Repairing 1,500 School Instruments with a 'Symphony for a Broken Orchestra'

November 30, 2017, 12:41 PM · What can a school district do with all its hopelessly broken musical instruments?

Here's one option: collect all the instruments and then ask a Pulitzer and Grammy award-winning composer to write a symphony for them. Post all the instruments online for adoption, raise money, fix the instruments and put them back in the hands of school children.

That's what's happening in Philadelphia this week, with the world premiere performance Sunday of David Lang's "Symphony for a Broken Orchestra" at the 23rd Street Armory in Philadelphia. Four hundred musicians -- including musicians from the community, the Philadelphia public schools, the Philadelphia Orchestra, The Boyer College of Music & Dance, and the Curtis Institute of Music -- will participate.

"The journey is to make all of these instruments playable as traditional instruments again, so that they can be returned to the schools and so that people can work with them," Lang said. "I am only a musician because there were robust music programs in the public schools that I attended as a child. Fifteen hundred broken musical instruments means fifteen hundred missed opportunities to change school children’s lives, the way my life was changed."

The program is the brain child of Robert Blackson, Director of Temple Contemporary at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art. Blackson began to form the idea when he learned of instruments left behind after the closure of 23 Philadelphia schools. The instruments were in such bad shape -- how many more broken instruments were sitting in storage?

"We invited all of the instrumental music teachers from across the School District of Philadelphia to bring all of the broken instruments that they had," Blackson said. "They came en masse -- they came with their trunks full, the back seats of their car full, their passenger seat full of broken instruments."

broken violin
Broken violin. Photo from Symphony for a Broken Orchestra teaser.

Lang asked Found Sound Nation to go through the instruments and catalog their unique sounds, and his symphony is written specifically for the sounds these instruments make in their broken state.

After the concert, the instruments will be professionally repaired and returned to the schools. In addition, every school with instrumental music classes will receive an instrument repair kit, and a legacy fund for repairs will be established.

If you are interested in joining the effort, click here to adopt an instrument to be repaired. All money raised will benefit the School District of Philadelphia’s Instrumental Music Program. Major support for Symphony for a Broken Orchestra is provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, with additional support from the Barra Foundation.

What is the state of instrumental music in your own community? This could be an idea worth importing in some form, to fix musical instruments for children in other communities as well.

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November 30, 2017 at 09:04 PM · Great idea!

At least one of the local shops here Simply for Strings takes donations of broken instruments and repairs them for use by disadvantaged kids. However, the Philadelphia initiative obviously goes even further.


December 1, 2017 at 01:40 PM · I have old parts etc. That I don't need. Where to send them?

December 1, 2017 at 01:44 PM · Sounds like a great altruistic campaign! It could help lots of broken music programs around the country!

But it begs the question; how did all these school instruments get to be so neglected that they're broken? Not just needing adjustment, but necks and fingerboards separated from instruments, cracked seams, tables and backs... It's painful to see so much destruction of what was once a rich resource that had once enabled school children to widen their horizons.

It looks to me as if this is the result of poorly run school systems that need fixing. Non-existant music programs. Full scale abuse of vestiges of culture. Vandalism. Anger misdirected. Poor supervision, or oversight entirely lacking.

In this broken symphony directive, is there also attention to be paid to the sources of dysfunction that permitted this to happen, and a means to see that it doesn't recur?

It costs a lot to repair any instrument, and from the picture shown, one can only imagine the state the rest of them are in. When the repair costs more than the value of the instrument, that's called a total loss. Would such repair make sense, especially if there's a chance that the instruments will be allowed to be destroyed in the future.

Before anyone should take part in donating money, or thousands of new student instruments to a school music program, they should demand to know how the instruments will be used to learn to play music, and that they will be respected and cared for. It takes a raised awareness, vigilant consciousness and caring supervision to run and keep a music program going.

December 1, 2017 at 08:19 PM · I think that any teacher who works in the public schools (or in private schools!) can easily explain the problem: it's not about bad programs, bad teachers, bad kids. It's primarily about a lack of funding, lack of time, lack of enough teachers. When there is no funding to replace strings, strings just get old and break. Strings need replacement every six months - no way is that going to happen! Bows need rehairing on at least a yearly basis - that also does not happen. And then there is the nature of children: energetic and new to everything. You have to factor in that, even if you teach them to care for the instruments (and this should be taught), someone will drop the instrument, or their parents will leave it in a car on a frigid day, etc. etc. Teachers are expected to each teach hundreds of students, sometimes at multiple schools. Many times they are expected to do the repairs themselves and to pay for them. This is simply not reasonable.

I think an initiative such as this is just wonderful.

December 1, 2017 at 10:28 PM · "is there also attention to be paid to the sources of dysfunction that permitted this to happen, and a means to see that it doesn't recur?"

Yes. We can make sure that kids in these districts have parents. Okay maybe that's beyond our control. We can ensure that the parents have jobs that make a living wage. What is the minimum wage in Philadelphia? We can provide that the students have enough to eat, clothes that fit, shelter at night, safe transit to and from school, and access to medical care. And we can provide teachers with time to prepare thoughtful content and to provide meaningful feedback on worthwhile assessments (currently they have none). And we can free teachers from threats of termination for refusing to be complicit in the various fraudulent schemes that their superiors have for fudging test scores, absentee rates, and readiness for graduation.

Just for starters.

December 1, 2017 at 11:37 PM · Amen Paul.

December 2, 2017 at 01:45 AM · "Teachers are expected to each teach hundreds of students, sometimes at multiple schools. Many times they are expected to do the repairs themselves and to pay for them. This is simply not reasonable."

Very good comment Laurie and the problem is not limited to music teachers as I can attest to as a retired public school teacher. However it is worse with music teachers because they have so many students. Thanks for posting the article.

December 2, 2017 at 02:59 PM · If a neck gets snapped off of a $400 violin one could argue that's a "total loss" -- unless one is willing to take the violin home, put the neck in a vice, and clamp the body back on with urethane adhesive and whatever screws or other hardware may be required. Should be called the Hooptie Orchestra. (In Blacksburg there is a taxi service called "Hooptie Ride" where all the cars are old clunkers that have been repainted in garish colors and given names like "Disco Caddy" and "Yellow Submarine.")

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