by Kristin M. Hall
As a child, the household of United States Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona was filled with music. Both of his parents were performers, and he and his siblings were their backing band.
“My brother played guitar and I played percussion. My sister played in choruses. We grew up singing together, and music was a big part of our growing up and our connection to our roots,” he said.
But he says that in too many school systems, students don’t have access to music education or instruments. After two years of coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. schools are grappling with teacher shortages in some areas, renewed calls for school safety and dramatic learning setbacks. Cardona believes that music education is part of the solution to rebuilding students and their schools.
“As a father, seeing how music teachers have helped my kids over the past two years, they were high school students in the pandemic and missing their sense of community,” Cardona said. “And those music teachers know how to reconnect them with the community.”
Cardona was in Nashville, Tennessee on Wednesday to meet with teachers from across the US who had been selected as top-quality music teachers by the Country Music Association Foundation. The CMA’s charitable arm has donated $29 million over the years to support a variety of music education programs, including service grants to nonprofits, funding for teacher professional development, teacher mentorships, and other assistance.
Vivian Gonzalez, a teacher at Miami Arts Studio 6-12 @ Zelda Glazer in Florida, said she adapted to teach music online and in person during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has been challenging. But as students and parents struggled with the side effects of the pandemic, she said music and art teachers were tuned in to see those changes.
“While the students were away, we had many students with housing instability and food instability and who had mental health crises at home and personally,” said Gonzalez, one of 30 teachers named as Music Teachers of Excellence this year. “And what we found was that our art teachers were the ones who were most alert to those situations because we’ve known these students for so long.”
Cardona said he heard about teachers in Texas forming mariachi bands to keep students connected to their school. Some students said music programs were the main thing that kept them in school during the pandemic.
“I have to say that music teachers have had to innovate the most, introducing students to instruments that they may not have access to, or that keep them busy,” he said.
Emily Riley, another teacher honored this year, said music builds confidence and discipline through practice, but it also helps kids build relationship skills.
“One of the things I think people are really concerned about is the social skills that are coming out of the pandemic,” said Riley, a music teacher at Julia Green Elementary School in Nashville. “That’s always been a value of music education, especially in elementary school.”
Country star Kix Brooks, half of the hit duo Brooks & Dunn, was one of the artists who helped raise awareness about the needs of music programming. What started with a focus on Nashville schools has expanded across the country, thanks in part to money raised by artists performing for free at the annual CMA Fest, which raised $2 million for the foundation this summer.
“We had enough money back then to reach out to New York City, to New Orleans, to Los Angeles, big cities where there are huge concentrations of kids who don’t have music programs,” said Brooks, whose sister is a teacher in Nashville.
On Wednesday nights, teachers and their principals mingled and dined with country stars like Maddie & Tae, Ashley McBryde and Brittney Spencer. Tiffany Kerns, executive director of the CMA Foundation, said the idea for an evening to celebrate teachers arose from their claim that music education was secondary to core subjects.
“One of the most important things teachers said to us was, ‘We don’t feel valued within the walls of our school. We are not seen as a subject the way math, science and English literacy are seen,'” Kerns said. “And that’s why they felt like they were treated less and never recognized.”
Before dinner, Brooks warmed up with a group of high school musicians during a performance of his song, “Rock My World (Little Country Girl)”. But while the kids learned the song as it was recorded, Brooks taught them to improvise on stage, an important skill for any Nashville musician.
“I also throw them a crooked ball because they learned the record as it is,” he said. “There’s a time when it goes to a chord, stops, and I said, ‘Just keep playing, keep playing that chord. I’m going to have a harmonica and I’m going to jam with you.'”
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