Bringing Music Back to School

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MY family lived in a working-class neighborhood of West Philadelphia. My mother sent my older sister and me to Catholic school to escape the gangs in the local public schools. My father was a mechanic at the local Ford dealer, and he, my two older brothers and I would always talk about car magazines and the latest cars. Every Christmas I'd get a radio-controlled toy car. The year the Mustang came out, I got one with working lights.

I enrolled at Fordham University in New York for a bachelor's in international politics and economics, and graduated in 1978. I learned a lot about how the world works, including the occasional side deals made at organizations like the United Nations to complete international treaties or to accomplish other goals.

I've always been drawn to New York and have spent my entire career here. While working as a program coordinator for a nonprofit group that was conducting research on heart-attack risk factors, I saw a want ad for a public relations position for the United Way of New York City. I got the job, which involved fund-raising and set me on the path to my future. Fund-raising is a great career; it's creative and involves public relations, marketing, sales, writing and public speaking.

In 1984, I moved to National Medical Fellowships, which provides scholarships for minority students to attend medical school. In the three years I was there, I rose to development director. I also worked in fund-raising for Fordham, and later Pace University.

In 1997, an executive search firm called about a position at the Big Apple Circus in New York. I interviewed and was offered the job of director of health and community programs. I wasn't sure that I wanted a job with a circus on my résumé, so I initially declined. Then the executive director called and said I had great fund-raising experience but lacked experience in program management, which the circus could offer me on a national scale.

I accepted and worked there for seven years. Two of my favorite accomplishments involved expanding two programs across the country: the Clown Care program in pediatric hospitals, and Circus of the Senses, for children with visual and hearing impairments.

In 2004, another search firm called about the executive director position at VH1 Save the Music Foundation. I wasn't confident I'd be hired because I didn't feel that I was particularly cool and I didn't have a deep musical background. But they were looking for someone with my experience and offered me the job.

Initially, VH1 Save the Music Foundation was a public affairs initiative of the VH1 cable channel. In 1997, it was spun off as a nonprofit, but we still work in close association with VH1. I'm employed by the channel as the foundation's executive director and carry a dual title; I'm also a vice president of VH1.

We raise funds to restore instrumental music education programs that were cut because of budget constraints. We believe that students who study musical instruments improve in academic subjects and are more engaged in school. Studying music also helps students develop self-expression and discipline and learn about teamwork.

Schools have told us that the initial capital outlay for items like musical instruments is a big challenge. We offer packages so that schools can select whether they want band instruments or string instruments, or a keyboard or guitar laboratory. We require that our program be offered in the curriculum -- held during the school day -- so that all students can sign up. Since 1997, we have donated more than $49 million worth of instruments to over 1,800 public schools.

As told to Patricia R. Olsen.

employment

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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