In the age of standardized testing, subjects like art and music get swept aside in school as trifling niceties. But what are kids really losing out on when we can’t find more than an hour a month to devote to building a love and understanding of the arts? And what skills and experiences are we leaving on the table by cutting into that precious instruction time for everything from fundraisers to health screenings.
As someone who was introduced to music in a public elementary school and continued to study music up through college, where I graduated with a degree in Art History, I have some pretty strong thoughts. Studying the arts leaves kids with a lot more than a sense of rhythm and the ability to manipulate a paintbrush; it build confidence and creativity, community and cultural awareness, and a love of learning and more.
Whether you’re on a stage acting, dancing, or playing an instrument, when you perform, you learn that unmistakable feeling of having all eyes on you. As a child, my knees would literally shake when I played solos at recitals, but that fear eventually grew into confidence and a keen awareness that performing (or getting up in front of any crowd) is every bit as much about the way you present yourself—body language, posture, attire—as it is about the reason you’re supposedly on that stage.
That element of performance has helped me through everything from job interviews to dating to a career in teaching. Adults perform much more than we realize, but we have to teach our kids how to do that.
In most subjects we study, there’s one right answer. But in life, nearly everything is shades of gray. The same is true in the arts. Listen to any two virtuosi performances of the same piece and you’ll notice that each musician puts their spin on it, even though both are “technically” correct.
Observe the paintings that line the halls of any art museum and you’ll find it’s not doing things the “right” way that brings artists fame, but seeing things a new way and taking risks. This type of divergent thinking is rare in most other school subjects, but it’s vital to adults who are told to “think out of the box,” construct new solutions, and look for innovations.
When we study the arts, we inevitably become engrossed in foreign cultures and learn what defines them: their history, what they value, how they see the world. Why did Dada artists mock nationalism and the very institution of art after World War I? What’s the significance of the number eight in the design of the Taj Mahal (hint: the eight levels of paradise)? Why does forgoing traditional western scales produce music that sounds so exotic to Americans? It’s through this lens, through the arts, that we start to understand our place in the global community.
Marcel Duchamp, LHOOQ, 1919
We gain humility and respect for others that have a proud, vibrant culture of their own, something too few Americans experience. Sure, sure, America’s the best, but have you stopped to consider the cultural achievements of other nations? The arts require this of our students.
If you’ve ever taken the stage to act or dance, played in a band or orchestra, sung in a chorus, or even rocked out in a garage band, you’ve experienced the challenges, dedication, and indescribable feeling of accomplishment that comes with performing in a group. As much as playing a solo taught me how to flaunt my peacock feathers every now and then, playing in an orchestra taught me how to fade into the crowd.
This time, it wasn’t about me; it was about the collective. My presence was only part of the ebb and flow of the music. I could disappear, and the music would continue, but failing to contribute in a meaningful way could create dissonance. One bad apple can spoil the bunch. Performing in a group setting means dedicating yourself to something larger than yourself—something you cannot achieve alone—and the rewards are nothing short of magical.
Appreciation for other subjects
When we study the arts, we inevitably dabble in so many other subjects. Students performing Shakespeare conduct informal linguistic analyses. Art students call on geometric principles. Musicians nurture arithmetic skills. Dancers gain awareness of their anatomy and physiology. And each group makes sense of their art through history and cultural awareness.
Hang your masterpiece for public view or take the stage, and you’ve invariably opened yourself up to criticism. But learning to try, fail, listen, and reassess is perhaps the most valuable tool we can gain from studying the arts.
Improvement in the arts doesn’t happen in a bubble, and the critique we require helps us develop thick skin and turn criticism into an opportunity for advancement. The criticism also expands our thinking, as teachers and peer offer varying perspectives or interpretations that lead us to see things in a new light.
When you perform, your community is your audience. The arts teach children to look outward, to perform for younger peers as an example of how hard work pays off or for the elderly in nursing homes in need of holiday spirit. It teaches kids about the commonalities we share across the entire human experience and the universal joys the arts provide.
The arts challenge us, they create a space for dialogue, they move us. And as if these weren’t reason enough to emphasize the arts in our schools, our kids enjoy them. School shouldn’t be an endless barrage of worksheets and pre-tests and tests and re-tests. It has to include the element of wonder and pleasure that the arts provide. Our kids deserve it.
Want to hear more of Evie and Sarah’s thoughts on studying the arts? Tune in to Episode #11 of our 5-star podcast, Best Friend Banter: