Tonight, I had R sing solfege back to me. She tried to match my syllables first, then my pitch, and finally my rhythm. She’s definitely not the next child virtuoso but she can repeat simple lines from songs (most notably, her rendition of “Uptown Girl”) with just the melody. For a two year old, that’s pretty good. Her school incorporates music into daily activities so I’ve noticed her interest in music has increased. It’s integrated – not separate – from the other learning taking place. For a preschool, that is not at all revolutionary. What would be revolutionary is if music wasn’t included in their routines or if music was separated out in to a very-specific “thing”.
Today, I was reminded once more of the erosion of the arts in schools and, moreover, the “othering” of the arts – that they are separate and less-important parts of education. This pains me because without art and expression, life is so mundane. Children don’t thrive in the mundane. Young people don’t have a safe space without artistic expression.
It may surprise those of you who read my blog for my logical, analytical breakdowns of poorly-constructed arguments and journalistic accounts of parenting literature that I am not going to include any citations in this piece at all. I’m not presenting evidence. I’m making an emotional appeal to you today. Yes, there is a ton of evidence supporting arts integration for better learning outcomes in children and also in the arts and their ability to reduce the disparity in learning outcomes between poor and wealthy children. Go to Google Scholar, JSTOR, your public library, or wherever you find peer-reviewed literature, and you will see it.
Today, though, it all clicked in my head. I was the kid who needed the arts to learn how to do everything that I am really, really good at in my adult life. To become a researcher, to get a Ph.D., I had to see the arts as an essential part of my life – a veritable anchor. Without choir, I would have never learned the skills I needed to become a researcher.
Readers, I am sure it is not surprising that I was always a good student because boy do I make it clear how much I love science and math. I wasn’t a kid who hated school or struggled academically. I struggled to get A’s in math and thought I was painfully stupid at it until stoichiometry in my sophomore year of high school where applied math became facile. But regardless of what I felt, I was not incapable of math. I mean, math is now my job. I love math!
Academic success was still a struggle, though. I knew I was expected to perform well and that my parents would not be satisfied with anything less than my maximum effort (and, honestly, this usually meant about 150% of my maximum effort). I was a sick, sick kiddo. I spent at least 3 days a month out of school with life-threatening asthma and allergies. Our district only allowed 5 absences unexcused so my life was focused on how I could get a doctor’s note (always for a legitimate thing that made me sicker than I probably even let on), how I could struggle through so I didn’t miss a test, and how I could make it feel normal. Being a type-A perfectionist, I did what I needed to to get A’s. Doing this doesn’t produce your best work. It doesn’t open you up to new ideas. It also did not help my growing anxiety or my burgeoning issues with obsessive compulsive disorder.
That’s why choir saved me. It was a world I could escape into. A world I could be weird. A world where I was part of a team on a mission. That mission was ISSMA state contest sometimes. That mission was a perfect score at solo and ensemble other times. It was standing up as a 16 year old kid and performing with a symphony for the first time. And even once, that mission was performing under John Rutter – THE John Rutter – at Carnegie Hall when I was 17. As an adult, it’s hard to really even assess these things. I cannot believe how brave I was to try. I cannot believe that I wasn’t too embarrassed to be that brave. I cannot believe how hard I practiced singing every night to Bach’s Magnificat on CD with my blue second copy of sheet music trying to ensure I was not the weak link the next morning when we switched over from solfege to actual Latin (sorry family, I know that was loud!). I was the short kid who was so loud that I had to hide out at the top of the choir risers as a section anchor for the first sopranos. I couldn’t contain it. That’s how much I loved to sing!
The only thing I can compare this to is writing and defending a dissertation. I worked full-time the last 18 months I was in school. I would come home, crack open the PC I’m working on now, and plug away at models until it was time to sleep. I would get up early on Saturday mornings and camp out at a coffee shop – the same table each week – to finish chapter drafts. I did it. I did the last portion of it violently ill thanks to my pregnancy with R. I did my dissertation edits on the floor of our bathroom crying and puking and crying and puking. But the creativity that research requires, I never learned that in math class. The bravery it took to submit each chapter to my advisor or to send my draft off to my full committee is astounding now but it wasn’t much different from all of the auditions of my prior life as a weird theatre and choir kid. And that defense. Well, the only way I was able to perform it, while violently ill, was because I had dared to dream that big before. When I went to New York with my choir, most people did not realize that I had been very, very ill only days before we left and had to be on vocal rest (which is really, really hard for me). I can turn it on when I need to. When it matters, I am there.
Research is also full of failure. It’s astounding to first year graduate students that “getting results” is a rare occasion. Most findings are null. When you submit to journals, most (f not all) answers are a no. And it feels hard. But you have to pick yourself up and believe your truth. Believe that your calling is still worthy of your time. That’s not much different than the feeling you get from being told “no” at an audition or seriously missing a cue in the middle of a performance. How you re-group says more about you than your poor vowel sounds or being a half-step flat.
My parents recently brought me a packet of assignments, sight-reading tests, and other evaluations and essays I wrote in the four years I was in high school choir. Our teacher, a man we all adored and who still holds an incredibly precious place in my heart, kept them – everything. I looked back through my essays, laughing at how brooding and emotional I had been or how I took myself so seriously. But, in essence, the thing that impressed me the most about 15 to 18 year old self was that I was so open to new concepts and was willing to let an adult – a teacher- in enough to be that honest and vulnerable. That I was so invested in creating something and felt so safe to do it.
Research, in and of itself, is about being creative. Being creative takes bravery and an open mindset. I have never had a math or statistics course that made me dream as big as I did when I was imagining what a piece of music would sound like with a full orchestra. That I could ever imagine I would be good enough to perform at a venue like Carnegie Hall without a leap of faith and some extreme bravery seems impossible.
While I certainly benefitted from a robust set of science offerings at my high school and various enrichment programs stemming from lego robotics club to a summer spent building model rockets, knowing math, statistics, and how to write are just tools. The glue that held it all together was that creativity and that I dared to dream and pitch ideas.
My job now relies on me seeing problems and then devising solutions. Art lets kids work on these sorts of problems in safe, loving environments. In Mr. Coe’s classroom, we were all supported. We were encouraged to keep trying. We were encouraged by one another to be better. To care for one another. And, for that, I say thank you.
So the next time you find yourself pushing STEM on your kids, realize that the arts enhance everything your kid needs to survive calculus. And while I adore that my daughter loves her “engineer” hat so much and lives to play with building toys, I have to remind myself that she also loves to dance, sing, and play a rhythm on a board book with her hands.
We’re in early days here with her but it clicked today. Without the arts, I would not have all these abilities. I am so fortunate to have had these experiences.
If you have a kid in school or can even just vote, keep this in mind. The arts aren’t something separate. They aren’t just “extra”. They’re absolutely crucial to helping people in the world grow and thrive. They can build communities.
If you have a teacher in mind who inspired you and nurtured your fearless creativity, I encourage you to talk about it with #theartsmademe on social media. My sister is a teacher. I have many friends who are inspiring teachers, too. I am so thankful we can afford to put our child into programs that stir an interest in building, reading, painting, and singing. My hope is that this will someday be the right of every child in every corner of our country – to have access to amazing, supportive teachers and programs.