Editor’s Note: The Mountaineer News Service is produced by journalism students at West Virginia University. Students from the P.I. Reed School of Journalism report, write and produce multi-platform news and feature packages about newsworthy subjects in West Virginia.
By Michelle Deehan, Brandon Hite and Laken Vita
The Mountaineer News Service
MORGANTOWN – Louis Armstrong once said, “What we play is life.”
Though music is important to culture, musical education is one of the first casualties of budget cuts, and without help, many West Virginia children wouldn’t have the opportunity to push down the buttons of a trumpet and blow life through its mouthpiece like Armstrong once did.
Since 2009, VH1′s Save the Music Foundation has donated over $600,000 worth of instruments, so that middle and elementary schools in 33 West Virginia counties could support their music programs.
In 1997 the Foundation began with the mission to restore and sustain instrumental music programs in New York City and Brooklyn elementary and middle schools. The program quickly spread throughout the country.
Rob Davidson, Director of Programs and Policy for VH1 Save the Music, is elated with how the program has skyrocketed. “To date, we are [in] about 1,900 schools across the country. We’ve given a little over 15 million dollars of musical instruments to schools, and we estimate that’s about 2.3 million children who have had their lives impacted by these musical instruments that have been donated.”
Individual schools around the nation apply to the Foundation for grants, but the Foundation’s commitment to West Virginia schools is unique because it is a focused effort to make a difference in every county in the state.
Randall Reid-Smith, the Commissioner of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, wanted to see a major revitalization of instrumental music in the state. Reid-Smith met with Davidson in 2009 and developed a partnership with Yamaha and VH1 Save the Music.
“In the state, our initial goal is to have a footprint in all 55 counties, and our long-term goal is to help restore instrumental music programs in all elementary and middle schools across the state that would qualify for a grant from us,” said Davidson. “To date, we are in 33 of the counties and have grants in about 43 schools.”
Chad Conant, the band director at Sheperdstown Middle School in Jefferson Country, W.Va., was personally contacted by Smith about the grant. “We were contacted in the spring of 2012 by the office of the WV Division of Culture and History, and informed about VH1 possibly starting grants in Jefferson County. I completed the county application, then subsequently completed the school application. The application process was pretty involved.”
Half of the money for each grant is raised locally. Once Jefferson County was able to raise its share of $15,000, the grant was accepted and Save the Music raised the other $15,000. The grant opened new doors for the Sheperdstown music students.
On March 20, 2013, the Sheperdstown Middle School Jazz Band was invited to play at the VH1 ceremony for the Senators and Commissioner Reid-Smith’s wife on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
“The kids were honored and thrilled to perform at the ceremony,” Conant said. “Chad Smith, the drummer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Bernie Williams, New York Yankees great and Grammy-nominated jazz guitarist, sat in with the kids for a few tunes. Both of them were wonderful and really sparked an enthusiasm within the children.”
Conant is grateful for the support the community and VH1 have given. “The kids feel appreciated. This program has generated a lot of excitement across the community.”
In order for a county to be eligible for the grant, a school has to have a certified music teacher in place, be committed to teaching instrumental music as part of the school day, have a before school or after school program, and have a music program as part of the core curriculum during the school day, so that all kids have access to it. Instruments provided through the grant are eight flutes, eleven clarinets, six trumpets, four trombones, three alto saxophones and a set of percussion instruments that includes a snare drum, orchestra bells, bass drum and crash cymbals.
Father and son, Keith and Jacob Lee are both band directors at West Virginia middle schools with music programs in very different circumstances.
Keith Lee, the band director at Suncrest Middle School in Monongalia County, said, “When schools start cutting [music programs] I don’t think they realize the detriment they’re doing to these kids. The arts are important. They are a part of our society.”
“There’s kids here who get them [instruments] from pawn shops, or kids that get the ones their mommies and daddies played. Grandma might’ve played them too,” Keith said.
Suncrest Middle School was a recipient of the VH1 grant in 2012 while Jacob’s school has yet to receive the grant although he’s applied for it.
Jacob Lee is the band director at Mountain View Middle School in Monroe County. “We need a lot of assistance. We get no help from the county. Our money comes from levy money, which gives us only $300 for the whole year. I spend $178 of that in reeds just to begin the school year.”
Monroe isn’t the only county struggling. Many schools are having a hard time supporting their music programs, which can lead to poorly maintained instruments.
“The equipment is in really bad shape. I’ve had do to my own repairs because there is no money for repairs,” Jacob said. “It makes me upset. We are not getting the support that the kids deserve. They deserve a good band program.”
While Save the Music has supported music in many West Virginia schools, there are some areas that simply don’t have the industry to support it, but Smith isn’t giving up on these areas. “We work seven days a week. We’re always doing something. My goal is to help build strong band programs throughout the state of West Virginia.”