How Music Responds on WRTI: A Conversation with Stanford Thompson

Jun 18, 2020

Professional trumpet player, educator, advocate, and arts leader Stanford Thompson is founder and executive director of Play On, Philly, which teaches hundreds of children in underserved communities to play classical music in orchestral settings.

He spoke with WRTI's Susan Lewis about his reactions to the events of the past several months, which have brought so many issues to a boiling point.

Born and raised in Atlanta, Stan Thompson says he's been surrounded his whole life by the kinds of stories and issues we're now talking about—from George Floyd's killing to the incident in Central Park where a white woman called police after a black man who was bird-watching asked her to leash her dog.

"I remember talking with my father, and I've heard him say so many times that when he grew up in Jackson, Mississippi in the early forties, the same things were going on. It's just today people have devices and can record them." 

The George Floyd video, he says, reminded him of notorious scenes of public lynchings.  "I think the hardest thing was just seeing the police officer and the look on his face. To me, it just looked as if he was enjoying himself." 

Thompson is hopeful that this time, the overwhelming public response may trigger a change. "The main thing that I think is different, is to finally have a real dialogue with my white colleagues, where we never really talked about it.... I've received so many phone calls and emails from friends who really want to play their part." 

"At the end of the day, this is something that not only the entire country has to deal with, but even more specific, white America has to deal with. And what feels different is that there seems to be a renewed interest and commitment to making that happen."

"And I think that's one of the best things that we can do to honor the legacy of so many people that have lost their lives due to racism and injustice." 

And what is music's role? 

"It's an opportunity to hear voices that the music community has inadvertently silenced. For example, by not having more black composers highlighted on a regular basis, and as part of the cannon that we can all enjoy, that's been a huge missed opportunity. And perhaps we would have heard about the pain and suffering and it would not have had to explode in the way it has in the past week or so."

Thompson says his go-to music in recent days has been the 2nd movement of Florence Price's Piano Sonata in E minor.

"I really believe in the classical community in Philly. I really believe it can do this. I have seen it every day for the past 10 years. Our kids eat the music. They perform all over the city. We've done really great projects with Curtis and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Mann Center, and the Barnes, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the list goes on and on. Our communities, our parents connect with this stuff....They see their kids do it. They see the joy it brings." 

Thompson has recently been appointed Special Advisor to the President of New England Conservatory of Music to guide NEC, in the words of President Andrea Kalyn, in its effort to "systematically advance respect, equity and justice—within NEC first, throughout our field more broadly, and ultimately across society."