Kristine Dizon: Hello, my name is Kristine Dizon and I'm the CEO and founder of The Modern Artist Project. Today, I'm with Stanford Thompson, a musician and educator who serves as the founder and executive director of Play on Philly and founding board chair of El Sistema USA and the National Instrumentalist Mentoring and Advancement Network. As a professional trumpeter, Stanford has performed as a soloist and member with major orchestras around the world and continues to perform throughout the Philadelphia region. Stanford is a native of Atlanta, Georgia, a graduate of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestras Talent Development Program, and holds degrees from the Curtis Institute of Music and the New England Conservatory Sistema fellows program. Thank you Stanford for joining us today.
Stanford Thompson: Thanks so much for having me.
KD: I know I talk about a lot of the things that you recently have done, but we'd like to learn more about your background and what inspired you to go on this path.
ST: I grew up in a musical family in Atlanta Georgia. My parents are both retired music educators and they had eight kids. I'm number seven out of eight. We all had to play a musical instrument at some point. So being one of the youngest, I was around a lot of music between my older siblings and of course, my parents and students that were coming over to the house for lessons, and of course the teaching that they were doing during the day, and performances they had on the weekend. I think from a very early age, I knew that I needed an instrument like a trumpet to be heard. I kind of threw out all the noise in our house. It was probably around the time I was 12 or 13 when went Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra came through Atlanta and to be there and to see him, I mean, first of all, performing at such a high level, but just having the audience kind of captivated the entire time, telling jokes, telling stories about the music that we were listening to. Being able to talk about the kind of the artistic qualities of what we were experiencing made a huge impression on someone who was an entrepreneur, definitely a businessman, but also an artist, musician, or a member of our global musical community.
Then from there I really got into high gear, and through the help of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Talent Development Program, I was able to get into Curtis, and I kind of took that entrepreneurial spirit with me throughout school that has led to this day.
KD: That’s really inspiring. I love the fact that it took one of those great players like Wynton, to be able to ignite that fire and that drive, and being able to see that it's not just about being a great musician, but also, being able to have these other aspects that seem to have shaped what you have done today with being able to give back to the community.
ST: Yes, and I think that was a huge impression, I mean he spent time with me, not only that visit, but other visits he made to Atlanta providing great mentorship, several hours in his dressing room, having lessons, encouragement, and all of that stuff. I just knew that someone as busy and as important as willing to make that time, and of course, we know the work, the education work that he does throughout the world when he travels. Things like that made a really big impression. To see that modeled by my parents, I was pretty sure that I would end up doing some of the work that I'm doing, I just had no idea it would blow up in terms of scale as much as it has over the years.
KD: No, I think it's amazing. Sometimes it's not always just knowing exactly what's going to happen, but just being able to allow those things to happen and manifest, and develop into these really amazing projects. So at what point, because you're a great musician, you're a great educator, you also do entrepreneurship, you also do so many things, what led you to actually, going from Curtis and being able to build on these projects?
ST: So for me, it all started in high school, a couple of buddies of mine, formed the Atlanta trumpet ensemble, and we started the Atlanta Trumpet Festival in residence at Emory University. That was really my first kind of venture into what it means to build relationships with all sorts of people from the university, to those students and adults that came to the trumpet festival, the guest artists, and the vendors that we had as part of it, raising money for the project, that type of thing. So by the time I went to Curtis, I kind of had this bug in me about bringing people together, and in Atlanta, it was about bringing together the trumpet community. First of all, I believe that there are people out there that enjoy playing the trumpet at all ages, not just professional players or those that are in school, but I'm thinking about all of the amateur trumpet players that came out of the woodwork over the years.
That's a festival that's still going on today, I think it's in its 19th or 20th year. Then being at Curtis, it was very similar to how to build a community around music. I've constantly thought about who's left out and how do we create something. So, I started a summer camp in Reading Pennsylvania about an hour and a half north of Philadelphia, and started a brass program for the all-city Philadelphia students that were in the band in the orchestra. So, I was constantly kind of thinking about how to share some of those great resources that I had at Curtis with students in Philadelphia, as I mentioned, or in Reading Pennsylvania, a place that really did not have a great summer program.
And through that I built experience, building a board and getting nonprofit status, and raising funds. We were just trying to raise about 12,000 for a camp in Reading or 3000 for a program in Philly. It was a really important practice so that when I started playing in Philly, there was some confidence to build upon. Also, some kind of basic skills of course had to be multiplied because then we had about a $300,000 budget, our first year for Play on Philly. So it was a really big leap from raising 12,000 or so to raising 300,000. I had some confidence and some good relationships to really help me.
KD: This is really great in regards to what you mentioned about community and the people left out because sometimes when you're busy performing, you're just wanting to get all the music learned, you want to be able to put out the best performance, but it's sometimes it's not just about those elements and I feel like, in a sense, it's like thinking about the people that we sometimes forget about. How can we reach out to those people? How were you able to get to those communities in regards to having that type of awareness?
ST: So, you just touched on a lot of really important things. I mean, first of all, being at a place like Curtis where everybody's in the practice room, that's what we're all focused on. It's really easy to miss how important developing relationships are, especially in college. You go give a performance and you have this old couple that wants to talk to you afterward to just say “good job,” and you're not thinking twice about, “Hey, maybe that couple could be very helpful for me four years from now when there's maybe a project I'm trying to get off the ground,” or “I'm getting ready for a big audition,” those types of things. You also mentioned this idea of building relationships and your question of how that all worked out. I mean in short at a place like Curtis and hanging around the crowds of people that support the Philadelphia orchestra, my colleagues that are performing and all sorts of orchestras around the world, let alone on the solo circuit; Thinking about those who went through Curtis, but also are building careers and many different types of fields.
I just thought it was really important for me to take time out every single week to connect and reconnect with people on a human level and build friendships and share in real-time. Sure I love playing trumpet, but I really enjoy doing community-centered work or I really like working with young people or I might want to create some type of nonprofit organization, and be a leader in a slightly different way, or I want to have a brass quintet and somebody in the group needs to step up as the leader of the group, tackling all of the administrative stuff and the business stuff and building relationships with venues and things like that. I'm glad that I had a much wider view of the world around me, outside of my practice room and those are the relationships that I relied on when I graduated and decided to go down a slightly different path. They're the same relationships that I'm relying on today.
For example, we're gonna have a big celebration in April and a couple of my buddies are playing Canadian brass. So it was very easy to contact my friends and say, “Hey, we have this big event in April, I know that you all don't tend to do a lot of these kinds of fundraising type events, but would you all come down and make some music with us.” So, those types of relationships, I'm glad that I've maintained over the years, not knowing that a couple of my buddies at Curtis or friends that I went to interlocking with in high school would someday become members of Canadian brass or you know, some of the big orchestras and soloists. So, those types of things are really, really important and since there is that personal relationship, it was much easier for the group to agree to do the performance.
KD: That's amazing, I love Canadian brass.
ST: We do allow that.
KD: No, that's really amazing. And I think, sometimes we forget when we think about this idea of establishing meaningful relationships. You can establish relationships here and there, whether those are in passing or whether those are, you know, temporary relationships, within a given period of time, it seems that you know with the path that you've taken has helped you in regards to creating experiences, for those communities. The people, you know in the back row who are coming to the concert for the first time and wanting to learn more about music. So, Stanford, could you tell us more about your work as an educator and how that's still very much a part of you with all the different activities that you have?
ST: Yeah, so I've always enjoyed working with and teaching musicians of all ages. I will certainly say that with the job responsibilities I have as executive director of Play on Philly, and some of the other projects that I run, I'm not in the classroom as much as I would like to be, and certainly not in the classroom as much as when play on Philly first started. I still certainly create the time throughout the year and in the summers to do the teaching. I will certainly say, there's my opinion, there's just no greater joy that I receive in music than helping other people experience music in their own way. I get more satisfaction out of that than performing in many ways. That whole idea of just seeing people tackle challenges, improve their skills, and in many cases go on and just enjoy being part of our larger musical community I think is really amazing. Even if they do not reach the highest musical levels that I'm used to being around, that I kind of grew up in, and of course was formally trained in college.
So it's always a big treat. I wish more of my colleagues that have reached the highest levels were in a position to dedicate more time to helping to uplift other people. I think helps people understand why what we do as musicians, it's very special and in some cases, kind of difficult to do. I think there's just no better way to help people understand that than through music education and they get a chance themselves to see how difficult it is to master a clarinet and to play that at a high level. I think that level of appreciation brings people closer to music and not in a passive way as just an audience member that can understand and enjoy what we do.
KD: I agree with you 200%. Because also too, I feel the same way in regards to some of my colleagues, some of my friends who do really amazing things and I'm just like, “Wow, you should share that with people, you should share that with communities,” being able to uplift people because when we think about the value of music and when we think about arts in general, sometimes people feel that, “oh it's just a hobby” or “oh it's not really a profession”, we kind of get some of that negative backlash. Whereas in actuality, for example with what you had mentioned, the highest level performers can also demonstrate and be able to share what turned them on, like discussing the possibilities of being able to say, even though you start from here, you can get here but it takes time, patience, discipline and things like that. I just agree with you, in regards to that, just because I also sometimes wish the same thing.
ST: Exactly, yep.
KD: So, in regards to the different projects that you do, for example with El Sistema, What inspired that from Play on Philly? Was there some connection? I'd love to hear more about that.
ST: Sure. So, with El Sistema and the National Instrumentalist Mentoring and Advancement Network, I've always looked at it as there are a lot of people, artists, and programs, that are all striving to achieve the same thing, the same goal. Both of these projects represent a collective approach to working together with similar programs across the country and finding ways to share best practices to also find national resources, and also build community. I just think it's, as you have heard before, the idea of how powerful it is to know that you're not working in the trenches all by yourself or your small team and whatever small town; that you are part of a wider collective. I think more importantly for the musicians that are engaged through these programs throughout the country, they also know that they are connected, the parents, their support networks, they also know that they are part of something much larger. Then I think another important thing is, at the end of the day, there is nothing more powerful than a person, like in my case that's leading a program that's going out to find resources, the work that begins in many ways, it ends there.
I do think that it is important for us to be able to take charge in building our own networks and in some cases not relying on the big legacy institutions to do that community building for us. There are plenty of conferences we can go to every year, but I do think there's something special that when you bring those practitioners together in a room, there's not a wider agenda that's connected to a larger legacy institution. I think that there's something really special that can come out of those conversations and new partnerships and new understandings of the work that's happening all over. Not in a way to say, “Hey, we do it this way in Philadelphia and everybody else should just listen to us,” but to actually say, “What are some of the common issues that we're working with, are the opportunities in front of us?,” How do we share that information with one another?”.
KD: This is really great because of the idea that sometimes music teachers or practitioners feel like “I'm on this island by myself,” and it's really great to be able to have that type of network. Have you noticed a difference within the community when people are able to communicate in a network with one another because of El Sistema USA?
ST: Yeah, so for example, with El Sistema, when we started, there probably were around 30 programs or so, over the past decade. An additional 100 programs have started around the country, and I think it has empowered a lot of people like myself who just want to make a difference in our backyard. What they have learned about and learned from others that have done exactly that, it gives them a lot of confidence to move forward and find the resources in their own backyard to also create a similar program. So certainly there, I've seen national evaluation projects. I've seen national funding come through to help support programs on a local basis because we decided to come together and create something really great, brand recognition and those types of things. I’ve certainly seen lots of benefits. It's a lot of work to do, especially on top of a very demanding local day job. I have learned so much in the process that ideas that I have taken back to Play on Philly, which has only made us better.
KD: That's really great, and you've been so resourceful. It's really difficult being able to find and research, but luckily we have the internet, right, in regards to being able to research those things. So throughout the process, it seems a lot of what you've done, being able to build organizations, building communities, building meaningful relationships with people in real-time, what did you do to gather these resources? Was it a lot of research involved? Did you have any assistance? Did you know, just really just ask questions, being proactive and things like that?
ST: So through the system, a fellows program at the New England Conservatory. That was a gift in terms of a full year of learning about the basics of nonprofit management. We also spent two months in Venezuela. We spent two additional months visiting programs around the country. I was able to intern in an El Sistema-inspired program in Chicago.
So that was very helpful in learning from those on the ground what they were experiencing. It was a great time to learn about the very basics of nonprofit management and what I might need. I certainly understand that not everybody has the opportunity to take a year of their life and really immerse themselves in those types of studies.
I have found that again within my small but mighty network of friends, that also have a lot of experience with raising funds and setting up programs, and developing local and regional relationships, I really reached out to a lot of those people who are very similar in my musical training. You have a private teacher, hopefully, who's good, who is helping to show you the ropes and what you need to work on. It's a lot of stuff to do. It's a lot of things to learn. I think that has been very effective over the years. It’s just realizing how I was trained musically and transferring those skills to people that have run organizations and those types of things. So, that's really been the way that I've kind of looked at this, and going back to a comment that I mentioned earlier, my life has been full of these people around me with all sorts of skill sets, lawyers that have helped us do all of our legal paperwork.
People that have a lot of experience with different communities, our neighborhoods, and communities throughout Philadelphia that has helped get us introduced to nonarts partners. Lots of people in the field of the arts and specifically music helped us connect to all other sorts of resources, guest artists, the list goes on and on. People even in my church community have helped in reaching out to everybody around me. That's just been very helpful in helping to support Play on Philly.,
KD: That's amazing. And I think, when we think about that thread, it's not just limited to a couple of people, but those people also have multiple threads. Being able to connect to even people that you may not have met yet, but who really are feeling connected to the project, to Play on Philly, and want to be involved. So what type of advice would you give be it nonprofit or for-profit organizations in regards to really emphasizing this aspect? I always feel that sometimes people say, “Okay,” with what you mentioned earlier, the legacy institution, being able to rely on that institution in regards to being able to build community or what people would maybe define as success.
ST: I think the simple part of it is to not isolate oneself and again, for those that are especially studying music, I definitely know the feeling, there are a lot of notes to learn. There are way too many rehearsals, and too many concerts, There's freelancing stuff, maybe you're teaching a couple of lessons. I mean there's just no time to squeeze in anything. I would say something very similar for those that might be struggling with their physical health, and mental health, making the time and the space for staying healthy is very similar to making the time to build those relationships. So one of my big strategies when I was in school, I had to eat at least two meals a day. So why not have those meals with friends and with those that are meeting at concerts? Or those that work on staff at Curtis? Those that are on faculty at Curtis? A Lot of times I found myself eating for free because they were willing to pick up the tab. But in those types of encounters, I was able to take care of my eating and also at the same time, start to develop some of these relationships with people.
I would certainly say carving the time out, not isolating oneself, and just practicing, and for those that do that, I really hope things work out in the future. I hope they win a big job and they can rely on that job and they don't need help or advice from anyone else. I certainly would not recommend it, even if one is going to go into and take these auditions. For example, the friends around you are the ones that might end up on the other side of the screen. It could be very helpful to have a relationship with these people that have been developed so that when it comes down to auditioning for the Chicago Symphony, or the Hartford Symphony, you can call somebody and get some advice to say, “Hey, can you listen to my excerpts or my list sometime so that you can give me some feedback?”. So I kind of look at it in a very similar way. A lot of times, colleagues regret not carving out more time to develop relationships much earlier, for those that are kind of daunted by it a little bit at a time. I would certainly say that with the work that I do now, I just have had a lot of practice with developing these relationships and letting people into my vulnerabilities as a leader, and asking for their help somehow to make my ideas and projects come to life.
KD: That's really amazing. And in the sense that it's intentional, it's not like “I'm just going to do this because it's good”, Right? But it's intentional in the sense that,” I want to be able to connect with people”, and I feel like in a sense with the pandemic, winding down and things coming up more performances. What have you noticed? Actually, I'm just curious in regards to Play on Philly, how that affected your organization, and how your organization was able to come back from that.
ST: Well, I would certainly say that because we have spent so many years developing relationships that when the pandemic came, the vast majority of our donors were there to support us. We could make sure that our staff would be unaffected, that the teaching artists would be unaffected, and that there were no cuts during this time. Although it was a really difficult thing for many of our students and families, as an organization, we were able to keep things together- Do the best that we could with virtual learning, virtual performances, to actually emerge from the pandemic in a really strong position. When those types of challenges hit, it certainly was the relationships that we fell back on.
I was just very glad about that. The thing that also was great is that a lot of people's portfolios were investment portfolios, so they're more generous. They were traveling much less and spending money on not as many things. So, that made them more generous these days now with this recession, and a lot of people losing jobs and things like that. Things have kind of slowed down a little bit. I'm glad that always in our better years, we have been really smart to build our cash reserves and things like that. I would just say that we have faced a lot of the same challenges as every organization. The thing that was different for us was the relationships that we could rely on.
KD: That's amazing. I think that a lot of people could really learn from that because of the fact that sometimes when we're so stressed out having to teach this lesson, being able to make sure to give that person everything, being able to freelance, being able to further education, we lose sight sometimes of the things that matter that are very simple when you think about it. People, why do we make music? It’s because we want to share with people, We want to be able to connect with people uh, in a meaningful way through sound. That's something that I think our listeners could definitely learn a lot from you in regards to being able to build those relationships now and in regards to the virtual learning aspect. Being able to adapt in a way that your students and the communities that you're serving weren't losing out on the experience. What did you do? Or how did you adapt to that?
ST: So for younger students, we knew that having them on a zoom screen, trying to play when they can barely tune their instrument, or they don't really have a lot of the technique needed to get the most out of learning in this type of environment, we took the approach that with our youngest kids, we're talking pre k through fourth grade or so, of kind of creating more of like a sesame street style type way to learn. A lot of us learned our alphabet and words and things like that through something like sesame street.
We knew that we could do something similar, reviewing lots of musical terms, exposing all of our musicians to much more music than we've ever been able to have, and guest artists to be able to connect with us instantly from all over the world. We completely kind of changed our approach, knowing that again, learning technique and all and of course ensemble playing is gonna be very difficult, if not impossible to do online. What can our students learn during that time? We were glad to put that together and then in terms of virtual performances, we had many more people that we were able to connect with through those performances.
But I think more importantly we were able to incorporate all different types of artistic disciplines in partnership with the music that our kids were making. So everything from the Hollywood squares that we saw of all the performances. We also collaborated with visual artists to have kids write music to what they were seeing. We even worked with some animators as well so that they could write more specific music to stories and things that they were sharing that other artists were responding to-with making animations, those types of things. So it really brought together what the kids were learning in terms of musical literacy, using their own creativity through composition, pairing that with partnerships with other artists for that to culminate in some type of virtual performance that just wasn't a bunch of squares on the screen for everything. I think it just really made it a much better experience for the students and then also those that were checking us out or checking out the virtual performances online.
KD: Yeah, and I feel like that also expands your community in regards to not just having it be something, that's just within the Philadelphia community, but being able to have the capacity to maybe reach out to different communities outside of Philadelphia.
ST: Yeah exactly.
KD: Amazing…Do you feel like this type of learning is here to stay?
ST: I mean for our program it relies a lot on the kids being in an ensemble setting, learning together, performing together. So for our particular model, virtual learning doesn't really translate as much. Of course, we were all very eager to get back into the classroom. However, we have lots of other friends that have gone on to continue to create virtual learning, that we encourage our students, who want to connect with it. We just felt that we don't need to spend our resources creating yet more online programming and the already super crowded marketplace of new online musical learning that has emerged.
KD: Yeah, when you think about the pandemic, the different things that people had to adapt to and in regards to, “Well what are we going to do now?”, type of thing, and it seems like, with what you've mentioned with Play on Philly, you guys did an amazing job in being able to adapt to it and making it work in your own way. So this is really great, now, what now we're gonna shift a little bit in regards to young professionals, and it seems that what I love about your background is that it's not only just with performance, but you also did a lot of things with entrepreneurship. Being able to create things, and that's something that I feel is really admirable now with young people graduating from universities, conservatories, colleges, and things like that. What type of advice would you give to those people in regard to being able to prepare themselves for the real world?
ST: Oh wow, I will say this, I thought I knew what the real world was until the pandemic hit. I did not have to experience the pandemic from the standpoint of a performing artist. However, I would say this, I think that this is a moment when we go back to normal performances and we're happy again. So really start thinking about what we would do as artists and what would we need for the next major disruption because, you know paying musicians as independent contractors, that doesn't work so well when there are no performances, and there's no money flowing. However, a lot of those organizations were receiving P. P. P. Loans, and other relief funds and not passing that money onto artists. So I would certainly kind of think about it like when I was leaving Curtis at the very end of the great recession, things were much different than a big disruption.
You know, the other thing is that over the past 15 years, what has happened with this kind of digital music, I mean it's absolutely crazy in my opinion that people are still producing CDs. I just don't even own a cd player anymore. But we all know what kind of distribution has looked like in a digital world where much less money is going to artists than before. So things are changing so rapidly that honestly, I might not be the best person, but I will go back to what I've mentioned before. The one thing that I think doesn't get old is the relationships that you have with people during these tough times. Or in really good times, are people that can still lift you up somehow. So I would certainly think a lot more about, “what that means for all of us in this space”, and what does that mean for the future of the music-making that we are all doing?
KD: Yeah, I think when we think about all of those things, the hard part with digital music is the fact that you have to have like X amount of listens in order to receive this royalty for the work that you've done. And, being able to find more creative ways to generate income, whether it's a single income, multiple incomes, and things like that, just because of the fact that I know the levels are increasing. People are playing really great and the competition can be fierce. For example, what would you tell someone in regards to, “Okay, well, your life doesn't have to be just in an orchestra, your life doesn't have to be just doing this”, but being able to encourage people, young people that there are possibilities, it's just a matter of being able to find something that works for you?
ST: Right? Yeah. So, one thing I do understand and really encourage, especially for younger musicians, we're talking serious middle school, and high schoolers, to develop some focus and learn how to work hard and practice and get as good as you can. I do think that is important, to go to the college level and think about even a performing career. Great, wonderful. My main thing is to keep all options kind of on the table, keep your eyes open, keep your ears open. One thing that I think it's really difficult to see is when there is a musician that really, really wants that gold star, that orchestra career, but they aren't quite competitive enough to get there and along the way between themselves and perhaps mentors in their life. No one really had an honest conversation with them, and I hate to see these people after college really rough it for two or three years, taking all sorts of odd jobs and trying to do auditions on top of that, and they just aren't at that, t really crazy level that you have to be at to try to secure a full-time job. So I would certainly say that I think it is important to keep just all options kind of on the table.
Gosh, I keep going back to this whole kind of building relationship part of it. I also want to recognize that, I think we all have unique challenges. I think there are many people that have many more privileges than others in this field. That there are some things that just don't work out the way that they should. Maybe that's my diplomatic way of saying that I wish there was more equity in our field in this regard. That it also hurts to see when some of these kinds of systemic problems keep well-deserved people out of certain types of musical opportunities. I would certainly say that as a field we have much more work to do in that regard. I hope that when we are at retirement age that the field around us is better for it. I would certainly say that keeping a very very wide lens and open eyes is very, very important.
KD: This is really great advice. I really think that it's going to help a lot of people and also to let people know that they're not alone. I think when we think about that struggle working multiple jobs, trying to do x, y, z on top of that, which is our passion, and being able to say, “Okay, well, you know, there are more possibilities out there.”
It's just a matter of being able to find them. So that said, I think we're gonna leave on that note, Stanford. I want to thank you so much for joining us today and for sharing your experience and thoughts with us. We look forward to seeing the amazing things that you continue to do for our community.
ST: Thanks so much for having me. I really enjoyed it.
Kristine Dizon is a multi-faceted performer, teacher, writer, author, linguist, and entrepreneur. She is Founder & CEO of the Music & Language Learning Center, The Modern Artist Project and co-founder of the Gran Canaria International Clarinet Festival and American Single Reed Summit. She is an artist for Uebel Clarinets and Silverstein Works. Learn more at www.kristinedizon.com.