For four years I have been writing my arts education blog. It has been from my perspective, but my goal has been to share my experiences with others, as I suspect others face similar situations. I hope that they have value and meaning for the reader. Often my blogs are offered as examples of why the arts are critical to learning and the many ways learning occurs. I also have described the challenges we face, both personal and those of our students.
This blog is a little more personal, but a story I want to share, because it does offer yet another example of how the arts can have a significant impact on our life, and our quality of life.
Recently I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. I had been having tremors in my right hand for about six months. During orchestra rehearsals my hand would shake when I was not playing, and as soon as I began playing my tremors would subside. That was a relief, but I knew there was something going on. When I received the diagnosis I wasn’t terribly surprised; relieved in a way, frantic in another way. My neurologist assured me that time was on my side and because I was on the young side my symptoms should progress slower than usual, especially if I EXERCISED and REDUCED STRESS in my life.
I am thankful. Thankful because it allows me the opportunity to take control of life and re-examine my priorities so that my health and quality of life becomes a top priority, while ensuring that I continue to do what I need to do for my job. And my music? I’m taking a break right now from playing so I can focus on developing an appropriate exercise regime. But I intend to keep playing because my music will now also be my therapy. Wait, it has been for a long time! The arts are indeed powerful and good for you.
At the end of the school year, we measure the growth of our students by testing. Yes, testing. Testing in the arts means performance. And this month hundreds and hundreds of students participated in recitals, concerts and end of the year showcases. Many students perform regularly throughout the year. For other students, this may be the only time they are on a stage and share their learning with others. I love watching our students perform. I thrive on seeing how students grow from year to year and I really enjoy seeing new students and thinking about their potential. I hear and see mistakes and I am especially proud of how someone as young as 5 years old can analyze and figure out how to get out of a memory slip. What I love the most is how students react to the audience. Our students are learning that their talents can bring delight, joy and enjoyment, not just to themselves, but to others.
Can you do that with your math test?
Last night I experienced a concert that was everything that a concert should be. It was the second night of a local music festival called Music Now, featuring a variety of artists each night. What was it that made the concert so amazing? It was almost four hours long, which is a long time for anyone to sit through. But no one left the sold out house. Let’s see what ingredients created this concert and speculate on what makes one concert the gold standard and another one meh.
Cost: The cost was modest, especially when you get four hours of music. An affordable cost supports a diverse audience.
Venue: The hall was small and I think this is very important. About 300 seats that were all full. The hall has its faults as it is old and needs basic updgrades, but the aesthetics of the glorious hall added to the positive experience. All seats had a great view as well as the hall having great acoustics. A big plus – you can bring drinks into the hall.
Audience: The audience was as diverse as I’ve ever seen: young/old, black/white, formal/ informal, quiet/enthusiastic. All were engaged. I especially noted a considerable number of 20 somethings along with many baby boomers.
Program: This is the core of the art form. What and who will you see and hear? There were classically trained musicians who took their training and morphed it into music for today. Not raucous, not obscene, but very approachable. And the musicians were top notch and as diverse as the audience: an Irish folk/pop icon, an opera singer turned pop musician and composer and a children’s choir with impeccable training but with a proclivity towards new styles and sounds of choir music.
Wow. I’ve had about five spiritual experiences in my life with music. Music that delighted, touched, challenged me like nothing else. This was one of those journeys.
This past weekend our school hosted its first adult chamber music workshop. We had been working on this for nine months and it was worth every minute. We had 28 amateur musicians who had been paired up in small groups. They had received their music earlier and most groups had already started practicing together. That was one of our signs that adults really wanted this opportunity. Sign two was the distance that the musicians traveled to attend. Several lived in cities an hour away. Sign three was the fact that everyone attended! I was excited to be one of the participants. We had a jam packed two days of rehearsing, coaching, classes, and supporting each other. Members of the Cincinnati Symphony coached us in master classes as did our own faculty and we had invigorating and inspiring talks and performances by our faculty.
But what was most compelling were the stories that each of us brought to the weekend. Time and time again, the musicians were re-engaging with an activity they had put aside for twenty or forty years while they built careers and families. They now had the luxury and desire to create their own music. Some of the participants had only been playing for less than one year; some have never stopped.
I was so inspired by the enthusiasm and pure joy that we all experienced making music together. During our two recitals we cheered, clapped and whistled for each other encouraging each other all the way. But the performances were almost (but not!) unnecessary, for it was the connection with each other in the process of music making and learning that all of us will recall.
And that’s why we make music.
As teachers we know this will happen with our students. The musician who has a memory lapse during a recital, a dancer who trips while turning, and the actor who says his one line at the wrong time. And when this happens, it’s our job to persuade and encourage our students to get back up and try again. Another important life skill that comes with arts education – resilience.
I am reminded of this because even adults fall down and need to be motiviated and find the resilience to move forward. As an oboist, part of our practice regime is to make our reeds. There is a certain danger to working with razor blades and surgical knives. Our training, just like dancers, requires us to learn how to safely use these tools. But a twisted ankle or cut finger is inevitable as I found out two weeks ago when I was diligently making reeds. The knife slipped and went into my finger. Fortunately the cut was minor, but did require a painful tetanus shot. Now less than two weeks later, I’m brushing myself off and moving forward. I made two reeds and with the bandages off can play again. It’s a little scary but how can we encourage our students to become resilient if we aren’t willing to show the same effort? That is why I thrive on being with my friends and colleagues in the arts. Despite the work, effort, practice and tears, we know the rewards of the arts and are grateful for thisopportunity.
Recently I was having a conversation with one of my good friends and professional colleague (note: We also walk together, which is a wonderful way to mix business, aesthetics, personal ranting, and exercise together at once!) about music, a common topic on our walks. We were noting our concern on a joint project we are working on which consists of creating 600 questions about music for an educational website. All the questions are true/false or multiple choice. I guess the kids who will go on this website might learn something about music, and that’s a good thing.
But both of us agree on this: the most effective way to learn about music is to DO music. And answering a question about whether the flute is a member of the string or woodwind family is not DOING music. It is something that increases your understanding about music, but what does it matter if you don’t have a chance to blow on a flute, or sing in a choir so that you actually experience music?
Looking back at our lives in music, both of us validate our assumption. I started singing in the choir at five or six and began recorder in early grade school, then flute, then oboe, then three degrees in music and a career where my focus is on ensuring that everyone is encouraged and welcomed to make music.
Adults – yes you can! We have lots of new beginners who are mature adults and finally have the opportunity to experience the joy and satisfaction of music making. Just as I took the risk of beginning ballet this year, I have seen countless beginners of all ages transform through the experience of DOING the arts.
So make this part of your 2013 resolution: try something in music, dance, theater or art. It’s the actual experience of DOING the arts that helps us appreciate, respect, support and love the arts which is a lifechanger.
Happy New Year!
Today was our annual Gino DiMario Memorial Recital. Gino was a young student of ours who died several years ago. He loved music – he was bright, excited, creative, and eager to play. We will never know how this bright star might have achieved in music. We give out several scholarships in his name each year, awarding them to students who best reflect those attributes of Gino: enthusiasm, commitment, creativity and joy of playing. At our annual fundraising recital we had 40+ students who paid for the privilege of performing on this recital. It is held in a beautiful concert hall at our school, one normally reserved for faculty and doctoral recitals. It’s a very special recital.
Trust me, I know all about programming recitals and how it should not be longer than an hour. We’ve tried, but with so many students wanting to play the recital ends up at two hours, with no intermission. But most stay and support all the students. The young 4 and 5 years play near the beginning, some pieces shorter than the time it takes to walk onto the stage. Since it’s near Halloween, many students wear costumes. A five year old bear played an amazing gigue by Bach, far more intricate than a five year old should be able to play. And it’s a little fuzzy bear playing!
The concert continues with the students getting older, performing more difficult and longer pieces. I love how the little ones sit in their seats and learn the important value of listening as well as playing. Sure, there are some mishaps and breakdowns, but every student and parent is rooting for every performer. There is no sense of competition and judging, but a spirit of “we want to be here and make music for others.” I leave the concert with a real sense of satisfaction, knowing that these kinds of performances are what matters most to all of us, parents, faculty, administrators and students. Music making because one cares.