Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Experience Matters

One of my great frustrations with working at the Vermont Arts Council is the number of times in a week or a month that I have to explain what I do for a living. It’s not the work itself.  It’s because the best way to get people to understand what we do at the Council is to show them, not tell them, and I can’t SHOW everybody!

Experiencing art (engaging it, confronting it, attending it, or simply being in its presence) is frequently the only way to understand its intuitive and powerful impact.  I can talk until I am blue in the face to anyone about certain works, certain performances or artists that have elicited a visceral response so powerful that words simply fail to do justice to the experience.  Talking about it doesn’t have anywhere near the impact of giving people an opportunity to experience it for themselves.

Back-to-back events last week provided a wealth of opportunities for folks in Vermont to experience for themselves the power of the arts, and for one of them, it might become a life-altering experience.

On Tuesday, March 12 Legislators returning from the Town Meeting Day break were greeted by a fabulous installation in the State House Card Room by Elizabeth Billings and Cora Vail Brooks.  Consisting of large sheets of brown parcel paper with stenciled words cut out, hung from the ceiling by clips and pins, the exhibit, “Almost,” was created to gently remind anyone who came into the Card Room, that the arts surround us, invite us in, cause us to have an unexpected(?) reaction, and leave us with a changed outlook.

Judging from the responses that we saw on peoples’ faces, and the comments they wrote on our feedback sheet, we touched a lot of people, mostly in a very positive way, and created a new appreciation for art and, yes, for the Card Room itself.  The Card Room itself was a place legislators used to adjourn to while waiting for, say, conference committees to finish their work.  To pass the time, they played cards with each other.  Today, the room is used for special interest groups to share information about their causes.  In the past, the Arts Council has had displays of grantees’ works, slide-shows of cultural facilities’ improvements that we have funded, held poetry readings, and in general shared information with folks in the building about our programs and services.

This year we gave them an experience they won’t soon forget.

On the very next day we celebrated the 8th Annual Vermont Poetry Out Loud Competition in the Barre Opera House.

For eight years, Vermont high school students have labored to learn three poems well enough to recite them in front of their school-mates, and be selected to compete in a semifinal competition in Barre.  Finalists are selected from the 30-plus semifinalists, and the winner receives some scholarship money and the opportunity to do it all over again in Washington DC against the winners from the 52 other states and jurisdictions; and his/her school receives money to purchase books.  All very simple and straightforward, right?

Wrong.  This competition is extremely intense and yet it is among the most engaging and uplifting programs we undertake.  The mechanics are straightforward, but the results are anything but.  High schoolers of all ages and types have to not just learn a poem, but inhabit it, internalize it, and make it their own.  Then they must convey the poem's meaning and power with a minimum amount of theatrics and a maximum amount of passion and oratorical skill.  Props are occasionally used, but rarely to any great effect.  This year, the most powerful competitor (in my opinion, of course!) was the guy who barely moved, but held each of us in a steely gaze, and delivered up a stunning result—using just his voice.  He didn’t win.  Instead, that honor went to Christian DeKett of St. Johnsbury Academy and if he goes on to the Nationals and does as well as last year’s Vermont entry, Claude Mumbere, his life may be truly altered in profound and exciting ways.

The real point, however, is that more than 4000 students across the state participated in the competition.  They challenged themselves to do something far outside their normal comfort-zone.  It was far more than learning the words (which I gather is the easy part).  The students not only had to truly understand the poems, they then had to bring that awareness and understanding to the audience, especially the judges.  The judges, in turn, were looking at the difficulty of the poem, the student’s understanding, his/her ability to convey that understanding, his/her delivery, and the quality of the overall performance. 

So many critical skills come in to play for the participants.  In addition to the poem itself, the student has to consider the impact of the clothes they wear, how they approach the microphone, the tone and volume of the voice they use, the degree to which they can overcome their natural fear of being in the spotlight and being judged. 

Probably only a handful or two of those participating will go on to a career in the arts, and fewer still will become poets.  But I can absolutely guarantee that 10, 20, 50 years from now, when asked by a friend or family-member what do they remember most about high school, most will probably say, the experience that this competition gave them. 

Learning is no more about rote memorization than education is just about training.  There are times when rote memorization helps achieve a certain end and when training kicks in and enables us to respond automatically to a set of circumstances that might (as in a fist-fight) save our hides.  But learning and understanding require a deeper commitment that serves as a gateway to life-long learning.

This is what the arts can do.  This is why adding the A (Arts) to STEM instruction is so vitally important.  We can all be trained up in the specifics of science, technology, engineering, and math, but it is the Arts that enable us to learn and to live.

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