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Mary Luehrsen – An Advocate For All

Christian Wissmuller • Don Johnson Awards • January 30, 2015

One of today’s most passionate, effective advocates for music making and music education, Mary Luehrsen has directly impacted – for the better – the lives of so many who participate in, support, or simply appreciate the culture of music in contemporary American society. A former professional flutist, a veteran music teacher, and currently the executive director of the NAMM Foundation, hers has been a life shaped and defined by a love of the positive impact that music can have on individuals and communities.

Through her work as director of the NAMM Foundation, she and her team have helped support a number of music research initiatives that reinforce the importance of music education and inform policy decisions that impact the lives of students and parents across the country. Similarly, Mary spearheaded the now-annual NAMM Fly-In to Washington D.C. during which association members meet with members of Congress and directly advocate for support for music education. I’ve had the pleasure and honor of participating in a few Fly-Ins and, even from my limited vantage point, I was able to glean some perspective of the massive amount of work she handles juggling logistics, personalities, and budgets. It’s a huge undertaking that, due to her efforts, runs like clockwork 99% of the time – and any problems that do arise are attacked with ferocity and resolved in short time. The woman means business. I’m glad Mary’s on our side.

From the point of view of the general public, Mary Luehrsen may exist somewhat more “behind the scenes” than other individuals, but none have exerted more positive influence, benefitting the MI industry, music teachers, students, school programs, and communities. Since her first lesson and seeing that flute case opened for the first time, Mary has never forgotten what it means to have the chance to experience the power of music and she has made it her life’s work to share that feeling with as many as desire it.

The selection committee for this year’s Don Johnson Industry Service Award quickly came to a unanimous decision as to who should be the 2015 recipient. Mary Luehrsen embodies the best principles and attributes of our industry and, as significantly, is also just a genuinely kind and well-meaning individual who never gives less than her full effort.




MMR: Can you discuss your early exposure to music and music education? Was yours a musical family?


Mary Luehrsen: I grew up on a farm in Wisconsin – pretty off the grid in terms of access to cultural experiences. But as a small, insular community, music in school and church was a big part of my life and was a gift my Mother gave me and my family. She was a piano teacher and a church choir director – so we were dragged along everywhere and participated in lots of music. And I think my Mom saw that in a community where there were not a lot of kid-friendly options, like there are today, and sort of being isolated as a farm kid, starting music early was a really healthy thing to do. My first flute lesson still runs like a movie in my head – when Mr. Hughes opened the flute case, I was in awe. And he was a good teacher who read me as a kid just about right because the flute fit me perfectly as an instrument. I wasn’t a fast wonder, sometimes struggled to practice and at times the instrument dragged me along, but early on, playing the flute was just central to all the important things I did in school and beyond. Essentially, my work every day seeks to assure that every kid has that chance – that moment when a real instrument becomes yours. And I think a majority of parents, like my Mom, believe that learning music is a natural, good and possibly required part of childhood, and data supports this; my work also seeks to nurture that belief and inspire advocacy to assure every child has the chance.


While in elementary and secondary school, what music programs did you participate in?

I started playing the flute in third grade and never looked back. I was in band, choir (I studied voice along the way – I have a pretty loud singing voice!) and orchestra and had some great teachers who were all solid, but one stood out during my middle school days. He showed us what true dedication and hard work could achieve and we played challenging music. Setting a standard of what could be possible was so much a part of that experience – being in a good ensemble that produced an inspiring and emotion-filled sound with a beloved teacher just made us all walk taller; gosh, as I think of it, can anything elevate a middle school kid more than the experience of high quality music education? It is priceless – now, we just have to convince every school administrator and school board member that high quality music education is vital for every child and that options for music education expand to reach every child. I was in marching band, ensemble, solo and ensemble competitions, choir – I still think it’s a miracle that a relatively small rural community provided me and my classmates with such a good music education. This also demonstrates that communities off many stripes and means care about opportunities for their kids – and we work to activate this core belief in community leaders – policy and funding decisions must support opportunities for learning in music.


Is there any music educator who sticks out as having had a significant impact on your early development as a musician?

I had very good teachers early in school and their influence stuck; I also had access to general music in elementary school. General music – or classroom music – is the bedrock of a music curriculum because it touches every child – and it is where music education can really be expressed as part of the “core” – though these days, even the word “core” is politically charged in education policy dialogues!

I attended a pretty powerful music camp once and it put the record straight about how hard I was going to need to work to be make a mark as a musician. Without a doubt, my biggest influence was Prof. Fred Schroeder who was my flute teacher, wind ensemble and music ed. pedagogy teacher when I went to Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. The Conservatory of Music was located, by the way, two blocks from Heid Music! Prof Schroeder and the whole atmosphere at the college remain with me every day. I worked really hard at Lawrence and clawed my way up through the standard flute solo and orchestral repertoire, did performance major requirements as well as music ed. requirements, and did three stints of student teaching. Interestingly, Lawrence was the alma mater of the band director I had in middle school and Prof Schroeder conducted the Lawrence wind ensemble on a visit to my town at about that same time. I bet many musicians and artist of every genre can point to a moment when they feel “pulled” by the art form and by really great people; for me, the pull was powerful, relentless and remains a force in my life every day. As I write this, boy do I feel lucky!


You were a professional flutist for two decades – can you share some highlights from that aspect of your life and career?

From college days forward, I put together the holy triad of musician sustainability – private teaching, school teaching and gigging – and I did this for 20 years starting out in Wisconsin after college and then after a move to the NYC area after graduate school. I was in graduate school at SUNY Buffalo where contemporary music was celebrated and it was a mecca for composers and artists in residence so I got very caught up in studying contemporary music performing new works, in addition to my music education major. A group of us were so involved with learning and playing complex, newly-composed repertoire that we would walk off the stage and hollered “next!” meaning that within the next 24 – 48 hours we would be back on stage performing more music where the ink was barely dry. An unforgettable moment from that period was playing a piece by Morton Feldman. He conducted a small ensemble that I was in, John Cage was in the pit next to me and he was slicing “chance” recordings and looping them for the music that Merce Cunningham was dancing to on the stage above my head, with sets by Jasper Johns. The music was important, but the ideas behind the music really inspired me. A few years later, when I was teaching music appreciation to high school students in a private school in the New York area, my class would write to John Cage asking various questions about his motivations for his music – like 4’33” (four minutes 22 seconds) – his composition that stunned the musical world as a totally silent composition. Cage always wrote back to the class.

After I moved to New York, I performed with various chamber ensembles – both traditional and contemporary – and organized or was hired to do two-three solo recitals every year. Probably one of the craziest ideas was to do a concert of all six Bach flute sonatas on one program, ending with the unaccompanied sonata played by memory. I think I was a little nuts, but the program got a great reaction from the audience. I toured a bit as a flute and harpsichord duo – but as you can guess, one does this for the music, not for financial sustainability. Teaching and other commercial gigging rounded out the life – and I was most proud of my flute students who were winning awards and climbing up their own ladders of excellence. All in all, I loved playing and performing great music with integrity and purpose – playing is well, and enjoying the many fine musicians I played with along the way. But honestly, I won’t miss the hundreds of times I played the piccolo part from Sousa’s Starts and Stripes Forever march at the end of bug-filled, outdoor summer concerts [laughs] – but that just goes with the territory.

These days, I don’t play my flute but I am getting better on ukulele having learned it complete online starting about six years ago. I challenged myself to explore all the online tools that are available to learn an instrument online and I was totally blown away with what is available to learn an instrument online. In the last year, I have gone back to the piano and am learning tunes from the “American songbook” – old torch and jazz songs. I sometimes play and sing late at night – it just makes me feel better on every level.


What was your entry into the field of music education? Where did you first land a teaching gig?

I graduated from Lawrence and went right into an instrumental music teaching job in Neenah, Wisconsin where I taught band and orchestra in six elementary schools – each week, six schools, and six principals! I was there only two years before I went on to graduate school, but increased the program from year 1 to year 2 in all six schools and had a great group of music education colleagues in the district. Heid Music provided support for the district’s music program, though at the time, I was not aware of the important synergy that exists between music retail and music education. When I started at NAMM in 2001, I walked into my first board meeting in Nashville and saw Paul Heid, and it hit me – now I get it – it was an incredible realization that after about 30 years and with this opportunity to work for NAMM and the music industry, I had sort of come full circle.

I taught a total of 16 years in both private and public schools, grades K-12, instrumental and general music.


Two-part question: what did you find more rewarding about being a music teacher? What did you find most frustrating?

The power of music in learning is transcendent and as a music teacher, I got to see this every day in my work with kids and I think every music teacher knows this. At that time, the benefits of music learning had not been quantified or described by music researchers but teachers, parents, school administrators know from instinct and experience as educators that learning music has powerful cognitive benefits. Music is a laser-focused energy for the cognitive pathways and when you can take kids on a sequential journey of learning music, and they are having fun, their interest and commitment spirals because they are firing on all of their capacities. By the time I ended my teaching, I felt I finally understood this. My final stint as a teacher was in an elementary school where I taught the general music curriculum grades K-5, and band in grades four and five. After a couple of years, all the third graders could read music – some kids in multiple clefs – and every kid in fourth and fifth grade were in the band (good way to solve a pull out program, by the way) – and basically, I turned band recruitment over to the fifth graders who helped the rising fourth graders pick out their instruments. Funny, even at this age, kids knew who would be right for low brass or percussion! The schedule of teaching – 40 classes a week, which is also standard for most music teachers – wore down my creativity in some ways. I was also struggling with the realities of repetition which is essential for good teaching (let’s try that again, let’s start at letter “b”). What is so interesting now is that much of this “drill” effort is being solved by music learning technology that puts the teacher in more of a management mode and motivates the student to self-pace, and I think it deepens learning for the student. If I were ever to go back to the classroom – and that is sort of dream I have, getting closer and closer – I would organize my classroom around music learning technology.

From the start, I always had to educate my bosses (principals) and school administrators about what was the essence of what was happening in my music classroom form a student-learning perspective – more than just the performance results. It did sometimes make me feel marginalized as a teacher – I think it fueled my understanding for the need for advocacy for music education. And I always welcomed parents into my classroom and rehearsals – to celebrate student learning, not just student performances. The more we reveal the true power of what is being taught and learned in music education, the stronger its place will be in the curriculum.


Some degree of fundraising and managing budgets is part of the job for most band directors, but not many become as involved and adept as you did. How did you approach that part of the job?

Honestly, I did not embrace the idea of fund raising for my program though I did it modestly. I respect directors who have built and sustained their programs with fund raising which is a big lift when combined with the needs of great teaching; these teachers have said “no” to proposed program cuts and supplemented with fund raising efforts. I admire these efforts. I admit that I resisted fund raising because I believed that music was part of the educational offering and needed the type of financial support that other subjects received – adequate supplies, materials, environment for learning. I found that the stronger my program was with service and support for kids, the needs for the program were met, though I had to present them in compelling and logical ways. We must continue to push for funding of music as with other core academic subjects – “ a core academic subject requires core academic funding” – again, that’s the advocate “me” talking, but that sentiment started early in my own teaching efforts.  


Can you describe the path that brought you to NAMM? What was the catalyst behind you joining the organization?

No doubt, the pivot to NAMM was the opportunity to meet and work with Joe Lamond during his last year as Market Development Director at NAMM and as he segued to NAMM President and CEO, and the reality that my stint at the Texaco Foundation was going to end with the sale of Texaco to Chevron. I had met Joe when NAMM and Texaco both funded the Music Works project at Sesame Street. Along the way, I hosted Joe at an event at the Metropolitan Opera along with leaders from Sesame, NAfME and Texaco (Texaco funded the international radio broadcasts of the opera for over 65 years) and he hosted me at the Grammy Awards. Yes, if it wasn’t official before, Joe is way, way cooler! In spring 2001, about the time Joe was appointed NAMM President and CEO, it became clear to me that the music education funding and visibility goals that were part of the Texaco Foundation were not going to carry over to the new company and I was at a crossroads; could my commitment to music education and capacities in philanthropy, policy, advocacy and government relations be relevant? I called Joe from my desk at Texaco and congratulated him on his new post at NAMM, believing then and now that this was a great choice for the association. In the phone call, I proposed to him that I prepare a “white paper” outlining the contributions I could make to NAMM as part of its music making benefit promotion and advocacy efforts. Our ideas clicked and it always makes me feel humble and proud – and emotional – when Joe says that I was his first hire as CEO.  My work at NAMM has been focused on having NAMM lead a national dialogue and advocacy efforts about the value and importance of music education, supporting research that ignites this dialogue, empowering NAMM Members to acknowledge and act on their potential as advocates for music education and expand participation at the NAMM Show by market influencers that include educators, politicians and policy makers – working to advance commitment to making music by people of all ages that drive inspired consumers to our NAMM Members for their great products and services.  


You’ve been behind so many major projects during your tenure at NAM – can you outline some of the significant achievements and initiatives that the NAMM Foundation has been responsible under your guidance?

Working with others, we founded the NAMM Foundation through a consolidation of the non-profit organizations that were affiliated with NAMM (American Music Conference, International Foundation for Music Research and Museum of Making Music). By doing this, we are able to promote music making benefit activities with a clear alignment to our Members and the association that generates the resources that support these activities that advance support for and participation in music making at every age. This brand consolidation guided the development of new communications platforms and outreach – that including developing our public service announcements around the NAMM Foundation brand and this has helped us manage our programs around clear mission and brand. As stated, many other people were involved with this – across many NAMM departments, and I am so grateful for this collaboration. The SupportMusic Coalition is a signature program of the NAMM Foundation and it has developed as the national hub for music education advocacy. We just completed a fall tour of six SupportMusic Community Forums and the John Lennon Educational Tour bus. Our recognition and support of these local programs was a very big deal for these communities and this activity represents the essence of the dialogue around the benefits of music education that we are creating through the SupportMusic Coalition. We have ramped up our connection to our grantees and sponsored programs by supporting their sustainability and effectiveness at an annual summit. And we have developed a significant network of strategic partners – National Association for Music Education, President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, College Music Society, International Music Council, International Society for Music Education – that share NAMM’s vision for expanding access to music making for people of all ages. These partnerships extend NAMM’s reach – and we also learn from these qualified expert associations. Finally, I value managing the Foundation’s music research efforts. The outcome of this research is the essence of our thought leadership as an association – and to date, our funded-research has been the “tip of the spear” that supports and influences policies for music education.


Can you talk about what prompted the initiation of the D.C. Fly-In advocacy trips?*

Bringing association and trade group members to Washington DC to meet with Members of Congress is a proven strategy for issues management and is among the engines that drives Congress and Washington DC and our whole political and democratic process. The fly-in model has existed for a long time and many NAMM members have gone to Washington with other organizations working on business issues (tax reform, etc.). We had a unique opportunity to advance a public benefit agenda with music education advocacy; music business owners and managers coming to Washington to advocate for an education issue is a unique combination. As the SupportMusic Coalition developed, it was clear that NAMM Members understood the materials that were available for advocacy, but there was a disconnect about what “action” they could do and it seemed that we could better support NAMM members as they developed as advocates – we needed to grow a network for modeling direct advocacy. So “we just put them in, coach” – we opened up the door to advocacy, issue training and the process of direct advocacy on the Hill and the NAMM Advocacy Fly-in program developed. The goal was to ramp up training and direct advocacy experience, and frankly, see where it would go. And to a person, once information and experience in direct advocacy go up, our NAMM members are brilliant at this. Over the years I have coached and supported several NAMM members who were really nervous about the process of delivering a message and an “ask” to a Member of Congress or staff. After our training process that includes training on a focused ask, and a few initial meetings, the comfort level with this process goes way up, matches with other expertise they have, and soon, our NAMM Members express themselves as true, natural advocates.  The key to our NAMM member expertise as advocates – the competency that connects and is needed for effective advocacy – is that our NAMM Members know how to “close” – they are working for a commitment and action. And this is a priceless skill and critical to advocacy. Now, our Members who are turned on by this process are carrying their competencies into their states and local communities – they are building networks and action locally. This “learn, share, act” model is critical to expanding advocacy. I imagine a time when every NAMM member has an annual plan for advocacy that involves their own professional development, their staff’s management and participation in advocacy by leading or participating in state and local networks – just think how many more kids we could pull into making music? That’s goal of advocacy.


What’s on the horizon for you and the NAMM Foundation that you’d like to share with our readers?

We did our first “day of service” in May 2014 as part of the NAMM Fly-in, and we will be kicking off the NAMM show with a “day of service” with the Anaheim Public School District on Tuesday, Jan. 20. Working with school leadership and teachers, we will provide a series of hands-on music learning experiences at elementary school. In Anaheim, we will host guitar and ukulele classes, as well as a drum circle and choral class that will help prepare students who will perform on the Plaza State Friday night as part of the Imagine Party with George Clinton presented by the NAMM Foundation and the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus. Connecting NAMM members directly to a school district seeking to re-instate its music education program, is central to achieving NAMM’s vision to assure that every child has the opportunity to learn music. And by doing this service work together, we are walking the talk of our vision. And there is nothing more inspirational than helping a student learn an instrument – even for one session – because it could open up a door of learning for a lifetime. (link to day of service) And I think these experiences also inform NAMM members on ways that they can reach out to school leadership in their own communities – another version of “learn, share, act.”

We will launch new research at the NAMM show about the impact of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities Turnaround Arts program and we have some interesting research cooking. This new research will be launched at our next Fly-in, week of May 18, 2015 – where we will also be doing a “day of service” in collaboration with a Kennedy Center-affiliated school.

And I hope overtime, the NAMM Foundation will grow to be valued as the industry’s charity and be a vehicle for gifts in tribute and memory of folks that have given so much to the industry and wish to ‘play if forward’ by contributing to the work of the NAMM Foundation that includes music education advocacy, support for innovative music making programs funded by our grant program, research, along with college and music education programs at the NAMM Shows.


Any advice (or requests) to MI retailers and suppliers as to how they can help grow the culture of music making and music education?

Tune into to NAMM resources. An efficient way to do this is to assign a staff member to be your official liaison to the SupportMusic Coalition. We host an hour long webcast or conference call once a month that provides a “listen in” opportunity to national policies, trends and advocacy practices in communities around the country. The knowledge from this network could mobilize more action and outreach from your company.

Promote sound bites and info about the benefits of music making available at the NAMM Foundation website – pepper your customer outreach with information available here – this information is geared to support your outreach to customers – current and potential!

Build, or continue to build, your company brand and identity as “child-centered” and/or “music-benefit centered”; lead with messages about the benefits and importance of making music pull down the perception barriers to starting or continuing in music. Lots of ideas and resources at

And reach out to me and our staff; advocacy materials are free for NAMM members and we want to hear from you on how we can assist with local issues.

Come to the Fly-in!


Thanks so much for your time, Mary, and congratulations again. Any final thoughts you’d like to share with our readers?

Mimicking a famous quote from baseball, “music’s been very, very good to me” – and this reality drives me every day. I was blessed with the opportunity to learn music early. I know now, that it probably changed by brain and opened up pathways for learning that would never have been available to me, and inspired me to push myself. I feel incredibly blessed to have a life in music, and I know, it will be the force that carries me to the end of my life. I hope every day that my work is a service to others and that the end zone can be one where our government, our society and our shared consciousness supports opportunities for all children to learn and grow with music.


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