Play it Forward: restoring music education

This month's Virtual Supper Club event supports pianist Michael Allen Harrison's program to bring music lessons to Oregon students

When Michael Allen Harrison was growing up in 1960s Portland, arts education enriched his life. “All the public schools had band programs, strings programs, choir, theater, painting, sculpture,” he remembers. “There were piano teachers in every neighborhood. We had everything at our fingertips to figure out what we were good at, what inspired us.”

What inspired Harrison was playing piano and composing music. He used the skills and qualities he gained from his arts education to become one of the most successful pianists in so-called New Age music, found his own record label, record more than 60 albums, score musicals, films, ballets, theater productions and orchestral compositions, and much more. He was recently inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame.

Michael Allen Harrison

But as his own star rose, Harrison watched with disappointment and then alarm as his home state systematically dismantled the public school arts education system that had so enriched his life and helped him create the music that delighted so many listeners. 

Harrison decided to do something about it. He resolved to help restore access to music education to Oregonians who couldn’t afford it. Two decades ago, he created the Snowman Foundation program to support music education in Oregon and eventually Seattle, then the Ten Grands fundraising concert to bring pianos to students whose families couldn’t afford them. And three years ago, his Play it Forward program embarked on the culminating phase of his original vision. 

But like so many other worthy educational and musical efforts this year, Play it Forward has had to shift gears — though the engine is still running strong and moving forward. And this week, Oregon arts lovers can help.

Defunding the Arts

Harrison became a music educator not long after becoming a music student at age six, when he started taking piano lessons. When he became a young teen, he wanted a car, and his paper route wasn’t going to earn him enough to buy one. So he started giving lessons to Northeast Portland neighborhood kids as a teenager, and he’s been teaching ever since. 

Music lessons helped him achieve more than transportation. “You learn so much about life from learning music,” he says. “You gain confidence when you’re asked to do things you’re uncomfortable with, you learn discipline preparing for recitals. Even when I got into high schools, when I was trying out for musicals and singing in choir, going through auditions, performing on stage, learning how to dance. All these activities in the arts created a confidence in me that I could take to any other discipline.”


THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series


That’s why it was so important to him that other kids have the same opportunities. But those started to shrink thirty years ago, when voters endorsed a disastrous property tax limitation that failed to provide alternative funding for the social benefits those taxes paid for. “It started with Measure 5,” Harrison says. “It wasn’t the main cause, but it was the starting point for the downward spiral. Educational sources were forced to cut budgets and one of those things was the arts.”

Harrison saw a lot of the damage first hand, as he’s been doing artist residencies in schools over that span. “Arts are the most important thing in education, because they support all the other disciplines,” he says. “Everybody in the educational system knows it. There are so many studies, tests, data, that all show how the arts enhance other disciplines. And yet the action has been to cut the arts. It’s been breaking my heart for 30 years.”

Building the Snowman

Nearly a decade of seeing the catastrophic effects of tax cuts and misplaced priorities on the lives of Oregon students persuaded Harrison to found his Snowman Foundation in 1999, using fundraising concerts like his long-running Ten Grands at Portland5 and Christmas at the Old Church series to finance the purchase of new instruments and endow scholarships. To date, it’s raised about $3.5 million for music education and reached more than 100,000 students.

“Then all of a sudden people started donating their instruments to us,” Harrison recalls. “There’s thousands of wonderful used pianos, even Steinways, sitting in people’s living rooms: ‘This belonged to my Aunt Nellie.’ They become furniture not being used. The idea came from the community: we can stretch our dollars a lot further if we’re getting an instrument for free.” The foundation sends an assessor to figure out whether an instrument was salvageable, then picks up usable instruments and deliver them to students who needed them. And as word spread, “we began getting these nice gently used instruments from people’s living rooms — oboes, violins, drum sets, saxophones, keyboards.”

But a crucial element was still missing. “It was always my dream to give every child who needed one an instrument and a teacher,” Harrison explains. “So as we grew, we were finally able to start an after-school program in which everyone gets a free piano and every child gets a teacher.” The Snowman Foundation paved the way for Play It Forward, an independent program that over the last three years has provided lessons to 150 students, delivered nearly 4,000 hours of music instruction, and gifted 450 instruments to students, community centers, schools and churches, according to its spokesperson. This year, the program employs 10 teachers, including college students and young musicians who’ve just graduated from college and have teaching experience, “so we’re able to support young teachers, kids and families.”

Life Lessons

One of them is Diane Tran, a Portland Community College-Rock Creek student who signed up in 2019 and is teaching students in this summer’s workshops. “Learning music can help you in so many ways,” she says. “There’s always a way to apply everything you learn here in the real world. Reading sheet music trains observation and motor skills. I tend to see problem students who are having trouble keeping focus become more receptive and willing to change themselves. I also see them starting to open up a lot more. They’re more receptive to a bit of growth.”

Diane Tran gives a Zoom lesson with Maria Herrera

Harrison, who’s teaching four students himself this summer, has seen that extra-musical growth throughout his many decades of learning and teaching piano.

“The act of practice and learning how to practice properly is giving you great learning skills,” he explains. Even after their school years, students continue to benefit from music lessons. “If you’re in a board meeting, team meeting, situations where you need to speak up, or you’re going for a job interview,” he says, “the more experience you have of sharing who you are, the more confidence you have and more success you have later in life. It helps you develop as a human. I’ve witnessed it in others and witnessed it in myself.”

Students aren’t the only ones learning from piano lessons. “As a pianist I’ve learned there’s a lot I can learn from my students,” Tran says. “What they often teach me is how they want to have fun. I don’t have memories of having fun when I was taking lessons. I want to give them what I couldn’t get.” 

If they like playing a piece that’s in the standard syllabus, she’ll continue with that, but if not, she’ll find something they do like, often starting reluctant learners out playing the music they want to hear, even something like the Pokemon theme. And she’s sensitive to how they’re feeling about what they’re playing. “If they’re having a negative emotional feeling about what they’re playing, I have to address that,” she says..” ‘How does this negative mood affect you? How can we change that?’ Play it Forward is very open about how we teach.”

Tran’s responsive attitude mirrors Harrison’s approach. He says, “I’m always asking them, ‘How does this feel to you? In your body? What’s happening? What are you feeling in the moment? Are you frustrated?’ I try to help kids to be nice to themselves.”

Julianne Johnson and Michael Allen Harrison

Play it Forward has developed along with its students and teachers, becoming mentors as well as teachers. In the wake of this summer’s national reckoning with racial injustice, Portland singer and frequent Harrison collaborator Julianne Johnson came to speak to PiF’s teachers and board about her experience and share her family’s history and her insights about white privilege.

Harrison says that since his wife, Marietta, took over management, “it’s grown 400 percent. She’s really turned it into a shining light of a program. We’ve learned so much about some of the kids we’re serving. Some kids are sharing intimate things happening in their family, so we’re training teachers how to handle that and how to refer certain information to the right people.”

That mentorship can happen only when teachers go beyond teaching the notes. “One of the biggest motivational tools on the planet is when you as a teacher can show a student you believe in them and are interested in who they are,” Harrison insists. “That makes the whole difference. Human contact is so important.”

Shifting Gears

Human contact, unfortunately, is exactly what’s severely limited in this pandemic summer. But that’s not stopping Play it Forward. In the spring, the Harrisons immediately began planning how the program could adjust to the new reality. “She’s a tenacious facilitator,” Michael said of Marietta. “She makes it all happen. When Covid hit, we shifted our entire program to being online.”  

This summer, rehearsals and recitals happen over Zoom. For their upcoming performance of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” at PiF’s virtual summer fundraiser, “all the kids are learning their parts, practicing over Zoom on multiple screens,” Harrison says. “Everybody performs for each other, and we also have kids assess each other, what they could work on.”

Play it Forward Zoom recital

Like other organizations and piano teachers forced to adapt, Play it Forward is finding lasting value in what was originally intended as a temporary accommodation to the virus crisis. In previous years, students interacted primarily with their own teachers. “One of the things Zoom is doing is building a closer community” among the students, Harrison explains, “because we’re able to put kids closer together on the Zoom screen. So even when we’re all back to being able to hug each other, we’re going to integrate the online stuff. We plan to keep doing Zoom meetings so the kids can see each other and check in and have everybody play for each other, maybe even offer master classes online.”

Virtual Supper Club

The program might have adeptly adjusted to new circumstances, but teachers still had to be paid, as did its other expenses. Harrison finances most of his educational work through concerts — but the pandemic has squelched those for now. Even the banquet rooms of hotels often used for fundraising functions were off limits. How could Play it Forward bring its music to supporters? 

Marietta Harrison remembered the ‘60s supper clubs that the title character in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel TV series performed her standup act in. They’d considered using the theme for PiF’s fall gala, which, like every other fall performance, was now in doubt. Why not, she suggested, turn this summer’s fundraiser into a virtual supper club?

On July 25, Play it Forward will bring the music and dinner to supporters’ homes. Participants can order a full dinner complete with paired wine prepared by Pearl Catering and Script Cellars for no-contact delivery. Then, they can tune into the main event online: a livestream show featuring local musicians and youth performers, along with an opportunity to bid on a curated offering of auction items. Harrison and Johnson will perform, and Harrison’s friend and fellow songwriter, New Age pianist, radio show host and PBS fave Jim Brickman is recording a special video for the occasion. Harrison hopes that around 30 of the 44 summer workshop students will also prepare videos, including the “Ode to Joy.” 

Rebuilding Trust

Play it Forward’s creative persistence in the face of this year’s unprecedented challenges reaffirms Harrison’s lifelong belief that learning and playing music builds confidence, discipline, and creativity throughout life, and beyond music. Harrison himself has also been adapting to current circumstances, offering a daily video performance of some of his favorite pieces, and creating a series of Wednesday Night Experiences to be enjoyed virtually at home — “an evening for relaxation, meditation, prayer, peace of mind or just whatever you want it to be. An opportunity for an intimate personal experience. An hour and a half of straight music. “It’s different every time” Michael explains “because the day is different, the group of people in the room changes, my personal thoughts and mood changes, it just flows according to the feelings in the room.”

From Harrison’s Anti-Anxiety playlist

 Along with his own substantial contributions through such efforts, Harrison is continuing to advocate restoring the much greater support possible through public investment in arts education. 

 “I grew up with the kind of support I envision,” he remembers. “All those activities create so many great memories — the kids you were with, the trips you went on, everybody comes to the shows, the sports events with music, the spring musical. We all get together.  It’s the arts that lift us up to higher heights. The more you take the arts out, the more you hurt the community.”

Still, he acknowledges that rebuilding arts education is going to require building trust among voters and lawmakers.

“There’s a lack of trust in the people who lead our educational system,” he says. “How do we find a way to trust the leadership and the organizations that are making these decisions when they come to us and say we need more money to fund these important programs? Will that money be spent on what we voted on? How can we help educational organizations deliver a much better message, so people will trust what they’re doing?”

“I think the Play it Forward program is one of those things that leads by example. So I’m hoping that as we grow, maybe this program will expand to every school in the state. Through that example people will see and trust that arts education is something we have to have in our community and in our educational system.”

Harrison wants to play a personal role in rebuilding support for arts education.  

“I’m happy to get on my soapbox. I would love to participate in any group bringing forth legislation, be a pied piper and a voice. Oregon has led the way in so many things that later filter through the rest of the country. We can be that leader again.”

Limited tickets are available now for the Play It Forward Supper Club event at www.pifmusic.org. Individual tickets start at $125, with group packages and children’s meals also available. Guests purchase a ticket, reserve their meal and bottle of wine, and prepare for a fun evening. The event is expected to sell out, so early reservations are encouraged. Deadline to sign up is July 19.

The 20th anniversary Ten Grands concert originally scheduled for April 11 at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall is now planned for November 15 at  Keller Auditorium, but of course everything is subject to changing pandemic restrictions.

Want to read more cultural news in Oregon? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.