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TED 2017: The Difference for Me Was Music

I was ten years old when I played in an orchestra for the first time. This wasn’t my elementary school orchestra. All the other musicians were in high school. I had only been playing trumpet for a couple of years and it is probably the scariest thing I have ever done to this day. My mom had to sit next to me to help me count rests and rhythms.

And I loved it. I loved playing in an orchestra. There were 15 different types of instruments all playing together. One of us could play louder than the entire group, and sometimes the music calls for that. But most of the time, it requires you to blend with the other instruments and help communicate the emotional ideas of the composer.

From being raised in a family of ten to growing up in a low-income community, there were many distractions that easily could put me on a different path. It was happening to my friends all around me, but my parents worked hard to provide me with an environment where I could thrive.

What made the difference for me, was music.

Learning to play music at the highest levels possible helps to build the executive functioning skills necessary to transform day-to-day stress into daily moments of success.

By learning musical scales, you build your memory. By perfecting your technique, you sharpen and extend your level of focus. By observing the brief moments of silence in music, or rests as we call them, you build better inhibitory control. And by learning to play in a group while focusing on how your part fits into the whole, then you learn to keep your level of attention flexible. And this learning begins the moment you start to make music

Although I didn’t need my mom’s help to count rests after a couple of months, I would rely on her support more and more with each passing year.

In high school, my musical mentors prepared me to enter the most selective college in America: The Curtis Institute of Music. There, with a full-tuition scholarship, I was able to accomplish a dream I had since I was a little boy. Each week, I played the staples of the orchestral and chamber music repertoire with world-renowned musicians and conductors. I traveled the world and played in the best concert halls throughout Europe, Asia and the Americas.


In my pursuit to become the best musician I could, I lost sight of why I was drawn to music in the first place.

I was in my last semester of college when Dr. Abreu won the TED Prize. His talk made me reflect on my journey to a much better life because of my love for music.

A year after that talk, I was in his office before a two-month tour of his programs throughout Venezuela. He helped me find a new way to describe my own musical upbringing by saying:

“Culture for the poor should not be a poor culture.”

That was the guiding philosophy of my childhood. And today it is also the guiding philosophy of Play On, Philly! I wanted other kids to have the opportunities I had.

This picture is of the Play On, Philly!Symphony Orchestra, taking a bow to a standing ovation at Verizon Hall in Philadelphia, one of the finest concert halls in the world. The conductor standing at the front is the Music Director of the Berlin Philharmonic, Sir Simon Rattle.

While I was studying at Curtis, I had the opportunity to rehearse with Maestro Rattle several times. I always hoped to have the opportunity to perform with him, but to this day have not done so. As I was watching our kids perform that evening, I thought to myself that this program has not only given them many of the opportunities I had; it has given them several that I didn’t have.

‘Culture for the poor cannot be a poor culture’.

That means that we all have the responsibility to help prepare the best instruments for the poorest children, provide the best teachers for the most vulnerable children, and the absolute best musical opportunities to the most marginalized children.

And like my mother did for me, we need to sit next to each one of them and help them count their rests until they get it.

This is a transcript of the TED Talk Stanford Thompson presented April 24, 2017 on the TED stage in Vancouver as a TED FELLOW. For more information on TED2017, click on this link: Imagine the future of ourselves: Notes from TED Fellows Session 1 at TED2017. Click HERE To learn more bout Play On, Philly!

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