Steve West – Fighting the Good Fight

Christian Wissmuller • Don Johnson Awards • January 30, 2016

We all know the saying, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” and you’d be hard pressed to find a more applicable example than Steve West. His father, Pearl West, was a musician, owner of West Music, and a prime example of a music education advocate. Pearl passed that torch on to his son Steve, who passed that torch on to his own son, Ryan West, who now operates as senior vice president of West Music.

Steve West has spent over 40 years in the music industry, and advocated for equal opportunity music education just as long. Between co-funding the Music Achievement Council, starting the New Horizons Band, helping lay the foundation for SupportMusic, acting as chairman of the NAMM foundation, starting the West Music Music Therapy Services, helping to spread the West Music Education Catalog throughout the U.S., and establishing the Iowa Alliance for Arts Education, it’s hard to imagine how West had time to sleep.

MMR sat down with Steve to discuss his legacy, his achievements over the years, and the moments that really set in stone not only what music meant to him, but also what it could mean for the world – from traveling the world with the University of Iowa Symphonic Band in college, to hiring the first music therapist at West Music.

One thing stands out when you speak to Steve about music and music education, and that’s his genuine belief in its power and desire to spread that gift to as many people as he can. “There are almost an unlimited number of populations, and maybe it is an unlimited number of populations that would benefit from involvement in music,” comments Steve. Its quotes like this that made it evidently clear to the selection committee who would be the 2016 recipient of the Don Johnson Industry Service Award.

This year, the Don Johnson Industry Service Award finds its home with Steve West – a man who has dedicated his life not only to his own love of music, but has made sure that as many people as possible have access to music, no matter what your age, background, color, or creed.

What role did music and music education play in your life as a child?


(He chuckles lightly) Where does one start… back in fourth grade… well you know obviously my father was a very good musician, he was a music educator himself and he had started a music store so obviously music was everywhere but I think I started percussion when I was in the fourth grade and switched to the clarinet when I was in fifth grade and when I got to high school I switched to the bass clarinet and so obviously continued to play and still play today but I had some wonderful experiences when I was growing up. In high school and college, I had some wonderful experiences… as a child, yes, I was definitely involved. I was a believer.


What are some of the most important things you learned from your father, not only as an educator, but also as a business owner?


He was very, very hardworking. He… Whatever it took, he did it. If he had to go back at night and work he certainly did that. He was very focused, but that being said he always enjoyed life and always had a smile on his face. He was not all that serious, but he was a darn hardworking man.


The other issue that I remember and something I’ve tried to do all my life – he was always a constant learner. He was a musician, he was a music educator, but when he got into business he didn’t know all the accounting and all the other things but he constantly was reading books, and studying this, and going to conferences, to better himself and his skillset so he could be successful within the company. Obviously his passion for music, music was the way he got off the family farm and because of his playing ability, he was very passionate. He continued to play all his life, so it was more than just making a living off of music but it was really playing music and participating in music as well.


Where did your passion for music education stem from?


I did have some great experiences in K-12 growing up and certainly I had some of what are referred to as “goosebump” moments when I was in high school playing in band and all-state music. Probably the greatest influencer of me was when I was in college and a sophomore, the University of Iowa Symphonic Band was chosen to go on a European Soviet Union tour by the State Department. These were 90 college students, extremely good musicians, we spent a full semester together not only playing everyday but also seeing the world and certainly we had a number of incredible experiences musically and as far as just going out and seeing the world. That really helped to shape and form my passion for music, but also my passion for travel, understanding how others around the world feel, and how music affects them.


In what ways did your marketing major in college contribute to your success in your position at West Music?


Going back to my father, Pearl, he was a very patient fellow, a great craftsman, could sit at the repair bench fixing an instrument for hours; he was also a flute builder. I wasn’t quite that patient. I played throughout college but I decided I wasn’t going to become a music major, but I was going to go into business because that was a bit more in line with my personality. Also I had an inkling about getting into the business and I thought those skills might help take the business to another level.


You joined the company in 1969 and were named sales manager two years later in ’71. What was your vision for West Music at the time, and how did it evolve over the years?


This was a smaller company. I think we had 14 employees. We were covering a fairly limited geographical area here in Iowa. In the ‘70s, there was a major recession based around a farm crisis and generally the economics of small family farms was changing. What I quickly discovered was no matter how good we were that our success was because we were so regional in an agricultural area, our success was determined more by the price of corn and hogs than it was by our ability to manage a music store. By the mid-‘70s, I had pretty well decided that we needed to diversify and geographically and perhaps in other product lines in addition to band instruments and pianos at the time, we needed to become more diverse so that we were able to withstand changes in local regional economics and be a bit more stable as we hope to grow.


On the West Music website, it’s stated that West Music’s goal is to “[enrich] all people’s lives through the participation in music.” Can you speak about not only how music has enriched your life, but how you feel you have been able to enrich the lives of others through music?


How many hours do you have? How long do you have? (chuckles) We’ve always looked at obviously you have to run a business well to stay in business but there has to be a higher order and passion than just making money. I’m sure I got this from my mother and father but I also believe that the associates, the 210 associates here at West Music, strongly believe in what the power of music can do to whatever population utilizes it, and how they utilize it. Music can reach the very young, the very old, it can reach populations of various skillsets and abilities in such positive ways. So not only have I personally experienced those but tens of thousands, well, hundreds of thousands have observed how music and participation in music can affect people’s lives in a very positive way.


What was the catalyst that led to the formation of the West Music Education Catalog Department in 1980?


Two things happened in and around that time. Before this, one of my first times attending NASMD (the National Association of School Music Dealers) there was a session on Orff teaching or the teaching of Carl Orff. I was fascinated by this particular teaching; it was for earlier elementary and basically elementary school students. So I came back and sponsored a clinic to bring in Grace Nash, who’s kind of the number one person in this field in the U.S. She came in for a clinic and we had a wonderful response from the general music teachers in Iowa. They were very appreciative, and I could see that was a wonderful foundation for learning music as a child. Our initial hope was to get behind it and try to get as many schools in Iowa using that. I hired an Orff specialist that had recently graduated, but I quickly figured out that I could sell all the Orff instruments in Iowa and still not be able to pay this young woman’s salary. First of all, she did everything from group teaching of guitar to and what ever else to be able to pay for the position, but then we started reaching out to find people with expertise in that area outside of Iowa. I still believe it gives wonderful educational background to every student who wants to go on to band and orchestra but it just gives them a wonderful experience with music, what ever they want to do in music, and however they want to express themselves in music. We’re very passionate. We have a whole staff of general music teachers who act as consultants throughout the country to help others understand, utilize, and maximize the budgets they have and the instruments they have –to make the experience as positive as they can for the students.


Tell me a bit about the West Music Music Therapy services, and the partnership with University of Iowa.


In much the same way we got involved in K-6/K-8 music education we also found more music therapists were coming to us because we had products that resonated with special populations that they were servicing. So I started going to the music therapy conventions. They’re some of the most passionate, committed individuals that I’ve ever met, in any career or any group of people. As we were starting to do business with them, going to the national conventions, I said you know, this is something we might want to try, hire a music therapist on our staff, number one so we better understand the needs of music therapists (much the same as we do with music educators) but also for us to start experiencing because we really saw the number of populations that could be served and were effectively being served by music therapists. So we started with one and all of the sudden, it grew, then we started with another. We set up some clinics throughout Iowa. And now we have 15 music therapists servicing populations very young, very old, everything from school districts to senior living facilities, hospice, you name it – we serve those populations and now because of the number of therapists we have on staff, some of them are able to specialize in various population skillsets, so that’s been quite rewarding as well. It’s been amazing. An amazing group of people doing amazing work and changing people’s lives again through the power of music.


It’s been over five years since you retired as president of West Music. What are your observations on the evolution of the company under Robin’s stewardship and what are your own goals for the future?


I am extremely proud of that. Robin took over I think, seven-eight years ago as president, and Ryan West, my son, came back to the company around the same time. He is a senior vice president. I am happy to say that we are having very, very good success and the best year in our history much to their hard work and that of all the associates. Robin has been fabulous. I am extremely proud that both of them are giving back to the industry much as I had. She is vice chairman of NAMM and at this year’s NAMM show in January, well he already is, he’s president of the NAMM Young Professionals group and is very involved in that, as I was many years ago at that age. So they have brought the company to a whole new level and I’m extremely proud.


As far as what I’m going to do, basically I’m working my way out of a job and feeling great about it.


What are you most proud of when you look back on your legacy?


When I joined the industry, when I graduated from college in 1969, I was thinking I was joining a longtime, old, established industry that had been around for a long time but not that I reflect on it a little the industry as we know it specifically in music education really didn’t start until WWII. There were certainly successful band programs and orchestras prior to WWII; in the twenties and thirties there were some incredible national competitions for bands an orchestras, but it wasn’t until after when the soldiers were coming back and musicians were coming back and getting hired and bringing music back into smaller school districts, not just the major school districts, in our case Iowa, and especially throughout the United States. Thinking about it, in reality when I joined, WWII had only been over for 24 years. I thought I was in the middle of a longterm trend but really it was just the beginning of the school music business as we know it today. So after knowing all that, and after 47 years, I realized how it’s evolved even when I’ve been involved in the industry.


Because of the hard work of a lot of people, after the great recession that we’ve just gone through and the slow recovery since then, that the school music side of the music industry was not affected nearly as much as other parts of the industry. I attribute that to a number of things that have been done over the years within the time that I have been involved in the music industry. NAMM is obviously, been heavily involved with that, has continued to provide some great tools and support through supportmusic.com and through the use of the NAMM Foundation to ensure we have the tools to advocate and assure that every teacher, student, or parent that needs to advocate for music participation in their particular area has the option and has those tools to make sure they have access to music and good music education. I was very involved when I was chairman of NAMM of putting into place the foundation for SupportMusic and I think it has been very successful and has contributed in a positive way to administrators and politicans not going after music programs.


The Music Achievement Council, I was involved in co-founding that many years ago. MAC, getting ready to retire from that, but the Music Achievement Council has done a number of things, first it has created a lot of tools for educators and students to help recruit students as well as teachers and retain them within music education – an extremely important part of the success of the music industry that supports music education. In addition, at the beginning when we started that, music manufacturers really didn’t talk or work with music retailers. They were more adversarial than they were colleagues or collaborators in supporting music education. I think the Music Achievement Council people – three of them are manufacturers, three of them are retailers, one is the president of NAMM – have done a lot to break down those barriers so that we are all pulling together making sure we can provide the means to keep music education on the forefront in school districts throughout the United States and Canada, worldwide.


In addition we’ve taken another step and really reaching out and working much more closely with music educators. The Music Achievement Council is doing that, but also obviously NAMM, Mary Luerhsen through the Foundation, so we’re all pulling together to make sure every child has access to a quality music education. And I think we’ve made great strides in that so I’m very, very proud of that.


I was very involved in establishing the Iowa Alliance for Arts Education, an advocacy group that has had a major impact on our state and Robin is very involved in that group now, doing a marvelous job. Again, ensuring our educators have the support and that politicians understand the value and importance of music education.


And then of course I’m still the president and playing in the community band, those are important things locally. I have a concert coming up, so I gotta talk the talk and enjoy the product. I’m still playing, I wouldn’t say professionally by any means, but enjoying every minute that I have a chance to play. Then you get into the New Horizons band – we started the third New Horizons band and its been incredibly successful, showing the power of music with seniors and how important they can be and how much joy they can have in their retirement years participating in music. My life has been a transition of how does music affect what population and there are so many populations, virtually maybe every population, that participation in music can certainly have a powerful impact there.


What advice would you give to others hoping to support and advocate for music education?


The battle is never over. The war is never won, but we continue to win. We are in such a better place than we were 47 years ago when I got involved in the industry. There are so many other tools and opportunities for dealers, manufacturers, parents, players, musicians to advocate for music education and music participation. There are almost an unlimited number of populations, and maybe it is an unlimited number of populations that would benefit from involvement in music. It could be the very old. It certainly could be the very young, and everyone in between. It could be those special populations with special needs, who are particularly served with them being involved – not listening, but participating, creating music. As soon as we are successful in one area, there’s always an opportunity in another, to advocate and make sure that other populations have access to a quality music participation experience. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Everyday people need to continue to go out of their way to advocate and if we continue to do that I think the power of what music education can mean to any population will continue to be recognized more and more and obviously that will be good for all those who have the advantage of participating. 

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