When VH1 president John Sykes spent a day on Capitol Hill earlier this month promoting the benefits of music education, he was able to meet with 10 senators and representatives, as well as Secretary of Education Rod Paige.
The visit was part of "Music in Our Schools Month," an annual event each March.
Five years into the cable network's "VH1 Save the Music" public-affairs initiative, "we're finally seeing a breakthrough" in the government's response, Sykes said. It didn't hurt that saxophonist Branford Marsalis accompanied Sykes on his one-day Washington tour.
"He helped open some doors," Sykes admitted.
Marsalis also brought his own perspective on music education, said Sykes, who noted that the jazz man's father was a teacher. And, as a world traveler, Marsalis has seen that other countries around the globe place more of an emphasis on music education than the U.S.
VH1 and its cable affiliates are starting to change that through the Save the Music Foundation, which raises money and collects musical instruments to donate to schools committed to reinstating music-education programs.
"The '90s had not been kind to the [Washington] D.C. public schools," said Earle Jones, general manager of Comcast Corp.'s system in the nation's capital. When the school district was worried about classroom sizes and deteriorating school facilities, music programs often got lost in the shuffle, he noted.
Jones has been involved in Save the Music for several years and the system has raised over $300,000 for instruments donated to 11 local schools. "It fits our overall vision of making D.C. a better place," Jones said.
Time Warner Cable of New York City, VH1's pilot cable affiliate for the public-affairs initiative, remains an ardent supporter.
"It's something we believe we'll be doing well into the future," said Time Warner Cable NYC president Barry Rosenblum.
Last year in New York, Time Warner Cable helped raise money by selling tickets to a Boyz II Men concert at the Beacon Theater. VH1 donated the talent and the operator provided the promotional muscle.
For the first time, Time Warner Cable this year is selling general-admission tickets for VH1's headliner Divas Live
concert held at Radio City Music Hall in April, starring Aretha Franklin. The cable operator plans to promote the $50 per seat tickets exclusively to its customers through cross-channel spots on 30 networks, as well as through bill messages and its Web site, Rosenblum said.
Cable operators are often bombarded with so many network promotions and public-affairs campaigns that they must be selective about the ones they choose. But Rosenblum said he stays excited about Save the Music because the events are always fresh, and the program keeps building on its past successes.
"The amazing part is that whenever we go to schools now, many of them have bands, orchestras, instruments and music teachers," Rosenblum said. "Going forward, music will no longer be one of the things that gets cut."
Over the years, the Save the Music program has expanded into 43 states and now serves 200,000 students. VH1 concentrates most of its efforts at the local level because that's where most of the funding for education comes from. Indeed, Sykes acknowledged that the campaign would not work without the help of local affiliates.
But trips to the capital also are important, Sykes said, because "the voices are heard loudest in Washington." National legislators take the message home and can introduce language into federal legislation to make music education a priority going forward.
"It's a long road," Sykes said. "There are still a lot of people at the local and federal levels that have yet to hear the research" on the effect of music education on math and science studies.
When his daughter took up the clarinet, she also became stronger in math, Rosenblum said.
Sykes himself became a drummer in school-after he saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.
"That changed my life," Sykes said. "It made me get up in the morning every day and want to go to school."