Musicopia: Sharing the Joy of Music With School Kids


By David Large

In the greater Philadelphia area, as in many places in the U.S., many children lack access to music education. Stepping up to address the problem is Musicopia, a Rex grantee in 2009.

Musicopia makes quality music education available to kids in the greater Philadelphia area.

Founded in 1974 as Strings for Schools, Musicopia works to bring a vibrant combination of music performance and education to students and communities throughout the Delaware Valley, focusing on preschool through middle schools in areas that lack adequate music programs or are cut off from the region’s rich cultural life.

Seeking to inspire a deep love and knowledge of music, Musicopia’s programs promote the transformative powers of music, the value of musical discipline, and an appreciation of cultural diversity.  Musicopia envisions a community where all students have full access to comprehensive music education and the opportunity to learn any instrument of their choosing, where all parents take an active and supportive role in the development of their children’s musical skills, and where music is fully embraced as a key component of every student’s curriculum.

Musicopia has grown to become the largest provider of external music education programs on the East Coast, averaging over 700 programs that reach 65,000-90,000 students and their families each year. Currently, 19 professional ensembles present 40 different programs — assemblies, residences, workshops and teacher training — in music categories that range from jazz through Chinese, African, Brazilian and Middle Eastern.

students performing

While its roots are in classical music, Musicopia’s programs now encompass a wide range of styles, genres, and cultures.

Recently Rex had the chance to learn more about this outstanding, multifaceted program from Musicopia’s Executive Director, Denise Kinney:

Rex Foundation: You took over as Executive Director in 2005. What was your involvement with music and music education prior to that?

Denise Kinney, Musicopia: Music has created who I am today. Before her retirement my mom, Welthie Fitzgerald, was a professional violist who made sure that my siblings’ and my involvement with music was not optional. Like many, we didn’t have a lot of money, but she worked hard to make sure we had instruments to play, and private lessons.

At the time I didn’t appreciate the sacrifices my mother made. Today I most certainly do. For me playing the violin was the one thing I was good at. I took great pride in being the first chair of the school orchestra. My friends were all in the orchestra and so the orchestra became my world.

When I was 14, the music programs in my school started being cut. This was not a direction my mom could tolerate. She responded by getting her musician friends to go into my school and other schools nearby to help support the instrumental programs. In 1974 she and her friends started a not for profit organization whose mission was to revitalize in-school music programs, and Musicopia was born.

Rex: We hear a lot these days about the state of music education in our public schools. What have you witnessed firsthand since you joined Musicopia?

Musicopia: During the 1980s and 1990s, in-school music programs started being reduced and eliminated in many schools in an attempt to reduce spending and improve standardized test scores. Today we know that this strategy didn’t work. We know that students who are involved in music perform better academically, score higher on SATs, have fewer disciplinary issues, are more likely to graduate from high school, get better jobs and ultimately are happier in life.

Today there is widespread agreement that every student should have access to music and that in-school music offerings are critical to achieving that goal. While there are still many schools that do not include music education in their curriculum, there are also many schools that have committed the resources to rebuild and maintain their in-school music programs.

Rex: Your Web site does an excellent job of summarizing the particulars of your programs. Would you like to describe the main offerings?

Musicopia: Musicopia has a wide range of musical program offerings. Each ensemble offers a 45-60 minute assembly program that explores a particular musical tradition or provides a deeper understanding of a particular family of instruments. All assemblies are highly interactive, engaging students in a wide array of activities.

Musicopia also offers residency programs, which occur over a period of months. The teaching artists work intensively with a small group of students. The schools involved are generally those that do not have music programs, and for them the teaching artists become their music teacher. At the end of the residency the students host a performance, performing on stage with the professional musicians.


Inspired by Venezuela’s El Sistema, Musicopia’s youth orchestra offers not just musical education but life-transforming skills and relationships.

The Musicopia Orchestra draws its inspiration from a system of youth orchestras that has transformed the lives of youngsters throughout Venezuela. Musicopia String Orchestra is offered in partnership with The Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, one of the oldest and most highly regarded youth orchestras in the country. Open to all students, including those from public, private, parochial, charter and home schools, the orchestra is a group of young musicians who represent widely diverse cultural backgrounds and life experiences. With its modest admission requirements, students from any area are welcome to join the Orchestra.

Musicopia spearheads instrument donation drives for schools with students who cannot afford to rent or buy musical instruments. The Gift of Music, a statewide initiative originated by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, is active in other cities in Pennsylvania. Musicopia coordinates the Gift of Music for the Philadelphia region and to date has collected over 800 instruments for schools in need.

Rex: Who are the teaching artists you employ? How are they selected, how much time do they typically commit, and what do they say about their experience with the programs?

Musicopia: Musicopia is fortunate to have some of the finest musicians in the country on its teaching artist roster. Many of the artists have represented Musicopia for over 25 years.

The organizational philosophy is to offer one of every unique type of program, with no duplication between programs. In some instances Musicopia seeks out new teaching artists and at times potential teachers approach us. Annually the management staff evaluates where there may be gaps in programming and uses its musician network to recruit new ensembles.

There is a rigorous selection process, which assures high quality and a good fit with the organization. There is great variation in the amount of time teaching artists work with the students. Some ensembles work with groups of students a few times a week, while for other traveling ensembles it may be just a few programs per year.

Musicopia has strong partnerships with the teaching artists. The artists meet regularly with the staff and share their experience in specific schools and success stories about students. When teaching artists share their experience, the theme most commonly heard is how rewarding their work is and how they feel like they are able to make a difference in children’s lives.

Rex: Do most schools welcome you with open arms, or do you have to market to them on the idea of your entering their schools?

Musicopia: Musicopia has an active marketing program, which has helped to us to become known in the Philadelphia area.  There is an overwhelming need for the support and programs we offer. We provide discounted programs for the vast majority of schools with whom we work.  Musicopia raises funds to bring music to students and is usually invited and welcomed into their schools.

Rex: Any final thoughts you would like to share with us?

Denise: What Musicopia wants for all children in the city and suburbs is to allow them to hear all different types of live music, played by some of the nation’s finest professional musicians. When I speak with students after an assembly, many times they tell me this is the first time they have heard live music.

For students who have a more intense interest in music, some of whom have the potential to have a career in music, we want to give them a pathway to follow and the tools to use so that they will have everything they need to play an instrument and experience the joy of the gift of music.