Friday, April 27, 2012

Tip-Toeing Around

The Spring for Music Great Arts Blogger Challenge has ended, and I got fourth! This is basically the most awesome thing ever. Thank you so much if you voted or read my blog because of it. Here's a post about a new White House initiative, and a "what's goin on right now" post is coming up, along with CD reviews.

It’s a pretty cool feeling when you suspect Obama is reading your mind. Disregarding realistic explanations, I’m going to stick with that suspicion.
I recently finished participating in a blogging competition called the Great Arts Blogger Challenge, one that focused on culture blogs and was held by the Spring for Music festival. The other bloggers and I spent our weeks waiting for prompts to respond to, obsessively (maybe that only applies to me) checking our emails for the question to answer with 1,000 or so words for the next week’s voting. The competition’s prompts seemed to focus on the fate of the arts in our modern world, having us talking about Secretaries of Arts, culture capitals, or “saving the arts,” sometimes utilizing paintings or pictures of cats.
            All of this talk about the fate of the arts got a lot of us bloggers writing about arts education. It reminded me how important my arts education has been up to this point—when I was 6, I was pounding out syncopated beats on small percussion instruments. When I was 12, my classmates and I were required to be in the school musical. I may have had only nine words in that production (four of them were the same, but trust me—they were crucial), but I learned stage presence, how to harmonize in a chorus, and the importance of practice, not to mention improving my sight reading.  I accompanied a chorus on the piano for the first time when I was 11 for my school’s annual choir concert at the choir director’s insistence of featuring student musicians. They sang Ode to Joy, and pounding out all those octaves felt pretty awesome.
            It’s easy to take these things for granted. After writing the answer to the prompts, I realized that a large population of kids in the US right now aren’t playing instruments or learning how to read music. And that is unfair, depressing, and depriving. As I stated in my post about having a Secretary for the Arts, every kid should have the opportunity to discover something in the arts they love—usually, this is impossible to avoid—because having a passion is one of the most comforting things to rely on when going through childhood or adolescence. I think all of the bloggers, and probably most of the population, can agree that the ideal situation would be an exceptional arts program in every school.
            Then, lo and behold, I see this post on the New York Times’ ArtsBeat blog, saying that the President’s Committee has created an initiative to further arts education in some of the nation’s lowest-performing schools and impoverished . It’s called the Turnaround Arts Initiative, and it will have celebrity artists (Turnaround Artists) “adopt” the schools and work with them, as well as implement programs that, the website says, will “increase the likelihood of successful school turnaround, engage their community, and raise the visibility of their achievements.

            The first (and main) reaction to this initiative: AWESOME. Finally, we have an updated, current government proposal to support arts education instead of reforming past acts. Just the fact that this has been started shows that priorities are being considered (isn't it something like 93% of people think the arts are important to education?). Plus, what kid wouldn’t be psyched to have Yo-Yo Ma come to his/her school (probably a lot, but maybe that will change after the two years)? There will be no harm done by this project, and the kids that will be able to experience it will benefit tremendously.
            But, I have some concerns with this initiative, more in its tentative attitude and execution of its goals than the goals’ intentions. 
            The website emphasizes that Turnaround Arts is going to “test the theory” that arts education is important in schools. It’s as if the creators of the initiative are worried that having more arts in schools will fail, and if it does, we’ll just go back to the way it has been. The arts seem, to me, as important at English, science, or manners. It puzzles me a bit that we are spending money and time deciding if they work when we should be going ahead and implementing them everywhere because they do. No Child Left Behind showed us how many holes can be left in a child’s education with the lack of attention to specific subjects—we should be rushing to implement arts programs in schools everywhere by now. Plus, the initiative argues that the arts will help kids with their academic education—nowhere does it say that the arts can be careers themselves. Kerry Washington, one of the Turnaround Artists, said, “Arts are actually how we can help them get the real work done.”

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Kerry Washington (photo from

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SJP (photo by Christopher Peterson)

Another concerning factor of the initiative is the dependence on celebrity mentors, or Turnaround Artists of the schools that are a part of the initiative. Among the artists are Sarah Jessica Parker, Yo-Yo Ma, and Chuck Close. If the purpose of this initiative is to move towards improving arts education throughout the country, it seems a little reality-show-esque to call upon celebrities to lead the way to this goal. Now, the Turnaround Artists will definitely impact the people they work with and most will be incredible teachers, and it shows something about the people participating that they are committing to this project. But if Turnaround Arts is only in practice for two years, how much impact on the schools are these celebrities really going to have? Perhaps they will be remembered by one generation of the school’s students, and maybe they will be able to inspire a handful of kids towards arts related paths, but the only point of using celebrities is to, perhaps, bring attention and pseudo-validation to Turnaround Arts. We can’t be sure of how much time the celebrities will spend with the schools, and we can’t be sure if there will be any lasting impact on the structure of the institution’s arts programs. The website says the Turnaround Artists’ involvement will “take many forms, including participating in performances, master classes and community events at the school.” Who am I to say what will happen in the future, but it seems like they will come, make an impact on the school’s status during those two years, and finish, leaving some small changes and many utterances of “remember when Sarah Jessica Parker was here?” I hope to be proved wrong, but for now I'm skeptical.
            What we should be doing is installing permanent arts teachers whose main career focus is the school they teach at. I’ve never had a teacher who visibly made a lasting impact on the structure or personality of a school who had only been there for two years. In fact, the types of teachers that do that are usually at schools for decades.  Let’s talk about Gregg Breinberg. Let’s talk about Phil Hardymon.
            Don’t get me wrong. The intentions of the Turnaround Arts Initiative are commendable. But the toe-in-the-water approach seems useless. We as a nation know that the arts are important and serve as more than just supplements to other academic subjects. We know that arts education is necessary in every school of every city. And yes, we know celebrities are cool, but it seems frivolous to depend on two-year-mentors to turn schools around. Implementing arts education in America is going to take a while, but the arts matter. Would this niche of the internet, the one you’re reading, exist if they didn’t?

1 comment:

  1. Arts educations are really important thing to write. It’s growing in different ages at different things and here we noticed some interesting things. And it’s true that a large population of kids in the US right now aren’t playing instruments or learning how to read music. I think this blog can help them.