Progressive Music: 70 Years of Music Education Advocacy

by Sharon Paquette Lose • in
  • Anniversary
• Created: July 10, 2017

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Saying that you’re an advocate of music education and actually being an advocate are two entirely different things, but for Progressive Music, walking the walk has never been an issue in their 70-year history.

The McKeesport music education advocate and retailer goes above and beyond with their efforts to promote quality and accessible music education, citing 2006 as the point where Progressive Music dove into advocacy.

From working with NAMM to the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association (PMEA), Progressive Music has a history of hands-on work with advocating for music education. Paired with being a retailer and rental source for students and professionals alike,

Progressive Music truly distinguishes itself as one of the driving forces in supporting music education. MMR caught up with Mark Despotakis, director of market development at Progressive Music, to talk about how just far the company has come since 1947.

MMR: As I was researching Progressive Music, I noticed that some of the details concerning the origins of the business in 1947 are somewhat unclear. Can you talk about the history and summarize the evolution of the business to the present-day?

Mark Despotakis: We’ve been able to piece together that the business was started by the band director of the McKeesport High School, Ed Garbett, in McKeesport, Pennsylvania—the town that we’re still located in—because he saw there was no place for lessons. From what I understand, there were some other music stores in town, but maybe not doing actual lessons. He partnered with a couple of people who were teaching music at Duquesne University, who were also professionally playing musicians, to start the company. They were two brothers, Matty and Eddie Shiner, who taught and played with professional acts that would come through town. So there was this K-12 Connections as well as a higher ED connection right from the get-go. With that focus on lessons, the business morphed into the retail side within the first couple of years.

In the very beginning, we also had baton twirling lessons. Helen Tozzi was one of the featured twirlers at McKeesport High School and went on to become one of Progressive Music’s first employees. She created the McKeesport majorette and drill team, which was a huge youth program in the 50s and 60s. She traveled with the kids and took them to perform all over the place, it was a prestigious thing, in the area, to be a part of.

When the lessons expanded to Progressive Music the store, what were they carrying?

C.J. Conn band instruments, that they sold before the grand opening in March of 1948, accordions, and a trial rental plan where a customer would rent an instrument. There were one month and four-month fees, and that’s what put Progressive Music on the map with school music programs. Rental instruments are still the heart of our business now, and getting an instrument into a kid’s hands early on for a low price is a focus of ours.

Do you have a staff of sales representatives visiting schools?

Yep, we have reps that go out to schools servicing rental instruments, selling products, and I always like to say that our reps are kind of like, psychiatrists for music teachers too. We have previous music teachers working for us. When we go to make that visit, we’re not just there to sell a box of reeds, we’re there to support our customers, so that the teacher can unload to somebody that understands what’s going on in their day or share news of what’s happening in their programs.

What is the size of your current staff?

We have nine total employees; all of us serve a school in some way. So we don’t necessarily have any full-time road reps. We’re all kind of involved in that in one way or another. We cover most of western Pennsylvania. I’d say probably a third of the state.

What would you say that Progressive Music is known for? Does the company have a mission statement?

In the last 15 years or so we’ve kind of branded ourselves in the advocacy world and got very involved in that. I mean, we obviously believe in that, and I think at some point we said, “Okay, so we believe in it, now it’s time to put our stake in the ground and actually step up and take action, and be a part of that.” We stepped up and joined in around 2006. We began to get involved and get ourselves knowledgeable about advocacy and public policy, moved on with the work at several levels with NAMM, and then now, we have really done a lot of work at state level. In some ways, we’ve been kind of the go-to across the states for advocacy. We have teachers from districts across the state who contact us with a question. We have districts around here who might not even be a customer of ours who say, “Can you help us with this and this?” Of course, we’re not gonna exclude someone because they’re not a customer of ours because our goal is that we want every student to have the opportunity to participate in a music and arts program.

What kind of advice would you give a teacher who is looking to advocate for their program or students?

The first thing is, there’s probably already people out there who have put something together, so it’s finding that connection. Be that through State Music Educators Association, or an Arts Education Network or Arts Education Coalition.

The first opportunity is finding those outlets, and getting yourself connected, because most of them are putting out information. At a policy level there’s a lot to dig through. These organizations can give information in a digestible form that talks about, “Okay, this is what’s actually relevant to music and arts education.” Now that we’re living in the time of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), check out what your state departments of education are doing. We’re in the timeframe now that states are gonna be rolling out their state plans, that they have to turn into central government. Now is a chance for music educators, and really even those in the music industry, to look at those state plans as they start or are starting to be rolled out and see, “Okay, would this actually help students in our state receive a fair and quality access to music education?” And that doesn’t necessarily mean that it says in there that every student will take music class because that’s most likely not going to be in the language, but it’s looking for a language in there that then would support the ability for that to happen. And then the next step once those plans are in place is to go to school districts and say, “Okay, so here’s where we see how music in the arts fits in the law. So this is how we want it to be implemented in our school district.”

Are there any specific advocacy events or organizations that Progressive Music is associated with specifically?

A lot of the work that we do is in conjunction with PMEA, the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association. I’m actually the chair of their advocacy council. So we do a state fly-in day every year. And we’re doing one on March 20th where, you know, we’ll get music educators, members of music projects community, to come to our state capitol where we talk about the importance of music education. At the same time, we actually talk about some specific policy things, we talk about budget issues which are related to all of education.

We’re very tuned in now to what’s going to happen with our state plan. We’ve been a part of that conversation for a few months now. We’re just waiting for the state to put pen to paper and see what they come up with as a plan, and then that’s our chance to analyze it and see where we fit in.

Can your describe Progressive Music’s facilities and location?

We’ve been in three locations, all in the city of McKeesport. My understanding was that the first location was very lesson-based, so there were just lots of lesson rooms. The second location, you know, had a large warehouse for rental instruments and a repair shop, a smaller retail store and there was a good bit of lessons. So now in our third location, we have an even bigger retail store area. There’s less lesson rooms because we find students are not taking private lessons as much as in the years past. I’d probably attribute that to kids being busier than ever with all of the after-school activities that are out there.

In our current location we have a retail area, we have a little bit of lesson area, of course, offices, and then we have our warehouse and our repair shop. We have an in-house string repair shop and an in-house band instrument repair shop. And of note, a guy that got his start here in the industry, repairing band instruments was Bill Schultz of Fender Fame.

Does Progressive have any association with key artists?

In the beginning, we actually had a guy that worked here named Hud Davies, and several years ago we were at NAMM headquarters. When we were in the museum we saw a photo on the wall with a picture of Benny Goodman and his big band. Our manager just happened to be on the trip with us, and he says, “There’s Hud in the background!” A lot of our employees in those early years played with a lot of these big name bands that would come through town.

What are your thoughts on how the company’s rich past defined its present day identity?

It’s different in that we are not as lesson- based as we once were, for a variety of reasons, but it has stayed the same because the focus has always been on music education. [Progressive Music] has always been on serving music students, music educators, school music programs for 70 years.


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