Thomas Rhett, Kane Brown + More Country Stars Explain How Music Education Shaped Them: ‘I Was That Kid’
Even amidst the excitement of CMA Fest 2019, the festival's stars never lost sight of the event's important mission: to benefit music education programs across the country through the CMA Foundation. Many of the artists now performing on CMA Fest's biggest stage would never have gotten their start without the kind of high-quality programs the foundation now seeks to provide for a new generation of budding musicians.
"Dance teachers and music teachers and art teachers, to me, they were invaluable in my tiny town," explains Kassi Ashton. "[There are] 4,000 people in [California, Mo.]. It's not a lot of exposure. But they were there, saying, 'Kassi, it's not possible here, but it is possible, and you're gonna do it.'"
The "Pretty Shiny Things" singer says her childhood music education teachers went above and beyond to help her hone her craft in its nascency. "They would help me through everything: Let me stay after school and sing in the choir room when I wanted to, or have this weird idea for a solo -- like, 'Can I take that Madonna song and make it slower? I know I'm only in sixth grade, but it's okay if I sing "Papa Don't Preach," right?'" Ashton adds, laughing. "They were just amazing. I thank them every day."
Singer-actress Hayley Orrantia, Lindsay Ell, Kelsea Ballerini and Nashville star Chris Carmack all remember their music educators' names, proving the lasting power of a great teacher. Whether they were specialists at a private institution or simply high school band leaders, they provided invaluable support for the artists at a young age.
"I think the most influential teacher I've ever had was Linda Septien, who's in Dallas," Orrantia says. "She has this school called Septien Entertainment Group that a lot of incredible singers have come out of. I started there when I was, like, 10, and I think she just knows how to shape -- especially at that age -- artists into what the music industry really is ... so I got to get a feel for what the industry looked like thanks to her."
"I started taking saxophone lessons when I was in the fourth grade, I guess, and it was offered as part of the public school program," Carmack adds, recounting a completely different way in which music education can benefit kids. "That's where I developed my love of music and continued with it through jazz band in high school ... My high school teacher, Mr. Eisenhower, when I played a gig recently back in Washington, DC, I was very happy to see him in the audience as a surprise!"
Ell says admits that while music was always in her blood, it took the support of a great teacher to gain the confidence to follow her instincts: "I think that if music education at the schools wasn't as good, I don't know if I would be here in Nashville," she says. "I mean, my grade 3 music teacher, Mrs. Patterson, was so inspiring to me. She made me feel like I could do anything."
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For Ballerini, having a music education teacher meant having someone rooting for her to perform -- by any means necessary. "I had a music teacher -- her name's Becky Thomas; she's retired now -- but she was the first person that encouraged me to be onstage," the star says. "I was actually in the musical theater band as the ostrich. I'm 98 percent sure she wrote that part in for me, because I had no talking lines or singing lines; in fact, I just walked across the stage!"
Thomas encouraged Ballerini to pursue her musical dreams, too, not just her avian ones: "She really encouraged me to write songs. The first time I ever played a song that I'd written onstage, it was because of her," the singer continues.
"So that's really the heart of what this is all about. To be able to be a part of that, and knowing that there are kids in a classroom right now that are having those teachers, that are able to have the funds and resources to give these kids these opportunities -- that matters to me," Ballerini adds. "I was that kid."
She isn't the only one. Kane Brown says that music education made a huge difference in both his life and his brother's. "For my little brother ... he bought a guitar, and he loved drums. Music education honestly kept him out of a lot of [trouble]," the singer shares. "That would just take his mind away, playing instruments, learning. Honestly, I feel like music education will take kids even further than they think they can go."
Self-expression is a worthy goal, even if some kids' first tries at bands (and band names) aren't exactly Grammy Award-winning material. Thomas Rhett is living proof.
"I think I did one football game as a pit band drummer, and that encouraged me to start this terrible band called the High Heeled Flip Flops," Rhett remembers. "That really sparked my fire for being in front of people and writing songs, so I think that music education is one of the most important things in the world. For a kid to be able to express themselves, whether it's songwriting or playing saxophone or playing guitar, that's why I think [CMA Fest] is super important, and it's amazing that we can give back to that."
CMA Fest 2019 took place in June. CMA Fest: The Music Event of Summer, a three-hour televised special featuring a selection of highlights from the event, including performances from Ballerini, Rhett, Ell, Brown and many more, will air on Aug. 4 at 8PM ET on ABC.
LOOK: See the Fun at CMA Fest 2019