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Article
A New Stage for Artists
Thomas May
Opera America Magazine

Just as 21st-century arts organizations are embracing identities as more than caretakers of past masterpieces, there is a growing acknowledgment that artists' contributions can no longer be limited to performances on the main stage. With the help of training programs designed to teach them to engage prospective audiences in new ways, many performers are expanding their arsenal of creative skills. Teaching artists are proving to be a valuable asset not only to fostering a new generation of audiences but to integrating artistic disciplines into the overall education of a young person.

The new paradigm stands in stark contrast to early outreach attempts that followed the straightforward principle of arts appreciation through exposure: busing kids in for an opera matinee or having artists make brief visits to the classroom to give a quick overview of the show. "The research shows that these drive-by programs were having no lasting impact," Eric Booth points out. Booth — himself a teaching artist who has pursued multiple endeavors as an actor, entrepreneur, author and public speaker — is considered a leading expert in the field of arts education. He founded The Teaching Artist Journal and designed the Art and Education program at The Juilliard School, where he is on the faculty as artistic advisor.

"So the new model has been to 'go deeper' in engaging students, and here we have been seeing a resonant artistic impact." Booth explains that going deeper has taken several forms, from the interactive Music!Words!Opera! approach, in which children create and produce their own opera, to longer-term residencies in schools for teaching artists. Increasingly, learning in an artistic discipline is aligned with other topics in the curriculum, so they become mutually reinforcing (a history session on the French Revolution, for example, leads to an opera workshop focused on the same period).

"The consistency across all these approaches," according to Booth, "is the role of teaching artists. They are the key service deliverers. And as a field, they are woefully underprepared to be effective. It's only in the last handful of years that conservatories and arts institutions have started to get serious about the professionalization of the teaching artist. Slowly, the field is coming to recognize it's a responsibility to prepare these artists to be effective — and it takes a good deal of training." Moreover, Booth points out that "at least 90% of graduates from Juilliard are going to be teaching at some point. And the small subset who actually feel artistically enriched by their teaching are assaulting the norms and causing the music world to take notice."

Yet teaching artists have to contend not just with belated institutional recognition of their importance but with a stigma that views their pedagogical efforts as "glorified temp work." The clichéd but persistent notion that their time should be focused "purely" on their own artistic discipline only reinforces such a stigma. Even so, clearly there is a strong artistic personality that finds a path toward working as a teaching artist as instinctively as salmon swimming upriver. "When I graduated from the Fletcher Opera Institute in North Carolina, I found out on my own that I was naturally winding together these two aspects which I had been pursuing for a long time, as a teacher and a singer. The two ended up supporting each other," recalls Alice Dawson, who has been working in numerous teaching artist programs, including those with the Metropolitan Opera Guild and New York City Opera.

The teaching artist's profile is not necessarily "charismatic" in the popular sense. Such breezy adjectives mask the hard work and deep engagement that are essential to a successful career as a teaching artist. Those who continue to lament the putative absence of an authoritative master-teaching artist figure along the lines of Leonard Bernstein should take note of what Booth refers to as "the Leonard Bernstein trap." Charisma, for Booth, is actually incidental: "It's great if you've got it, just as it's wonderful to have superhuman vocal skills. But you can also do some great artwork if you don't happen to have that magical gift." And a vague, one-size-fits-all charisma is precisely what some of the old-fashioned "drive-by" programs have staked their hopes on all too often.

Not only do teaching artists need to be able to channel their energies into strikingly varied environments, but the work requires a serious commitment of time and resources. Nevena Arizanovic, who manages the Metropolitan Opera Guild's Urban Voices and Mannes Partnership programs, points out an essential feature of teaching artist programs: namely, they cannot be developed as ready-to-go packages but need to be carefully tailored to a given school's specific curricula and student needs. "Our residencies are based on close partnerships between the teaching artists and academic teachers. We need to develop approaches that are directly connected to what they are already doing in their classroom." Dawson remarks that the Guild residencies in which she has been involved as a teaching artist require visits varying from 30 to 90 minutes a week, with each program ranging from 10 weeks to the entire year. "Before each residency starts, there is a planning session with all of the involved teachers usually lasting for about two hours. We ask teachers who have never participated in the programs before to come to the Guild for a day of professional development. Also, the teaching artist and teachers meet once a week for about 30-45 minutes to discuss how things went during the day's classes and to make plans for the following week."

"There is this idea that you teach when you don't have singing jobs," says Jennifer Rivera, who sang Nerone in New York City Opera's Agrippina last fall. When she was a student at Juilliard, Rivera was involved in a residency teaching kids in the public school system. "I never felt that way, since the most important thing is the future of our art form." She remembers the thrill of seeing youngsters turn on to the beauties of an art to which they originally had absolutely no connection. "These kids were covering their ears when I first sang, but by end of the semester I played them a video (Ravel's L'Enfant et les sortilèges) and they wanted to see it again and again, with completely rapt attention. I'm always volunteering myself to work with kids." But Rivera sees a dearth of programs that allow fully established singers sufficient leeway to work in a sustained way as teaching artists.

In many ways the opera world is behind the curve in developing the model of the teaching artist. Some of this is simply the result of basic logistics; opera singers rarely spend more than six to eight weeks with a company, and most of that time is heavily scheduled with fittings, rehearsals and performances. Theater companies, many of which work with a local ensemble of actors, have been developing this kind of expertise for some time. Likewise, the musicians of symphony orchestras work and live in a community year-round, thus being in a natural position to lead the vanguard of creative, deep engagement with arts education. The San Francisco Symphony, for example, is already celebrating the 20th anniversary this year of its bold, comprehensive Adventures in Music program. Designed for grades 1 through 5, the program is an archetype of the arts integration approach with the rest of the curriculum; it embraces the entire public school system of San Francisco and reaches almost 25,000 children. Oliver Theil, San Francisco Symphony's director of education, emphasizes the recognition of cultural diversity underlying the program: "We bring in ensembles that play a range from classical quartets to calypso, Chinese music and Afro-Latin rhythms. But we also


About the Author: Thomas May writes and lectures about music and theater. He is the author of Decoding Wagner and The John Adams Reader.

Summer 2014 Magazine Issue
  • Summer Apprenticeships
  • Opera Tours for Board Members
  • My First Opera by Speight Jenkins
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