Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Which Comes First - The Art or the Informed Interest in it?

me grey
Author: Shella Zelenz
A little while back, I posted videos of The Firebird ballet on my Facebook page. My kids and I watched it together. It was magnificently performed and staged by an amazing Russian ballet troupe. What was even more awesome was when we went to the library later that week and my daughter picked out a children’s book about the different ballets. Both kids automatically recognized the ballet when they turned the pages in the book, and both pointed to the page and said “Look Mom! The Firebird ballet we saw!"


I think they write children’s books thinking that this is how to introduce the art to kids. I think that some teachers feel that their own artistic limitations or the presumed negative responses from the children they teach prevent them from fully exposing children to such art for fear of behavior issues (classroom management problems). Budget cuts prevent many from taking the children to see live performances (as I was privileged to do growing up in a rural school in Montana). Utilizing video recordings of musicals, opera, theater, etc. can facilitate exposure with minimal expense, but is often seen by others as lazy teaching. So for some reason, people think that reading about the art (which obviously helps with literacy) is sufficient exposure to the artform itself. I prefer experiencing the art first (so did my kids – and they LOVE books!). In fact, having exposed them to the ballet, and seeing the artwork that reflected what they had seen, made them want to read the book even more.


As a music teacher, I was warned in the 1990′s about the new focus of cutting the arts from schools. Perhaps it had been around longer, but I had grown up in Montana where schools were not accredited if they did not offer music EVERY DAY in all grades. The same was true for physical education (which ties into the dance aspect of art). There has been serious research done for decades that explain all of the intellectual benefits for keeping music in the schools. Yet despite the scientific evidence, it is always one of the first things on the budgetary chopping block.

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Photos of some of my choirs

I always had mix-mode art in my music classrooms. Dance, film, poetry, language, instruments, and singing were all part of it (including composing). I had my band in Rosebud, MT watch Rabbit Proof Fence when they played In Quest of Uluru so they would understand the culture who worshipped the massive rock structure. When they competed with the song – they received the highest mark they had EVER experienced in the school’s history. It’s not about me being anything special – it’s about the students identifying with the song and its deeper meaning. I did the same with the plethora of culturally diverse songs that my students sang or played. I saw consistent success with their performances because not only were they able to perform it technically well (the result of teaching), but they were able to express it with true depth (something that cannot be taught).

Private Voice Student of mine: Juliann Namson 14 years old
This video is followed by other private or former choir students of mine

The experience I’ve had with administrators who did not understand (and admittedly stated their lack of interest or understanding of art), is that they look at it as a fluff course. What is more concerning to me are the tactics I’ve seen them use to obliterate art from their schools (especially if it was a highly successful and publicly supported course). Many will attempt to hire what they perceive to be potentially inept teachers so that interest in the subject will be lost and the students will not sign up. I was actually involved in such a scenario in Poway, CA. Having only taught one year in a very rural town in Montana, the principal who hired me assumed that I would completely cave in and single-handedly destroy the monster program that I inherited (325 kids per day). Unfortunately for her, that did not happen. We took home every trophy as expected and demanded by the students and parents from their established reputation. We added new groups that didn’t exist before (aiding the limitations of band students who couldn’t fit choir into their daily schedule) and expanded our fundraising to phenomenal levels (over $100,000 in 4 months).

One of my choirs in Poway, CA

Since I was clearly not doing what the principal had expected me to do, she proceeded to use very underhanded behaviors to try and find some other reason to let me go at the end of the year. She hid under my classroom risers. She would put pressure on me about my masters program hoping that I would be too stressed out to complete it and thus jeopardize my ability to be credentialed and keep my job. She did not support my creative approach to classroom management and absolutely abhorred and wrote me up for allowing the kids to have autonomy in their experience. She tried everything she could to create a case to not renew my contract at the end of the year.

6th grade choir 6

How did she finally do it? She told me that the class enrollment had decreased for the following year and that it was my fault because the kids didn’t want to be in choir. What did I find out from her secretary upon leaving this upsetting meeting? The secretary told me that the principal had capped the class enrollment so that less students could even be in the classes. The principal lied to my face so that she could proceed with the destruction of the enormously successful choir program that she couldn’t single handedly destroy without massive public outcry. Parents and students created petitions and flooded the school board and district offices with pleas to keep me. It was all to no avail. I was not tenured and the principal’s unsupportive write ups kept her position.

show choir class 2

The following year, the new choir director effectively destroyed the program as the principal had hoped. I had received phone calls while at my new teaching position in the SF Bay area from parents asking me to call the new teacher and help her out. My brand new choir in Newark, kids who came from much less privileged backgrounds and who had never experienced choir in their lives, successfully took home the trophy (in their very first performance ever )when we competed with my former Poway choir at a major competition. I was so heartbroken for my Poway kids. This was not their fault, but they were the pawns in an adult’s personal agenda. This is so much more important than destroying competitiveness. This destroyed spirits.

BVHS competition 1

All kids love music – ask your teen what they do to escape reality and find something they can identify with. MUSIC is us. ART is us. DANCE is us. Any school that thinks cutting the arts will improve their scores – is run by an administrator who has lost connection with him/herself. When the educator’s nightly ritual of release consists of sitcoms focused on popular culture consumer-based shallowness, alcohol, anti-depressants, etc. so that they can cope with their daily job, they have lost their humanness and have absolutely no ability to know what is best for the children they are in charge of educating. If teachers lose touch with their deeper humanity – they can’t possibly reach the children. If adults can allow themselves to be completely consumed in the depth and beauty of the arts – they can more deeply connect with their partners and their families. We need art much more than we need literacy. We need both. However, art is the human spirit, literacy is just a means to an end. What are we really destroying?

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