Building Walls vs. Building Bridges: Music’s Role

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Despite the current political climate where efforts to build walls, ban travel and separate different ethnic groups is increasing, an argument can be made that over time, the forces of globalization are simply too strong and, ultimately, will prevail.

Whether it relates to the economy, the environment, religion or culture, the fact is, the world community is becoming increasingly interrelated and interdependent. Travel is faster, safer, more affordable and more accessible to the masses. A distance that once took a day to traverse is now only hours away. You can be in New York today and Tokyo the next.

Global communication is now instantaneous and accessible to almost everyone on the planet. From Memphis to Mumbai, Sheboygen to Shanghai, all it takes to access the global communications network is a modem and electricity. From the challenges associated with the spread of disease to the spread of terrorist ideology to the fact that our children are now competing against the children of India, China and Russia for the world’s best jobs. International and cultural boundaries are diminishing.

The result is that the U.S. is no longer a virtual island, protected by two major oceans. We can no longer isolate ourselves from the problems, issues and opportunities of the rest of the world.  We are part of a global economic and geopolitical system.  In so many ways, we are becoming one world.

In short, there is a big world out there and rather than trying to build walls we must learn to effectively deal with that reality.

This begs the question. What must our educational institutions do to effectively educate and prepare our children to succeed in this changing global reality? Increasingly, our schools are being asked to instill in our children not only an awareness and appreciation for these changing global circumstances, but also to prepare them to successfully navigate the challenges presented by an increasingly multiethnic and multicultural global community. In other words, proficiency in reading, writing and math is no longer enough. Today, a quality education must include an understanding of, appreciation for, and the ability to function in a multi-ethnic, multi-national, interrelated world.

If we expect our children and our nation to thrive in the 21st Century, our educational policies and programs must take into account these changing challenges and expectations, including priorities and policies relating to the role that music can play in the school curricula.

Music has always been viewed as a powerful tool in breaking barriers and promoting cross-cultural understanding.   That is why, for example, there is a long and strong history of the U.S. State Department using music as a vehicle to promote cultural understanding. The number of cultural exchange music programs involving countries from all over the globe are too many to mention. And, there is a long history of radio networks such as Voice of America broadcasting American jazz, blues and rock-n-roll to a worldwide audience.

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I was recently reminded of music’s potential in this regard by a fellow musician recounting a visit to Italy. He described two very unexpected highlights. As he and his family entered an open plaza in Rome, they heard, flowing out of beautiful cathedral, the sound of a choral group in full-throated Latin. Upon further inquiry, they were surprised to discover the group consisted of high school students from all over the United States. They were rehearsing for a performance, one of several they were scheduled to give throughout Europe. 

The second occurred at a café in Venice, where they noticed a play bill advertising an upcoming appearance by a choral group. Upon closer examination, they saw that the group was a high school chorus from a small town in rural Indiana. Imagine being a high school kid from a country town in middle-America singing in Florence, Italy. How cool is that!

Music is the universal language with an appeal that transcends language, cultural or religious boundaries. The notes played by a musician fall on the ears the same way whether you are American, Muslim, Jewish, African or Mexican. Engaging in music activities with people of another culture or country can increase cultural understanding and tolerance.  It is the ability to build bridges to other cultures and societies that makes music such a valuable educational and cultural tool.  

In an increasingly integrated global economy and diverse world community, providing our children access to music education opportunities is critical. Rather than building walls, school and community leaders should be working to leverage the power of music as a universal language to break down barriers and build community. In today’s world, harnessing music’s power in this regard is more important than ever.

Nonprofit Leadership Tips from the Basketball Court

This essay appeared in the September 22, 2018 edition of Blue Avocado.

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As a former all-American and professional basketball player turned nonprofit leader, I see tons of similarities between life on the court and as an executive director of a small nonprofit. Everything I learned playing the game comes in surprisingly handy, especially the importance of both defining and continuously revisiting roles and responsibilities, trusting teammates, and striving to break records.

Are Roles and Responsibilities Clear?

On the basketball court, coaches spend an enormous amount of time outlining players’ roles in an effort to maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses, both of which are key to winning. For example, I was a good scorer, while other teammates were incredible defenders.

Defining the roles and responsibilities of your staff, volunteers, interns, and board members is perhaps the central challenge of nonprofit leadership. Articulating and defining roles is critical because nonprofits rely so heavily on volunteers.

This is particularly important when it comes to identifying and recruiting board members. Just like a basketball team, an effective board must be well balanced with members who possess a varied assortment of talents and expertise. Simply being passionate about the mission doesn’t qualify someone for board service, although of course it’s an important pre-requisite. Most importantly, you need to ensure clarity around the specific skills and contacts candidates offer, and how these overlap with current or future needs. Make sure to clearly articulate new member’s responsibilities and how they relate to the needs identified.

For smaller or start up organizations with minimal or no staff, developing a working board where members understand their specific roles and how those align with the organization’s needs is essential.

For example, in 2009 my music-focused nonprofit implemented Keys for the City, a program that placed painted pianos throughout the streets of Lancaster. We needed a well-connected visual artist to coordinate the design and painting aspects of the program. So we recruited one and clearly outlined her responsibilities around identifying and securing artists. Almost ten years later we can proudly claim Lancaster PA as the “Street Piano Capital of the World.”

Is Your Team Evolving?

On the basketball court, team chemistry and individual roles evolved over the course of the season due to injuries and constant adjustments in style of play. Nonprofits, like any team, must adapt as new opportunities, challenges, and issues arise. A lynchpin to ensuring this is constantly revisiting roles and responsibilities.

For example, we are in the process of finding a new board member to serve as our treasurer. The board member currently in that role conceived a program to catalogue and repair every single instrument at every public school in the county. It’s a big, detailed, expensive, and operationally challenging program, but also a huge opportunity for us. We’ve been communicating throughout regarding him eventually relinquishing his duties as treasurer to tap his skills to build and execute what will become a major program, and we’re excited to finally be ready to make that transition.

Trust Your Teammates

Once roles and responsibilities are established—or re-established over time—the real challenge begins: trusting your team to carry them out.

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In my former basketball life, my most important role was scoring points. But to do that, I had to trust my teammates to help me get open and deliver the ball to me at the right time and place.

Trusting teammates to do their job is especially important if you lead a small nonprofit. In the case of my nonprofit, we started with a volunteer staff of one—me. Since 2006, we’ve grown to a point where we invested over $1.6 million in grants, scholarships, and general support for school and community music programs. With no full-time paid staff until 2016, we have been successful because we have a working board and volunteers who understand and execute their roles and responsibilities.

In short, whether on the basketball court or in a small nonprofit, all of that strategic recruitment and role defining is of little use if those people are not allowed to do the jobs for which they’re recruited. Without trust, the ability to grow your organization and increase community impact will be severely limited.

Or, in the words of the aforementioned treasurer turned instrument repair guru, “You identify ‘doers,’ tell them what to do, and let them do it.”

Are You Striving to Break Records?

At Davidson College, I held the school career scoring record for 30 years, until Steph Curry came along. Records are wonderful, but they’re made to be broken, whether in sports or in your nonprofit.

As a founder, I’m still working on letting our “doers do their thing.”  But we’re making progress as evidenced in our evolution and growing impact. One of our signature initiatives is an annual instrument grant program. This year, we awarded over $112,000 to 51 different schools and community arts groups to purchase instruments, breaking our previous 2017 record. That’s the kind of record we’d love to keep breaking!

When you set a new record, take the time to celebrate it, but soon after, set a new target that exceeds your old record, and put a plan in place to reach it. Where are you motivating your staff to exceed their previous successes?

Some have said, “If you play life as a game, you’ll always win.” While the work of nonprofits is no game, there are many lessons we can learn from them. In my personal experience playing basketball, the most relevant and applicable lessons I learned on the court and now think about daily in my new career as an executive director center around defining and continuously revisiting roles and responsibilities, trusting teammates, and striving to break records. Now that I’ve shared my playbook, I hope you find these helpful, too!

Can the NFL Recover Its Own Fumble?

Can the NFL Recover Its Own Fumble?

My father was a successful high school football coach. He was an old school, three yards and a cloud of dust sort of coach. Nothing bothered him more than watching his offense fumble the football. Offenders of what he considered the ultimate football sin were made to carry a football around school all day, every day until the next game. Conversely, as a defensive minded coach, nothing delighted him more than when his defensive unit caused and recovered a fumble.

It's happened... again. Why not flag football?

Why not flag football?

It’s happened….again.

A Georgia high school football player who came out of a game with an injury and then lost consciousness on the sideline has died, officials said. Dylan Thomas, a 16-year-old junior linebacker for the Pike County Pirates, came out of a game in the third quarter Friday night with what his coach Brad Webber said was a leg injury. He was pronounced dead Sunday night from a head injury.

How many more times does this scenario have to play out before parents, school officials, the sports media, fans and anyone else who continues to resist the need to reconsider and re-imagine tackle football at the youth, junior high and high school levels to take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask themselves a question:

Why not flag football?

We say that the game is “about the kids” and that it’s about teaching valuable life lessons, developing healthy bodies and competitive instincts, building community and providing entertainment. But if that were the case, rather than refusing to consider a switch from tackle to flag football, we’d embrace the change. To do otherwise is to enable the continuation of an activity in which our children have a reasonable chance of sustaining life long brain damage.

Why would we not embrace such an activity when a significantly safer and less expensive alternative exists?

The fact is, virtually every benefit that can be derived from tackle football can still be taught and absorbed through participation in flag football. Players will still be on teams to learn sacrifice, personal responsibility and teamwork. They’d still be actively engaged in a physical activity. They’d still compete for starting positions and against other teams. And the game would continue to be wonderfully entertaining, but in a different, less brutal (and expensive) way.

So why not flag football?

A Stage Name? Why Not Dance a Bit More?

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I gently kicked the vintage, boxy suitcase that was on the floor between me and a group of 15 second graders. The suitcase literally vibrated with all types of rattling, clanging and ringing sounds.

“You want to see what’s in there?”, I asked.

They erupted, “Yes!”

I opened the suitcase to reveal more than 20 percussion instruments of various sizes, makes, functions and models. In a frenzy, they began to reach for them.

“Woah! Wait a second”, I instructed. “If you want to play one of those, you have to do something first.”

“What?”, they asked in unison.

“You need to think up a stage name. This is a music class and one of the best things about playing music is that you can make up a new name for yourself. You can have your regular name and you can have your music name. I have one”, I revealed. “My real name is John. But when I play music, I’m Willie Marble. It’s cool to have a stage name. It’s lots of fun.”

One of the best things about teaching second graders is that they believe just about anything you tell them. And they are game to try just about anything.

Some may consider it a bit silly or foolish for a 60 year-old man to have a make believe name and persona. But there is a long history of musicians with stage names. Muddy Waters’ real name was McKinley Morganfield. Howlin’ Wolf’s was Chester Burnett. And that’s simply a start. Jay Z’s real name is Shawn Carter, Stephanie Germanotta is Lady Gaga and Dana Owens’s stage name is Queen Latifah.

Not to be outdone, the names these kids came up with were priceless: Lion Slayer, Crazy Bone, Lightning Bolt, Jeffrey McMoe, Funky Nose, Princess Cotton Candy, Howlin’ Hound Dog and Ruby Jewels to name only a few. And stage names are for adults as well. The three background singers in my current band each has a stage name, Queen Victoria, Honey Bee and Jackie Thunder. Together they comprise the “World Famous Marblettes”.

Having a second name and identity allows a certain amount of freedom to step outside yourself. For performers, that can be an advantage. One of the most important characteristics of music and art is that it allows for the individual to “color outside the lines” without being unduly penalized or chastised. It allows you the extra space to stretch your imagination, vision and sense of self. A stage name and alternative persona allows you to be a bit silly, act a bit foolish and stretch and test the boundaries of creativity. That’s one of the reasons why music is the most effective tool in our educational arsenal to teach out-of-the-box, creative thinking.

And while that is all great and valuable, the fact is, it’s also just plain fun. And if you can’t have fun playing music, what’s the point? As Margaret Renkl recently wrote in the NY Times, “A person who is not afraid of looking like a fool gets to do a lot more dancing”.

Having a stage name and alternative identity can be lots of fun. Although, as a general rule, if you begin to assume four or five alter egos or identities, you might want to seek some professional help.

But one or two? Why not take the opportunity to dance a bit more?

The Future of Tackle Football: The Bricks Just Keep Coming

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Sometimes you can repeat a phrase or articulate a theory or belief so often that it begins to become simply background noise or, if repeated enough, irrelevant. I am referring to my ongoing use of the metaphor, “another brick in the wall” as it relates to the future of tackle football in America. It seems as if no sooner do I write an essay identifying a trend or incident that, coupled with the larger trends of declining television viewership, declining numbers of participants at the youth league level, increased public and media scrutiny, contributes to the steady, drip-by-drip and brick-by-brick evolution of our society’s relationship with the sport of tackle football.

These past few weeks offered another couple of bricks to add to the building of that wall. We’re accumulating so many bricks that we’ll soon have enough left over to “build that wall” on our Southern border. In fact, I’m sure Mexico will appreciate those excess bricks as it will reduce their building costs when they pay for it.

The addition of these bricks in the wall relate to two recent events that, once again, demonstrate how the culture surrounding the sport of football continues to reveal itself to be increasingly out of touch with rapidly changing American values, attitudes and norms. It is significant that the culture surrounding the game and its coaches is receiving such increased scrutiny as it is safe to say that for far too long, the football community has gotten a relatively free pass relating to the negative impact and influences of the culture surrounding the game.

Media and academic critics have long questioned certain aspects of that culture as it relates to the brutal nature of the game, its’ anti-intellectualism, the corrupting influence of the win at any cost culture and the sense of entitlement that athletes and star coaches often exhibit. But for the most part, the scandals that have lead to increased scrutiny in these areas and the attention paid to them, generally fizzles out over time and we find ourselves resorting to our traditional treatment of coaches and programs as being too important and too big to seriously challenge.

But like a wall that becomes stronger as more bricks are added, increased scrutiny begets increased scrutiny. As the light of sunshine begins to spread wider and penetrate deeper into the culture of football, additional areas of concern begin to reveal themselves.

The first is the case of Ohio State University where the university suspended its football coach, Urban Meyer, for three games – a mere slap on the wrist – after he apparently lied about and deleted emails relating to his mishandling of domestic violence allegations against one of his assistant coaches. There was a day when there would be little initial scrutiny, much less dogged follow-up and investigation, into issues at the intersection of the culture of football and domestic violence. For far too long, in such cases, it has been the woman who has been shamed or pressured to quietly bear the scars and pain in the name of “protecting the coach and program”. Often such accusations and claims never saw the light of day. But in the #MeToo and social media age, those days are gone. And as increased light is being shed on the “boys will be boys” culture of football, what the public is beginning to see more plainly, is a culture that is increasingly out of line with America’s rapidly changing social norms and mores regarding treatment of women and domestic abuse.

The second incident is the tragic death of the University of Maryland freshman football player, Jordan McNair, a freshman lineman who died of heat stroke after running a set of 110-yard wind sprints. The first question is why lineman, who hardly ever run more than 20 yards on a play during games are running 110 yard sprints. Beyond that, apparently Maryland either did not have in place or did not follow commonly accepted treatment procedures for preventing and treating heat stroke.

But in the “increased scrutiny begets increased scrutiny” category, in the investigative process of McNair’s death, according to an ESPN report, several current football players and people close to the program described a toxic coaching culture under head coach D.J. Durkin based on fear and intimidation. Belittlement, humiliation, extreme verbal abuse and embarrassment of players was common. According to ESPN, one player was belittled verbally after passing out during a drill. Coaches also used food punitively as it was reported that a player said he was forced to overeat to the point of vomiting.

As a former all-American and professional basketball player and son of a high school football coach, I have both witnessed and been on the receiving end of intense, profanity laced tirades. Highly competitive sports are intense and emotionally charged. As a player, you understand that a certain amount of that comes with the territory. But there are limits. Coaches don’t get carte blanche to humiliate, belittle and berate young people. No one does. And in particular, anyone associated with an educational institution. Athletes deserve the same opportunity as all students to learn and experience college life in an environment that is safe and one that treats them with dignity and respect.

There are two salient issues as it relates to this particular situation and the culture of football in general. The sad reality is that far too many coaches and athletic administrators don’t think of football “student-athletes” as students at all, but rather as hired guns and dumb jocks. As a result, they are denied the same rights as other college students, that being the right to have a quality educational experience and earn a meaningful degree. In short, it is clear to everyone, and in particular to the players themselves, that they are on campus, first and foremost, to play ball.

The second relates to the most fundamental justification used by the athletic establishment for athletic programs and their coaches to a part of the educational institution in the first place. Specifically, that athletic programs supplement the academic mission of the institution and that coaches are in fact “teachers”. If coaches justify their place on campus in that they are educators and teachers, why aren’t they held to the same standards of decorum and behavior as all other faculty members?  You can’t have it both ways. You can’t justify your place and role in an academic community by claiming to be an educator while engaging in abusive practices that create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.  An atmosphere where students are verbally abused, belittled, berated and humiliated is hardly a nurturing educational environment.

The fact is, while there may have been a time when it was widely accepted that screaming, berating and intimidating players was simply a part of how coaches “made boys into men”, those days are over. While such behavior and methods might be acceptable for training Marines for war, intercollegiate and interscholastic football is not war. Such behavior has no place within an educational institution.

Granted, these two incidents, in and of themselves, will not bring the American football industrial complex to its knees. But make no mistake, slowly and surely, things are changing as it relates to the role, influence and impact of football in our society.  Consider these as another couple of bricks in the wall in America’s reassessment of the role of football in our society.