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Making Music Happen

Three Leading Ladies of Country Music Spearhead Music Education Programs in Nashville and Beyond

Article by William Harwood

Photography by Zach Durbin

Originally published in Brentwood Lifestyle

“Music is a more potent instrument than any other for education, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul.” – Plato

When it comes to making music, Tennessee has always punched far above its weight. Take a road trip along the length of Interstate Highway 40 and you pass through the folk songs of Appalachia, the country music and Americana of Nashville and the AM radio gospel of western Tennessee. And that is before you even reach the Isaac Hayes Memorial Highway, heading into Memphis with its wealth of blues and jazz and rolling to a rocking stop at Graceland. Not bad for a state without a beach.

But music doesn't make itself; it takes music education. Currently, in Tennessee, only 68 percent of all public schools offer students access to both music and arts as required by state policy. Since at least the time of Plato, educators have known that musical education positively impacts students’ academic achievement and social development. Enter the Country Music Association Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to improving and sustaining music education programs nationwide. As the philanthropic arm of the Country Music Association, the CMAF since its 2011 inception has supported Pre-K through 12th grade music programs in public schools to the tune of more than $25 million, a testament to the generosity of the Country Music community and to the power of the annual CMA Fest to generate those funds. 

Still, the resources have to be used wisely to make an impact, and that’s where vision and leadership come in. The CMA and the CMAF are fortunate to be led by Sarah Trahern and Tiffany Kerns, respectively. Along with Jennie Smythe, board chairperson, the three form a focused team to direct the resources most effectively.  

“Over my dead body will we ever give to a community that is not ready," Tiffany says. "It’s not just about providing resources—we call them investments, not gifts—it’s about capacity building and facilitating sequential learning. You have to be very intentional for the dollars to do the right thing.”

Sarah agrees. As the CEO of the CMA, she has played a key role in the foundation’s efforts to foster music education in public schools.

“We also think cultural relevance is important, so we’re not just supporting country music. We support however teachers need to reach their students through music.”

And speaking of music teachers, the CMAF recognizes the nation’s best through its Music Teachers of Excellence Awards. To earn this award, teachers go through a rigorous application process, supplying an eight-minute video of their classroom instruction along with letters of recommendation from peers, parents and principals. Winners receive a generous stipend of $2,000 each along with a trip to Nashville for the award ceremony. This year, the fourth annual ceremony was hosted by Dierks Bentley on April 30, recognizing 30 outstanding music educators, 10 from Nashville, 10 from Tennessee and 10 from the rest of the United States.

Another way the CMAF is making a musical difference is by working with the Tennessee Department of Education on the Tennessee Arts Education Data Project to produce the state’s first online database on pre-K-12 students’ access to arts education. This database, searchable by county, allows policymakers and educators to allocate resources where needed in support of our children’s well-rounded education.  

“Thanks to the generosity of the country music community, we have the money. Our job is to make sure that the money is being used effectively and responsibly,” Jennie says.

To contribute, visit their website.

  • Tiffany Kerns, executive director at CMA Foundation
  • Jennie Smythe, CEO of Girlilla Marketing
  • Sarah Trahern, CEO of the Country Music Association