Before he became a rock-star drummer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Chad Smith was a Michigan kid with a hankering for banging on things around the house.
Retired New York Yankees slugger Bernie Williams was a boy in Puerto Rico, mesmerized by his father’s guitar.
Both of them went to public schools that nurtured their passion for music. And now both of them are in Washington, headed to Capitol Hill this week to lobby for music education for kids across the country.
“I would have never graduated high school if it wasn’t for music. I know it for a fact,” said Smith, who has traveled the world playing with the Chili Peppers for decades.
His musical training didn’t come from private lessons. It came from the teachers he had in elementary through high school, from marching band and music theory class.
“Those were the things that kept me coming to school,” he said in an interview at the Kennedy Center, where he and Williams and dozens of other music advocates were preparing for their journey to Congress.
The annual lobbying event is organized by the National Association of Music Merchants, which aims to persuade federal lawmakers that music education is far from frivolous. It can be an important ingredient in motivating students and improving graduation and attendance rates, the association argues.
This year, NAMM is particularly focused on pushing lawmakers to be smarter about the sequester. The across-the-board federal budget cuts, which took effect this month, are expected to slice away $725 million in Title I funds meant specifically to help educate poor children. Arts and music offerings that receive funds through Title I could take a hit.
Smith, Williams and other advocates are asking Congress to give the Education Department more leeway to make thoughtful cuts that won’t affect at-risk students so directly.
“We believe that whether you’re in an inner-city school or a suburban school, you should both have access to arts education,” said Joe Lamond, NAMM’s president, and himself a drummer.
Williams, a four-time World Series champion who set a passel of batting records during his 16-year career with the Yankees, said his success on the baseball diamond grew out of lessons he learned studying guitar as a teenager enrolled in a performing-arts magnet school.
Discipline, humility, relentlessness and perseverance were skills he developed playing scales and preparing for performances. They came in use in a sport full of strikeouts, foul balls and pop flies. “Baseball is a game of failure,” Williams said.
The guitar also taught him rhythm and timing, he said. And those were no small things.
“These are all important elements of music, but they’re important elements of sports,” Williams said. “Especially baseball — you’ve got to have great timing to hit a baseball, you’ve got to have a sense of rhythm.”
Williams said he always carried his guitar on the road with the Yankees and frequently would play music for his team while on planes and buses. Sometimes those teammates sang along: Future Hall of Fame shortstop Derek Jeter, Williams recalled, had an admirable falsetto.