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The Fender Music Foundation: Changing lives one music class at a time
If, as Shakespeare suggested, music is the food of life, then The Fender Music Foundation aims to get a lot more cooks into the kitchen.
The Fender Music Foundation is dedicated to supporting music education programs across the country by donating instruments to them. And, no, that’s not limited to Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters—the Foundation’s partners include guitar companies such as Paul Reed Smith, Gibson, and Martin—or even just electric guitars and rock ’n’ roll instruments. Visit the office of Executive Director Moriah Scoble in Agoura Hills, just 45 minutes northwest of Los Angeles, and she’ll proudly point to a framed certificate sent to her by the Cochise County Youth Orchestra in Southern California, a recent grant recipient. Scoble herself is a cellist who used to play with a local youth orchestra and coach its cellists.
“Lately I just play every once in a while for fun, more for myself,” says Scoble, a tall and elegant woman whose light brown hair gleams whenever it passes through rays of Southern Californian sun streaming through her office shades. “I’ve gotten too busy to have another musical life like that.”
That’s an understatement. In 2005, Scoble was hired by Guitar Center CEO Larry Thomas to get the Guitar Center Music Foundation off the ground. Thomas, then retired, had a vision of assisting music programs in schools, prisons, community centers, and retirement homes by providing instruments to their aspiring musicians. Though the foundation changed its name in 2009 to The Fender Music Foundation when Thomas was invited to join the board of the legendary guitar manufacturer, its focus hasn’t changed. Over the past seven years, Scoble estimates she’s reached 150,000 people through the foundation’s music grants.
Key to the foundation’s outreach is support from music luminaries such as Nuno Bettencourt, Billy Gibbons, Joe Bonamassa, Mick Fleetwood, Flea and Don Felder of The Eagles, a board member. For example, Flea, the Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist, testifies to the benefit of music education on The Fender Music Foundation’s website:
As a youngster, I was pretty wild, out on the street looking for trouble and finding it. Lucky for me, at the L.A. county public schools I attended, there was music! There was band, orchestra, marching band, jazz band, choir, you name it, I was there. It kept me solid, kept me sane, gave me faith in humanity and something to strive for.
Music gave me healthy relationships and a sense of community. Taking music away from me, would be like cutting the cord that tethers the astronaut to his spacecraft, tragic and mortal but it gave me life. Music education saved me, it is a savior for many kids. Music led me on a path of discipline and good hard work and plentiful rewards, for that I am so grateful! I will always do my best to give that gift back and I will ask anyone who reads this to give all you can to support music. Save a kids' life, be love, put music back in the schools!!!!!
In addition to raising money through individual and corporate donations, Fender Music Foundation regularly auctions off autographed memorabilia. At its dedicated store here at Rock Square, The Fender Music Foundation is selling rare items such as a Tom Petty autographed Classic Series ’50s Telecaster. All the proceeds benefit the foundation.
Rock Square recently visited the foundation’s office. Sitting beneath a framed photo of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmie Vaughan, Eric Clapton and Robert Cray— “This is the last photo shoot before Stevie Ray Vaughan died and was taken by our former board member Robert Knight,” explains Scoble—the executive director talked about The Fender Music Foundation’s mission and success stories.
What are the core activities of the Foundation?
We donate instruments to music education programs. In order to achieve that goal, we sell music memorabilia, have an online presence, and do what we can to further the cause in the public eye. We issue grants in the form of musical instruments.
How did the foundation start, back when it was originally named the Guitar Center Music Foundation?
We were started by Larry Thomas, back when he was the CEO of Guitar Center. It’s a cause that’s been near and dear to his heart for a while. When he retired, he finally had some time to put into it. So we were the Guitar Center Music Foundation for a while until Fender invited him to join the Board of Fender a few years ago. That’s when we changed our name.
What was the core idea and inspiration behind the foundation?
It was a way for the industry to get behind music education and the future of music. A lot of the leaders in the instruments manufacturing industry were big supporters of music education. So this was the way they could give back. We’ve donated all kinds of instruments and that includes non-rock ’n’ roll type instruments.
As a nonprofit, The Fender Music Foundation is primarily funded by money you raise through auctioned items, special events, corporate and individual donations. Though The FMF isn’t the charitable arm of the Fender Corporation, what sort of support does Fender give to the foundation?
We’re not a private foundation, we’re a public foundation. As a company, Fender helps us with tech support and legal support and design support and things like that. They did give us a donation when we changed our name to help with the transition. They gave us access to a lot of instruments. As a foundation, we are only limited as far as the number of instruments and by how quickly we can send out instruments and go through the grants. But we’re not limited by inventory, thanks to Fender, and the relationships they’ve given us. They are the reason we have a relationship with Costco, for example. Costco is going to be providing us with an enormous amount of instruments. They’ve started coming in and we are still trying to wrap our head around how we’re going to get these instruments out the door.
They’re the reason why Sherwin Williams supports us and Toyota supports us. And our founder is their CEO, so they are continually trying to find ways to fit us into what they are doing. So they, along with the Hendrix Experience, fit us into the deal with Hard Rock Café. They are donating proceeds from the sale of their Hendrix merchandise there. We had a fundraiser a couple of years ago and Janie Hendrix [CEO of Experience Hendrix, L.L.C.] was bartending. So she gets her hands dirty!
A number of our board members work at Fender, so that’s how the company knows what’s going on with us. The head of our grants committee works at Fender. So he is helping us choose how we choose our grant recipients, for example.
Your Advisory Board includes Paul Reed Smith of PRS guitars, C.F. Martin IV of Martin guitars, Fred Gretsch, Dennis Houlihan, CEO of Roland and Erik Paiste of Paiste. Even though it’s The Fender Music Foundation, all these instrument manufacturers—normally in competition with each other—have united for a greater cause and a broader vision of music.
It’s not about furthering Fender, it’s about furthering music and the way it worked out like that was that we started out as the Guitar Center Music Foundation. So they weren’t scared that Fender was trying to further itself in this. As Guitar Center Music Foundation, they were all supporters because they were all being sold through Guitar Center. So that helped the relationship.
What’s your personal passion for this? How did you get involved and what drives you in your work for the foundation?
I love helping people. Since I’ve started, we’ve reached over 150,000 people through our instrument grants. This is the coolest job one can have. There’s nothing better than getting to work with such interesting people and powerful people and talking to teachers on a regular basis. Their kids just need it, just need it so bad. There’s one kid in their class and if he could just have a guitar, it would change his life. I help them get that guitar. I work with a great group.
Your mission statement says that music is “essential in the fabric of an enduring society” and you note that music impacts our health and creativity. Can you expound on The Fender Music Foundation’s vision of music as something much more than just a pleasant diversion?
Music has an enormous effect on people. You hear it all the time. I don’t know if you recently heard on the radio about how that girl came out of a coma when she was listening to Adele. All of a sudden when that song came on—it was a song she used to sing with her mom—she started smiling and then she came out of her coma. As human beings, music has an effect on us. That means different things to different people. As we learn music, we form new connections in our brains that help our brains function better. At the same time, music often helps us with our social skills. All of a sudden, we get to be in a group of people and we have to work in common to achieve this common goal and you would see it there.
You also cite music as something that can improve SAT scores, reading and math skills, social skills, team-building and self-discipline for kids.
Or even adults. Senior citizens can learn in a new way. I can say all this from a non-scientist’s point of view, as someone who is a musician. The way that you would learn math is that you would see how all these fractions are fitting together. You can see how the half notes fit in with the quarter notes that fit in with the eighth notes. Not only are you understanding it in your head in a mathematical way, but your body is responding to those fractions. And your ear is responding to those fractions. So it’s like the same reason why, in elementary school you’re learning math, you’re using the blocks to add and subtract and multiply. You’re using your body as another way to teach your brain how the math works.
Our former board member, Jessica Baron, teaches teachers how to play guitar so that they can use music in the classroom. We think it’s a fantastic program. She tunes the guitar so that they can play notes with one or two fingers on the guitar.
These teachers then use music to teach everything from English to science, integrating music right into the classroom, and its results with the kids are pretty impressive.
Are there any anecdotes or stories that epitomize how individual students have benefitted from your funding and had their lives changed?
I meet and hear from a lot of our grant recipients. There was one boy: He wasn’t obviously the most popular kid in the school. I was asking him what being in this music program has done for him. He said, “I can learn music.” I said, “Is there anything else?” He smiled and he said, “I have friends now.” There’s things like that where, all of a sudden, he’s respected now because he’s a part of this group.
I have met people who have gotten through cancer because of listening to music or playing music. We’ve given music to a couple of educational facilities for people who are about to be released from prison. These people are turning their lives around. They can communicate. They’ve figured out how to communicate with other people and how to let out emotions in a much more constructive way. And how to feel heard.
Do the school kids look after their guitars and feel a sense of ownership?
It depends on how the teacher handles it. There’s a really great teacher, Mrs. Arnold at a school up in Washington. She names all of the guitars. So, because they all have a name, they all want to be very careful. They don’t want to hurt “Hendrix” or they want to hit the “Vaughan” guitar or whatever it is. Because, like a person or a pet, it would be gone forever if you messed up that instrument. The kids are excited to play whatever instrument they have.
We are actively searching for those teachers who are passionate about it and who do care. Because when they aren’t into it, who knows how long the program will last or how good it will be for the kids. We are searching for stand-out music programs.
One big success you’ve had was the music educational program at the Plainfield Correctional Facility in Indiana. Tell me what happened there.
They had a fantastic program there and it was run by a volunteer. A lot of the programs we reach were put on by a parent or a volunteer. There are people trying to start some sort of music program in their community because their schools lost their program. So, this particular guy had some instruments so he thought he would go to the facility and teach classes over there. They made it a more formal class and so he was teaching music in a more formal way. It was one of the classes they could take, like they could take accounting or business management or they could take music, for example. He was just changing these guys pretty significantly. They would come in all rough and tough and they would leave as normal, everyday guys and be productive in society. Only a couple of them who were in this program, over a year or two, went back to prison. That’s a rate that’s unheard of. Most of these guys were changing everything about how they were living. And it was all from this one volunteer. He wouldn’t have been able to make it such a big program if we hadn’t given him more instruments. The state decided it was such a fantastic program that it needed to be mandatory through the rest of the state. So now Indiana has these educational programs throughout the rest of the state.
It’s amazing just how many individuals and groups out there have started up music education programs, isn’t it?
As a school’s music program falls by the wayside, there’s usually someone who pops up and says, “This isn’t fair. I’ll fix that problem and I’ll start some sort of program.” I think so many people see some value in others having the opportunity to make music. Because they get the value of it, they want to do something about it. Unfortunately, a lot of the programs don’t last forever. That’s where we come in and we try and find the programs that we really think are going to last.
Guitars in the Classroom is working. It’s getting music into the whole school curriculum as opposed to just having a music class where the school has to pay for a music teacher in a classroom and instruments. This way, the school doesn’t have to pay for anything. It’s a way to get it in there without the school having any reason to say no to it. Having music in the schools is an important part of music education in general and I feel that a lot of the other music education programs are just fillers because the schools keep taking them away.
There’s another side of this, too, which is music therapy. I see these fantastic music therapy programs springing up for troubled youth or at-risk youth or people who are in hospitals. Or any time people need music to get through what they are going through. They see results and they see that music seems to be helping their patients or their clients or whomever. If that’s going to help them, just like pain medication, then why not do music?
Your board of directors has some very recognizable names on it, including Don Felder of The Eagles and Don Lombardi of the Drum Workshop. How did they get involved?
They are both passionate about the cause. Don Lombardi, whose company is just down the freeway in Oxnard, originally joined the foundation because he felt the industry would be best served rallying around one foundation whose goal was focused on getting instruments into the hands of those who need them. He was also impressed that the foundation was surrounded by so many talented people with a passion for helping those in need experience making music. It was also important to him that the overwhelming majority of funding went toward grants to those in need.
Don Felder joined because he’s a firm believer in what music can do to help kids take a different path in life. He believes that it helps keep them off the streets and into something that is much more productive and wholesome than other choices that so many kids end up making. He sees all of the benefits that music brings to people and saw the foundation as a way to make a big difference.
One of the foundation’s very earliest supporters was the TV celebrity band 16:9. What was the story behind that?
Greg Grunberg, Hugh Laurie, James Denton and Bob Guiney from The Bachelor are all in a band together. The band used to be called 16:9, but now it’s called Band from TV. The first benefit concert we had, they were the all-star celebrity band 16:9. That was the first concert that they’d done. They did it because Greg Grunberg was on our board of directors at the time. He was one of our founding board members. Since they had formed this band, every band member gets to choose a charity that they support. They will go out and play a concert and whatever money they get will be split between those charities. So we were one of those charities through the support of Greg and Larry Thomas—he was also in that band for a while. So we have a number of pieces of memorabilia that the band has signed. We have sold a lot of it but we have a few pieces left.
What can you tell me about the foundation’s items in Rock Square’s store? There’s a guitar signed by Tom Petty and a guitar signed by a number of musicians from the American Country Awards.
Tom Petty signed that guitar for us recently. Either I am there or it’s with Fender or it’s with a board member. Somehow we need to be there to make sure it’s authentic. With the American Country Awards guitar, the one that we have on Rock Square, is the one from 2010. We also have one from the 2011 show. It is the best piece of memorabilia we’ve had ever. They made enough guitars for the winners to be used for the awards. And then they made two more. One of them went to Fox. The other one came to us. So you would own the same guitar that all of these celebrities have—and Fox. So it is a super rare piece of memorabilia and it is signed by the biggest current country artists. It’s a custom made guitar. It doesn’t get better than that.
Over the years, what are some of the most exciting and in demand items that you’ve auctioned off to raise money?
We had a guitar signed by The Eagles that sold for the most money that I had sold anything for. We had a guitar that was signed by the members of Glee and a sultan actually bought it for his daughter for her 16th birthday! B.B. King signed some guitars for us and we couldn’t even keep them for a day. One of our interns was friends with Tom Morello, so she reached out to him to have him do something for us.
The OK GO guitars are selling well. There’s a lot of interest, especially from the U.K.
Those are the guitars from one of OK GO’s famous music videos—which one?
“Needing Getting.” The one where they are driving a car with stuff sticking off it and it plays the instruments as they drive by. They also did a video where they are covered in wallpaper and their guitars are covered in wallpaper and the whole room is covered in wallpaper. They donated the instruments in that video. We don’t have them any longer.
How can people get involved with helping the foundation?
The main way to get involved would be to make a donation. We need to get these instruments out to music programs and that means we need to pay for the shipping of these instruments and we need the staff that can get these instruments out. So we really need funds. We are doing a lot with smaller donations from the public. Like the donations I got today—they were all $10 to $30. We get a lot of those. Even a little bit will help. It doesn’t take a big $1,000 donation for us to be appreciative of their support.
Otherwise, buying memorabilia is a great way to support us. People also put on concerts and give us proceeds. They could put on a concert to collect donations from their friends. Just recently, we got a donation in from 15 fans of the Los Lonely Boys. They all put their money together because one of their other friends who was a fan of Los Lonely Boys had passed away from cancer so they collected money to give us a donation.
We also have our icon series collectibles. They are small metal guitars and a pick and they say, “Give Music Life.” I have one hanging on my purse. You could have one hanging on your guitar bag. You can put it anywhere you want to show your support for music education.
Another way people can help us is by getting involved in our social media. Not only would we appreciate their participation on our social media accounts, but it’s a great way to rally support behind music education to the people they know.
I like that we are an organization where everybody can do something about the future of music. It’s not just the big and the wealthy can do something about it. Anybody can make a difference.
To learn more about the autographed guitars mentioned in the interview, please visit The Fender Music Foundation's storefront.
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