Family Arts: Why children should be exposed to the arts

Published: Saturday, Jan. 7 2012 4:00 p.m. MST

David Cho of the Utah Symphony conducts a performance for elementary school students at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City, Utah on Feb. 8, 2011.

Ravell Call, Deseret News Archives

Editor’s note: This is the first of three articles examining the issue of exposing children to the arts and what’s being done to provide both arts education in the schools and opportunity for arts experiences for children and families. You can read the second here.

MIDVALE — At 7:45 a.m. on a chilly December morning, a truck with “Utah Symphony” plastered on the side pulled up to the back of Hillcrest High School in Midvale.

Within a few minutes, the timpani were set up at the back of the stage in the auditorium and a harp, wrapped up in two or three layers, was wheeled in. A symphony staffer walked between chairs, clutching a map and muttering while he rearranged things to fit the orchestra’s organization. High school stage crew members helped bring in music stands and chairs and adjusted the curtains and stage backdrop.

The first musician arrived at 8:45 a.m. — a percussionist. If a school participating in the outreach program is within a 15-mile radius of Abravanel Hall, the musicians drive themselves. Staffers were placing signs throughout the school to help new musicians navigate the unconventional venue. More musicians came in, pulling off layers of clothing and putting pieces of instruments together.

Tuning began. The harpist took a good 20 minutes to do the job. The 85 musicians navigated scales and octaves as the librarian put sheet music on stands.

Students — a bunch of hopping, skipping, pushing and shushing 4th graders — trickled in at 9:20 a.m. By 9:35, the auditorium was nearly full. Students mimicked the orchestra sounds and waved to their friends. The concert began at 9:45.

Navigating a program including Tchaikosky, Handel and Dvoarak, Assistant Conductor Vladimir Kulenovic verbally dissected the orchestra section by section, instrument by instrument, teaching the students how it all works.

“The most important part of the orchestra is you,” he said near the end.

Within minutes, children were enthusiastically clapping along to music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

When it was over, the musicians exited the stage almost as quickly as the students left the auditorium. They had a brief break to grab a snack or drink, to adjust stands and chalk bows and tune instruments again.

A whole new group of hundreds of 4th graders would be ready for another concert at 11 a.m.

This is just one example of many arts outreach programs put on by professionals. Arts organizations, combining efforts with educators, legislators and school board members, are constantly putting hours of work into creating and improving programs like these, all in the name of exposing Utah children to the arts.

Marilyn Whitchurch, a mother of three from American Fork, loves taking her children to a variety of artistic events.

“We like to expose them to the arts,” she said. “I think there’s a lot they can learn from them … different cultures, different ways of looking at things.”

Whitchurch discussed an occasion when a Vietnamese percussion group visited her son’s band class. The family attended a concert by that same group that night. Her son loved every bit of it.

“I really appreciate it when teachers go the extra mile to take them to things like this or have them come to the schools,” Whitchurch said.

In fact, a great effort by school administrators, district officials, teachers, and symphony musicians and staff went into the 50-minute program aimed at introducing the 9- and 10-year-olds to a music that perhaps many of them wouldn’t hear otherwise.

“If we’re looking at developing future audience or even future artists, we really need to reach kids, because that’s when that kind of magic is sparked in creative minds,” said Margaret Hunt, director of the Utah Division of Arts and Museums.

Beverly Hawkins, symphony education manager at Utah Symphony-Utah Opera, agreed.

“Just as we want them to be aware of their academic options, their spiritual options, their athletic options in life, we want them to also be aware of and explore the artistic side of life.”

Speak with anyone in the field of art education, and they’ll quickly list ways that arts in schools can enhance education or provide ideas to the kids about future career options. But art, they believe, just has a meaningful impact on life in general.

“They are a source of beauty and richness in life,” said Paula Fowler, director of education and community outreach for USUO. “People have known that for centuries, right?”

“I think it makes us better, more thoughtful, more caring human beings if we really grasp everything we can from the arts experiences that are available,” she continued.

But, Hunt explained, some have more opportunity than others. Some parents can send their kids to dance lessons, instrument lessons or theater lessons.

“The reality is that not all parents can afford that,” she said.

And that’s where arts in the schools come in.

Much is being done to maintain that effort through the Utah State Board of Education, primarily through the Professional Outreach Program in the School, an organization that includes Ballet West, Utah Symphony-Utah Opera, Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theater, Repertory Dance Theatre, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, Springville Museum of Art, the Utah Museum of Fine Art, Children’s Dance Theatre, and Utah Shakespeare Festival.

“I feel like they’re absolutely aware,” said Vanessa Ballam, director of education and performer at Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre, about state legislators and the board of education. “I mean, they’re huge cheerleaders of all of these programs too. They know exactly what the benefits are to the students that participate.”

In a survey of school educators and administrators across Utah, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming commissioned by the Western States Arts Federation, those surveyed were asked if they believed their district treated the arts as core curriculum. In Utah, 65 percent answered “yes” — more than any other neighboring state.

The same study, however, examined the amount of high-quality arts instruction — which it defined as ongoing instruction by a certified specialist meeting state and/or national arts standards. Twenty-one percent of Utah schools were listed in the “none of the above” category. That’s 54,000 students who didn’t receive any quality arts instruction.

“We have a strong emphasis on the arts here. It’s a little bit of a curiosity that we’ve lost footing (in education),” Hunt said.

In an accompanying study by the same group breaking down Utah’s arts education more specifically, researchers found that Utah fared well in secondary school arts education, but lagged behind most in elementary schools.

For example, the average music specialist-to-student ratio in elementary schools is 1 to 895.

“When I was in elementary school, every elementary classroom had a piano in it,” Hunt said. “You don’t see that anymore. I think part of it is that the demands on teachers have become so robust.”

Lynne Larson, director of education for Repertory Dance Theatre, agreed, saying that school curriculum today is very focused on testing and, though tested material is also important, arts education shows children “how that part of you is just as important as the part of you that needs to learn specific facts and be tested on things — that they’re equal parts.”

Arts, Hunt explained, are a natural thing that shouldn’t be overlooked in a child’s education and experience growing up.

“If you are around little children, everything is sung and danced and acted. Their natural state of being is in that state of imagination," she said. "That’s who we are as human beings. We’re creative by nature.”

The studies also acknowledged Utah’s average student enrollment — which is nearly twice as large as that of every neighboring state. Despite legislative funding, despite a culture centered on arts, reaching every child can be difficult.

“We have our work cut out for us,” Hunt said.

Programs like The Beverley Taylor Sorenson Arts Program, formed by a legislative bill in 2008, are part of ongoing efforts to improve elementary school arts education.

Cathy Jensen, state fine arts specialist who heads both the Professional Outreach Program in the School and the Beverley Taylor Sorenson program, discussed the purposes of both programs: to harbor creativity, to show kids possible careers, or to merely introduce them to something they can love.

Larson, Hawkins, Fowler and Ballam are all involved with the professional outreach program as well. Speak with any of them, and their passion for exposing as many children as possible to the arts is evident.

“You just don’t know without opportunity, what blatant skills and attributes lie within a child that could be untapped without exposure,” Jensen said.

Next week: Catch a glimpse of the many different arts outreach programs in Utah schools and the impact these programs have.

Email: hbowler@desnews.com

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