Broken instruments echo the soul of a city

2 minute read
'Broken Orchestra' helps Philly's suffering music-education programs. (Image courtesy of Topic.)
'Broken Orchestra' helps Philly's suffering music-education programs. (Image courtesy of Topic.)

Have you ever tried to play a piano with sticky keys? Or a saxophone with missing pads?

Multiply that frustration by a thousand and you’ll have an idea of the effect of deferred maintenance on children enrolled in the music-education programs in many of Philadelphia’s public schools.

Taking full measures

“Music is literally the soul of this city,” says Joseph Conyers, acting associate principal bass with the Philadelphia Orchestra, in the new short documentary Broken Orchestra. “We’re sometimes seen as the underdog. But Philadelphia has a lot to offer.” But what it has to offer isn’t always money. When budgets are cut, as they often are in school systems, music is one of the first programs to go.

Rather than accept the inevitable, however, educators and students are taking creative paths to keep music in the schools. One of these paths is documented in a 12-minute film directed by Charlie Tyrell, an up-and-coming Canadian filmmaker. His latest creation celebrates a successful attempt to make musical lemonade when the budget office hands you fiscal lemons.

See the film online.

Amplifying the message

An energetic collage of vivid interviews, school images, and musical snippets, the film focuses on the performance of a new musical work, Symphony for a Broken Orchestra, composed exclusively for this project by Pulitzer-Prize-winning composer David Lang (The Little Match Girl Passion). In a citywide initiative led by Temple Contemporary, the unique composition, played by instruments before they were repaired, debuted in December 2017 to a large, enthusiastic audience. The fundraiser generated donations sufficient to repair hundreds of broken instruments and to restore them to the classroom for the enjoyment and education of children by the fall of 2018.

What will be the long-term effect of this and similar projects? For the composer, the situation is urgent: “I look at music as one of the last opportunities we have to save society,” he says. But audience member Ikru Salmon is optimistic: “Whatever is broken,” he says at the end of the film, “you can fix it.”

Broken Orchestra, directed by Charlie Tyrell in collaboration with Symphony for a Broken Orchestra, David Lang, and Temple Contemporary, is available for viewing online. For more information on Symphony for a Broken Orchestra, visit their website.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation