FOCUS ON ADVOCACY: One Man’s Vision and ‘It Takes A Village’ Focus Create Statewide Model for Music Education Program Rebuild in West Virginia

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When the late Lyell Clay learned that his state, West Virginia, was ranked 47th in the nation for music and arts education, he decided to do something about it. In 1996, he contacted Mike Bates, Institutional Solutions Group, Keyboard Division, Yamaha Corporation of America, and enlisted his help to turn things around. Clay wanted to purchase equipment for West Virginia state colleges and universities to enhance their music education programs; The Clay Foundation contributed $125,000 to initiate the program.

For four years, technology, training and equipment, and instruments were infused into teacher training programs. The program then moved into the K-12 sector in a few major communities, providing technology and training for teachers over three summers.

In 2008, VH1 Save The Music Foundation came onboard and, shortly thereafter, officials from the State of West Virginia, including Governor Earl Ray Tomblin and First Lady Joanne Jaeger Tomblin, the State Legislature, the Division of Culture and History, and the Department of Education. Schools and school districts, music industry partners, NAMM member retailers and other corporations and individuals with a vested interest in the future of their local communities became key supporters in the ensuing years.

Today, this tenacious group of concerned citizens is poised to attain their goal of rebuilding programs in all 55 districts and 55 counties in West Virginia.

This story was first reported in CounterPoint in January 2011 and an update was provided on the May 22, 2012 SupportMusic Coalition teleconference. It is a noteworthy example of how the actions and efforts of many concerned citizens working together can have a lasting effect on music education programs in public schools. Conversations about this replicable model are occurring now in other states: ‘If West Virginia can do it, why can’t we?’ is an emerging theme.

It Takes More Than Just a Village

This plan relies upon each school district to create its own long-term partnerships and planning to ensure all students will have access to a quality music education program. Once the initial goal of program rebuilding in all 55 districts/55 counties is achieved (anticipated by 2014), tackling the rebuild of programs in all K-8 schools that qualify for VH1 Save The Music Foundation grants is the next step.

“The key to success with a large scale project like this is to have the involvement of someone at the State level who has access to legislators and the Governor. That support – from the Commissioner of the Division of Culture and History and the First Lady – has really made it take off, really made it sing. It’s been amazing to watch,” says Rob Davidson, Director of Programs and Policy, VH1 Save The Music Foundation. “West Virginia is doing it for themselves, and we’re here, as a national organization, to encourage and help them along. They’ve taken up the mantle, and we’re here to support them.”

Randall Reid-Smith, Commissioner of the Division of Culture and History for the State of WV, helped to attract corporate and community support for matching funds to put instruments into the hands of students, and is heartened by the steady progress. “This is helping our state to reach one of its most important goals: to encourage our young people to explore their creativity through the arts. We reached out to business, nonprofit organizations and individuals around the state and asked them to help us. They responded with enthusiasm and are supporting us every step of the way.”

First Lady Joanne Jaeger Tomblin, another extremely active ally, has been visiting schools and lending her voice. “I have personally witnessed the students playing their new instruments and I can’t express to you how wonderful it is to see their faces. Music and the arts are so important, and they do make a difference in people’s lives. As we reach more schools,” Tomblin adds, “I believe we’re going to see West Virginia test scores improve. Music and arts education is so much more than learning notes and marching bands. It is about the growth and development of our students.”

Students Tune Into the Benefits

Justin Altizer, Music Specialist at Guyan Valley Middle School, wears the hats of band director, choir director and general music teacher. When he was hired in 2005, there were only 12 students in the middle school band program; each year, enrollments have increased and Altizer projects about 150 students for 2012-13. “We started the program from scratch, and it made a big jump with the VH1 Save The Music support. My principal gave a lot of flexibility for scheduling, which helped a great deal, and our school board has raised the band budget allowance. Band enrollments have increased every year. Kids’ lives are changed.”

Before the program, Altizer says, students played on instruments that badly needed restoration. “Older instruments are OK if there’s money to fix them. Now, when my students play on the newer horns and woodwind instruments, they realize they play pretty well. Their sound is much clearer and cleaner, and they are more excited to play.”

About 50 middle school graduates are already registered for band at the high school this year. Last spring, Altizer took 75 of his students to a tri-state high school band competition at Marshall University, which was inspiring for all of them, just as he intended. There were high school bands from all over, and his students witnessed both small and large bands performing. “Some of the bigger bands weren’t necessarily the best at marching, but they were more exciting and got more attention,” says Altizer. “Our students saw the possibilities for our county, and saw no reason not to have a 200-piece band at our high school.”

Barbara Green teaches music at Harman School, one of two original pilot program schools. Band program enrollment has now grown from only 10 students to 50 in her rural K-12 school of 200 students.

“When I was hired, there were barely any instruments to use and I struggled to get a music program going,” Green recalls. “The board even threatened to cut my position to half time. When the VH1 Save The Music Foundation sent the letter to the school board saying that if my position were not full time, it would not be able to provide the grant, they reinstated my full time position and we were able to have a real music program. I’m still teaching in a trailer, but now I have the whole trailer. It was wonderful to get these instruments, as well as a couple more grants for secondary instruments (a bass clarinet, a French horn, and a tenor sax).”

A Legacy and Lessons Learned

For those who seek to replicate the model, starting with the teacher training programs in colleges and universities, Bates has some words of advice. “Find out in advance which schools offer the best music education programs and which ones have a high percentage of graduates who stay in-state after their training is completed. It’s best to focus your funding and resources on those schools, for the greater good of the public school music programs. It’s also important,” he continues, “to build in accountability and program feedback, right from the start.”

Bates says, “Lyell is probably doing handstands in heaven. This is exactly what he envisioned 15 years ago, but visions are only as good as the work it takes to make them happen.”

-- Debra Bresnan is a communications consultant for and a member of its Steering Committee. She produces web content, newsletters and other written materials for businesses, non-profit organizations and individuals. Contact: