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Musicians’ plea to District: Don’t take away our collective soul

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Members of the Philadelphia Orchestra know the vital role music can play in a young person’s development. At the School Reform Commission meeting on May 15, Don Liuzzi, speaking on behalf of the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he is a timpanist, submitted a petition imploring the SRC not to let budget cuts deprive schools of the music and art programs that are essential to the development of students’ self-expression and creativity as well as the future of the city’s musical community.

Read the full written text of the testimony below:

Dear Dr. Hite and members of the School Reform Commission:

Thank you for this opportunity to speak to you on a budget issue that is so vital to all students in our schools and the cultural life of our city. My name is Don Liuzzi. I am a Franklin Learning Center public school graduate from 1977. I performed from 1976-77 as a section percussionist in the All Philadelphia Band and as co-principal horn in the All Philadelphia Orchestra. I have been playing in the Philadelphia Orchestra for the past 24 years as principal timpanist. I have also been conducting the All Philadelphia High School Orchestra for the past 8 years. With me are fellow orchestra members Mark Gigliotti and Holly Blake, bassoonists with the Philadelphia Orchestra who attended Philadelphia public schools and performed in the All Philadelphia Orchestra Music festivals in past years, and assistant principal bassist, Joseph Conyers, from the Orchestra’s Education Committee.

When I moved to Philadelphia in mid-high school, I was delighted and relieved to find my musical preparation for my coming undergraduate life at an extremely high level. The performing opportunities in the School District, the intense music history and theory available to me, and the rich music-making available through the "All City" orchestra and band were a godsend to my future. I am here to tell you that the announced cuts to the instrumental music teachers and the cuts to support faculty in all the arts and music programs will rip the life out of the musical hopes of thousands of our students.

The vital role the itinerant music teachers fulfill cannot be underestimated. For the elementary schools, those teachers are the front-line introducers of instrumental instruction for hundreds if not thousands each year. For the important middle school years, when big musical dreams are just starting to be nurtured, the lack of any instrumental instruction devastates those dreams. The All City Middle School Music Festival, often their first experience in large ensemble performance, under these cuts will be gone. The All Philadelphia (“All City”) Orchestra, Band, and Choir with interactions with Philadelphia Orchestra members in lessons, instrument purchases for graduating seniors majoring in music, the concerto competition for all city members, the interactions with the Curtis Institute, and musical interactions with the Philadelphia Orchestra’s own new music director, Yannick Nézét–Séguin will be gone.

In the bigger picture, what does this say of our city, or our sense of civilized culture? Ladies and gentlemen, let’s be clear — we are talking about our collective soul and humanity. In the life of the musical mind, in the process of learning to play an instrument, a new expression to one’s “voice,” as well as a new joy in the collective making-music process, comes to light. We are about to deny that opportunity for a whole swath of population for the next generation. One of the nuances of music-making is discovering how to translate the sound of an instrument into ideas and images, and the reverse process of translating ideas and images back into sound. For example, as one progresses in music-making, one discovers that the tremolando of the bow on stringed instruments can be a stream of light through a cloud, a shiver or nervous fear before a coming storm. Percussion and timpani rolls can be a summer breeze through a window, or distant — or very close — thunder. Woodwinds often imitate birdcalls, or tell long, storytelling melodic lines. Brass can sing chorales of prayer or shout triumphant or menacing pronouncements. Now this is a sweeping statement, but one I firmly believe to be true: To deny the opportunity to explore this musical poetry with our youth is to deny our full humanity as civilized beings.

Students from the Philadelphia public schools hold positions in the Philadelphia Orchestra; an average of 8 to 10 percent of the orchestra members for the past 40 years are graduates of our school system. They play or have played in the orchestras of Cleveland, Pittsburgh, the New York City Ballet (just to name a few), sung with the Metropolitan Opera, and numerous Broadway productions.

What I, and the ninety signatures on this petition letter from the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra, beg of you is to take a stand on this vital role of music education in our city. For life’s sake, and the life of our collective soul, do not let any of these cuts take place on your watch.

Sincerely yours,

Don S. Liuzzi, Principal Timpani, The Philadelphia Orchestra

“All City” All-Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director

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