Recycled Tunes – Tad Denham

By: Lori Smerilson Carson

Florida is home to a plethora of amazing musicians, many whom are just in bloom. This is where Recycled Tunes comes into play, reaching out to Tampa Bay area children with musical abilities who simply need musical instruments to grow their talents. During the years of 2021 through 2022, this outstanding organization which stemmed from the Gasparilla Music Foundation, provided seven hundred and nineteen instruments (including equipment and repairs) and worked with forty-seven Title 1 schools.

Tad Denham who runs Recycled Tunes, took the time to interview with me and explain some details about the program, how people can contribute, and what music lovers can look forward to.

SFL Music: How did Recycled Tunes start?
Tad Denham: Well, that was before my time. When I say before my time, I’ve just been with GMF for a little less than two years. I worked at a local electric company for thirty-five years. I retired and started trying to volunteer for other music related activities and came across Recycled Tunes, was asked to come and run the program. So, that’s my involvement, but to give you the background, the program started in 2013, so we just celebrated our tenth year. It started by one of our board members at the time just wanting to look for an opportunity to give back to schools, and so they started looking at how they could work with schools and collect donated instruments. That was the infancy of Recycled Tunes.

SFL Music: Their goal is to allow children to have access to musical instruments who can’t afford them. Is this for Title 1 schools only, or does it apply to other arts schools or organizations in the area?
Denham: We primarily work with Title 1 schools in Hillsborough County, so we work closely with Hillsborough County public schools. We focus on title 1 schools. Those are the schools that typically obviously lower income, but they didn’t have the band boosters or the PTA’s and the parent support, so the need is greater there. We focus on those, but we do provide instruments to other schools as well. Several times a year we send out a newsletter to teachers and through the newsletter, we kind of have a write up based on what we are doing, but we also provide a list of the instruments that are available. Instruments that have been donated, and they get a chance to go in and pick and choose the instruments they need for their classroom. So, it could be a guitar or a keyboard or a ukulele or a cowbell or any number of things, and they can select that and say, “I want this at my school.” So, that goes to all elementary teachers, music teachers, and so a non-Title 1 school can request that. That’s usually how we get involved with schools that aren’t Title 1.

SFL Music: Is it Hillsborough County only or does it reach into Pinellas County as well?
Denham: We started actually working with Pinellas County schools in the beginning, but have more recently focused on Hillsborough County schools for the past few years. This year, the program has been primarily focused on elementary schools, but when I started, I noticed we got a lot of band instruments. The trumpet, clarinet, saxophones that don’t have as much a home in elementary school. So, we reached out to the administration with Hillsborough County schools, got connected with the middle school and high school supervisor, told him what we do, and this year we are actually expanding our program to include middle school band programs.

SFL Music: There is also a two-day festival? Is that tied to Gasparilla?
Denham: The name Gasparilla in Tampa is used for probably six or eight different events. Gasparilla Music Festival is one of them, yes. It’s actually a three-day festival. It will be held February sixteenth through eighteenth this year. This will be our thirteenth year of holding the festival and the festival is one of the primary fundraisers for Recycled Tunes. So, when the folks that put together the music festival came together in 2012, they set it up as a non-profit entity. Then through that, over the next couple years, Recycle Tunes came about and we started giving back to the community. So, that’s kind of the genesis of the music festival and how that came to be. It’s a huge event in Tampa every year that we’ve been around, for the past twelve years. We’ve been voted by the Creative Loafing (Tampa Bay) Magazine “The Best Music Festival” in town. We have five stages. We’ll have fifty bands over three days, but in addition to music, we have great food. We have a lot of arts. We have children’s activities and programs. So, it’s a broader festival and kind of a holistic festival. It covers a lot of different elements.

SFL Music: When you say bands, are there local bands who get an opportunity to spotlight themselves as well?
Denham: That’s part of it, but the bands that come are regional and national bands. We cover all the genres from rock to blue grass, to New Orleans funk, to D.J.’s and hip hop. So, it’s across the board. Headliners this year, Young the Giant is headlining Saturday. Lake Street Dive is highlighting Sunday. “Kingfish” Ingram, blues guitar player is playing. So, it’s really all across the board. The other part to answer your question, part of what we also try to do is provide an opportunity for local musicians to be on a stage, sharing the same stage with these bigger acts and trying to give them an opportunity to play in a festival setting. So, it’s kind of a blend of the major national touring acts as well as the local presence.

SFL Music: I read that if people donate instruments, they can get tickets for donating those instruments?
Denham: That is true. We have instrument drives throughout the year. We had one last weekend, and so when people bring an instrument to an instrument drive, we give them a ticket to the festival. So, last weekend we got a dozen instruments or so and all those people will get a ticket. The thing I didn’t mention, we talked about working with the schools. We work primarily with the music teachers in these title 1 schools and we try to find out what their gaps are. What do they need in their classroom that they don’t have? So, we might buy new instruments. We could fix broken instruments. Sometimes they have instruments they can’t use because they’re broken. So, we’ll put strings on a guitar or put new drum heads on, or if we need to take a guitar to a luthier to get it fixed, we’ll do that. But we also do these instrument drives as you mentioned. We have collection points that we set up throughout the year, but for day in and day out, people bring musical instruments to us. Google our website, they’re looking for a home for their old guitar or flute or trombone and they reach out to us and bring it to our office, and we then refurbish it and pass it on to schools.

SFL Music: So, they could donate strings or drumsticks? Those things as well?
Denham: Sure! They can donate those kinds of things. I had someone the other day that said, “I’ve got a bunch of guitar strings, I’m not gonna to use them. Can I bring them in?” Sure, we’ll take those. So, it’s really anything. We get a cowbell from time to time or a tambourine, or we get also, very beautiful high-end instruments that people just aren’t playing anymore. Could be a cello. Could be a nice vintage drum set. I mean, there’s all these things that we get that people just aren’t gonna use, and they want to find a home for it. I think they certainly like the idea that the instrument is going to a new generation, and trying to provide access to them, and inspire them to maybe pick it up and make it a lifelong endeavor.

SFL Music: I did notice that people can donate through a link on the website as well?
Denham: That is correct. We get multiple emails throughout the week of people doing just that. They say, “hey I’ve got these instruments to donate. Where can I bring them?”

SFL Music: Do you have a particular goal?
Denham: I think our goal is just to continue providing access to music instruments. Making music available to all kids through the efforts we do. The other element that we try to promote, is that we try to promote advocacy for music and why music is so important. You know, we all like music. Everyone likes to listen to the radio and enjoys music, but the other benefits that come with music, and particularly when it’s integrated with a student’s education, the benefits that come from enhancing their cognitive skills, from improving their social interactions, developing confidence for kids. I mean, there’s so many benefits that come with playing an instrument that are overlooked, and you can go back and find quotes from Plato and Socrates two thousand years ago that mentioned music as a very important element. So, it’s not a new thing, but there’s a lot of research going on now with looking at the benefits of music education for students. The benefits of music access for senior citizens and those that suffer from dementia. Music sparks memories. So, music is much more than just something that’s fun, even though that’s a great thing and we all like music, but there’s so many other elements and emotions that come with music.

SFL Music: Was there anything else you want people to know about Recycled Tunes?
Denham: Again, I really enjoy doing this and as I was coming in, we were starting to get some recognition and we received several awards in the past two or three years that have been nice. It’s great that others are recognizing what we do and the impact we have. We received in 2022, The Encore Award from the Hillsborough County Elementary Music Educators Council. We also received the 2022 Exemplary Music Model Project Award from the Florida Music Educators Association. So, the statewide organization recognized our program as an exemplary music program. This year (2023) we received recognition from the Florida Department of Education as a business partner. So, we’re really very proud of what we do. Proud of how we support schools, the feedback we get, but also, it’s great to have others recognize what we do and how we give back to the community. We try to spread the word. So many people have those old instruments sitting around their house not doing anything. The guitar under the bed. The saxophone in the closet, and they just need to know that there’s a new place, a new opportunity to donate it.

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