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Supporting the Young Artist’s Initiative
Michael Pechter, Director of Play On Philly’s POP Emerging Artist Collective (PEAC)
This fall marks the second year of an exciting new talent development program at Play On Philly! Our Emerging Artist Collective (PEAC) is a cohort of nearly twenty students who have demonstrated the utmost dedication and whose families have demonstrated the devotion needed for success. Unlike all other Play On Philly students, those in PEAC receive private lessons and advocacy as they navigate Philadelphia’s musical landscape. As director of this program, I work to show them that a life playing music and immersed in music is a true possibility for them.
PEAC began as an extension of the Philadelphia Music Alliance for Youth (PMAY) and its Artists’ Initiative, which was showcased in a recent edition of The Ensemble. PMAY began when an intrepid consortium of organizations in Philadelphia, having been like neighbors for years, finally invited one another over for dinner. In this convening, we identified the city’s most musically promising students who lack equitable access to music education, almost all of them young people of color. We created a rigorous curriculum and assembled a team of dedicated advocates, each assigned to a cohort of students.
On top of this, Play On Philly (POP) has been able to expand upon the very purpose of the Artists’ Initiative. Most of our students are too young to make concrete decisions about their future. While some of them may want to play professionally, others may want to write or teach. But the Artists’ Initiative is for aspiring performers only. PEAC, with its broader purpose, has made room for these students.
What distinguishes PEAC from other, similar talent development programs across the country? For one, we focus on very young students as well as older ones. When I joined POP over five years ago, I taught kindergarteners to be one singing-and-stomping unit. Now I serve as advocate for students as young as eight years old and as old as seventeen. Of course, inspiring pioneers like the Sphinx Organization and the Talent Development Program in Atlanta have been working with black and Latinx students for years, but never with such a young cohort. And, to my knowledge, no other organization started students in a talent development track from the very beginning.
Further, PEAC is a part of the greater POP ecosystem, which exposes students to alternative engagements with music. At POP, we have recording classes, guitar, ukulele and New Orleans brass ensembles, and classes in music philosophy. One of our most successful classes, “Identity, Power and Music,” invites students to scrutinize the history of classical music, using the lens of race to expose the tensions and contradictions of the past and present. I believe that allowing for paths besides classical performance will bring about a richer community, both in POP and beyond.
As for advocacy, a memorable success came last year, after a Philadelphia Orchestra concert. Standing outside a guarded backstage door, I waited with a young bass student to meet his hero, the assistant principal bassist, one of the few black members of the orchestra. I assured the guard that we’d been given permission, but he refused to let us in. Finally, after a few frantic texts, I got us through to the backstage meeting, where the student was so dumbstruck he forgot to smile for the photo. This is an essential purpose of advocates: to use our influence to get students to places they’d otherwise find closed off.
For a young student, such a meeting can be electrifying. This young bass student may decide to pursue a performance career, but he may also decide to discover his own path, one that he creates and chooses for himself. In either case, to have met a consummate music professional who looks like him makes each of these paths seem achievable.
So what is the point of PEAC? Is its purpose to populate the American symphony orchestra with black and brown performers, thereby attracting black and brown audiences? Maybe. Is it a degree removed, bringing black and brown music teachers to classrooms and starting to roll a snowball of equity down a thus-far unreachable hill? Maybe. I think PEAC is about justice, and love, and hope. It’s about hoping that the love of music these children discover can mature. That these children are nurtured as they navigate their way to a life they’ve chosen. So that if they choose, they, too, can think and work surrounded by music in the halls, and in their hearts.