My parents were musicians.
Mom was a concert pianist and organist. One of her gifts was that she could read any piece of music put in front of her. She loved playing Debussy, Schumann, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Bach, and Franck. She was frequently called upon to accompany vocalists and instrumentalists for upcoming recitals and auditions.
Dad was a sax, clarinet, and boom-chick piano-player who played in a dance band in high school, gigging on weekends with pals from his small town school. One of his gifts was that he could play anything by ear. He played at the piano during down time, weekends mostly, after he had finished chores with my younger brothers in tow. He enjoyed writing original vocal and instrumental compositions, including vocal arrangements for his barber shoppe quartet and for the religious in the convent on the far side of the fairgrounds in the small rural coal-mining town in Pennsylvania where we lived until I was ten.
I grew up in a time when arts education was the pride of every community, whether in public schools or in the public square, and I was encouraged to participate in all of it: music; drawing and painting; poetry and creative writing; dance; photography. I began with piano lessons in first grade. Over time, I added to my portfolio the needle arts; calligraphy & book arts; ceramics; cooking; costumery; collaborative arts. When I had worked for a while on a calligraphy project, a writing project beckoned; after working on that for a time, a knitting or sewing project next.
We moved from Pennsylvania to Ohio when I was ten, into a bigger pool of arts offerings, with more and different things to try. I was in my element. We moved again when I was fourteen, just before beginning high school, from Ohio to Massachusetts. The nascent arts and music programming in the school was lacking, left me wanting, and my heart sank as I came to realize that I wouldn’t be expanding my arts education there. I felt defeated and frustrated and, initially, resentful, what with no big choruses to sing in or musicals to perform in.
But what ended up happening was that I became part of the group that built and led the music program there. Singing in newly established a capella and concert choral groups and learning to play a range of styles and instruments: piano in jazz band; oboe in concert band; trombone in the marching band. I took every music elective that was offered and invited others to join me. Ultimately, we took part in every musical we were finally able to produce in my last two years. I became student conductor for concert band and took to arranging and transcribing Bach two- and three-part keyboard Inventions for brass and woodwind ensembles. I sang in District and All-State Choruses and was a founding member of an elite ensemble of high school vocal and instrumental musicians that met every Sunday at Northeastern University for an afternoon of rehearsing original arrangements that were then performed in Symphony Hall and in other venues across the Commonwealth.
The affect the arts has had on me throughout my life has been boundless, but it was in those early, formative years that I developed an attachment to the arts and they became a lifeline to me as we relocated from the rural mountains of PA, to urban, central OH, and then to the quiet, reserved community in MA. Despite the paucity of music and arts programming offered in my high school (lo those many years ago), what was offered got me up and to school on the rainiest of days.
And, that still holds true today. Since the November 2016 election I have sat at my piano nearly every day, finding solace in patriotic and popular songs, and in the compositions of Debussy, Bartok, Haydn, and Bach. (I now have a little set that I would consider playing before a small group of friends).
A personal connection with arts, culture, or creativity has an immeasurable impact on one’s life and well-being, place, and view of community. Among other things, my engagement has taught me patience, perspective, sequencing, problem-solving, persistence, and the joy of self-expression.
But, children in many public schools and communities are losing so much, whether due to shrinking budgets or the focus on standardized testing in schools or loss of national and state funding for community arts programming. The arts are designated a core academic subject, yet access to arts education in our schools is eroding. And this at a time when parents, employers, and civic leaders are demanding improvements to teaching and learning that will make our schools places where each learner will access a complete education and opportunities to succeed.
Our children will need to be creative thinkers and makers prepared to face and solve the challenges awaiting them in their future. To help them get there they will need many things, including an arts education.
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