I’ve been busy lately. I’m in the pit orchestra for a local production of Oklahoma (brief sample here)--and we opened last weekend. Which meant grueling, every-night, home-after-11 rehearsals and many hours of drill and practice on the melodic flourishes and key changes in the score--two and a half hours of live music times eight performances over four precious summer weekends.
I’ve loved every minute of it.
At Sunday’s matinee, a friend who saw the show (a busy physician, who also loves and performs frequently in musical theatre) ruminated about the fact that colleges are now having difficulty getting students to try out for and put on theatric productions. Wouldn’t it be great, he said, if every seat in this auditorium was filled with wide-eyed kids and their parents, taking an afternoon out of their vacation to see all the talents and joy the people who live in this community have to offer?
And what’s more attractive than live performances? In a virtual world, there are lots of shiny things--vicious video games, hot-flaming Twitter wars, sexy images with clever captions. Don’t like your life? Start a new, make-believe life. How can Curly and Laurey’s century-old flirtation, set to music, in what was then the Indian Territory, compete with Grand Theft Auto?
As a music educator with four decades of experience, I wrestled with questions like this perennially. I argued with an ed-tech colleague who wondered out loud why anyone would take bassoon lessons instead of punching the “woodwind” button on a digital keyboard. I’ve had hard conversations with parents who immediately want to sell their kid’s saxophone when AP Calculus scheduling made taking Jazz Ensemble impossible. Why should 21st century students use their valuable time building sets, memorizing corny dialogue and hoofing inexpertly across the stage?
Because it’s fun, primarily. Wholesome fun, an instant village, a place where you belong and your contributions are needed. But it’s much more than that.
Plays and musicals tell stories--about other places, other times, conflict and resolutions. They’re a window into the universality of human emotions and values. Students who participate in theatre don’t just hear those stories--they live in them, for weeks at a time, trying on language, identities and ideas. Plays are also history. The musical version of how Oklahoma became a state is politically incorrect--to say the least--but also a reminder of how the past is romanticized and glorified, and usually told through the perspective of those who prevailed.
The physical and emotional benefits of group singing are well-documented. And local amateur theatre is multi-generational, open to diverse ages and skill sets in ways that few public activities are any more. Our current entertain-yourself mindset has resulted in a loss of the most foundational human value, building community.
There’s also the satisfaction of putting all those pieces together, doing something well--call it project management, if you like. The discipline of practice, the art of problem-solving, the appreciation of colleagues’ efforts. These are all rich, teachable attributes--and the people who had practice learning them as youth still enjoy the camaraderie and artistry of performing. In our pit band alone, we have a dentist, a radiologist, a systems analyst, two pastors, a CPA, a kindergarten teacher, a mortician and two former college professors. No hedge fund managers, but perhaps that’s to be expected.
I regularly took my middle school students to see symphony performances, jazz shows and musicals. The benefits went far beyond hearing a particular program or soloist. This Wynton Marsalis quote used to hang on the wall of my office, a kind of credo for teaching music--and rationale for traveling with students to absorb some of the musical culture of a American cities.
As long as there is democracy, there will be people wanting to play jazz because nothing else will ever so perfectly capture the democratic process in sound. Jazz means working things out musically with other people. You have to listen to other musicians and play with them even if you don't agree with what they're playing. It teaches you the very opposite of racism and anti-Semitism. It teaches you that the world is big enough to accommodate us all.
We went to performances in many cities--Toronto, Baltimore, St. Louis, Washington D.C., Chicago. My favorite travel experience was Cleveland, however--visiting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and hearing the Cleveland Symphony. We arrived at Severance Hall late--one of our four buses got lost. Ushers met us at the curb; they were holding the performance for us. The conductor and soloist were already on the stage as my students found their seats.
I had pre-distributed the tickets, which were all over the auditorium, placing the best-behaved students in the front rows. I planned to sit in back myself, with the known eighth-grade outlaws (lots of percussionists in this group). Turned out the concert was oversold--and rows AA and BB, which I assumed were in the back of the house, were chairs set up in the very front, to accommodate the overflow. The kids I was most concerned about were close enough to the concertmaster to touch his shoe.
At intermission, he leaned down and asked me if I was the teacher in charge of the student group that came in late. Yes, I said, with a certain amount of trepidation. He told me the orchestra management had worried about 135 eighth graders from Michigan scattered among their subscription ticketholders, but they had been a wonderful, respectful audience. A great compliment, but I knew my students learned to be good audience members from the experience of performing themselves.
I hope my former students--now parents themselves--are winning battles to keep arts education alive in public schools. The arts matter. They will always matter.
The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.