CMA pairs with Chris Young to broaden national dialogue on music education
Tiffany Kerns bought a piano last year.
She always wanted to learn, but after five years with the Country Music Association Foundation, the community outreach director began lessons to better identify with the students for whom she was so often advocating. “Every time I went into a school, I watched how hard these students were working, and they would ask, ‘Well what instrument can you play?’ And I’d say, ‘Well I don't think the recorder counts, but you know what, let me get back to you on that.’ ”
One year later, her belief that every child deserves a quality education — and that music should be a part of it — has only strengthened. Kerns and the CMA Foundation have served generations of youth, focusing on improving and sustaining music education programs in communities across the country. Since its inception in 2006, it has given more than $21 million to more than 85 sustainable music education initiatives, including an investment of $11 million into Metro Nashville Public Schools.
The goal, Kerns says, is listening to and understanding the needs of an often underfunded and underresourced community and having a broader national dialogue. Music education can shape a child's life, enhance cognitive learning and strengthen their biological and neurological growth, whether or not they plan to become a musician.
“Music education can be supplemental to things that are otherwise a struggle or pain point in education,” she says. “It’s supplemental learning — it’s making sure that academic achievement is happening, making sure that students are staying in school and that they're coming to school, increased attendance, increased participation. All of those things happen when a child has access and opportunity through music.”
Helping Kerns and the foundation lead the way is a product of music education himself: country star and Murfreesboro native, Chris Young. A Grand Ole Opry member and CMA Foundation board member, Young, Kerns says, is nothing but authentic. “Two things. As a human being, you can not find a more generous, thought-provoking person. As an industry professional, this is a gentleman who sits on our board, and who is constantly giving feedback. He holds us accountable as a board member, which is incredibly important because those are the ones who are helping you lead the way. They're making sure that they're pushing you to constantly be better both professionally and personally, but also for our brand and for our model.”
In early May, Young hosted the CMA Music Teachers of Excellence ceremony, which honored 34 music teachers from Tennessee and beyond, and featured an appearance by his high school music teacher, Brenda Gregory. Young studied jazz and trained classically, learning how to sing “correctly,” he says, “so that all those nights in bars singing for four or five hours straight didn’t wreck my voice. I talk a lot about the fact that I may not always sing correctly doing a commercial form of music, even though I was classically trained, but a lot of that enables me to find notes I wouldn’t otherwise be able to find. But I also understand how to talk to other musicians in a studio, and being a writer, producer, there’s bits of knowledge that I’ve gained specifically through my years of study that are hugely important to me on an everyday basis.”
For the CMA Foundation and its board members, increased music participation, equity and quality within those programs, and retention, recruitment and development for educators are all goals for which they strive. And that’s all done through several initiatives, including financial grants, connecting teachers or districts to national partners, leveraging creative strategies, offering professional development, or hosting conferences.
“There is never going to be a one-size-fits-all anything when it comes to education,” Kerns says, “so sustainability just means you have to be very smart about your investments and think strategically. It’s getting creative, looking at opportunities outside of a school system — if you have cultural organizations in your city, how are you leaning on them?”
Kerns is a boots-on-the-ground puzzle piece for the three-person Foundation team. She's able to spend the majority of her time in the field completing site visits and making sure the organization’s investments are doing exactly what they're supposed to.
“Teachers can so often feel like they’re on this island by themselves," Kerns says. "Let’s say you’re the only music teacher in a district of 10 schools: can you imagine not having anyone else to communicate with? So beyond the financial support and resources, where we've been the most valuable is just our advocacy role, making sure that they know we're here on their behalf.”
Along with initiatives throughout the year, the foundation’s dedication to fundraising prominently includes CMA Fest, the four-day event held every year in June that draws more than 90,000 attendees to downtown Nashville.
But before locals voice their online complaints about traffic and Airbnb guests, there’s one piece to note: Every artist that plays CMA Fest does so for free. In fact, Kerns says, it’s probably costing most musicians money to play. They play for free so that half of the net proceeds from the festival can go directly into music education programs and in the hands of students and teachers. CMA Fest, which will take place June 7-10, features more than 350 artists, 1,100 musicians and 167 hours of music.
“I want people to be proud that this is happening in their backyard,” Kerns says. “It's really changing the lives of children not just in our community and across our state but throughout the country. And imagine another festival giving up a significant piece of the proceeds for one specific cause. You won't find it anywhere because it's hard to do — to get artists to give up a very expensive tour date. [But they do so] to help us further our mission and support this next generation. It's incredible.”
For Young, success with CMA Fest, with the foundation, with his board seat, means tangible evidence that the needle is moving in the right direction. “I want you to see classrooms that otherwise wouldn’t have the capabilities, teachers that wouldn’t have the resources — now they do because of what the CMA Foundation is doing. I want to maintain that level of excitement about being an advocate for music education. I think it’s insanely important, it’s overlooked so often, and it’s one of those things that allows kids to express themselves, whether they end up being a musician or not. There are skills that they will pick up through music education that will never leave them, and I find it something that’s incredibly important.”
For Kerns, it’s becoming a model across the country, and if there's any state that's going to be innovative and make sure that music education is a priority, she says, “I kind of think Tennessee should be the state.”
In April, the CMA Foundation and Gov. Bill Haslam announced a $1 million, grant-funded program called “State of the Arts,” which will allow for three-year grants to be awarded to eight districts across the state. The funds will go toward professional development for music teachers, additional arts and music supplies for schools, materials and equipment used to address equity and to expand local arts education outreach programs. The Tennessee Department of Education will break the state up into eight core locations. “We want those core locations to tell us what it would take in order for them to have a robust music and arts program,” Kerns says. “The sky's the limit.”
The Tennessee Department of Education recently hired a position to help oversee the specific program, visiting districts and faculty throughout the summer to explain the process, help with grant writing and articulating specific needs, and then look at the applications and create solutions or strategies around those ideas.
“Equity is something that burdens education. Everyone is trying to figure out how we can make sure that every child is being served,” Kerns says. “So I would love to see Tennessee be the model. And I really believe that through our statewide initiative — and quite frankly through our very aggressive strategy when it comes to how we invest — our organization, our genre could really be recognized as not only leaders in the field, but the model when it comes to how you invest in education and how you make sure it doesn't go into a black hole.”
Because it’s not just about money, Kerns reflects, but it's about the time spent present, listening. “This field, they just want to know that they have someone who has their back, who’s looking out for them. So whether or not I ever learned to play the piano, the fact that we are advocating for them, for music teachers to be more equipped, to find more success, that’s what’s most important.”