by Deborah Walden
Nashville Arts Magazine spoke to rock musician Ben Folds this month. The multi-talented artist has spent years advocating for music programs in our public schools. He has contributed locally through his Keys to Music City Campaign, which has raised tens of thousands of dollars for Nashville Symphony education programs. Folds has also advocated for music education in our nation’s capitol, acting as a voice for educators around the country through his talks with our elected officials.
NAM: What inspires your fight for music education?
BF: It’s the typical reason that any of us as musicians find ourselves into it—because we know the importance of it. For me, it provided so much more than a background in music. It was an extra set of tools for logic and reason—and having other kids that were into it. It was everything.
NAM: Why do you think that music education has drawn so much attention as a cause?
BF: On the whole, we know what the stats say about improvement of other scores, and a lot of us don’t want to see a major pillar of our education system cut off for very shortsighted reasons. And there are so many kids who can improve their math and their history and their social skills through music. Everything can be improved by having something they are successful at, like music. So that’s going to catch a certain kind of kid and save their life.
NAM: What kind of public response have you encountered to your work for music education?
BF: This is what I was telling senators and congressmen in DC when I was up there this year doing arts advocacy. As a rock musician on tours I have a unique view of the country. I’m everywhere. People come up and one of the first things they want to talk about is music education. What should they practice? Frustration that the system is going away. A general awareness in the public that the dollars-and-cents part is not adding up. That they’re being told we can’t afford it, yet their instinct is that this is the kind of investment that is so small. When you look at the numbers, it’s pathetic that it would ever be used as an excuse. People know it yields something so much greater.
NAM: What are some of the unexpected ways that music education affected your career?
BF: I’m set up to be successful at a lot of things because of music. I have my music, but I have to run it as a business. I have to have social skills and confidence. All of that came from my experience as a kid having good music programs. The social stuff, the self-confidence, and the effect it had on my other classes were all huge.
NAM: You have gone to Washington, DC, to advocate music education with our government. Is this a partisan battle?
BF: Our society is fueled by the arts. The idea that you could put a couple of pennies in and get so many dollars out is something that should please the bean counters. What I’m getting at is that so many people are coming out, left and right—it’s not a Republican or Democrat thing—people are coming out all over the place.
NAM: How did your Keys to Music City program get started?
BF: I wanted to see something good come of the absolute bummer in the wake of the Nashville flood. It’s just my nature. I thought, something good has to come from this and what can I do? I played a benefit for the symphony in the Schermerhorn, and then that led to a deeper relationship with that organization. They have an interest, just like I do, in music education, so pretty soon we were kicking around ideas. The other thing about the flood is that my piano was destroyed. It was floating in the water upside down in a rehearsal space. We auctioned off the keys so the wreckage could go to something good.
NAM: Can you tell us a little more about the way that music impacted your life as a young student?
BF: There’s a huge difference between my performance in fourth grade and fifth grade, for instance. As soon as I hit fifth grade, that’s when you could get into band and do all of the music stuff. I was suddenly making friends because I had something I was good at. I wasn’t getting in trouble as much in school because I was putting my energy into music. Then, starting in seventh grade, I went into a gifted and talented academically accelerated program that I stayed in for the rest of the time I was in school, which improved where I could go to college. It just snowballed. You can see that at fourth and fifth grade. Fourth grade, I was getting into some trouble, wasn’t doing so great with my grades, wasn’t reading as well as I should. Fifth grade, boom, I could see success. I could see something I was good at.