A New Voice, the Same Mission: Eric Martin, Music For All’s new president and CEO

Mike Lawson • ArchivesChoral • October 13, 2010

Eric Martin: My first introduction to Music for All was back in 1978. I was a young lawyer practicing in Washington D.C. and read about a high school marching band show in Virginia. I went, and it was electric and fantastic. I asked people in the audience if there would be other shows like that because it was so different from what marching band had been when I was involved with it, only about seven years prior. I was told about this new organization which was then called Marching Bands of America and that they would be having an event at James Madison University. So I called up a good friend of mine who took the train down from New York and drove with me the next weekend.

SBO: As neither an educator nor professional player, what was the basis for your connection to music?

EM: I’m a native of Greenville, Mississippi and graduated from high school in 1971. In seventh grade, I found the band room at my middle school. That was very important for me, because I was one of seven children that integrated public schools in my town that year. For me, the band room was a safe place, a place where we could all make connections. We had great teachers, and that continued on when I went to high school. I was someone who was never looking to be a professional musician or even a music teacher, but someone for whom music and music making was always very important.

I left Greenville and pursued my undergraduate degree at Dartmouth College, and went on to Michigan Law School, from which I graduated in 1978. An opportunity to be an aviation attorney took me to Washington D.C., where I saw that ad in the paper for a high school marching band festival. I connected with the organization as a spectator first, and two years later, I went to the first Bands of America Grand National Championship in Jacksonville, Florida. I have attended every one since.

SBO: And how did you become involved with the organization?

EM: I moved to Atlanta, Georgia in 1983, where I became involved with Spirit of Atlanta Drum & Bugle Corps. I ultimately ended up on their Board of Directors, and it was around that time that I met Don Whiteley, who was Drum Corp International’s first marketing and PR director. He had left DCI, but he was the producer of parades and festivals and highly involved with the International Festival and Events Association. I helped him incorporate and do work producing parades at both the local and national levels as a volunteer. After years of working together, and at his urging, I decided that my heart was in special events, much more so than the law. I bought 25 percent of his business, Argonne Productions, and become a special event professional.

I met Scott McCormick in the early •90s. By that time, I had become highly involved in the IFEA, spoke at their annual and regional conferences, and Scott attended a session there that I presented on operating festivals and events as “big business.” He asked me a question afterwards, I immediately recognized the nametag, and we started up a conversation. This led to him inviting me up to attend a board meeting, and in 1994 or •95, I joined the board of Bands of America as a volunteer. In May of 1996, he was looking for some additional assistance at the organization, so I came up as a consultant with the temporary assignment of being his acting associate executive director. And I never left.

SBO: Let’s talk about Music For All today and moving forward. How has the organization been effected by the down economy of the past few years?

EM: In the events side of what we do, and that’s just a part of this organization, we certainly look at the impact of the economy, and we have been effected. Over the past two years we’ve seen our traditional ticket sales, which are typically parents and fans, decrease by probably about 20 percent. The way we’ve counteracted that is by trying to increase marketing to encourage attendance, while also managing expenses. Almost everyone involved with the event industry and business in general has been trying to earn more revenue while reducing expenses.

We’ve also become better storytellers about the importance and commitment to music and arts education. We are trying, in many ways, to energize participants and their families to say, “This is important, even in a tough economy.” We are very blessed that we’re engaged in an activity music performance in a way that really does involve entire families.

While audience attendance might be down, overall event enrollment the number of bands and orchestras we serve has actually increased. What we’ve found is that people are generally staying a little closer to home, but that parents and schools are still ensuring that the kids still have the experience, although the entire family might not be able to attend the events.

SBO: Does your new role in the leadership position of Music for All indicate a new set of goals or vision for the organization?

EM: Music for All’s mission to create, provide and expand positively life-changing experiences through music for all hasn’t changed. The principles upon which we’re built are intact and in place. If anything, I hope to bring a degree of transparency to the organization, from both inside and out, so that everyone is engaged in our mission, understands it, and knows our strategy in terms of trying to advance our mission.

To a certain extent, in an ideal world where every person were involved as an active music maker, there’d be no reason for us to exist. But that’s not the case now. We will still use our programming to elevate and put onto a world-class stage the high caliber and quality performances that show just what is possible and what can be accomplished. Our events and programs will always do that from a student-participant standpoint. We’ll continue what we’ve always been doing, which is be highly engaged in the high school band activity. We’re now expanding that upward toward college, downward toward middle school, and outward toward orchestra. If I ever am able to realize a great vision for the organization, and this is likely contingent on turns in the economy, we would also be involved in scholastic choral arts. We’ll also continue to be highly engaged in education and professional development.

From the student educational standpoint, the first event started by Marching Bands of America was a summer workshop for both students and teachers, highly focused on marching band and really transforming it from step-two drills to what people sometimes call “corps style.” That goes back to the summer of 1976 and we will continue offering our Summer Symposium, which we’re moving to Ball State University next year. We’re hoping the move will reinvigorate it and make sure it remains a premier national example of summer education and opportunities for students to continue their music study and engagement as human beings during the course of the summer. From the teacher development standpoint, the teacher track of that and other programs that we’re hoping to initiate are designed to make sure that teachers are empowered in terms of not just what they learn in college, but in every aspect of running a successful band program. It’s like running a business, so we will continue to try to empower them with the skills to work effectively with students, parents, administrators and the community to make sure music education is elevated.

When Bands of America merged with the Music for All Foundation, we increased our involvement in advocacy and public policy. It really forecast what was happening with the economy. Now more than ever, those who believe in preserving and advocating music and arts education have to be engaged politically and actively as advocates.

SBO: There have been a number of new educational initiatives and policies on the national level in recent years. From your vantage point, how have these affected the fight for music?

EM: So far, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that the economy once again triggered challenges for districts and schools that may already be committed to the arts as to how to manage limited resources. We’ve had such an emphasis on reading, writing, math, and science, yet even under the former Bush administration and NCLB, music and the arts were included in the definition of core education. The question is whether or not schools truly mean it, understand it, and will commit the necessary resources when resources are stretched thin. Under the current administration, I think there’s a clear commitment to the arts. I would give credit to people in this organization for making music and arts education a topic in the electoral process, as it was for the first time during debates in the last presidential election.

Now, as the administration looks at reauthorizing the education act and what our funding initiatives will be in terms of points of emphasis, we all have to work to make sure that the arts are included and not forgotten in the face of a commitment to math and science they go hand in hand. Music for All is working together with MENC, NAMM, and other partners of and other music education resources. We just want to be another voice in that sphere.

The best and strongest emphasis that we can have organizationally is to ensure that the world-class stages that we have created inspire and touch the 70-75,000 participant children and other attendees directly. We also reach out through our publications and the Internet. As important as the performances are, it’s equally important to address the fact that these opportunities cannot be taken for granted. For those people who do participate with us, it is a privilege, but that privilege is one that should be available to all.

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