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How Public School Music Saved My Life

With it being around the holiday season, I started to think about what my life would be like today if the public school music program had not been available to me as I was growing up in small town Maine.

I recently have been learning more about an organization called Music for All; this organization works to create a public awareness of the crisis facing music programs in public schools today and raises funds to support struggling music programs. With it being around the holiday season, I started to think about what my life would be like today if the public school music program had not been available to me as I was growing up in small town Maine.

I was born with nystagmus, an eye disease in which the eyes are constantly moving and are unable to focus for seeing. Great effort can bring things into better focus for a short period of time but not without the cost of monster headaches. Unfortunately, there is no way to correct this condition. I was, and am, classified as legally blind.

My parents did all they could to be sure I was able to experience things other kids could do. At two years old I was given my first guitar and that’s when my love for music was discovered. I dragged that old guitar around with me everywhere. Nonetheless, my self-esteem was very low. I suffered a great deal from other kids making fun of me and calling me names. Even though I always got good grades, I eventually did not even want to go to school. My parents not only worried about how I would make it through school, but they also worried about what I would do for a living later on.

Things in school started to change in the third grade when I was inspired to join the school band playing trumpet. My band leader, Mr. Noonan, was more than a band leader. He was also my mentor throughout my school years. He was overwhelmed when I wanted to learn more and more instruments, and my parents were filled with joy that I had found something to build my self-esteem and make me want to go to school. And I was thrilled with my new role as the “go to” guy; I had learned so many instruments that I could fill in any time a member of the band was sick.

I eventually learned to play all the instruments in the school band, and finally found a place to strive for excellence and not focus on my handicap. I also found a way to connect socially. While I could not play basketball or really see what was happening on the floor, I could attend all the games playing in the band! I made lots of friends, and my confidence grew. I became President of the National Honor Society; I even had a rock band and took the band to play a concert for a school dance!

As graduation approached, it was thought I could someday become a band director/ music teacher. I attended 3 years at the University of Southern Maine but ultimately made the decision to leave school, come to Nashville and realize my dream of playing guitar; even though it was a tough decision, I will never regret it! I am so grateful to my parents and Mr. Noonan and the whole school band experience. Without these factors, my past, present and future would be very different.

Looking at my recent and current work, as time allows I do clinics for PRS Guitars in the U.S. and abroad. I teach private lessons and master classes at major music schools, and universities both here and abroad (incidentally, many of these students were first motivated to play music in public school music programs). I have produced a series of teaching videos and audio teaching programs, and have served as motivational speaker/performer for several public schools. I have also written and illustrated a children’s book called, TUFF and Friends, designed to motivate and inspire handicapped children to follow their dreams and pursue what’s in their hearts.

I want to speak out to encourage people to support keeping music in our public schools. This is not something we can be passive about; I am living proof of the importance of public school music programs. In 2007 I will work through PRS guitars to raise funds for the Music for All foundation via a performance at the PRS 2007 Annual Golf Charity and through donation of a Hiland signature PRS model guitar for auction at Winter NAMM 2007.

I can only truly imagine what my life may have been without the opportunities presented to me through participation in the public school music program. I want to help ensure these opportunities are made available to children today and in the future. Please encourage children to play instruments and help support music in our public schools!

For more information on supporting music in our public schools, please see the following websites: and supportmusic. com.

God Bless!
Johnny Hiland

Johnny Hiland
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