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TED Prize baton pass: How one man’s passion created a musical ripple effect

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Play On, Philly!

In 1975, economist and musician José Abreu founded El Sistema (“The System”), a classical music education plan for kids in Venezuela. Over the years, El Sistema has grown into a powerhouse in Venezuela, and today comprises more than 150 youth and 70 children’s orchestras. It’s estimated that more than 310,000 children currently play an instrument through the program. (LA Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel was once one of them.) Just as important to Abreu — his kids learn the citizenship skills that come with orchestra membership: to listen, to lead, to be responsible.

In 2009, Abreu was awarded the TED Prize and issued this wish for the world: to create a training program for 50 gifted musicians dedicated to bringing El Sistema to the United States.

“Mother Teresa of Calcutta insisted on something that always impressed me: The most miserable and tragic thing about poverty is not the lack of bread or roof, but the feeling of being no-one — the feeling of not being anyone, the lack of identification, the lack of public esteem,” Abreu said in his moving talk from TED2009 about the wish. “That’s why the child’s development in the orchestra and the choir provides him with a noble identity.”

Trumpet player Stanford Thompson was one of the 50 young musicians tapped to be an Abreu Fellow, training at the New England Conservatory as well as with El Sistema in Venezuela. And two years ago, after completing the program, Thompson brought his bold musical style to a new group of kids when he founded Play On, Philly! — a youth orchestra in West Philadelphia. (Watch Thompson give an inspiring talk about the program at TEDxPhilly.)

Play On, Philly! is the subject of a new documentary. Well, at least of a new documentary that could be.

Filmmaker Jamie Bernstein has followed Play On, Philly! since its first note two years ago, capturing the intense drama of 11-year-old Raven, who says that playing violin makes her feel “safe,” and 13-year-old Zebadiah, who had to be convinced to play an instrument other than the guitar. Bernstein recently turned to Kickstarter to raise funds to film year three of the project. The goal—to raise $500,000 by September 23.

A teaser trailer for the documentary, above, looks fantastic.

“I refuse to put you guys on any stage anywhere in front of an audience that would say, ‘Oh that’s so cute. They’re little black kids from West Philadelphia playing classical music,’” Thompson tells his students in one clip. “I want them to look at you guys and say, ‘These kids can play.’”

So why are we telling you this story now?  Not only to guide you to the Kickstarter page for the documentary, but also to show you the butterfly effect that can happen from the granting of a TED Prize wish.

The TED Prize is awarded annually to a leader with a bold idea for widespread change. And this year, the prize has been upped from $100,000 to $1 million. Even more exciting — nominations for the 2013 TED Prize are fully open, from now until August 31. Head to the TED Prize website for more information on how you can nominate a TED speaker, a personal hero, a mentor, a co-worker, a TED Fellow, a colleague, a friend — even yourself — for the award.