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 Fest. This 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