Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Make an Introduction

When I was a child my parents made sure that I was exposed to the arts.  Each summer we would pile into the car for the 2.5 hour drive to Stratford, CT for the Shakespeare Festival; in the winter we would pile into the car for the 2.5 hour drive to New York for the Nutcracker or the Messiah.  In between times there were the occasional performers who would come to our part of upstate New York (courtesy of the local arts council) and we’d go to the High School gymnasium or auditorium to see symphonies, theater, and even the occasional “modern” dance company.

The entire time this was going on, I would think to myself—just once, I wish they’d take me to see the Beatles or Led Zeppelin in concert.  In my frame of reference the release of “Rubber Soul” meant far more than attending yet another weird (!) dance program by some group called Ailey or Bejart.

It wasn’t all bad…

I did get to meet Judith Jamison once.  I was about eight, and I brought one of my pet gerbils with me to a post-performance reception, of which my mother was a host.  I allowed it to crawl up my arm while shaking hands with some of the dancers.  It magically appeared out from under my collar just as I got to Ms. Jamison.  Oh how I wish I could report out about the whooping and hollering that should have followed…

But, no, she calmly put her plate down on a side table, leaned in close to look at it, and said, “that is an adorable gerbil! May I pet it?”

I still recall her perfume.

Several years later, after moving to New York and attending Friday afternoon concerts at Alice Tully Hall thanks to my grandmother, I was shipped off to school.  With my growing collection of records by Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, and many others I was lucky enough to be assigned a roommate with a portable stereo.

In 11th grade I finally “discovered” Beethoven, an event so profound I think I still haven’t quite recovered--and it’s been almost 40 years.  Just last weekend I found myself listening again to the Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas several times in succession.  My kids thought I was taking a nap on the living room sofa. No…I was simply transfixed for the umpteenth time by the depth and passion of these great works, performed by Emil Gilels.

Ask yourself, as an intellectual exercise, what art will survive the test of time?  In 250 years, what will our descendants listen to on a Sunday afternoon?  Will it still be Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms? The truth is, it doesn’t really matter.

I believe that people come to the arts in their own way and in their own time.  Most kids take art and music in school (at least they are supposed to!), they attend local productions of theater and musicals, or chorus and band, sometimes for no other reason than to support their classmates.  A few get special recognition for a painting they have painted or a pot they have thrown.  But most only know the popular art forms and for them, that’s where we have to start.  I started with the Beatles and Led Zeppelin.  But my parents never gave up on me.

It begins with exposure, and for the lucky ones with talent, it can quickly become a creative passion if nurtured.  For most, exposure ultimately leads to appreciation and understanding.  People usually fear and mistrust things they don’t understand.  Some kids at first don’t trust art, music, dance, and theater.  But if they see their friends and peers engaged in them and enjoying themselves, then soon their attitude changes.  The arts always become less strange over time, and I’m never surprised when even the most cynical among us come to appreciate it and support it—even though it may still be, at some basic level, beyond their understanding.

The bottom line is that every one of us deserves an introduction to the arts.  For most, that introduction happens in elementary school and is reinforced every year in a sequential program of applied learning in the arts.  But now that introduction is at risk.  Our state education agency no longer has a curriculum specialists devoted to the arts.  Most schools have only “portions” of art and music teachers working with kids for less than an hour each week.

The Vermont Alliance of Arts Educators recently shut its doors for good—not out of want of trying, but out of lack of support for its mission.  In truth, looking at the current state of arts education in Vermont, we have reason to be concerned.

So what do we do?  To start with, we need to go back to basics.  We need to start in our own families, making sure that we parents introduce our kids to art and culture as often as we can. We need to support our schools' and communities' art programs, which often only mean just showing up.  We need to insist that our school budgets have sufficient resources for at least an art and a music teacher.  We need to insist that our children learn how to attend shows (both visual and performing) with respect and appreciation—even if, as they will surely tell you, they didn’t like the art itself. 

It starts at home.  It reignites in school.  And once a child has had his or her introduction—and really begun to understand that art is about something more profound than appealing to their immediate “popular” likes and dislikes—then we can let them go explore on their own.  Our job as a parent and teacher is done.

Who knows? Maybe in 250 years a work created by a kid I introduced to the arts as a child will be part of the standard repertoire. 

Right up there with Stairway to Heaven.

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