The Power Of Music

by Franklin Willis

Can you imagine this?

In the spring of 2001, a 10th grader was auditioning for the choral department at the Nashville School of the Arts (NSA). He was nervous and shy about sharing his talent. His timid nature was playing tug of war with his emotions, and he couldn’t stop stressing over singing in front of a panel of judges. He couldn’t read music and hadn’t stepped foot in any type of formal music lessons. However, the student felt something when he could express himself through music; there was something about how, through anything, music calmed him. Music made him feel important. Music made him feel safe.

Seventeen years ago that student was me. Yes, I passed that nerve-wracking audition and was accepted into NSA, and the following school year formally introduced me to music education. It assisted me in finding my identity, purpose and passion. Now, in my ninth year of teaching music, it is my goal to help students find their voice and realize their importance to the world. The CMA Foundation understands the intrinsic values and benefits of music education in students’ lives. Through participation in both Music Teachers of Excellence and CMA Fest, I was fortunate to have an experience of a lifetime with my students this year.

Music Teachers of Excellence

The Music Teachers of Excellence award is important because it provides awareness and recognition to the public about the life-changing work that music educators do on a daily basis. In a recent interview with “NBC Nightly News,” I declared, “Music teachers are ROCK STARS!” The CMA Foundation recognizes this notion and is putting action behind their cause. Not only do they support music education, they also advocate for the profession as a whole. Each teacher who was selected as a Music Teacher of Excellence this year received a personal check for $2,500, along with a matching award of $2,500 to their school’s music program.

This year I was honored as a CMA Music Teacher of Excellence — and as an added bonus, my student choir was invited to perform at the event. The Andrew Jackson Elementary Eagle Honor Choir is an after-school choir program that I founded at Andrew Jackson Elementary School two years ago to provide extended training for students who excel in music. The choir opened up the third annual Music Teachers of Excellence ceremony with a flawless performance of “This Is Me” from “The Greatest Showman” to a room full of music teachers, artists, songwriters, music executives and media.

As their teacher, it was much bigger than just another performance; it was a realization of a dream. These students were given the opportunity and platform to share their talent and an inspirational message of celebrating the uniqueness we each have through diversity. Each student in the choir has a different story; some of tragedy and others of triumph. I have celebrated with my students and their families in times of joy, and I have also stood with them in times of disappointment and sadness.

When I saw my students singing on the stage with confidence, it brought me unspeakable joy because they were living in the moment and not letting their temporary situations control their experiences. Although the Music Teacher of Excellence event was a major highlight for me, little did I know that that event would not be the finale to my already awesome 2018-2019 school year.

CMA Fest

It was May, and the school year was coming to a close. Two weeks before the last day of school, I received an invitation for my choir to sing at Nissan Stadium during CMA FestThis blew me away, and I couldn’t believe that my kids were being given yet another opportunity to share their gifts. I saw this as an extraordinary experience for my students and was elated to accept the invitation to perform, and so began preparations for the appearance.

During rehearsals, I showed pictures of Nissan Stadium so my students could grasp how massive the performance space would be. I also wanted them to understand the magnitude of the invitation to perform for such a large crowd and venue.  At the end of our last rehearsal we watched YouTube videos of the artists with whom we would share the stage: Blake Shelton, Mason Ramsey, Carrie Underwood, Darius Rucker and Old Dominion. One of my students commented, “After we sing at CMA Fest, we’re going to be famous!” And the whole choir began to scream with excitement! That made me smile. I told them that their faces and voices would be seen and heard by other young kids, who would then feel motivated to be confident in their own gifts and talents.

The night of the performance was a magical night and one that I will never forget. Upon our arrival at Nissan Stadium, we were met backstage by the phenomenal CMA Foundation staff, who made sure my students and I had everything we needed. They gifted the choir with custom T-shirts bearing the CMA Foundation slogan: “It Starts With M.E.” That provided an “aha!” moment for the students because the name of the song we were about to perform was “This Is Me.” I reiterated the message of being yourself and letting your light shine in every aspect of your life. Up to this point, all the stars had aligned, bringing us on a journey to this stage; now all the students had to do was perform for a stadium full of fans.

I thanked the CMA Fest crowd on behalf of music teachers across the country for their support of music education and then introduced my students. They sang like angels. They danced with passion. Each smile on each face, every step and every note they had practiced in rehearsals was executed with precision. The crowd roared with each crescendo from the soloists as if they were listening to the headliners of CMA Fest.

When the performance ended, the applause boomed throughout the stadium and seemed unending. As we walked backstage I fist-bumped and high-fived so many students, congratulating them on a fantastic performance. Yes, I will admit it: I teared up (just a little bit). I was emotional because I could visualize my 10th-grade self in many of my students. I remembered them auditioning for choir back in August of last year, many of them shy, afraid, unsure of themselves and looking for a safe place to share and nurture their talent. Still in third and fourth grade, they needed someone to believe in them and give them an opportunity to do the unthinkable, like perform a song live in front of 50,000 people. This experience was a lesson in how we are all connected. Music has an unbelievable way of blending social demographics, economic status, race, and any other factor.

All of sudden, it was clear: What my music teacher at NSA had done for me, I was doing for my students. That is what it is all about. Music education builds community. Music education provides an escape from our daily realities. Music education saves lives. It saved my life. If I had never taken a leap of faith and auditioned at the Nashville School of the Arts, if my parents and community had not supported my talents, and — even more importantly — if I had not had a music teacher who saw the best in me, none of this would have happened. I am proof of the transformative power of music education.

Imagine that. I know, it seems like a story out of a book — except it is real, and it happened.

Thank you, CMA Foundation.

Mr. Franklin Willis

A solo peformer from the Andrew Jackson Elementary Eagle Honor Choir shines during her performance at Nissan Stadium photo: Natasha Moustache/CMA

The Andrew Jackson Elementary Eagle Honor Choir entertains fans with a performance at Nissan Stadium during CMA Fest.

Mason Ramsey (center) poses with the Andrew Jackson Elementary Eagle Honor Choir before their performance at Nissan Stadium during CMA Fest.

Franklin Willis (right) rehearses with his students before taking the stage.

The Andrew Jackson Elementary Eagle Honor Choir captivates the audience at the Music Teachers of Excellence dinner, performing “This Is Me” from the hit movie, “The Greatest Showman.”

Franklin Willis receives the Music Teacher of Excellence Award for his accomplishments in the classroom and community.