Attendees at the CMA Foundation’s Music Teachers of Excellence ceremony witnessed the power of music education in students’ lives as 30 influential music teachers from across the country were honored for their efforts with a celebratory dinner in Nashville. The event was hosted by Dierks Bentley and sponsored by U.S. Bank, continuing its ongoing partnership with the CMA Foundation.
Kelsea Ballerini, Kix Brooks, Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild, and Chris Young were among the 26 artists on hand to celebrate the educators. In addition to the celebration, the CMA Foundation has awarded a total of $5,000 to each recipient – $2,500 for each teacher’s music program to support their commitment to music education for all children, and $2,500 to use as they wish. Past winners have used their stipends for down payments on homes, continuing education, and to record their own music.
One of the most moving moments of the night came from students Zion Brown, Bella Selley and Rex Yape Jr., sharing personal stories that drove home the impact of music education and the dedicated people who teach it. For Zion, songwriting has become a safe space to explore his emotions. He’s harbored an interest in music throughout the entirety of his young life, discovering an early passion for drumming and writing. His mother, Aundra Keo Brown, explains how her son often had difficulty expressing complicated emotions such as anger and frustration, responding physically rather than verbally. That’s when his music teacher at Waverly Belmont Elementary School, Alice Asako Walle, taught him about songwriting, implementing it as a strategy to examine his feelings. “Sometimes I have some thoughts that I can’t really forget about, so I write them,” Zion tells CMA Close Up. “It doesn’t make me forget about them, but it makes me feel better about them.”
Songwriting has served as a transformative element in Zion’s life, as he’s learned to take a challenging circumstance, such as a disagreement with a classmate, and turn it into a song or rap. “Songwriting would help me open up and make me my own counselor, in a way,” he says. “Sometimes I think the things that I get into conflict or arguments with, it was meant to happen for a better reason.”
“I think it created a little balance for him. [He’s] definitely using words more because you have to use them in order to write, that helps him express verbally as well. Even if it’s just reciting what he’s written so that he can tell me what happened, that has helped,” Aundra adds, explaining how songwriting has aided in Zion’s communication skills. “There have been a number of measures that have been given to him, but it was up to him to choose to use these strategies, so I’m very grateful. He has stepped up to the plate.”
Zion found fulfillment in penning his first complete composition, “Ready,” a rap he wrote about his first year playing football. The lyrics include specific details like “kick it far,” a phrase his coaches and mother would cheer from the sidelines. “I like to use true things, not fake things,” he says. “I want to rap about something that’s real.”
Like Zion, Bella has found her self-professed “happy place” in music. A shy student who was subjected to bullying, she is described by her mother, Donna Selley, as a girl who lights up through song, whether singing and dancing along while watching a movie or creating her own choreography during a talent show performance. “Music is communication for me, I can listen to it in any situation. It helps me calm down,” Bella comments. “It makes me feel like I’m an actual somebody.”
Franklin Willis, music educator at Andrew Jackson Elementary School in Old Hickory, TN, recognized that spark in Bella and the energy she exudes when singing so much so that he awarded her the solo during the Andrew Jackson Elementary School Eagle Honor Choir’s performance of “This is Me” from The Greatest Showman at Nissan Stadium during CMA Fest in 2018. “At first it made me feel uncomfortable,” Bella says, reflecting on the monumental moment. “And then it made me feel like somebody.” “That was just amazing to be able to watch her on that stage. It was overwhelming,” Donna recalls. “Even though there were 50,000 people there, she didn’t falter at all. She got on that stage and she owned that stage like she was meant to be there.”
Bella had the opportunity to inspire other students by returning to Willis’ third-grade class, where a choir member named Carrington recounted how watching Bella courageously take on a solo gave her the confidence to sing her own. “It made me feel like I belonged somewhere,” Bella says of her time with the students. “It felt like home.”
For Rex, music symbolizes perseverance. As a student in Metro Nashville Public Schools from kindergarten through 12th grade, Rex’s interest in music began while playing recorder in the third grade. But he discovered his calling the first time he played the oboe, receiving his first professional model of the instrument through CMA. Although he is a gifted musician, Rex cites the mentorship of his teachers as the basis for his success, crediting Antioch High School band directors Scott and Caryn Miller for imbuing him with a sense of passion, and his first mentor, music teacher Linda Friend, for instilling in him the valuable attribute of persistence.
“There is an abundant source of self-confidence and self-assurance when one is able to present oneself at their absolute best,” Rex says. “Teaching this to young people is tremendously valuable for their character, especially when those young people grow up in broken communities of poverty, like me. As most of us know, it is very easy to succumb to the precipitous nature of youth. Music was a discipline that kept me aligned with my goals.”
This determination led him to the Blair School of Music where he studied under Roger Wiesmeyer, an English horn and oboe player in the Nashville Symphony, and was accepted into Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, an experience that, while challenging, recalled the motivation he learned through his humble instructors. “The years of self-confidence quickly faded and I was left with the only other tool in my arsenal: perseverance, a characteristic I saw in my teachers when things got rough,” he reminisces. “I’m proud of myself for not giving up, as this is one of my fondest accomplishments. Music educators have instilled countless qualities in me, but giving up isn’t one of them.”
Rex aspires to become part of a professional orchestra, and to have his own studio to train other oboe students and pass on the wisdom he gained through his impactful educators. “Over the years, I have been given so much: financial support, free lessons, extra time with teachers,” he says. “One day, it’ll be my turn to give back.”
The proceeds raised each year from CMA Fest go to support music education through the CMA Foundation, and another interesting fact about the festival is that many of those students who benefit from the programs are given the chance to shine and showcase their talents onstage during the weekend.
The festival kicked off with a performance by the Nashville School of the Arts choir under the direction of Trey Jacobs. Jacobs has been recognized for his teaching excellence four times by the CMA, receiving the CMA Foundation Music Teacher of Excellence Award. The high school choir opened up the festival at Riverfront Park, performing the National Anthem on Thursday as well as kicking off the evening show at Nissan Stadium.
Willis and the Andrew Jackson Elementary Eagle Honor Choir wowed the crowds at CMA Fest for the second time in a row, this year performing their rousing rendition of Carrie Underwood’s “The Champion.” A three-time winner of the CMA Foundation Music Teachers of Excellence Award, Willis’ choir is a perfect example of how beneficial music programs in schools can be and he’s been recognized repeatedly for his excellence in the field and in shaping the next generation of music makers. The third and fourth-graders got a great start on their budding careers by performing for over 50,000 fans during this year’s CMA Fest shows at Nissan Stadium.
Fans attending the Nissan Stadium shows got an opportunity to see firsthand, through the performances by local students, the way their CMA Fest attendance supports music education and is perhaps igniting the career of a future Country Music superstar.