Advocacy takes more than a village, it takes villagers willing to spend their time and money fighting for funding and support from the highest offices in the land. The National Association for Music Merchants organized its own villagers into volunteer delegates from its membership to thank our nation’s representatives for their role in the passage of the “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA), the new federal education legislation that, for the first time in our nation’s history, designates music as part of a well-rounded education for all children.
The Day of Service Begins
On May 23, 91 delegates representing NAMM membership from all of its areas including music store owners, publishers, manufacturers, and media gathered for breakfast on the 11th floor of the Hyatt near the clean streets of the U.S. Capitol Building, its shining monuments to democracy, and the machines that run it. Shortly after the meal and introductions, we were loaded into buses and taken into a very different part of Washington, D.C., the suburb of Anacostia. It’s an area that most of the participants probably wouldn’t want to wander into after daylight. The landscape slowly changed, the buildings less kept, litter more common, paint peeling, as poverty surrounding the city of the most powerful political elite began to rear its ugly, tarnished head. Traveling with the delegates, I peered out the window of the bus at liquor stores, “convenient” (sic) stores, beauty parlors, pool halls and neighborhood mom and pop shops, all shuttered in the early morning daylight with roll down metal doors and cages to protect the merchants from overnight theft in an area obviously hard hit with crime. These are rough streets, not the place most parents dream of raising their children and certainly not the neighborhood where one expects to see beacons of hope suddenly appear as did the Friendship Technology Preparatory Academy, a charter school as fine in architecture and upkeep as is the curriculum offered to these inner city kids.
The students, known as the “Tech Prep Titans,” met with the NAMM delegates in the cafeteria, to hear the opening announcements on this day of service produced annually by the NAMM Foundation. Numerous companies participated by donating instruments to the school. After the introductions and formalities were dispensed with, the school’s all new drumline and marching band performers, followed by their cheerleaders made their way into the room and showed off their significant skills in a well-rehearsed and riveting performance that delighted the delegates who gathered to help inspire students at the school to follow in the band member’s footsteps and continue their path down music education.
Principal Pope announced that this was the first year the school has offered band instruction and it didn’t show. The students showed remarkable talent, obviously hungry for more. “The band is the family,” said a drum majorette, remarking how this is an important part of school that she intends to follow from her current eighth grade through high school. The students mentioned how the music program keeps them out of trouble, and makes school fun because it also gives them something fun to do after school.
Four-time World Series winner with the New York Yankees, centerfielder Bernie Williams, freshly graduated from college with a music degree, was introduced by Mary Luehrsen, who took time to speak to several students from the band’s drum line.
Following the presentation in the cafeteria, students were dismissed back to their classes, where they were then directed to take part in hands-on music-making exercises using guitars, ukuleles, and percussion instruments in large group lessons led by and assisted by visiting delegates. For many of these students, it was the first time they had ever seen, touched or held a musical instrument, let alone been encouraged to try to make music using one. I sat in on the guitar class first, where the students were shown how to hold the instrument, basic rhythm chops, followed by three easy-to-play chords as the session leader attempted to have the students eventually follow along to a three-chord classic from Bob Marley, “Three Little Birds.” The looks on the students’ faces were priceless as many discovered that they could actually do this, hold a chord, change to another one, and play a song.
Later that evening, the NAMM Foundation awarded the SupportMusic Champion Award to Senator Lamar Alexander – (R-TN). According to NAMM, “The award was given in recognition of the Senator’s long history in music education advocacy and comes on the heels of the historic passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a bill introduced by Senator Alexander and signed into law by President Obama in 2015. The passage of ESSA is the first federal law to provide a framework for access to music and arts education for every student.”
If the trip were solely to deliver instruments to a new inner city school launching its first-ever music program and thank the senator for his bipartisan work on the ESSA, it would have been worth it. However, the “Day of Service for Music Education” and SupportMusic Award dinner was just the beginning of what would prove to be quite an amazing few days of events on Capitol Hill.
The Day of Training
Our next day was a full one. We met early in the morning in the offices of Nelson Mullins, graciously hosted by former Secretary of Education, Richard (Dick) Riley, who provided an ample amount of space on his floor for this large group to meet, learn more about this year’s mission, and talk about how various delegate groups would meet to thank congress for passing the ESSA while asking them to now fully fund the program.
The delegates were caught up to date on current issues facing public school music programs and briefed on the ESSA. Additional training for the delegates was provided on developing state-level advocacy efforts for music and arts education to put into practice in their respective states.
After a full day of working on learning the issues and planning for the next day’s visits with representatives, a special reception was held that evening for the Turnaround Arts, a program under the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. That event featured artists including Citizen Cope, Carla Dirlikov, Paula Fuga, Keb’ Mo’, Tim Robbins, Bernie Williams, Alfre Woodard, John Lloyd Young, among others, who were honored for their work in arts education advocacy with a SupportMusic Award.
NAMM, CMA and VH1 Music Advocacy Day
On Wednesday, the real work began bright and early on that very warm morning as the delegation took to Capitol Hill for over 150 meetings with members of congress and/or their staff about the importance of music education and the support needed to insure that each student has the opportunity to learn music in school. Delegates were gathered together primarily by the state from which they came, though some overlapped with others such as Rhode Island and Massachusetts being covered by the same group given their geographic proximities.
If you’ve never been to Capitol Hill, you can’t imagine how difficult it can be to get from senate offices to congressional offices, sometimes blocks away or through a maze of underground tunnels. We left Sen. Feinstein and quickly made our way to the office of Representative Marcia Blackburn (R-TN). Though she did not vote in support of the ESSA, she was gracious in meeting with the delegates from Tennessee and encouraging in her support of the importance of music education. Next, I followed the group to the offices of Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), whose support of the ESSA by his fellow senator from Tennessee was obvious, as well as his stating he supports funding the program, while discussing how important music is to the overall economy of his home state, and to the state’s student population.
Our next stop was in the office of Representative Jim Cooper (D-TN), whom we were all delighted to learn not only supported the ESSA and supports its full funding, but also had a banjo in his office which he frequently plays. It was clear that he gets it. Throughout the day, the delegates met with representatives from all over the nation, receiving a warm reception by them and their staff members, who seemed thrilled to discuss music education versus some of the other more troubling and difficult topics they must face on a daily basis.
After a full day of visiting both houses of congress, which for me, ended in the office of Representative Joe Kennedy, who took a lot of time with the delegation, took notes, asked questions. As the father of a special needs child, it was also awesome to be able to meet a Kennedy and thank his family for Special Olympics, though it was off topic.
It was a long day. I was exhausted, but it was a nice kind of tired. That evening there was a nice reception in the Capitol, and I made a cameo, but it was time to get back to the hotel and rest for the morning’s flight. While you’re doing your job in the nation’s schools teaching our most precious assets, know that people in the music products industry have your back, support your work, and are representing you well. The people of NAMM, its members, the folks who made the journey and took the time to participate in this NAMM Fly-In Day of Advocacy took your message, our message, to the Hill, and brought it there from the streets. I look forward to taking part in next year’s NAMM Music Education Advocacy D.C. Fly-In.