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2023 "40 Under 40" Educator Franklin Willis

Franklin J. Willis

Adjunct Professor of Music Education
Vanderbilt University, Blair School of Music,
Community Impact Director
CMA Foundation
Nashville, Tennessee

Think bigger in order to serve students! That’s the message you’ll hear from Franklin J. Willis, a trailblazer and catalyst for change in the music education space. As a former elementary music instructional coach for Metro Nashville Public Schools, Willis offers invaluable insight into the challenges and solutions that exist in music and arts education.

Nationally recognized for his commitment to student learning, passion for the profession and innovative teaching practices, Willis shares his unique and relevant pedagogy through professional development sessions for music teachers of all grade levels. One of his fundamental tenets is that every child has musical potential and deserves a music teacher who will see the best in them. “Music education is a vital tool to teach students about other cultures, create community and inspire a love for learning,” Willis says.

He consistently uses his network — colleagues, community organizations, local businesses, colleges and universities, and more — to advocate for the importance of music education in schools and to provide opportunities for students to utilize their passion for music for all to see. This includes producing music videos and stadium performances at CMA Fest, a four-day music festival in Nashville.

Willis is currently an adjunct professor of music education at Vanderbilt Univeristy’s Blair School of Music, where he teaches undergraduate courses that provide a robust and realistic experience of teaching music in the 21st century. He is also the community impact director at the CMA Foundation, where he paves the way for students to experience equitable access to opportunities in the music industry beyond the classroom.

In 2020, Willis wrote “Edward’s Rhythm Sticks,” a children’s book that shows how much music is a part of our lives. “I was inspired by my son’s exploratory behavior with music and his love for rhythm sticks,” he explains. “This story illustrates how fun music can be and how even the simplest things can be made into instruments.”

Parents and teachers can use the book to teach rhythm, pattern and sequence. “Most of all, they can use the book to bridge learning, music, literacy and having fun together,” he says.