Carole Haas Gravagno
President, Play On, Philly!
Yannick Nézet-Séguin raised his baton, and the 130 musicians facing him waited for his signal. It was April 2014, and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts was packed—only, Nézet-Séguin wasn’t conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra
as usual. For one special night, he was leading middle-school students from St. Francis de Sales in West Philadelphia as part of Play On, Philly!, an after-school program funded by Wayne’s Carole Haas Gravagno.
In 2009, Gravagno was introduced to the groundbreaking El Sistema, a music-education program created by Jose Antonio Abreu in Venezuela. Partnering with trumpet player and education advocate Stanford Thompson, she brought it to Philadelphia. “We didn’t think we’d get a good response,” Gravagno admits. “I thought maybe we’d have 30 kids.”
As it turned out, 180 applied. With Gravagno’s support, Play On, Philly! has grown to include 130 kids at St. Francis and another 95 at Center City’s Freire Charter School.
Students in grades one through eight receive their own instruments and attend daily three-hour practices, even getting instruction from guest artists like vocalist Bobby McFerrin and conductor Simon Rattle. “It started with two hours,” says Gravagno, “but none of the kids wanted to leave. [They] realize they can accomplish something if they work hard at it, and that’s a great feeling for them. It also shows their parents that they have the potential to succeed.”