How To Build an Orchestra From Broken Instruments

Monday, 04 December 2017, 03:32:48 AM. The collection of misfit horns and damaged violins being played to draw attention to shortages in public funding for arts education

Orchestras began tuning to the oboe, in part, because its sound was more penetrating in a performance setting than gut strings. There were also fewer oboes than violins, and in the earliest orchestras, maybe just one or two, making it the right instrument to sort out a dispute over pitch in the violin section.

At a symphony-orchestra performance in Philadelphia this weekend, there may not be many strings to tune. And possibly not a single oboe up to the task. Few of the 400 or so brass, woodwind, percussion, and string players involved in the performance will be handling instruments even close to working order.

In fact, to prepare for Symphony for a Broken Orchestra, a new composition debuting at the 23rd Street Armory in Philadelphia on Sunday, many of the city’s best professional musicians had to relearn how to play their instruments from scratch. Performing side by side with students, the pros will be playing the disused and discarded instruments—trumpets missing valves, cellos missing strings, clarinets missing mouthpieces—that Philadelphia’s public schools have had to make do with for years.

This rag-tag orchestra is the work of Temple Contemporary, an adjunct of the Tyler School of Art that puts on socially relevant contemporary art projects across the city. The performances on Sunday are only one prong of the program: Temple Contemporary has launched a campaign to rescue every broken-down student instrument in Philadelphia and restore them to their schools.

“All of the schools across the district had been storing instruments in cupboards or basements instruments that over time had been broken but the district had no money to fix,” says Robert Blackson, director of Temple Contemporary. “The teachers had all hoped that one day, their ship would come in, the budget would be released and they could start getting the money together to repair those instruments, but it just hadn’t come.”

Blackson first started thinking about the problem, and the performance, after Philadelphia closed 23 public schools in 2013. He got a tour of one school where administrators were consolidating all the leftover things being cleared out of the others, including a room filled with broken instruments—a heaping, almost sculptural pile of art potential. Blackson started working with Frank Machos, the arts director of the School District of Philadelphia, to compile a list of every neglected horn, woodwind, stringed instrument, and piece of percussion in the school system. Minus the ones that were utterly unsalvageable, the spreadsheet numbered more than 1,000 objects: trombones with bent slides, saxophones stripped of cork, violas missing tuning pegs.

The drop-off center for Symphony for a Broken Orchestra at Temple Contemporary. (Haley Adair/Symphony for a Broken Orchestra/Temple Contemporary)

“There’s very few things like flugelhorns or bassoons or oboes or bass clarinets,” Blackson says of his stockpile, which came under his stewardship in September 2016. “I think that’s just how kids’ heads work. There’s signature instruments we all recognize”—namely violins and clarinets. “The other ones, there aren’t as many of them.”

This fall, Temple Contemporary started an online effort to ask people to adopt a Philadelphia public-school instrument. Each instrument gets its own profile page, designed to tug at the heartstrings of any former band geek. (Flute #1027: “This flute comes from Moffet Elementary. It leaks and needs a new case before it can be played again.”) Donors can make contributions from $50 to $200 toward the rehabilitation of the misfit horn that calls to them (and see their names printed on tags for the instrument’s case). With charitable support and a grant from the Barra Foundation, Temple Contemporary will send the instruments to three music-repair shops around Pennsylvania. Another grant from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage will pay for the performance.

“I’m a musician because of the public school system in Los Angeles,” says David Lang, the Yale School of Music professor who composed the original piece for Symphony for a Broken Orchestra. “I’m completely a product of the public schools. So when [Blackson] told me he had access to these 1,000 instruments, my first thought was that each one of those instruments was an opportunity to change the life of a student that wasn’t going to happen.”

The adoption site features snippets of audio recording of each instrument being played by a professional, which gives some hint of the calamity to come in Symphony for a Broken Orchestra. Clarinet #727, for example, is really only the lower half of a woodwind; it’s missing so many parts that it cannot be played. The recording features someone clicking its damaged pads and bent keys. Lang, who is also the co-founder and the co–artistic director of the new music ensemble Bang on a Can, says that he wrote Symphony with a mind to the fact that some sections would need to interpret their parts to the best of their ability.  

When the group assembles under the conductor Jayce Ogren on Sunday, the students will have a leg up. The youngest orchestra members will be playing the instruments in the best condition, while professional Philadelphia musicians will be stuck with the Violin #240s and Alto Sax #225s of the group. Symphony is a chance for students to learn about new music, a mentorship opportunity in noise. It’s also a moment for musicians of all stripes to come together and share in the lifelong frustration that is dealing with gear.

In Philadelphia and elsewhere, private or nonprofit organizations are stepping forward to try to fill the gulf of public funding for arts education. Project 440—named after the 440 Hz pitch to which an orchestra tunes—is devoted to boosting early music participation in underrepresented communities in Philadelphia. Orchestras look nothing like the cities where they play: Fewer than 5 percent of symphony-orchestra ensemble players are African American or Latino. Project 440 joined up with nine other area arts organizations to form the Philadelphia Music Alliance for Youth, whose goal is to shepherd a class of 75 young musicians, providing resources and instruction from 4th through 11th grade, in the hopes of building a more diverse next generation of classical musicians.

Symphony for a Broken Orchestra aims to eventually return flutes and cellos to their proud service in John Philips Sousa marching-band routines and Star Wars orchestral medleys. But for the debut performance on Sunday, splintered strings and woodwinds will serve a higher calling. The piece repurchases the dreams that these instruments represent for children, whether it’s performing Mozart with a chamber ensemble or wailing on a tenor sax. Making new art is the best redemption imaginable for a broken instrument.

“One way to look at [broken instruments] is they’ve had their way to play as Western music destroyed,” Lang says. “It doesn’t mean these instruments are completely incapable of making sound. Or even making beautiful sound.”

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