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NASMD Sets Record In New Orleans

...for the 2015 convention in New Orleans March 18-21—34 more than last year’s total. Held in the French Quarter’s historic Hotel Monteleone, this year’s festivities came with an unmistakable New Orleans flair: Jazz legends Ellis and Branford Marsalis were featured as both speakers and performers; evening receptions delivered Cajun flavors and Mardi Gras-style sparkle; and the program closed out with a party at the nearby House Of Blues featuring New Orleans-based funk-rockers Bonerama. As Branford Marsalis put it in his closing address to the convention: “There is just something about this town.”

Coming off a 3% uptick for the school music segment, the fourth straight year-to-year increase since its low point in 2010, convention-goers hit New Orleans in a reasonably festive mood. Most retailers said school purchases had rebounded from the recession years, while rentals never really went away. Anecdotally, at least, school music also remains one of the most gratifying segments to be a part of: “Being in this business means being able to work with kids and doing something with intrinsic value,” said Toby Thomas of Kidder Music. “If you’re doing your job every day, you’re helping directors, who are in turn helping kids.”

With the recession still close in the rear-view mirror, many at NASMD were noting how school music’s unique place in society had buffered it from the worst of the downturn. Several said that after the financial crash and the funding woes that followed, worst-case scenarios mostly failed to materialize. “In most school districts that had good band programs going into the recession, parents and community supported them and helped them remain good programs,” said Becky Lightfoot of Art’s Music Shop. “As a result, they’re still intact, they still have quality educators, and they still have lots of people in the bands.” If anything, some said, programs have been trimmed back or teachers spread thinner than before, but the loss of whole programs has been rare. “Most of our programs survived with some downsizing or restructuring,” said George Quinlan of Chicago’s Quinlan and Fabish. “And I think that’s a result of our advocacy message getting through.”

“It’s kind of a recession-proof market,” added Alfred Music CEO Ron Manus. “Even when school budgets are cut, communities and parents see music as a fundamental part of the education they want their kids to have.”

By way of hard numbers, longtime music education advocate Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser, now vice president of education for Conn-Selmer, reported that there are currently 56,000 music programs in the U.S.—a number that fell by only a small fraction of 1% over the past three years. “While everyone is running around saying music programs are disappearing, that really is not the case,” said Lautzenheiser. “Now, this doesn’t say anything about the size of the programs: There may be fewer students within the program, but that is offset by the fact we’re running a bit above the number of school music participants.” As Lautzenheiser also noted, the segment is also finding rapid growth in “nontraditional” music programs—a category that includes everything from guitar and ukulele lessons to mariachi bands to computer-aided music composition.

While it depends on whom you talked to, several around the convention also suggested both school districts and parents are waking up to the need for high quality instruments in good condition—good news for the companies that supply them. “A lot of districts in our state are finally setting aside an annual budget where they can buy or refurbish instruments instead of fixing things with chicken wire,” said Tracy Leenman, owner of Musical Innovations in Greenville, South Carolina. The topic also came up in an educational session by Richard Saucedo, once an award-winning band director who now serves as a composer for Hal Leonard. Recognized as Indiana’s Outstanding Music Educator for 2010, Saucedo advised using concrete numbers to make the case for new instruments to budget-conscious administrators. In his experience, he said, all it took was presenting a district financial officer with the sums being spent to repair old instruments. “Once he understood we were spending money to repair instruments that had no value, we had a million dollars worth of new instruments,” Saucedo said.

If there was a prevailing concern for music education, it had less to do with the staying power of music programs than the sense that high school students are being scheduled out of them. While it’s not a new trend for music participation to drop off after middle school, several attendees called it a growing problem: Whether due to an emphasis on sports programs, beefed-up standardized test prep, or a laser focus on math and science courses, there was a consensus that when teens are overscheduled, music often lands on the cutting room floor. “There’s a continual fight to keep music in kids’ schedules,” said Russ Beacock of Beacock Music in Washington state. “Once you lose kids in seventh and eighth grade, it’s really hard to win them back. Unfortunately music is still considered an elective, and it’s always up against other electives.”

Around NASMD, many had an eye toward changing that perception, reinforcing music’s links to innovative thinking and academic achievement. As Quinlan summed up, “There has been a push to the STEM curriculum: Science Technology, Engineering, and Math. We need to make our case that if we convert it to STEAM—with the addition of the arts—it actually benefits all the subjects.” Or in Lautzenheiser’s words: “The kid who’s going to cure cancer is in a band or an orchestra or a chorus right now. It’s going to come from the creative side of the brain.” Some even say the importance of music should be formalized on a governmental level. Myrna Sislen of Middle C Music in Washington DC has for several years been part of a lobbying group calling for Congress to make music part of its recommended core curriculum. “Out of everyone we’ve talked to, no one disagrees that music is important,” she said. “For what we’re asking, there are no monies involved—it’s only changing some wording. And the reason we don’t have it yet is that Congress keeps tying it to more controversial issues in elementary and secondary education.”

On another point of concern, there were hints that school music’s traditional retail model is being disrupted in small ways. A few retailers mentioned schools are making more of their purchases online, bypassing the traditional relationship between the school and the local retailer that not only supplies instruments but provides rentals, repairs, and support for concerts and other events. “We have a lot of younger teachers who don’t understand that relationship yet,” said Tristann Rieck of Brass Bell Music in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “They don’t understand how we can support them—and they really shop the internet.” As Leenman added: “Our county just approved a $1.9 million windfall for school instruments—but unfortunately it all went to the big out-of-state guys.”

If there’s an antidote for local retailers, it will likely be found in the grass-roots relationships that make school music tick. In Saucedo’s session, nominally a guide to connecting with local booster groups, the longtime educator also delivered a kind of primer on being the hero a music program needs in its corner. More than selling instruments, he said, an indispensable music retailer is one that can turn around an emergency repair, supply replacement gear on the spot when something breaks, and turn out to concerts and festivals to support their bands—in short, all the things a web retailer can’t deliver.  “I hope you know how much those of us on the teaching side rely on you,” said Saucedo. Or as Lautzenheiser echoed in his own talk: “If I’m a music teacher and I have a problem, I don’t go to my principal; I go to you—because you can bail me out.”

As NASMD’s 2015 convention drew to a close, it was fitting that the last words went to Ellis and Branford Marsalis, father/son members of America’s “First Family of Jazz.” In their closing keynote, the New Orleans natives spoke on the days, months, and years after Hurricane Katrina, when they played a key role in picking up the pieces while—in true New Orleans style—putting music front and center. Along with their friend Harry Connick Jr., members of the Marsalis family teamed with Habitat for Humanity to establish the city’s Musicians’ Village, where new homes were built around a center for musicians to teach and perform. For those in the audience, maybe the best takeaway was that if a city can keep music education at the forefront in its darkest hour, you have to think it’s worth fighting for elsewhere. As Ellis Marsalis summed up, “We have to keep devising ways to keep the arts in our schools. What you do is essential to the lives of countless kids.”

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