Meet the team training the next generation of musicians and performers in Arkansas

Fine arts education has some unexpected benefits for students, according to the four directors at Batesville High School.

The programs – band, theatre, choir, and orchestra – teach problem solving, communication skills, and how to work as part of a team, in addition to technical skills for future musicianship and performing arts opportunities.

These are useful skills for securing future employment.

According to a survey recently released by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 86 percent of those responsible for hiring want a candidate to demonstrate his “ability to work as part of a team.”

Imagine being a part of a team where there is no bench/backup and no do-over. That’s choir, according to Choir Director Alicia Davidson. “Everyone has to be on the same page” – and ready to go.

Hannah Cummings, the theater director agrees.  “It is not about the individuals, it is about the group, all the time.”

Learning how to be part of a cohesive team – it takes time. Which is why the fine arts programs are structured so that the directors and the students are able to spend four to six years together.

“When I was student teaching, a colleague told me I would have to get to know all the kids before I would make any progress,” said Band Director Josh Poff. “He was absolutely right. I remember spending my first year getting to know the kids, what makes them tick, what makes them happy, and what brings them joy.”

Spending time with them is a big part of the process because it develops trust.

“It’s more than:  ‘You come here, do what you are supposed to do and get an A,’” Alicia said.

“You have that relationship where you can step outside [of the typical] and say:   ‘Okay, well she’s asking me to do this. Seems a little weird, but I trust this person and I trust what we are doing here,’ and they try.”

This level of trust leads to better communication. And communication is necessary for a group when they perform. During a performance, the group is collectively telling a story to the audience members.

Therefore, in these programs, “the Chromebooks are shut,” Alicia said. “We create a safe space for them to feel, experience, and be uncomfortable.”

Especially valuable in an era of distraction and avoidance. Which brings us to another aspect of the arts: empathy

“One of the first few weeks of Theater II this semester, we read this play called ‘The Yellow Boat’, which is about the AIDS epidemic and the impact it had… There was this little boy who got AIDS and ultimately died from it. By the end, half the class was just in tears,” Hannah said. “That’s the kind of effect the arts can have.”

Josh said vulnerability is key.  “We have to push the boundaries ourselves to show that is part of it (the success of the arts). We have to take steps to do what others might see as embarrassing.”

Instead of avoiding trying new things that might be embarrassing, the fine arts programs teach students to identify the discomfort, and effectively push through it. The students then apply this discipline to other areas of life.

“In a culture where it is just easy to pick up your phone and avoid things that make you feel uncomfortable  —  avoid circumstances  —  we have to think through them and have our students process through them so they can perform it accurately,” Alicia said.

Here is an example.

“At Christmas one of my choirs did a song, a carol based off when Herod committed mass genocide against the babies in Jerusalem. For students to sing it accurately   —  with the right mood  —  and to understand the significance of how the carol came to be, we had to talk about what that would have been like,” she said. “It was very uncomfortable.”

Doing something to stretch someone to the point of discomfort is necessary for growth, and prompts problem solving.

“One thing we do is we celebrate mistakes, and follow it up by asking: ‘How can you fix it? Do you know what you did wrong? Do you know how to fix it?’” Alicia said.  

“We make it a good thing, like ‘Cool, you were so confident in yourself that you were not embarrassed to have everyone know you were human.’ But then immediately after:  ‘What exactly didn’t work? How can you fix it in the future?’”

She said this type of teaching is especially valuable in junior high because the kids get picked on. They trip, and people laugh at them. So instead of ridicule, it’s:  “I am giving you a sticker AND asking you what you can do differently in the future,” she said. Examples: “My voice cracked, but I was going for it” or “I sang it for two beats instead of one beat, but now I know what I’ve done.”

It prompts the students to strive for selfawareness, and teaches them how to problem solve in those moments.

Alicia said she does not teach the students to learn music by memorization. They learn how to do the work themselves, rather than relying on someone to do it for them.

“I don’t sing for them. They have to figure it out. Starting in sixth grade, we begin to learn intervals by using the steps of scale, the same ‘Do Re Mi’ stuff from the Sound of Music,” she said. “Then we start skipping over notes and introducing intervals of greater distances.”

This process enables students to eventually look at a piece of music and generate the pitches in their head without ever needing to hear someone else play it.

“This is how we develop independent musicianship,” she said. “We (the four fine arts directors) equip the students with a lot of independent skills so they can do music forever.”


Are there social benefits for participants in these programs?

All the while the group is problem solving, they are becoming friends.  In a time when loneliness is a growing problem, and teen suicide is on the rise (to read more, click here), students find friendship within these programs.

“The way fine arts works, you are there for several years,” said Orchestra Director Noah Davidson.  “In the beginning class, I already see students become friends, and I can tell they will stay together for a long time.”

Josh agrees.  “Going through those experiences together is one of the privileges of the fine arts.”

Speaking of going through experiences together…

These four directors would love to be able to do more integrated joint performances.

Josh mentioned an example being having a pit orchestra for musicals.

“There are several plays that call for music accompaniment,” Hannah said.  “Unfortunately it just isn’t an option right now.”  She said it would require a facility with a live pit.

“I’d also love to collaborate on smaller events  –  like fine arts showcases to give more performance opportunities for all of our students,” she said. “I think it’d also be great to combine our end-of-year activities  –  to have a big fine arts banquet to unify us as a department.”

Josh said he would also like to see band and choir be able to provide integrated performances.


What goes into each performance?

Hannah says first and foremost, the students think about the audience.

“When we’re making Theatre, the audience is at the core of everything we do. We make choices and rehearse based on how we want the audience to interpret a story,  and react to these stories.

When the performers and audience members both dig down and feel this empathy, pretty amazing things can happen. There are scientific studies that suggest that audience members’ heartbeats sync up when they’re watching a theatrical performance. That’s a pretty powerful idea.

We spend weeks and months at a time to prepare for a performance,” she said. “We get just a few chances to perform and hopefully receive the reaction we’ve been working towards…We get a solitary moment. We perform. Then we move on.”


Why choose to spend time teaching fine arts to kids?

For Hannah, it’s a legacy.

“I grew up with a teacher for a mom. Her dedication to her students definitely inspired me from a young age to pursue a teaching career.

I joined band and choir in sixth grade after playing piano for several years. I’d always loved music but in 10th grade, my oral communications teacher convinced me to audition for the musical (not that it was a hard sell). From that moment I was hooked.”

She said cast members form strong bonds. She has also seen it build confidence in kids, and inspire their personal growth. 

Hannah has been personally affected as well. “My theatre friends in high school created a safe haven for me to be myself and forget about all of the awful high school things we all go through,” she said. “Teaching theatre allows me to do the same for today’s students.”

Speaking of today’s students…

Alicia’s choir has an officer’s panel. The students are nominated and are voted in by their peers.  These officers run some of the rehearsals, take attendance, and teach lessons to sixth-grade choir members. They also organize Christmas caroling for different groups in town.

Giving students opportunities to grow leadership skills is an important benefit of these programs.

Some of the choir’s leaders this year are Emma and Caroline Russell, Nate McDonald, and Aristyn Glasgow.

For orchestra, Noah said the leaders are Erin Seymore, Brandon Grant, and Nate McDonald.

“Erin is always prepared for class, and leads the others by example,” he said. “When she is willing to play out loud in class, it helps the others to be confident also.”

He said despite Nate being new last year, he is the primary leader in the cello section. He is also willing to help younger students.

“Brandon is a super hard worker,” he said. “He practices more than any student I have ever known.” Also…willing to help others.

For the theatre department, it’s Kenly Long, Jose Hernandez, Jazmine Edwardson, and Cristal Martinez.

“Kenly has shown dedication to making sure the program is strong after she graduates,” Hannah said. “She builds relationships with some of the younger members, helping them learn lines, as well as helps with sets and costumes.”

She said Jose brings an appreciated does of enthusiasm to the group. “He always shows up with a smile.”


Growing more musicians and performers in Arkansas is a worthwhile endeavor, according to a new study commissioned by the Northwest Arkansas (NWA) Council and cultural planning firm Sound Diplomacy.

Nelson Peacock, president of the NWA Council, said in a March 9 news release: “A vibrant music economy contributes to economic growth, workforce development, artistic education and tourism.”

Which is why Sound Diplomacy made several recommendations to be addressed throughout the next three years, one of which is “building partnerships with K-12 schools, arts education organizations, Northwest Arkansas Community College and the University of Arkansas to create intentional pipelines of local skills and creativity.” Another is “activating cities, through cultural planning, to strategically support music with municipal resources and new and existing venues.”

Not a bad time to invest in the fine arts in Arkansas.


Sources:

https://www.naceweb.org/about-us/press/2020/the-top-attributes-employers-want-to-see-on-resumes/

https://time.com/collection/davos-2020-mental-health/5550803/depression-suicide-rates-youth/

http://www.nwacouncil.org/news/2020/3/9/northwest-arkansas-council-releases-music-ecosystem-strategy-and-action-plan

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