On January 9th 1996 something of a defining and unifying moment occurred for music education and music education advocacy. It was on this evening that more than 25,000 concerned citizens, music teachers, principals, superintendents, celebrities, politicians, students, advocates and other gathered in 49 locations across the nation for the premiere of the now legendary film, Mr. Holland’s Opus.
These “by invitation only” premieres were sponsored by the National Coalition for Music Education (NAMM, NARAS, MENC), The NARAS Foundation, Inc., American Music Conference, and Hollywood Pictures and sparked grassroots efforts by communities around the country to rally around the cause of music and arts education.
Catalyst for Change
The film served as a platform to discuss the status of music education in our nation’s schools. The film’s star, Richard Dryfuss and musical composer Michael Kamen were willing accomplices in our efforts to use the film to make a bigger point: While the character in the film may have been fictional – the issue of cutbacks to music education programs was very real. For the first time ever a major motion picture was telling our story about the reality that many schools were reducing or eliminating music programs.
In Mr. Holland’s Opus, Dreyfuss’ character, Glenn Holland, is a musician and composer who reluctantly accepts a job as a music teacher. Holland’s true goal is to write one memorable musical composition to leave his mark on the world. But instead he finds his calling in the most unlikely place, sharing his love of music with his students, and dedicating himself to the cause of music education — so much so that he goes to great lengths challenging anyone or anything threatening the school’s music program.
“The performing arts, unfortunately, in this country are in danger of becoming the un-performing arts in many of our schools,” said Dreyfuss, “But music and dance and drama are, as a statesman once said, ‘The yardstick by which a culture and a society is measured.’ ”
The timing of the release of this film could not have been better. The federal education law at the time, Goals 2000 Educate America Act embraced music and the arts as a core subjects as part of our National Education Goals. 18 month earlier the National Standards for Arts Education had been released putting the arts on par with the other core subjects. The research community was building a strong case for the benefits of music in the lives of children through rigorous scientific methods. The economy was going strong.
The partnership worked extraordinarily well. Hollywood Pictures integrated the Coalition’s messages into their marketing campaign. MENC sent movie posters to schools across the country. NARAS managed some of the high-profile locations and called on their members to participate. NAMM and MENC members collaborated in various markets to make the local premieres a local success. AMC put Dryfuss and Kamen on a 25-city media tour and help launch this as a story much bigger than the movie. Towns proclaimed “Mr. Holland’s Opus Day.” Several communities paid tribute to real life music teachers by selecting winners of the first “Mr. Holland’s Opus” Award.
Mr. Holland’s Opus was a critical and box office success: The film opened at #1 and netted Richard Dreyfuss an Academy Award Nomination for Best Actor.
It was also an advocacy success. Following the release of the film we began to see more and more media coverage of communities restoring music programs. Advocates were successful in making fact-based cases to keep or expand programs. For the first time in more than a decade there was a real sense of progress. It is as if the movie came along to help focus the nation on the work the music and arts education community had accomplished during the previous five years.
Unfortunately, these gains would be short lived. During the later half of the 1990’s these successes led to apathy. Many individuals and organizations began to feel as if the battle was over and the war had been won and there was no longer a need to be proactive in our efforts to protect our music programs. The booming economy only served to fuel this foolish notion.
In 2000 the economy tanked with the burst of the dot.com bubble. State budgets began to run in the red and cutbacks to education ensued. This was followed by the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act, a document that has been used by many districts as the reason to cut back on non-tested programs.
So what have we learned in the 10 years since the premiere of this film? What are the real lessons we need to learn?
The battle for the place of music in our schools will NEVER be over. No movie (as good as it may be), law, policy, or research discovery will bring to an end the need to advocate for our music programs. Advocacy for music education in our schools has been going on for more than 50 years. The reason for this has nothing to do with the effectiveness of our efforts (although we should strive to be as effective as possible) The reason it will never be over is the fact that as soon as we educate one generation of school board members, administrators, parents, government officials – they move on and a new generation moves in. It is a constant education process that we are engaged in. One that, like it or not, has no end.
Advocacy is not someone else’s job – It is everyone’s job. Far too often individuals believe that advocacy is someone else’s job. An individual or organization. The fact is – the most effective advocacy occurs when everyone within a community embraces their role as advocate for their cause and integrates advocacy into everything they do. This does not mean you have to institute bull horn techniques and protests. Subtle advocacy works best when trying to reinforce the value of your program. Programs notes, comments from the stage during your concerts about the benefits of the music programs, booster meetings, having students perform at the start of every school board meeting, notes to the parents, “good news” articles to the local papers to highlight the programs success… these are all things we all can do… everyday to promote the importance of music in our schools. It does not belong to someone else… it resides within us all.
To be effective you have to be informed. Information is your friend. The power of your message when making the case for music education is only as strong as the data and information you use to make. Making wild claims and false statements will only undermine your efforts. Be sure you are armed with the facts – the most compelling and locally relevant arguments – when making your own case. Where can you easily find the best information? Go to:
http://music-for-all.org for the latest music education news and information to help you efforts. Sign up for the Music for All News Serves or the WhyMusicEd listserv to stay current on the latest news to help the cause.
http://Supportmusic.com – Supportmusic.com is a public service of the Music Education Coalition (which has followed in the footsteps of the National Coalition for Music Education). This site has tools and materials to help you when your program is in trouble… and even when it is not. The automated “Build Your Case” tool will help even the most novice advocate come up with effective strategies.
In closing, I leave you with one final comment from Richard Dreyfuss. Even though it was from late 1995 it almost sounds like he is talking about the present day:
“We wanted to make people aware of the loss that you can’t teach people English and math and give them anything to write about if you don’t teach them music and the other arts. Right now this country is reeling from a kind of self-cannibalizing instinct that allows us to slaughter what is most valuable in us at the alter of some kind of short-(sighted) self-sufficiency. And it isn’t going to work.”
At least it shouldn’t … so long as we stand up and fight for our programs. This is one New Years resolution we should all try to keep.
Honestly, although “Mr Holland” brought to light certain issues facing music educators, I always hated the movie. I felt it was Hollywood sugar coating. I wish that teaching music was as easy as having my students close their eyes so they would suddenly play beautiful music! I was annoyed by the fact that facing the demise of the program they were able to mobilize everyone up to the Governor for a huge celebration, but not to SAVE the program? I always wondered what message that sent.