Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Touchdown for music education

Some of the best television right now is about high school.

Glee is the unexpected hit of the year. The show's misfit high school glee club has musical talent to spare, which is put to good use in each episode. Glee is also something of a musical education for the viewer. The Glee song catalog is wide-ranging and the Broadway muscle of series regulars and guest stars sets the bar high. Who knew this euphoric celebration of the arts would find a home on Fox of all places?

Glee has been embraced by arts ed folk and why not? It depicts kids singing their hearts out because there is no other or better way to express what is inside. The kids don't sing to improve math scores (they don't actually appear to take any other classes besides glee club but that is just a delicious part of the tv fantasy). They don't sing because it increases daily attendance or reduces truancy or improves SAT scores. They sing because they love it. And that seems to be a very fine reason for the show's creators.

The other television show about high school of which I am a big fan is Friday Night Lights. Written and directed with thought and nuance, FNL is ostensibly about high school football in Texas. But football is both reality and metaphor on FNL. It is as much about life's big questions as it is about life's mundane details. I am not a football fan but the luminous performances of Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler won me over (their work should be texts for acting students everywhere). The show tackles complex ideas with such an ear for dialogue that I can feel like a voyeur in this small town.

Sometimes I wish this show (or something just like it) was about a high school orchestra, if only that it would be revelatory to see the arts taken with the same seriousness as FNL gives to football. Glee is sometimes campy and loud and I have a great appreciation for both those qualities. But music can be as powerful a metaphor as football - maybe more so.

It is my fervent hope that the team behind Glee recognize how much we, their arts education brethren, have invested. Glee is something of an arts ed mascot. The creators have put together a commercially viable hit about arts in school - and it is not a reality show (How many of us saw that coming?). As the freshman show, I hope Glee can learn from the upperclassman Friday Night Lights. Football is a serious undertaking. Talent is a place to start but talent alone has never carried a FNL player far. Talented boys with speed or strong arms pop up frequently. But the teams are made up of boys of all skill levels and the players practice, practice, practice together. Rarely does a player make a Hail Mary pass out of nowhere. The audience has been along for the ride - and the drills and the workouts and the coaching and the focus and the sheer determination - that lead to that glorious throw that was nabbed by a teammate and carried across the goal line.

On Glee, music is effortless. Gorgeous songs seem to float out of those kids. My hope for Glee is that the hard work, collaboration and determination that ensemble music demands can find a place in the storytelling. If we continue our national narrative that sports require hard work, commitment and teamwork while the arts are for those individuals with a natural talent, we undermine the intrinsic value of the arts in schools. It is my hope we will get a chance to see the Glee kids sweat.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Poor fit

I have a blog entry at Americans for the Arts this morning. It talks about failure and looks at failure from a more positive, frankly, rather cheery perspective. You can check it out at AFTA if you are so inclined.

Bernard Fryshman, professor of physics at NY Institute of Technology wrote about failure in the September 16 issue of Education Week. Professor Fryshman reminds us of the very ugly connotation of failure in public school settings. What he suggests is that we reframe our undertanding of children from "failing" to being a "poor fit" for our current education system. He writes -

Poor fit, rather than failure, characterizes much of modern society. Just a few generations ago, people developed positive self-image, a career and worth in the eyes of society by becoming musicians, calligraphers, printers and mechanics. Every one of these opportunities has shrunk, and with rare exceptions such positions now demand more intellectual than manual skills.

Professor Fryshman's article immediately brings to mind the dancers and actors I have known, many of whom struggled with the unforgiving boundaries of public education. As reframed by Professor Fryshman, it was not that they were failures at school. It was that school was a poor fit for them.

When we include the arts for every child in school, we dismiss the negative mantle of "failure", understand the poor fit and open doors to learning. Professor Fryshman reminds us that "we must think about children as individuals, rather than members of an undifferentiated whole." Words by which to build a school and provide an education.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Blog event at Americans for the Arts

Check out the arts education blogging machine that is churning away this week at AFTA. Lots of food for thought!

Friday, July 31, 2009

Hard Work

Jordan Levin wrote a passionate piece in Sunday’s Miami Herald about the importance of the arts in troubled economic times. Levin writes,
“I would argue that thinking culture is a frill, a disposable ornament for a comfortable life, has helped get us into the mess we’re in.”
Levin argues that there are many reasons the devaluing of art has happened and it got me thinking.

There are two references in the piece to American Idol and to be honest American Idol pushes a button for me. I see American Idol as part of a growing glorification of the amateur in pop culture. More and more, popular culture is highlighting the amateur who through innate talent or good luck finds themselves celebrated. The issue for me is the absence of hard work. In our great country many of us have become intoxicated with a fantasy that success is possible without hard work or preparation. That is completely antithetical to the arts. The arts are all about hard work. It is about risk and failure. It is sometimes about success and clarity. For a few it is lucrative. But mostly it is about hard work.

As an arts educator, I believe I have a responsibility to my students to cultivate their understanding that the arts are worth doing. And things that are worth doing take hard work. A couple of years ago a student wrote on the end of semester evaluation, “Dr Saraniero takes theatre too seriously. She thinks this is the most important course we take. I had to work harder in this course than in any other.” It was meant to be a complaint but I took it as a compliment.

The devaluing of the arts that Levin wrote about goes hand in hand with the devaluing of hard work. So in our ethical responsibilities to our students, we must encourage them to work hard, learn from failure and try again. Not very glamorous but qualities that literally built this country. Making art requires quintessential American attributes – so why are the arts struggling to survive?