Our new Donor Spotlight series will introduce you to some of the incredible advocates of Music for All as they share their stories of Music for All’s impact on them and why there were compelled to pay it forward to ensure that others feel that impact as well. In the second spotlight of our series below, we are thrilled to introduce you to Dr. Christopher Protho.

Chris and Eric EditedPictured left to right: Eric Martin, President & CEO Emeritus of MFA, and Dr. Christopher Protho

How did you become involved with Music for All?

I started when I volunteered in the bus parking lot at the Morgantown, WV Regional (known as the Eastern Regional) in 1990. As a freshman in the WVU band, it was not like I had much of a choice. I had no idea what Bands of America was. I barely understood that marching bands competed against each other. 

The real connection came in 1991, at the end of my freshman year. I was a few minutes late for the Wind Symphony’s commencement rehearsal in May. I was asked to see Dave Satterfield (WVU Asst. Director of Bands and Cadets staff) after rehearsal. Dave was generally responsible for discipline, so I spent the rehearsal preparing myself for a well-deserved tongue-lashing. Instead, he asked me if I could work at a camp in Wisconsin, the 1991 BOA Summer Workshop [now the MFA Summer Symposium] held in Whitewater, WI. BOA needed a clarinet SWAG to fill a last-minute vacancy. Just like that, I was an 18-year-old SWAG who had never been to Wisconsin, never worked with so many students, and (like most of the world) didn’t know what SWAG meant. (Heck, I didn’t know that SWAG was an acronym and I really didn’t know how special it was to be one.) In those days, the whole camp participated as the “Pick ‘n Save Band of America” in a Milwaukee parade. 1400+ kids marching in an enormous band in the rain. The band was so big that, although the picture covers what looks like a mile, the whole band’s not in the picture because the back half of the guard hadn’t turned a corner. An old friend of mine still has my red SWAG shirt. I worked Grand Nationals that year and my thank you note was hand-signed by all FIVE staff members.

 Protho 1991 SWAG

What attracted you to the cause?

The people and the scale of the experience. I met so many great people – students, SWAGs, volunteers, staff, clinicians. It felt then (and feels now) that there’s this giant positive energy created through music – all moving in the same direction. Everyone wants to help; everyone wants to contribute; everyone wants to get their own piece of MFA awesomeness by giving some away to someone else. Everyone was helped to feel and be special – every band on the field, every kid at camp, every fan, every pit dad. It has never been just about the official-looking people – kids in their uniforms or judges and staff in their polo shirts. At an Orlando regional, there was a woman who had pulled up a chair to a pond outside the stadium. I remember sitting next to her, listening to her talk about her life’s journey while she was fishing, yes, fishing outside the stadium. It felt like that in 1990 and every year and every event since.

As for the scale, I am beyond amazed at the replication of this feeling and this experience. It is often said that it would be great if something positive could be bottled. Marching Bands of America, Bands of America, and Music for All have found the magic to do just that. In the last thirty years, I have worked in about 50 or 60 venues, from tiny high school fields to NFL stadiums and complete college campuses. The magic is not just in the mission; it’s in the tens of thousands in the MFA family that replicate the mission everywhere for everyone.

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What is your favorite Music for All memory?

Most MFA events I attend are part of the fall marching championships, so most of my stories come from that part of the year, but I’ve had great memories at the Summer Symposium, the MFA National Festival, and several events that have evolved into other student opportunities in my years between BOA’s 15th Anniversary and MFA’s 45th Anniversary. NOT FAIR. This would be like picking my favorite child. (Editor’s note: Chris provided ten amazing memories, I chose five of my favorite stories he shared for you all to read here.)

5. Atlanta, GA – While problem-solving at the loading dock of the Georgia Dome, the Western Carolina University marching band walked by. From out of the mass of WCU humanity, I hear, “Hey, Mr. Protho, is that you?” A student from my middle school moved from Pennsylvania to North Carolina, finished high school, had joined “The Pride of the Mountains,” and six or seven years later, we unfathomably found one another in one of the most unlikely places.

4. Charleston, WV – Due to a late scheduling change, the Morgantown, WV Regional was moved to Charleston. Additionally, we needed to do the regional without a volunteer site staff (as the WVU “Pride of West Virginia” stayed in Morgantown for the rescheduled game). It became an “all-hands-on-deck” event. We ran that show with about 15 people, with everyone chipping in wherever they could, including Scott McCormick, BOA President, selling programs until he threw his back out and Eric Martin, BOA’s new Vice President, guiding bands from warm-up to the stadium (across a set of active railroad tracks). 

3. Indianapolis, IN – At the RCA Dome pre-Lucas Oil Stadium renovation, buses and trucks needed clearance from a BOA volunteer (designated “Check Point 1”) before driving around the stadium to unload on the tarmac and at the loading docks. One snowy Grand Nationals, I was working on the tarmac as a form of “traffic cop” to help Check Point 1 know when there was sufficient space for the next band to come around. I got a radio call from Jenny Ridge at Check Point 1: “Chris, there’s a band that has to unload NOW!”  I replied, “What is so urgent?”  Jenny said, “You’ll see.”  A truck came around the stadium with virtually no roof.  It had hit a train trestle that was too low and that had peeled the top of the truck back like a sardine can, allowing it to snow on the band’s equipment.

2. Massillon, OH – During this show I was assisting in keeping trophies and medallions straight during awards ceremonies. One year, Mars High School won Class A and was, therefore, entitled to medallions, including medallions presented on-field during the Finals Awards Ceremony. As the director at Mars Middle School, I was extraordinarily proud of my former students. As I prepared to hand several medallions to a VIP to be presented to Mars’s drum majors, I was asked at the last second to present the medallions myself. My pride for my students went off the chart as I had the honor of looking my past students in the eye as they received the highest honor the band had ever received. (Just writing about this moment has me in tears.) My photo of that moment is one of my greatest treasures.

1. Indianapolis, Indiana – I was serving as Contest Director at Grand Nationals and was taking a break, having a conversation with Eric Martin (MFA’s previous President & CEO). A reporter from a major national newspaper entered the room for a scheduled interview with Eric. As I tried to do the polite thing by gathering my belongings so the two could have the room to themselves, Eric invited me to stay. I listened to Eric go further than share a recitation of what MFA does; he shared the core of the mission, why we do what we do, and how what we do impacts people, schools, communities. It wasn’t an interview; it was a sermon. It was an MFA TedTalk.  After decades of seeing, hearing, and feeling the embodiment of love and care through what was known (at the time) as Music for All, I thought I understood it. After listening to Eric, I instantly knew I had a way to go to really know what was going on and why. It was like climbing a mountain, looking up, and realizing I had thousands of feet left to climb.

What impact has music education had on your life?

I am who I am and how I am through music education. Through mentorships lasting seconds to decades, I have learned my part in the lives of young people, the people that support them, and all the people whose paths cross mine over time.  Learning to play the clarinet has, over the years, become a means to an end.  First, I learned to play, then I learned to lead, to follow, and eventually, through music education, learned what my path was meant to be. Internalizing the process of developing and sharing artistry and creativity with others is something that I no longer need an instrument or a baton to achieve.

What does Music for All’s mission mean to you? 

I’d like to address this question rather literally. For grammar fans, the mission has two broad parts: the verbs “create, provide, and expand” and the noun “positively life-changing experiences”. For some time, I focused exclusively on the noun. I gave so much thought to what “positively life-changing experiences” look to our larger music community.  I have come to believe that understanding the noun through J.K. Rowling’s adaptation of Louis Armstrong’s famous quote, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” Just picking up an instrument, listening to the radio or your local symphony, coming to an event, or saying “thank you” to a volunteer takes one down the path to a positively life-changing experience. 

The verbs have had a more profound effect on me lately. It speaks to the universality of human connection. Creation, provision, and expansion are all methods to extend the beauty of music into the universe, even that little piece of the universe we get to call ours, whether it’s associated with a mascot, identified with zip code, or measured in light-years. The mission is beautifully interminable. There is no end to expressing and serving the mission; there is no point at which one can say, “OK, I’m done. I’ve achieved the mission. I can sit down now.”

What compelled you to be a donor? 

Donating is a small act of giving back and helping to make the creation, provision, and expansion expressed in the mission statement happen. Since I was a toddler, MBA, BOA, and MFA, have continued to find ways to extend the beauty of music into universes large and small, into genres new and traditional, into communities seeking to maximize the excellence to which they have become accustomed and communities who require assistance and support to take the next step toward excellence.

To the friends and family who haven’t been on my journey, it could be easy to misconstrue our relationship. “Chris, they put you on an airplane and send you to here or there and you get to see the best bands in the country and rub elbows with the most talented music educators.” It can sound like Music for All has given me so much over the years. Through one lens, that may be true. What is far more true, is that while I’ve had experiences at the events I attend, is that those experiences cause one to give that experience to one more person, one more community. If my few meager dollars can make that happen, then all the moments will have been worth it.

In your opinion, what is the most important work that Music for All does? 

Persist. Making MFA’s various events happen on simply the logistical level (that leads to the personal and emotional levels) requires an inordinate amount of time, effort, and resources. Being blessed to have had opportunities to serve in leadership at events from time to time, incrementally learning what happens behind the curtain to allow the magic to happen in front of it is truly mind-altering. Without time, effort, and resources, events simply don’t happen. MFA has been able to put those pieces together for generations, and hopefully for generations more. Your homework should be to go to the MFA website’s staff page to see the names and faces of those people you may never see and may never meet but are indispensable to MFA’s events. Imagine Grand Nationals or the Summer Symposium being planned by this small, dedicated group ranging from interns to executives. That’s where we come in as donors and volunteers.  Whenever and wherever you can add to the pools of time, effort, and resources that allow MFA to persist in order to reach out to just one more child, one more program, one more community.

What do you wish people knew about Music for All?

How few full-time employees actually work for MFA. (See the homework assignment above.) For years, I thought there were hundreds; dozens would be generous. 

Do you have an anecdote/story about Music for All or a Music for All event that really moved you? 

At the 1991 Grand Nationals, the process for presenting medals is different than it is now. Then, volunteers individually presented a medallion to each student. As I was presenting a class champion medallion to a young lady from (what was then) Plymouth Centennial High School, they were announced as the National Champions. She removed her hat so I could get a medallion around her neck. As the announcement was made, she broke out in tears as I presented her medallion. I wanted to cry with her.

What would you tell someone who is thinking about donating?

Think about the next step MFA can take because of your donation. Over the years, MFA has developed different dimensions to meet its mission, expanding its geographic footprint, recognizing more student-musicians in more musical genres, extending its reach into underserved communities, recognizing the impact of supporting the growth of young educators, and more. Your donation helps MFA take that next step and helps you take that step along with MFA.

Join Dr. Protho in making a gift in support of Music for All’s impact here.