Courtesy of Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation
How The Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation Has Been Quietly Helping Schools By Donating Musical Instruments
Nearly a quarter of a century in the making, the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation (MHOF) has become much more than founding member and film composer Michael Kamen ever imagined. Since 1996 when the non-profit organization began, upwards of 30,000 instruments have been donated to schools and more than two million students have been impacted by improvements to their music programs. What began as a simple, heartfelt effort to bring high-quality musical instruments into underfunded K-12 music programs has developed into a large-scale effort to improve music and arts programs all around the country.
Michael Kamen, who earned four GRAMMY Awards from nine nominations during his career, named his foundation after the award-winning 1995 family movie Mr. Holland’s Opus, which he scored. The film tells the true story of an American composer-turned-teacher named Glenn Holland, who spent 30 years improving the lives of his high school students through robust music education, despite the constant struggle against budget cuts. Kamen, whose score for Mr. Holland’s Opus earned him the GRAMMY for Best Instrumental Arrangement that year, was so inspired by the story that he decided to start a foundation based on the same core values.
“Music’s role in a child’s education is key in engaging them, sparking their creativity and unique voice and improving their overall enjoyment and success in school. A vibrant, music-rich curriculum makes an immense difference in their lives.” - mhopus.org
Each year, MHOF receives hundreds of applications and must choose between 70 and 100 schools to award instruments. “Part of my job is to make sure we do not overextend or overcommit,” Scott Holtzman, Chairman of the Board of Directors explains, in an interview with the Recording Academy. “The core mission of MHOF is to bring instruments to schools that can’t afford them, but it hasn’t always been easy.” Coming out of their best year to date, Holtzman still looks back on the more difficult years as a learning experience. “The biggest challenge for any foundation is getting people to open their pocketbooks,” he explains. “People tend to look at music and music activities as not one of the highest-profile concerns in a world where we have such political turmoil and wars going on.”
Despite his busy career as Executive VP of Music Business Affairs at Walt Disney Studios, Holtzman has been with MHOF for 17 years because to him, music is a critical part of education. “It’s not just about learning music, but about the skills, you learn from learning music.” And according to the National Association for Music Education, Holtzman is right. Studies show that learning music builds curiosity and imagination while simultaneously teaching discipline, pattern recognition, coordination, and an array of other skills.
“It’s not just about learning music, but about the skills you learn from learning music.” -Scott Holtzman, Chairman of MHOF Board
MHOF President Felice Mancini, daughter of philanthropist Ginny Mancini and renowned film composer Henry Mancini, finds that working at the foundation is a very personal experience for her as well. “I grew up with music all around me,” she shares. “My parents gave me that sense of social responsibility as well. They were very, very philanthropic.” Several years ago, Mancini inherited her father’s flutes and began learning how to play them. “I did it as sort of an homage to him,” she explains, having only studied piano and voice in the past. In the end, the experience gave Mancini a new appreciation for the work she does. “Learning a new instrument is not easy, and you have to be very motivated and dedicated to keep it up.” The experience serves as evidence that when a child is drawn to music, it is so crucial they have instrument access. “It is so important that you give them the best instruments you can so that they can learn correctly instead of getting defeated and quitting.”
Since its founding, the non-profit has seen donors with remarkable stories pass their instruments on to students, one of which was even turned into a documentary. A few years back, a radio station in New York (WQXR) partnered with MHOF to do an instrument drive. Scattered around the city were drop sites where people could come to donate their retired musical instruments. Upon arrival, donors were asked to share the stories behind them. One donor was 91-year-old Holocaust survivor, Joseph Feingold, who came from his home in the Bronx to donate his violin.
"After he got out [of the camps], he bought this instrument on the black market in order to heal from his experiences," Mancini recalls. The instrument was donated to a 12-year-old girl named Brianna in a school in the Bronx. "A [documentary filmmaker] who worked at the Daily Show with Jon Stewart at the time heard the story on the radio and pursued it." Joe’s Violin, as it was called, earned an Academy Award nomination for best documentary short that year, and the story itself earned the hearts of many.
Sharing Knowledge Through Data
The momentum with which MHOF’s new Music Education District Support Services (MEDSS®) program has taken off is one of the MHOF team’s largest sources of excitement. The program began as a way to share the knowledge and data the foundation has acquired over the years regarding the strengths and weaknesses in low-income school districts.
“We found that people are just so hungry for this information,” Mancini explains. “If they know what other districts are doing and what their challenges are, it makes them feel more proactive.”
Within a few short years, the program developed into much more than just data sharing. MEDSS partners with school districts in need and assesses their music programs from a functional standpoint with the end goal of enhancing and sustaining their music education. “We like to give them the information they need, assess what their challenges are and help them. In the end, the leverage point is that we will give instruments to these schools,” Mancini added.
MEDSS also works hard to carefully incorporate local organizations into the improvements. “We like to bring in other organizations from their community that will plug right into the findings,” Mancini shares. Schools in need have a tendency to say yes to anyone offering services for free which is often at the expense of sustainability, but MHOF is determined to avoid this. “We want to help this become a community effort, but in a smart, strategic way.”
Perhaps one of the most unique things about MHOF though is their “no-frills” attitude when it comes to fundraising. “We just do what we do with our heads down and try to make an impact in as many low-income schools and districts as we can. People notice and support that,” Mancini says. She goes on to explain that the organization is not celebrity-driven and has no celebrity spokesperson or fundraising gala. “We just try to be the organization that makes things happen for the people who want it to happen.” It is clear that her desire is for the donors to be seen as the real heroes. “We are just the middleman; the conduit.” Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. “We do, at some point, want to put on an event to honor Michael Kamen and raise money for the foundation,” Holtzman shares. Perhaps this is something we can all look forward to in their 25th year.
When asked about the organization’s roadmap for 2020 and beyond, Holtzman and Mancini both reply with a clear sense of optimism. “This is going to be a year for our growth, both with fundraising and with staff,” Mancini reveals. Driven by the success of MEDSS, MHOF will continue to help as many districts as they can in order to make children’s musical dreams a reality. Of course, the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation would not be approaching its 25th Anniversary with the same momentum and success if not for the generosity of all those who believed in the organization and contributed along the way. Regular donors to Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation include several GRAMMY award-winners, including film composer Alan Silvestri, songwriter Carole Bayer Sager, rock artist Eddie van Halen, and country singer Chris Stapleton. A full list of donors can be found on mhopus.org where the sub-header affectionately reads, "These are the people who make it all possible."