Testimonial #28: Andrew Swensen, Publisher and Founder of The Muse Dialogue; Producer of Journey to Normal: Women of War Come Home; Executive Director of the Pittsburgh Youth Chamber Orchestra, and Program Manager of the Pittsburgh Music Alliance

How are the arts re-igniting your community and sparking innovation and creativity in your local schools?
I have been especially impressed with the programs in both music and the visual arts in our local schools (North Allegheny School District in the Greater Pittsburgh area of PA). The choral program in my daughter’s school, for example, has grown so large that the school auditorium can no longer accommodate the crowds of families that come to the concerts. The orchestra program is likewise so robust that each grade has its own string orchestra. The schools certainly have their all subjects covered well, and we have our share of frustrations over the focus on standardized tests. However, the fact is that the arts give the schools their vibrancy and their life. The halls are filled with visual arts projects, and the school calendar is filled with concerts of one sort or another. I fully support the endorsement of all subjects, and recognize how important it is to have a balanced education that includes math, natural sciences, and social sciences. Yet the arts provide the vision, the imagination and the perspective that allow us to understand and appreciate the humanity of the human experience in all its area of activity.

How has your life been indelibly touched by a teacher who utilized the arts for whatever reason and acknowledge how they were instrumental in breaking the mold to allow you to become who you are today?
Interestingly, I would point to my sixth-grade teacher and her love of reading stories to our class. Surely others who read this question will think of an influential painting teacher or someone who elevated their skills on a musical instrument. Yet after thinking about this question, I keep coming back to Miss Bower and her love of literature.

I had read books before, but the truth is that I had never really appreciated the nature of storytelling and the power of literature until I heard her read something to us. It is one thing to have your eyes cross the page, to have your mind absorb the facts of a narrative. Yet Miss Bower changed everything for us — and now in our 40s, we still talk about her to this day — because she unlocked the power of imagination in a new way. It was this changed perspective on the nature of narrative and narration that really shaped my love of literature and film for all of the years since.

Testimonial #27: Tom Cestaro, President Celebrities Plus, Inc.

How has your life been indelibly touched by a teacher who utilized the arts for whatever reason and acknowledge how they were instrumental in breaking the mold to allow you to become who you are today?

I had the great opportunity to have Fran as my theater teacher in my junior and senior years of high school. It was such an outlet for me and I think my life would have been different if the arts were not in my high school life. Fran never made me feel I wasn’t good enough or not doing something right. She made us realize we are all individuals, each with a special talent. It has been 23 years since I graduated high school and I often think about how far I have come with only one good reason…Having the ability of knowing that someone back in the early days thought I was special and could achieve great things! Thank you Fran..you were an instrumental part of my life back then and today.

Testimonial #26: Tanisha Christie, Owner/Producer/Director at Aya Arts and Media

How has your life been indelibly touched by a teacher who utilized the arts for whatever reason and acknowledge how they were instrumental in breaking the mold to allow you to become who you are today?

The arts saved my life. I was a latch-key kid, an only child growing up in the city. Participating in choirs and theater in after-school programs not only kept me busy, but also helped me excel in school. Knowing as a young student that my good grades, gave me access to special field trips with the choir was an added incentive.

In high school, my English teacher, Mrs. Loucks, was also the Speech/Debate and Theater teacher. It is through her guidance, that I learned the value of leadership ( I was President of both groups) and was able to hone my creative abilities. Without that experience, that teachers support, those high school programs that were supported by the Principal and the School Board – I WOULD NOT BE WHO AM I TODAY. Those creative experiences during the tumult of teenage maturation, ground me and gave me an outlet that is of value to this day.

How are the arts re-igniting your community and sparking innovation and creativity in your local schools?

In the community of Brooklyn artists are abundant; however, the role of arts within lower income public schools are quickly diminishing. Now that we’re fully ensconced in the digital age, we’ve allowed technology to replace the idea that culture access is a fundamental part of critical thinking and engaged learning. Occasionally, a group of artists will ignite a small program, like a pop-up exhibition of visual artists in the neighborhood, but these initiatives are becoming less and less. But when it does happen, you’ll see young and old, from all different backgrounds congregating and participating in whatever activities are offered. Rarely is any event meagerly attended.

Aya Arts and Media
Against the backdrop of historical moments of social change, Walk With Me follows three women who use theater to inspire, stir and animate our democracy. While at work in prisons, schools, and community centers, the film reveals that one person – one artist – can make a difference.

Testimonial #25: Annie Gordon, Performing Musician

“To have a career based solely in performing is no longer sustainable or relevant in today’s society and economy. I am proposing a paradigm shift. I propose that every musician out there, particularly those who define themselves as performers, recast themselves as performers and educators. We all have the responsibility of producing music of the highest quality and fostering the appreciation of that art.”

How are the arts re-igniting your community and sparking innovation and creativity in your local schools?

The classical music world is facing a crisis. Audiences and general appreciation for our art are dwindling drastically, orchestras are folding left and right, and money is tight in the majority of musicians’ pockets. The average partron’s age is on the rise and will continue this way until, inevitably, it cannot rise any further. Many arts journalists and commentators are speculating on the “death” of the classical music audience (click here for related article that summarizes the situation).

This is old news. Many already have conceived and enacted innovative action plans, but most plans call for external, perhaps superficial, change. Freshen up the concert repertoire; change up concert venues; liven up performances; integrate alternate art forms; make the concert experience more accessible to the general public. These solutions, however, are only band-aid solutions that avoid the more pressing, fundamental change that is needed. Both the problem and the solution to the classical music conundrum lie deep-rooted in the very definition of what it means to be a “musician.”

The future attendance that we do not want in our concert halls

Today, the definition of musician is pigeonholed to encompass only one, highly specialized skill: performer, theorist, composer, historian. That’s the problem. As musicians, we are preventing our own art from flourishing because we do not value with equal intensity our roles as music educators and mentors. To have a career based solely in performing is no longer sustainable or relevant in today’s society and economy. I am proposing a paradigm shift. I propose that every musician out there, particularly those who define themselves as performers, recast themselves as performers and educators. We all have the responsibility of producing music of the highest quality and fostering the appreciation of that art.

The role of educator can take many forms — a tutor to private music students, an elementary school band director — but the definition is by no means limited to these roles. To my mind, a music educator spreads awareness and appreciation for classical music as an art form and is a “music mentor” to someone less knowledgeable about classical music.

This semester I am the only student enrolled in the course titled “Music in the Urban Schools.” This fact comes as no surprise, in light of the unfortunate fact that music education classes, and the education field in general, carry a stigma among performance degree students studying at conservatories. Careers in education are generally regarded as back-up plans, and music education classes are viewed as irrelevant to those in hot pursuit of a career in performance, composition, or theory. It is time to let go of the utterly backwards stigma against music education within the conservatory setting.

Now more than ever, with the pressing issues of failing orchestras and lack of societal interest in the “high” arts, music educators are our most valuable commodities. And our most important consumers are children. Children are the future audience members and supporters of our art, and yet they are incredibly malnourished in the arena of classical music. We wonder why our society is overly saturated with “popular” art forms. These are the artists who are baiting children with their convenient accessibility. Pop artists are lucky that their art is much more easily understood, but with a little TLC, ours could be as well.

Every individual’s spin on the role of a “music mentor” will and should be different. Some musicians do well teaching in a classroom setting, others in a private lesson setting. Both are fantastic and effective ways to reach out to young children, and foster awareness and appreciation of classical music. Yet others may not feel so comfortable in these roles, and we need to broaden our sense for what can be an opportunity to spread appreciation. The same goals can be accomplished outside of the teacher-student relationship, as well. I implore musicians with personality types less conducive to teaching to consider more personal music mentoring relationships with individuals.

The educator’s role for a musician should extend to all of those moments of contact with young people, and in fact with adults. So the ideal paradigm shift eliminates the mindset that outreach is a one-time requirement, an onerous contractual stipulation for a performance position. Yes, we see it as an obligation and not an opportunity to help our entire field — we see it as a graduation requirement for a conservatory, or a contract requirement for an orchestral musician.

The danger of course is that single events create little lasting impression and, at worst, bore children and dissuade them from taking an interest in the art. The most rewarding experiences come from long-term, well-developed mentor relationships. The key is creating a contagious atmosphere of love and respect for music. So outreach events should only be prelude to cultivating deeper, lasting contact. That more enduring relationship is accomplished through enthusiasm and recognition of one’s role as a source of stability, creativity, and artistic growth in students’ lives. No one person can change the world, and no one musician can change the trend of declining audiences and declining interest. However, if we want to change the state of the field, we must realize that this change first begins with ourselves and our mindset.

The Classical Musician’s Paradigm Shift appeared in The Muse Dialogue

Testimonial #24: Susan Chase, Actress/Playwright

“Here’s the amazing thing. . . I got past my crippling shyness and began to enjoy performing, enjoy telling a story in a way that moved my audience.”

How has your life been indelibly touched by a teacher who utilized the arts for whatever reason and acknowledge how they were instrumental in breaking the mold to allow you to become who you are today?
This is such a great question — and it really takes me back! I was a terribly shy child, a straight “A” student, but I was terrified whenever I had to speak in front of my peers. In 5th grade I had the distinct good fortune to be placed in Mr. Cardinal’s class. Mr. Cardinal was an unusually demanding teacher. Not only did he require the quotidian research papers and essays, but he insisted that we do in-class presentations on all our papers. He even graded us using a “performance” rubric. It is so long ago, that I don’t remember every element of the rubric. But I do recall “Has good posture” and “Makes eye contact with the audience” and “Uses a range of emotions and colors in his/her speech.”

This was all absolutely horrifying to me! I worked so hard on my papers and continued to get “A”s on my written work. But this grade would be averaged with my presentation grade — and I found myself receiving “B”s for the first time in my life. Speaking in front of others was sheer torture for me. I could only do it by staring out into space and mechanically delivering the words I had memorized.

After a month or so of accepting my fate as a “B” student, I finally determined that I would rise to the challenge and meet the requirements of the performance rubric. At first I did it artificially — I would arbitrarily select moments to raise or lower my vocal pitch; I would contrive an emotion and try to sustain it during a section of my presentation. But here’s the amazing thing: eventually this became natural! I got past my crippling shyness and began to enjoy performing, enjoy telling a story in a way that moved my audience.

I don’t reflect on my 5th grade experience all that often. But when I do, I always find myself thinking, “I bet I never would have had the skills or confidence to go into theatre if it hadn’t been for Mr. Cardinal.”

How are the arts re-igniting your community and sparking innovation and creativity in your local schools?
As an actress/playwright, I am fortunate to be a frequent “artist in residence” in my local schools. This has afforded me a unique vantage from which to witness children growing and flourishing. It is certainly challenging to select just one or two stories from the many transformative moments I have witnessed — but I will try.

Several years ago I staged a play with a group of students in a special school for children with psychiatric issues. One of my lead actors was a young adolescent who came from a tragic family background. His father had been killed in a car accident, leaving his mother so profoundly depressed that she was unable to care for her children. This boy came into the classroom very sad and very angry. But working day-by-day on a character allowed him to explore his positive emotions. He played a variety of characters, all of them strong, noble, good-hearted. His mother attended a performance. After watching her “troubled” son’s performance, she decided that he wasn’t so troubled after all and that she was ready to take him back home with her. This family re-unification was facilitated, in part, by the son’s growth through the arts and his mother’s observation of that growth.

I will share one other story — different — but equally compelling. A few years ago I taught in a locked facility for juvenile sexual perpetrators. In a class of young men aged 17-20, I was somewhat intimidated until I bonded with Nate,* the alpha male of the group, who instantly fell in love with acting. One day a group of students were improvising a scene and I could not fully understand them because they were using urban dialect — completely appropriate to the scene, but sadly inaccessible to me. Without saying a word, Nate moved himself next to me and calmly, quietly, without the slightest trace of irony or condescension, translated his friends’ dialect into standard English so I could understand and respond to it. He single-handedly blew away the barriers of age, race, and socioeconomic status! This showed remarkable awareness and sensitivity on his part. This is all the more stunning when one considers that this young man was a sexual perpetrator. One of the common assumptions about sexual perpetrators is that they “lack empathy for their victims.” Yet in this instance, Nate* recognized and empathized with my discomfort and was able to ease this discomfort by bridging the gap between me and my students.

In both these instances, in fact, in every school residency I have completed, the remark I heard constantly from the classroom teachers was, “Thank you so much for letting me see my students in a new light.” These teachers, who daily confront learning disabilities and behavioral challenges, were thrilled to have a guest in their classroom who elicited their student’s strengths, rather than their weaknesses.

* Name changed