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Teaching the Arts

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Filling a Deficit and Finding a Passion

Christopher Gross

 (Photo by Beowulf Sheehan)

I’d like you to take a moment and remember the first time you picked up an instrument, went to a dance class, or stepped onto a stage. You might not recall all the details, but certain memories probably remain: the quirks of your first teacher, the fingertapes on your shiny new instrument, the look of a particular room seen from the vantage point of a child.

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For many of us, a schoolroom is where our careers as performing artists began—and for some, it’s one of the reasons we teach as well as perform. Unfortunately, for too many students in New York City public schools these days, this kind of opportunity remains an impossibility. N.Y.C. Comptroller Scott Stringer’s 2014 report State of the Arts revealed a continued lack of arts resources for many New York City students. One of the most disturbing statistics states that, despite state mandates, one in five schools lacks a single full- or part-time certified arts specialist in any discipline, to say nothing of multiple specialists in multiple disciplines. A high percentage of the schools without basic arts resources are located in areas of poverty.

In response, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a $23 million arts initiative aimed at shrinking the gaps in arts access, specifically targeting high-needs schools. While the new funding is admirable, the history of arts education in New York City since the catastrophic budget cuts of the 1970s—a patchwork recovery subject to the fluctuations of economics, politics, and changing educational philosophies—suggests that further work will be needed. Structural reforms such as including the arts in school assessments, mandates for funding and space, the continued hiring of arts specialists, and deeper partnerships with local cultural organizations are a few of the worthy initiatives that are needed to shift the incentives for bringing a well-rounded arts education to all the students of New York City.

However, looking beyond these details of educational reform and funding, one senses an overarching attitude that the arts in schools are a luxury, an expendable commodity; that feeling can be boiled down to “the arts are nice—if you can afford them.” Perhaps this is unsurprising: generations of educators now working in the field were raised with reduced access to arts programs and may be more likely to view them as unimportant or as a distraction from more important academic pursuits. Lack of funding is both a symptom and a cause of this cultural apathy.

Of utmost importance for the future of the arts in our society is the cultivation of a societal attitude that views quality arts education as an educational right rather than an elite privilege.

We as performing artists are uniquely equipped to address this fundamental challenge. Performing artists are trained to communicate, and we hone those skills every day at an institution that provides us with access to the very best in arts education. Our job is to put those communication skills to use by articulating the purpose of an arts education—not as a means to increase test scores, pad college résumés, or even pursue careers as arts professionals—but as a way to deepen our understanding of what it means to be human. “As cultural citizens, we cannot allow such a vital part of our humanity to be eclipsed, erased, or denied in our educational systems. We care about arts education because we care about our art, and we care about other people,” says former Juilliard faculty member David Wallace.

Being a teacher is one of the most rewarding paths a performing artist can take. Juilliard provides opportunities to work as a teacher through, among others, the Morse Fellowships, the Music Advancement Program (MAP), and the Academy (the joint Juilliard, Carnegie Hall, Weill Music Institute, N.Y.C. Department of Education program), each of which allows Juilliard students to be teaching artists in New York City schools. In addition, courses such as Insights Into Learning, Arts in Education, and various pedagogy classes provide theoretical information on the art of teaching.

These fellowships and classes require one to consider one’s art through a different lens—searching for the most essential traits of a particular work or the most essential skills needed in performance, and then designing the most efficient or meaningful experiences to communicate this information. My experience with the Morse Fellowship, for instance, changed the way I approach arts teaching and learning. For two years, I taught music in New York City public schools using principles learned in Juilliard education courses to develop my own curriculum in partnership with the classroom teacher. As a teacher, I learned to search for personal connections to a piece of music, regardless of a student’s background or experience level. This has frequently given me key insights into my own interpretive priorities and the most fundamental aspects of the music I’m performing.

And the sorts of experiences I’ve had are part of the reason these fellowships were established in the first place. “I’ve always felt that the experience of teaching really brings you to focus on what you can and cannot do,” President Joseph W. Polisi told The Journal. “If you’re working with third graders or senior citizens, you really are on the line and you have to explain things clearly. All the teaching I’ve done has made me a better thinker and a better communicator.”

This investigative and communicative quality of teaching is one of the most interesting and rewarding avenues of working as a teacher. It’s also a challenge. Teachers in public schools spend years mastering their craft, and we would be both naïve and arrogant to assume that merely by being experts in our field, we can be experts in front of our students. Excellence in teaching requires a healthy dose of discipline, as well as humility. Being a teaching artist in particular, Wallace noted, “requires deep analysis of artworks, an understanding of our perceptual processes, a hunger for context and meaning, a passion to communicate, and the power to advocate.”

A pursuit of excellence in teaching is not without its rewards. “I love teaching all levels of students, from novices to professionals, because it compels me to analyze and articulate essential aspects of my art form, which makes me a better artist and a more engaged member of my community,” dance faculty member Hilary Easton, who’s also a choreographer and professional developer for the New York Philharmonic Schools Program, told The Journal. “Working with N.Y.C. students reminds me of what’s important, and keeps me grounded,” she added. Additional benefits for those who work with children in the schools include an increased comfort with public speaking, an ability to forge partnerships across institutions, and a chance to develop an organized approach to scaffolding long-term goals.

While these benefits are important, perhaps the greatest motivation for pursuing an active role as a teacher is a sense of mission. While we are not politicians, each of us has a voice. And if we desire that each child have the same opportunities then we must find ways to communicate and engage with those in our society who are not artists. This can occur on the stage, in our day-to-day interactions, or by stepping in front of a student or classroom.

And truthfully, that is where it must begin: engagement with this generation of students, forging a connection with this student who is in front of you right now. As Polisi said, “What greater honor? What greater service can anybody give than to work with young children? To make them better. What’s better? Nothing.”

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