work together. Make sure you show up even when you have obligations at your own organization. Do not depend on funding. In-kind from organizations goes a long way. People who dedicate their lives to our field are very smart ad resourceful.

We have been able to accomplish a great deal with PMAY as a result of deep collaboration. What started as meetings to share best practices, and a joint festival celebrating youth engagement in music, led to a White Paper studying collective impact models around the country and laying forth ideas and strategies for developing a citywide music education system for all. Most recently, we are working together on a joint project to create shared professional development opportunities among both in-school and out-of-school time music teachers in the Philadelphia area. We are planning our first shared professional development day for January 2019 – the sessions will be developed by teachers, for teachers. We will be taking our first steps together in sharing what we all know is a limited resource – PD funds– and working towards the common goal of supporting our music teachers.

Simultaneously, a subset of ten PMAY organizations called the PMAY Artists’ Initiative started working together over two years ago through the generous support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Artists’ Initiative identifies and supports students grades 5-12 from underrepresented communities along their musical pathways, with the ultimate goal of their becoming professional classical musicians. We completed our first full year of the program with about 75 PMAY Artists, and more have joined this year.

What is so special about the Artists’ Initiative is that PMAY has put forward our belief that the best way we can address the lack of diversity in the American symphony orchestra and in the wider classical music profession is to work collaboratively. We are working to change the way the Philadelphia ecosystem operates, and we are doing this through the highest level of collaboration in identifying and developing music programs, resource sharing, and building student support systems for our PMAY Artists. Every day we challenge ourselves that through this collective work, we will change the way each organization operates, and the way we interact with one another, to create a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment that is fully supportive of these goals. We made a promise to one another never to do “business as usual,” and this is no small endeavor.

On a personal note, I have found working with my colleagues in PMAY to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. I have learned so much from my friends in the field, and my own organization has benefitted tremendously as a result.

The second question that inevitably comes up, after how to get started, is how we handle being “competitors.” And my answer is always the same here as well. My fellow PMAY organizations are not my competitors. I’m “in competition” with the lack of awareness that music education can be accessible and affordable for all families. It is our duty to work together across the city to make sure that this message is heard loud and clear.


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