Teach your children well. There are no more important words for a parent to consider – especially if you’re planning for them to support you in your old age with an unbelievably successful music career. Even if you’re not plotting a little “payback” for the kids, a little musical enlightenment can make a huge difference in the life of a child – any child.
And that, named in a few simple notes, is Ear Candy Charity’s tune. Ear Candy is a Tempe, Arizona based non-profit organization that has been committed to providing youth access to music education since 2007.
The outstanding group annually impacts over 15,000 youths through three programs: Online Instrument Drives, a web-based platform that places donated instruments with low-income music programs; Play it Forward, the “Instrument Drive in a Box” service learning program for community groups; and BackStage Class, enlightening, music based field trips.
Ear Candy’s newest program, Online Instrument Drives, went live this week. The program is the organic evolution of the physical instrument collection drives that the organization has operated since 2008. In the past, the organization was limited to serving the Phoenix area. With Online Instrument Drives, Ear Candy can place an instrument donated from anywhere in the country in any music program in Arizona.
Ear Candy’s founder Nate Anderson spent some time with me recently to chat about the organization and its remarkable calling. Not so surprisingly, Anderson’s background is a perfect fit for Ear Candy’s melodic mission.
“I played piano as a kid and just opened my eyes to how awesome music is. When I was fifteen or sixteen, I experienced live music and I was like, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do with the rest of my life but I’ve gotta be close to that in some capacity.’ Ever since then, I’ve just been this passionate lover of music.”
“Around five years ago, I was doing real estate business out here and doing really well but I could see things were changing. I was at that crossroads – you know, that question of ‘What would you want to do for the rest of your life if you didn’t have to worry about money or anything?’ I was like, ‘Well, let’s take a stab at it.’”
“So I started Ear Candy originally as way to host music events to raise money for different charities. And after doing a couple events for a great causes like breast cancer and cystic fibrosis, I was like, ‘Okay, I really want to do something for music education.’”
“I started looking around and I was seeing how many cuts were taking place – really baffled about Arizona as a whole, how horrible the funding for education was. I was also looking to see what organization was really doing anything about this on a local level.”
“And I didn’t see anyone to the degree that I was really satisfied with. The mission became extremely clear and it developed into this non-profit that’s providing youth access to music education.”
Anderson and I spent some time together at one of his BackStage Classes at U.S Airways Arena before The Fray show. Students toured behind the scenes at the arena and participated in an intimate – but lively – question and answer session with the successful musical group. The popular program provides participants with unique insights into the inner workings of the music industry.
“That program – which is very different than the Online Instrument Drive System – that’s called ‘Backstage Class’. Our goal is to show kids another side of music education they’re not going to get anywhere else. Those are really an ‘invite only’ sort of deal.”
“Sometimes we’ll partner with organizations. On that particular one, we partnered with our good friends over at Phoenix Conservatory of Music. They are a programming organization. They do offer lessons. They’ve got a great space where they offer an after school drop in program and we’ve actually outfitted that program with a ton of instruments. It was a way to give them some love and share in that other side of what we do than just the instruments.”
“They were a great group to work with, but for other BackStage Class opportunities, a lot of times we’ll work with school districts or particular schools that contact us. And it really helps if we have established relationships with those schools. We really try to focus on serving low-income youth and really giving them those opportunities that they otherwise couldn’t afford.”
The classes are without question a highly visible piece of what Ear Candy does. But it certainly isn’t the focal point.
“Our biggest focus is getting instruments out of closets and into the hands of kids. The ‘Instrument Drive,’ in this year alone, will impact well over 15,000 kids by giving those old instruments new life.”
“The model that we’ve used for years was based upon physical donation sites. In the past, one would have physically taken an instrument to a donation site and the instrument would have been picked up by us. It would have eventually gotten to a repair facility and placed in a school. And then we would have notified you and said, ‘Kevin, thanks for your trumpet, it’s been placed at XYZ elementary.’”
“What’s great about this new system that launches September 17th, is it’s an online version of it. What’s cool is that you, as an instrument donor, are now able to actually search music programs that are requesting a trumpet. You are able to actually see pictures of the kids, read about the programs, read their stories as to why they need your trumpet.
“And you then get to pick what music program you want to donate it to. We give you a prepaid FedEx label to send the instrument to our repair facility where it gets ‘kid-ready,’ – potentially repaired if need be. “
“Ultimately that instrument goes and gets placed into the school that you picked. And then we get to bridge the new stories that are being created as a result of that instrument donation with your story of why you donated that instrument, why it was important to you, why you picked that school.”
Anderson confessed that even though the instruments greatly help to “cure what ails” the students, other obvious needs exist.
“When I did an initial survey of teachers, I asked them, ‘What’s the greatest need that you guys have?’ And at first, ‘We need salaries.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have a wheelbarrow of money (laughing). There’s nothing I can do there.’”
“‘What’s the second biggest need you guys have (laughing)?’ And that was instruments. So many of their kids are sitting on the sidelines. The only thing preventing their school’s music program was access to an instrument. They could not afford to rent or purchase one.”
“So our big mission in how we really fulfill that by giving those old instruments new life is profound. Not only in the short term but these instruments stay with these programs and have an annual compounding affect.”
“We don’t host music programs. We don’t host lessons. But we have equipped music programs with the instruments necessary to be able to actually have a program and give all those kids access to play, participate, and experience all the great benefits that come hand in hand with playing music, making friends, etcetera.”
Perhaps the most imponderable aspect of Ear Candy’s groundbreaking program was simply the fact that no one had done it before.
“You’re telling me, man (laughing). If you just Google ‘music charity’ – I just did it as we’re on the phone here – we’re the top thing that comes up nationally, which is crazy to think about. And what’s great about that is we not only have the opportunity to take these proven models that we’re using elsewhere, we have an obligation.”
“No one’s really doing this on the level that we want to be achieving. And that’s why we went back to the drawing board a year and a half ago and said, ‘How do we make our physical instrument drive model significantly better so that when we get contacted by Kansas City or Mississippi or anywhere, we can go fulfill our mission there?’”
“And so we’ve gone about building this model that’s gonna allow us to start helping kids all over the country and not just here. The need really is everywhere but the concept it’s so simple. Kids deserve music and half the solution of getting them that is getting instruments out of closets and into their hands. We just build an extremely efficient, effective and user friendly way to make that possible.”
Knowing that Anderson and the organization have touched so many lives, I didn’t expect him to come up with an answer so quickly when I asked if he could remember a particular story that had touched him – but he never hesitated.
“One of the first schools and districts that we ever helped out was Roosevelt School District and Valley View Elementary. We were able to get this young boy at the time, Evi a saxophone. And he just caught fire, not only loving music, but embracing it. He then became the lead horn of their Latin jazz band and that Latin jazz band went on to middle school and then went on to some national competitions.”
“He won some great awards. He got a scholarship to go to a really great private high school, just through the music program. And the impact that it’s had not only on him individually but his whole family. It’s just such a great thing to see – just one kid out of tens of thousands that we’ve impacted since inception. What’s really cool is that with the new system, we’re gonna be able to track more stories than we’ve ever been able to, because that’s really what makes this thing work.”
After five years of touching young lives with “old” instruments, Anderson was quick to point out that Ear Candy Charity still has much work to do – simply proving the old adage, “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” But Anderson was hopeful for the future.
“We’ll be a national organization impacting a million plus kids a year, placing instruments everywhere from coast to coast and hopefully also doing backstage class field trips in every community. I hope we get to that point where we’ve got every instrument out of the closets.”
“And we’re on to other great things like scholarships for kids and other deeper opportunities that we’re not currently able to address. We really want Ear Candy to be synonymous with ‘music education’ and getting the access that every kid deserves. We’re gonna push insanely hard to make that a reality. We’re just excited about shining that spotlight to take what we’ve built here and take it elsewhere.”
“I started this thing five years ago with no business plan and minimal expectations. The fact that we’re helping tens of thousands of kids on an annual basis is pretty incredible and the community has warmly received the organization and is willing to donate to make it successful.”
“Coupled with how many kid we are able to impact with something as simple as giving an old instrument new life or showing kids a different side of music education they deserve to see. That’s been the best feeling – knowing that the only way this is successful is if the community embraces it and the community has embraced it. It’s awesome, man. It’s been an incredible journey getting this far and the future’s pretty bright. That’s why I wear sunglasses (laughing).”
After listening to Ear Candy Charity’s Nate Anderson, here’s a word of advice for the rest of us…go get yourself a cheap pair.