The Past, Present & Future of Music Education Advocacy: Happy 10th Anniversary SupportMusic Coalition!

January 7, 2013

This month, the SupportMusic Coalition begins a yearlong celebration of its 10th Anniversary. Steve West and John Mahlmann spoke with Debra Bresnan about why NAMM and NAfME joined forces, what the Coalition has accomplished with over 300 affiliate organizations, and what’s next.

Debra Bresnan: You were both instrumental in starting the Coalition 10 years ago. Why did you decide to get involved and what was your most important priority?

Steve West: In the mid- to late-1980s and into the 90’s, there was a very difficult economic recession. In Iowa (where West Music is based) and around the country, superintendents and school boards singled out music and arts education programs for cuts. Leaders of the music industry and music educators did not have the necessary tools needed to teach their members how to defend their programs on short notice, or how to explain why cuts should be taken proportionately across the curriculum. The Iowa Alliance for Arts Education and similar organizations around the country were trying to affect state legislators and state funding, but in order for them to eliminate barriers which kept students from participating in music programs, they needed information based upon national norms in the areas of best practices, research and advocacy.

NAMM and NAfME had worked together for many years in a number of areas. We saw an obvious need to collaborate more fully in order to allow every child to have access to quality music education programs. We saw this as an opportunity to bring together the right people at the right time and in the right place.

John Mahlmann: NAMM and NAfME are each 100+ years old and we expected that we could do more things, and do them better, together. Both organizations have learned to work together to complement each other, and that’s one of our major accomplishments. We’ve kept our eye on the prize and overcome misconceptions about each other. Teachers learned what business people do to function effectively and how they focus on customer service and, in turn, deliver. Merchants learned teaching is a hard commitment and that serious study and intellectual contribution is not so easily measurable. Retailers have to keep customers for the long term, and instrumentalists lose interest if playing music is not more than just fun; there’s serious study and education involved. Teachers need to get quality musical instruments into the hands of their students. We all benefit from working with each other. We grew up together and became more sophisticated as a Coalition.

Debra Bresnan: How are we doing? What are you most proud of in terms of what we’ve accomplished together? Have we achieved our goals?

Steve West: Unlike the difficult recessions in the 1970s and 1980’s the current economic downturn has not caused the same level of devastation when compared to those earlier recessions. This is not to say that cuts have not happened, for they have. However, these cuts now appear to be across the entire spectrum of education and are not focused solely on music and arts programs. I believe that this is due in part to better preparation on the Coalition’s part. Our efforts have also brought about a better informed population whose appreciation for the importance of arts education is greatly expanded.

Collaboration allows us to compare what’s happening in local districts to communities around the country. We address problems with rationales focusing on the necessity of the arts in a child’s complete education. I’m proud that we have given decisionmakers and policymakers more information about the importance of arts education. And with this information they are less likely to target the arts than they were in the past.

John Mahlmann: We’ve come a long way and are on the same page about what we’re trying to accomplish. We want music education for all students to be taught by quality teachers, based on high standards and played on high quality instruments. The tools are in place for advocacy initiatives and school board presentations, and these resources help advocates to be more articulate and define objectives.

We’ve made substantial progress, but there’s a different set of educational values today. The general population does not yet share our belief that music is as important as math and science. This thinking drives testing and teacher evaluations. What if every company asked about arts education experiences in their applicant screening process and used them as hiring criteria? Mandates and requirements create expectations, and balance is important. All students should have the opportunity to see the arts as a career. The entertainment industry is worth something like $15 billion, a substantial part of our US economy. Requirements for high school graduation and college entrance include math and science credits, but not the arts. That’s what parents look at.

Debra Bresnan: What lessons have we learned along the way? Have they made us more effective ten years into this group effort?

Steve West: For the first time, we didn’t wait for a crisis to get organized. Now, we are much better prepared with many additional resources. Our group collaboration, the monthly calls, and the resources on the website all combine to keep us vigilant. We are prepared to bring PowerPoint presentations to school board meetings, we use successful strategies, and at every opportunity, we stress the importance of music and arts education for all children. This happened because of the Coalition. Over the last ten years, even when it seemed unnecessary, the Coalition was meeting, discussing the issues, and getting ready for the future possible challenges. As a result, we are more prepared than ever before.

John Mahlmann: We are allies and partners. Now, when we meet with members of Congress, all of us ask for the same thing. We’ve gone beyond ‘should we?’ to the specifics of strategy.

I think we need to focus more on the ‘so what?’ factor. If you don’t take math, you won’t get into college. We have to translate not taking music into consequences. We did a Harris Poll a few years back and found that people who studied music made more money, stayed in school and obtained higher educational degrees than those who did not study music. Our reasons need to be less poetic and encompass things people can agree with: this is what will interest parents in the value of music for their kids and for themselves.

Debra Bresnan: What needs to happen now? What are the most important things we need to do to make a difference and expand access to music education?

Steve West: Stay vigilant! As we move through this economic downturn and toward recovery, many communities will have continuing challenges. They may be tempted to limit access to music education. The need to articulate and defend why music and the arts must be part of a complete education will continue well into the future, perhaps forever. Today’s student needs what music education teaches to be a productive adult in whatever profession or field they choose. We need to switch from defense to offense and sustain our energy and vision to expand the number of students that will enjoy and grow through music education.

John Mahlmann: We need to do more to stand up for what we believe. People -- especially students and parents -- want and need to hear from artists. Artists could talk more about the importance of music in the schools. Major performance venues could include information in their programs. When performing artists introduce their bands or classical ensembles, they could mention that the musicians are products of school music education programs. They could say ‘if it wasn’t for those programs, we wouldn’t be here tonight’. Just say it. It doesn’t cost anything.

We’re having an effect. You can see the progress being made and we’re going to keep it going. This is an amazing effort.

Debra Bresnan: Do you have anything to say to the retailers and music educators who haven’t yet become active in the Coalition? How has your involvement changed your work, improved your effectiveness in your community, other?

Steve West: Get involved! It takes a little time, focus, and discipline to be ready when the need arises to articulate, “why every student deserves music education”.

Every business has to be profitable to keep the doors open, but our work as retailers and manufacturers also needs a higher purpose. The simple fact is that our customers’ lives are improved by the inclusion of music into their existence. Music adds meaning, enjoyment, creativity, and purpose.

There is nothing more enjoyable and fulfilling than seeing a student/customer get started on a musical instrument. Seeing the excitement and joy that comes to them through expressing themselves musically is a very real inspiration.

John Mahlmann: It’s not that people are uninterested or unwilling; they’re just busy. So, the more resources we can get to them, the better. Retailers are trying to make a buck. Teachers are rehearsing their students and so on. Give people the materials and make it simpler.

We’re not giving up or going away. Talking to parents and kids is like preaching to the choir: we have to continue to reach out to the influencers and to school board members.

-- Steve West is Chairman of West Music, former Chairman of NAMM, and currently serves on the NAMM Board of Directors. John J. Mahlmann served as CEO of NAfME and led music and arts education associations for four decades following several years of college teaching. Debra Bresnan is a communications consultant for SupportMusic Coalition and Founder of ProFiles: All The Write Stuff.