Besides playing bass, one of my strongest passions in life is fighting for music education and its right to be in our school systems.
This past May, I had the pleasure of joining nearly 100 members of NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) in Washington D.C. for the annual Fly In for Music Education advocacy to speak with Members of Congress about the importance of music education and to ask for full funding for vital music education programs for the nation’s students. In 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which mandated music and arts as part of a well-rounded education. To date, Congress has only funded $4 million of the $1.65 billion promised. The law is readying for state-level implementation in 2018 and is already facing an uphill battle as the current administration’s federal budget proposal, which was released while we were in D.C., eliminates funding for this vital program.
On the first day of our trip, we visited Jefferson Middle School for a day of service to teach the students how to play guitar, ukulele and drums.
Other members of NAMM also took an inventory of the instruments the school owned to see what they could salvage and repair so the students had working instruments to learn on, as well as a curriculum meeting to better teach the students. I was part of the guitar class as I have been for the last four years I’ve been involved with the NAMM Foundation. For so many of these kids, it was the first time they had played guitar and you could tell that by the glow and excitement that came across their face when we put the instruments in their hands. From Bob Marley and the Beatles, to Green Day and a standard four-bar blues, we taught songs and patterns that the students were familiar with.
Some kids were impressively natural with the guitar while some took a bit more of a personal touch, guiding their hands across the neck to get a note to ring out correctly. Either way, every student left the classroom knowing they played guitar. The excitement and pride some kids had being able to play songs they heard on the radio as they moved on to the next classroom was a great feeling and reminded me of how happy I was when I learned my first song on guitar, Cream’s “Sunshine of your Love.” A really great moment getting back to my roots and remembering that moment when the lightbulb went off as I was starting out.
One of the most unexpected moments of the day came between classes when I got to speak with Mark Wood of Wood Violins, an original violinist for Trans Siberian Orchestra. I saw him and the rest of TSO for the first time in the winter of 2004 and their show had such an impact on me that a week later I bought recording software and started writing my own music and jump started my career. During our conversation, I got to tell him the impact he and the rest of the band had on me, which was just another way teaching at the school came full circle for me.
Tuesday was a day of intense training as we prepared for our day on Capitol Hill. The day was spent at the Newseum where we listened to NAMM’s Public Affairs and Government Relations Director Mary Luehrsen, Arts Education Program Manager for Americans for the Arts (AFTA) Jeff M. Poulin as well as Director of Public Policy and Professional Development for the National Assocation for Music Education (NAfME) and New York Times Op Ed columnist David Brooks as they discussed the implementation of ESSA, current political and policy trends in the Trump Administration as well as the message and logistics for meeting with members of congress. We were also trained on developing state-level advocacy efforts for music and arts education to put into practice in our home states.
That night, we got to let our hair down for the NAMM Jam across from the Capitol where we got to relax, socialize and most importantly, play music with our fellow NAMM members. I had the pleasure of bringing my Dean bass out to play several songs, including a cover of Statesboro Blues from the Allman Brothers, with Mark Wood of TSO and his wife on vocals. If you told me when I was watching Trans Siberian for the first time as a teenager that years later, I’d be performing on a rooftop in D.C. with the violinist, with the U.S. Capitol as our background, I’m not sure I would’ve been able to even comprehend such an idea let alone believe it to be possible. It was one of the most incredible things I’ve done and I’m very proud to have been able to perform with him.
Wednesday was our big day. With the federal budget proposal released just the day before, we took our message to Capitol Hill and our Members of Congress. The NAMM delegation represented 35 different states and held nearly 200 meetings with Members of Congress. The California delegation had a lot of ground to cover so we were split up into two teams in order to make all 14 meetings we had. While some state teams were met with resistance, California’s representatives were very receptive and understanding of our message, if not already aware of the benefits music has on the brain and why it should be included as part of a well-rounded education, so our task was much easier than others. As with most kids in the U.S., I had the chance to take an educational field trip of the east coast while in high school. Going from meeting to meeting, I saw several school groups taking tours of the Capitol; taking in all the history and art spread across the building. In that moment, I took pause to remember how I once was right there and hope someday at least one of them gets to have the journey in life that lands them back inside that building working and/or fighting for a cause they believe in.
Once all of our meetings were done, we attended a reception inside the Capitol to celebrate our work. We heard inspirational words from NAMM President Joe Lamond as well as former New York Yankees Centerfielder Bernie Williams. Later that night, the California team went out for drinks to talk about the trip, our favorite experiences and what we got out of being there.
The next morning at Nelson-Mullins, we recapped our trip with a “broadcast to the nation,” detailing all the various activities and events that went on during the fly-in. With so much happening in D.C. while we were there, it was the perfect way to end the trip and say our farewells. Being a first timer entering the political arena and being the only artist on this trip, it was a very overwhelming task to take on because making sure kids have access to music education is very important to me as I am a product of the music education system in schools. I was very thankful to all the members of NAMM from various companies for welcoming me to the team, with such open arms, and for being such a joy to work with. Upon leaving D.C. and making my way back home to Los Angeles, I definitely felt like a different person, changed for the better because of the experiences and opportunities I had. I look forward to joining members of NAMM back on the Hill next year as we continue supporting music education rights and I sincerely thank NAMM for letting my voice be heard and letting me be apart of this.