An Interview with Skip Chaples, President, Music for Life
Two years ago Michael was a high school sophomore with marginal grades. He didn’t see the need to apply himself in school; after graduation he assumed he’d follow in the footsteps of all his family members before him; he’d get a low-wage, service job. Then he joined our music program.
Michael learned he had a talent for playing guitar even though it was something he never thought he’d have a chance to do; he earned his guitar (from Music for Life) in his Junior year and during his Senior year he helped teach guitar to new students entering our program. His resignation to follow in the family footsteps was replaced with hope for a brighter future; he learned that there were other opportunities for him if he applied himself.
Michael’s attitude changed, his grades improved and last June he graduated high school with honors; this fall (2013) he’s enrolled at Northern Virginia Community College. His ambition is to become a music educator; his family could not be more proud of him.
Michael’s story is repeated many times over, every year in our classrooms. The youth we work with have the same potential as every other youth but the environments they are born into and the socioeconomic barriers they face make it near impossible for them to believe. Music for Life engages them with successful people and provides them the confidence, discipline and guidance necessary for them to pursue the possibilities versus succumbing to the adversity into which they were born.
You were formerly associated with Guitars not Guns; why the change?
I, the other officers and board members, and many of our volunteers got involved with Guitars not Guns following the tragic shooting death of Aaron Brown in 2006. Aaron was our neighbor, an Eagle Scout and promising professional guitar player. His parents found Guitars not Guns on the internet and requested donations to them in Aaron’s name. At the time they were only located in California; we decided that Aaron’s memory would be better served by bring their program to the DC area. While they are a quality organization dedicated to helping at-risk youth succeed, they have a set program format and method of operation. Over time we reached the limit of what could be accomplished within the bounds of their organization. There is a great need for after school youth services in the Washington DC area; despite the affluence of the area it has significant populations of poor and working poor families. The more we saw of this disparity the more we wanted to help; we chose to become Music for Life so we could continue growing to meet that need.
What is the mission of Music for Life?
Music for Life’s mission is to reduce the number of school age youth born into adverse circumstances – poverty, dysfunctional families or communities – who become adults living in those circumstances. We want these youth to become contributing, self sufficient adults versus a burden on society. We fulfill our mission by providing these youth opportunities in their communities that support and stimulate their educational interests as well as help them overcome the barriers and stresses inherent to their situation.
How does Music for Life and music improve conditions for under-privileged kids?
We provide an after school music and mentoring program. Studies show that bringing programs into neighborhoods is the most effective way to improve the attitude in that community as well as reduce crime and gang activity. Research also shows a strong correlation between music education and a person’s success in life. Youth involved in a quality music program tend to do better in school; score higher on standardized tests; be less inclined to engage in risky behavior; and be more inclined to take advantage of positive opportunities made available to them. In addition to its educational value, learning music is also a release for stressful emotions that can’t otherwise be expressed. Music is particularly effective in today’s diverse society because it appeals to youth of any age, gender, race; religion or cultural background; there are no stereotypes associated with who can learn to play.
Does Music for Life just use guitars?
To increase our impact we must increase our capacity for serving youth; not only by adding new teaching locations but also by broadening the scope of who and what we teach. By becoming Music for Life we gained the flexibility to move beyond guitar lessons for a specific youth demographic.
We began teaching acoustic guitar lessons to middle and high school age youth. In the fall of 2013 we are adding a percussion class for elementary school age youth. The objective is to teach these youth the basics of rhythm and beat as well as instill in them the disciplines required to learn how to play an instrument. In 2014 we plan to add guitar classes for Opportunity Youth; 16-24 year olds who are not in school or employed. Nationwide, 6.7 million (or 17%) young people aged 16-24 are estimated to be disconnected, at the cost of $93 billion annually. Unemployment of young people is at a historic high and communities across the country are in search of solutions that will truly move the needle. In 2014 we also plan to add electric and bass guitar classes for advanced students.
Tell us about some of the things Music for Life has been doing.
Through collaborations with other music organizations we are leveraging our strengths with theirs to bring music opportunities to more youth. Music for Life provides equipment to organizations that have teaching credentials but not the equipment required to allow all students, regardless of income, to participate. Recent examples include our partnership with Youth for Tomorrow. That partnership permits them to operate a full time guitar program for all students; they provide the teachers, we provide the equipment. Through August 2013 295 additional deserving youth have had the opportunity to learn guitar; 71 have completed the beginner’s course and earned a guitar of their own. In September 2013 we entered similar partnerships with the Salvation Army and the Bishop O’Connell High School guitar programs. We provided 83 guitars plus some amps, strings and stands to the Salvation Army; 15 guitars to Bishop O’Connell High School. Hundreds more now have the opportunity to learn guitar through these organizations.
These partnerships not only increase the number of students served; they also raise awareness of the need and draw attention to those of us using music to make a difference. Increased attention attracts more volunteers and funding thus allowing us to serve more youth.
This is a huge problem. Is Music for Life sustainable?
While we continued to do business as Guitars not Guns through 2012, we had already incorporated as an independent, standalone nonprofit back in 2010. During those three years we more than tripled both our annual revenue and net assets; that growth trend is continuing in 2013. What we’re really doing is rebranding ourselves under a new name; the organization and support structure has not changed. Music for Life continues to strengthen the organization. We are moving from an all volunteer model to one where there is paid staff to perform the logistical tasks associated with operating the program as well as collecting and analyzing performance measurement data.
We have a detailed Performance Measurement Plan and we know the benefits that can be derived from a quality music program. Our next step is to secure the resources necessary to execute that plan and ensure that our program is achieving the desired results. We are participants in United Way, The Combined Federal Campaign and the World Bank Community Connections Campaign. We have a Guidestar Gold rating for transparency. Our funding has increased every year despite the poor economy and we’re confident in our ability to continue growing.
Music for Life currently serves the metropolitan Washington DC area. Once we have established a proven, sustainable model in this region, we’ll begin transporting it to other communities.
Do you have music industry sponsors and why/how did they get involved?
The program we developed in the Washington DC area is supported by a number of music industry sponsors ranging from local to international. All are familiar with our work and personnel but because our name is new, all are not yet familiar with the name Music for Life.
Local organizations that support us include the Washington Area Music Association (WAMA), Songwriters Association of Washington (SAW) and the DC Chapter of the Recording Academy (NARAS). WAMA and SAW provide musicians for our events and many of their members volunteer with us as guitar teachers; the Recording Academy gave us a grant to publish materials in Spanish. These organizations are made up of local musicians who were familiar with the events that led to our getting involved with this type program; they were among the first to volunteer to help.
National and international sponsors include Gibson, Fender, Hohner, Guitar Center, Saint Blues Guitar, Brazen Guitar, Aurora Strings, PRS and Wittner. All have provided us in-kind donations of equipment or support through their philanthropy programs. They support us because we’re reaching youth who otherwise would not be experiencing music. School based music programs are great but they only reach a subset of the youth who could benefit. There are a number of socio-economic reasons that preclude many low income and/or immigrant youth from participating in school based programs. We remove those socio-economic barriers by setting up our music program in the communities where these youth live.
Other companies provide support through preferential purchasing agreements that permit us to get the equipments we need at affordable prices. The Music Link, LPD Music, FJH Music, Snark and Mother Rhythm drums all help us in this manner. They support us for the same reason; we’re reaching youth who otherwise would not be experiencing music.
What sponsorship opportunities are there for musical instrument firms and what will the impact be?
Corporate sponsorships should be a win-win for both parties; the nonprofit receives the goods or services it needs and the corporation receives goodwill in the community and with its employees as well as exposure to potential new customers. Whether the support leads to more funding or reduced operating cost it has the same impact; we can accommodate more youth in our program thus make an even greater difference in the communities we serve.
Businesses can support us with branding, special promotions, product donations or purchasing discounts.
They can provide branding support by adding to their website a brief statement endorsing our program and linking to our website. We would acknowledge the support and link back from our website. Branding support leads to wider name recognition and credibility which in turn leads to more donations and volunteers.
Special promotions could be a product offering with a percentage of the product sales being donated back to us. Our partnership with Musopia Ltd is a good example. Music for Life has a playlist on their FourChords app; each time a song from our playlist is purchased Musopia donates a percentage of the sale to us. In return we are promoting the use of their app to our students and supporters. Special promotions support provides more funding and helps with branding.
Product donations could be either for use with our students or to support raffles and special events. Product donations for use will lower our operating cost; product donations for raffles or special events provides more funding.
Purchasing discounts permit us to buy the equipment we need at cost effective rates; this reduces our operating cost.
While we are a relatively small nonprofit and local to the Washington DC area we are well known and have the support of influential people both in and out of Government. There are over 5 million people in our service area and our message reaches a significant number of them so we can reward our supporters with positive recognition throughout the area.
“This program is a natural extension of our mission to simplify music instruction and bring people together,” said Paula Lehto, marketing director for Musopia. “We believe that an app like FourChords can be used for more than just having fun and learning to play guitar; the app can help raise money for a worthy cause too.”
“It’s a win-win for everyone,” said Skip Chaples, president, Music for Life. “App users receive a great song to learn, and at the same time provide the gift of music to a person in need, helping to foster a lifelong passion for music and a better life.”