Play On Philly (POP) provides underserved children in Philadelphia a transformative music education experience that develops and inspires the behaviors needed for a successful life. It was modeled after Venezuela’s hugely successful El Sistema program founded by Maestro José Antonio Abreu. It seems fortuitous that when Andrés González, who was trained in Venezuela’s El Sistema program for more than 20 years, moved to the United States, POP was looking for a new Music Director. “POP’s mission mirrored El Sistema’s advocacy for social justice, and when I became part of POP’s community, it felt like an extension of my work in Venezuela,” González says. “I always say that this is a life mission for me.”
POP’s program team and teaching artists are committed to cultivating musical excellence, lifelong skills and confidence. Partnering with Philadelphia schools, POP creates on-site music centers where students receive eight hours of intensive music education and ensemble practice every week after school. Now in its 12th year, POP serves more than 350 students through its pre-K-12 programs at five music centers, as well as through the POP summer program at Temple University. POP also supports young musicians in their musical studies through the Marian Anderson Young Artist Program.
After the pandemic, González saw an opportunity to change POP’s program structure. “I wanted to provide younger students with similar experiences that I had when I was their age: To play music in a large children’s orchestra and feel empowered and supported by your community of peers,” he says. “Before, K-12 students at different music centers didn’t interact too often. With the POP Children’s Orchestra, our students come together as a community and play together.”
Older students in the orchestra serve as section leaders and mentor younger students, and each instrumental part is leveled, allowing students of all ages and experience levels to play together while being challenged in meaningful ways.
In addition to finding opportunities for area children to play music, González strongly advocates for students to work with composers and performers, and through POP’s collaboration with local and national arts organizations, he’s able to create relationships with composers and musicians. “We partner with artists and organizations that hold similar values to us and are committed to giving our students high-quality instruction and experiences,” González says. “We’re in constant communication with partner organizations, composers and renowned soloists to find different kinds of collaborative projects and performances to bring together our curricular goals, recognition of our students in Philadelphia and beyond, and high expectations of artistry and musicianship.”
González shares his world view with his students. “I come from a family and a country with nearly no orchestral and classical music traditions. I know that community-based programs are such an important piece of our societies because every time we include and give access to new young musicians, we are also giving access to their families to new opportunities and make them feel part of the world,” he says.
He regularly shares videos of performances by the Berlin Philharmonic or other important ensembles in the world to show his students what an orchestra should sound and look like on the stage and to create connections to the orchestral training field in the world. “We can’t limit our communities to only what they are used to living and seeing, educators are also a window to the world,” González says.