Thinking about course registration? Read Mr. Young's take on arts education

Mr. Todd Young, chair of the Fine & Performing Arts Department, has published an article on the role of arts in all students' education in the Massachusetts Music Journal (Winter 2016). The article is included below. To see Mr. Young speak about how students and parents can think about the registration process, go to

The Arts Are Not For Me Syndrome
Todd R. Young – Newton North High School and Gordon College

It’s an early September afternoon and a 10th grader waits in a long line of her peers in order to make the needed changes to her class schedule. Let’s call her Sarah. Sarah finally makes her way to meet with her counselor. After making a few adjustments to Sarah’s schedule, her counselor informs her that she is still under-enrolled and needs to choose an additional elective to take.

I sit at a table in an adjacent room along with my department head colleagues representing our respective subject areas. This is when I meet Sarah.

Sarah approaches my table marked ‘Fine & Performing Arts.’ I say hello and ask her how I can help. She responds that she needs an additional elective. We determine that she has the blocks B1+3 and F2+4 currently free. I look at my schedule for Art, Dance, Music and Theatre classes and say the following: “Sarah, you are in luck. I have an Art Minor 1 during B1+3.” Sarah responds, “Uhm, I don't think so. I can’t draw at all. I’m so bad at it.” “Ah,” I respond, “I hear you. Let me look again.” I shuffle through my papers for added dramatic effect and then say, “Sarah, excellent news! I’ve got Art Minor 1!” If Sarah doesn’t know how to draw then Sarah should take an art class!

I tell this story every year to the parents of upcoming freshman and then add, “Don’t forget that we are a school. This is where you learn things. Some things are continuations of years of study and some may be brand new ventures.” Both of these, I believe, are equally important.

I appreciate that my story and the ideas I bring forth are nothing new. I have not conducted formal studies or collected any significant, specific data. However, in 10 years as an arts administrator, I have witnessed this individual barrier set forth to the Arts time and time again. Every year I wrestle with trying to get students to explore the unknown or under-explored. One of the biggest hurdles for me to overcome is what I’ve labeled here: The Arts Are Not For Me Syndrome. It is essentially the concept that students self- select themselves out of the arts as they believe that course work in one of these Arts areas just isn’t for them. Art kids take art classes. Music kids take music classes and the like. I would argue that at my school it is the rare student who looks at the music pages in our course catalog to select a potential course when they don’t consider themselves a ‘music kid.’

There has been any number of articles addressing the roadblocks to pursuing music in the public schools. Most of the research focuses on the financial barriers or how to broaden the scope of a school's music curriculum to try to meet a wider demographic of student. It is the latter that I will focus on here though from a slightly different perspective. And important to note early on - I don't have the answer. Perhaps though, I have some thoughts to help increase awareness.

First, it's important to establish a couple of core personal beliefs: 1. All kids have the capacity to learn and be successful.

2. Music programs are at their best when they balance Excellence with Access.

As music teachers, of course we should work as diligently as possible to provide the finest in Arts education that we can deliver. Our ensembles should strive to perform at the highest levels. We should be committed to preparing students to be successful at the finest conservatories and music programs. I'd argue though that none of this is really a definition of excellence unless the access portion is in check. It is the balance of these two that is critical.

With this, lets return to Sarah. She has not committed her studies to the Arts and now as a high school student the thought of pursuing courses in art or music are simply foreign to her. Remember, only music kids take music courses, and so on. The real challenge here is that despite the great efforts of many school districts working to increase elective offerings (and significantly broadening the access piece) getting students to take the leap can be a challenge.

In Visual Arts I've observed that students who do not consider themselves an 'Art Kid' are more willing to enroll in a ceramics or photography class than a painting or drawing class. Somehow the latter feels more 'high art' and thus less accessible. As a result, painting and drawing is an Art that's often Not For Me. Music classes, in my experience, more often than not universally fall into this perceived 'high art' category. Music courses are reserved for musicians.

The reason for this (again, my opinion) is that the line that divides musicians from non- musicians is more pronounced than in the other Arts disciplines. In collecting personal information from kids as part of 'get to know you' questions at the start of a course, I've noted that students who play a band, orchestral string instrument, and/or piano always ID themselves as musicians. Students who take regular private lessons regardless of instrument come in second...singers third. Students who play guitar/drums or make music electronically at home simply for fun have a much harder time ID'ing themselves as musicians.

Now, I conquer that not everyone should follow a career in music, as not everyone should be a doctor, pilot, or counselor. That said it is often the case that once the compulsory music program is completed in a student's career, music is often lost. Those that continue on and are successful become deemed as talented or possessing some skill not attainable by the average person. Going back once again to Sarah - how do we help her make the leap and understand that she can learn some skills in drawing and with quality instruction and hard work she can be truly successful.

In the music world, it is the addition of classes such as music technology, beginning ensemble, or piano/guitar class that can provide the avenues for the musician and non- musician alike to have a serious musical experience. I tell students in my beginning level music classes right up front, "It doesn't matter to me where your Starting Point A is. Some of you may be musically literate, been playing an instrument since you were four, etc. Some of you may just be musically curious. And both are awesome. I'm psyched for those of you who have spent so much energy working on your craft as musicians and I'm equally excited for those of you who are trying something new. Wherever your point A is, my goal is to get you to point B and beyond." I like to immediately address that I'm going to differentiate instruction. I name it and rename it throughout the semester. The expectations for growth are still high, but sharing that I'm aware of the variety of backgrounds I feel has gone a long way toward building musicians of all varieties and levels. The new or novice musician has a place in our music classes.

Courses that focus on Music Technology are very real entry points for students, regardless of past experience. The very first project I do with students in my exploratory Music Technology classes is to create a four-track, 32 bar, AABA piece. Even with this relatively elementary assignment the amount of music learning can be significant. The students in class who don’t consider themselves musicians, let alone musical, are now talking about form, making musical choices about instrumentation, experimenting with tempo, layering a melodic line upon a harmonic progression, thinking about the direction of a musical thought and beyond.

Keeping the music at the core of the tech class is critical for me. I’m a music teacher first and in each project or learning opportunity experienced in my classes it’s the focus on quality music making that is paramount. The technology is the tool. And with this, again, it’s why classes like these are so important for helping to connect with all kids. At the very least the students who study music technology or related subject area are now considerably more informed consumers of musical arts. This can be every bit as important as the student we send to conservatory.

For Sarah? Create serious, but safe venues for all kids to learn. Celebrate their victories and push them beyond their pre-determined thoughts of mediocrity. And, remind them that you want them to take the music class because they are not musicians...yet.