Pay It Forward

Arts access in our schools and community outreach programs

September 1, 2012

Recently, I was talking to some of my younger cousins who are in high school about their class load, college ideas and so forth. The subject of music came up since they know I am a singer, and I asked them how much music education or art classes they had received over the past 11 or 12 years. They said they were lucky to have music or arts classes at all. Their answer floored me – I had no idea it had gotten so bad. They told me that they received one half hour of music a week for a short period of time, and that the mandatory chorus class did not meet as much as it had when they were younger. I was astonished, and really appalled at the lack of music education in their lives, and I decided to do some research on the subject.

The U.S. Department of Education recommends the arts to college-bound middle and junior high school students asserting, “Many colleges view participation in the arts and music as valuable experience that broadens students’ understanding and appreciation of the world around them.” In addition, it plays a part in developing “children’s intellectual development.” The U.S. DOE also suggests one year of Visual and Performing Arts for college-bound high school students. (Source: Getting Ready for College Early: A Handbook for Parents of Students in the Middle and Junior High School Years, U.S. Department of Education, 1997)

The arts are one of the six subject areas in which the College Board recognizes as essential in order to thrive in college. (Source: Academic Preparation for College: What Students Need to Know and Be Able to Do, 1983 [still in use], The College Board, New York)

The arts produce jobs, generating an estimate $37 billion with a return of $3.4 billion in federal income taxes. (Source: American Arts Alliance Fact Sheet, October 1996)

Students taking courses in music performance and music appreciation scored higher in the SAT than students with no arts participation. Music performance students scored 53 points higher on the verbal and 39 points higher on the math. Music appreciation students scored 61 points higher on the verbal and 42 points higher on the math. (Source: 1999 College-Bound Seniors National Report: Profile of SAT Program Test Takers, The College Entrance Examination Board, Princeton, New Jersey)

According to the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, music students received more academic honors and awards than non-music students. A higher percentage of music participants received As, As/Bs, and Bs than non-music participants. (Source: NELS:88 First Follow-up, 1990, National Center for Education Statistics, Washington D.C.)

Lewis Thomas, physician and biologist, found that music majors comprise the highest percentage of accepted medical students at 66%. (Source: As reported in “The Case for Music in the Schools,” Phi Delta Kappa, February 1994.)

Research made between music and intelligence concluded that music training is far greater than computer instruction in improving children’s abstract reasoning skills. (Source: Shaw, Rauscher, Levine, Wright, Dennis and Newcomb, “Music training causes long-term enhancement of preschool children’s spatial-temporal reasoning,” Neurological Research, vol. 19, February 1997)

The University of Montreal researched brain-imaging techniques to study brain activity during musical tasks. Researches concluded that sight-reading musical scores and playing music “activate regions in all four of the cortex’s lobes” and “parts of the cerebellum are also activated during those tasks.” (Source: J. Sergent, E. Zuck, S. Tenial, and B. MacDonnall (1992). Distributed neural network underlying musical sight-reading and keyboard performance. Science, 257, 106-109.)

Researchers in Leipzig discovered through the use of brain scans that musicians had larger plenum temporal, the region of the brain associated with reading skills. Also, musicians had a thicker corpus callosum, the nerve fibers that connect the two halves of the brain. (Source: G. Schlaug, L. Jancke, Y. Huang, and H. Steinmetz (1994). “In vivo morphometry of interhemispheric asymmetry and connectivity in musicians.” In I. Deliege (Ed.), Proceedings of the 3rd international conference for music perception and cognition (pp. 417-418), Liege, Belgium.)

These are just a handful of millions of reasons why music education, no matter what the cost, is vital to our future. As a musician, I have learned dedication, built skills that help me be the best I can be every day, and I’ve learned that what I do can bring joy or many other types of emotional response to others. I’ve learned the process of working with others on and off the stage, and, through the development of characters, understood more about how people act and react to life’s challenges. I’ve also become a self-sufficient human being who makes my own schedule and runs my own business as an independent contractor that will inevitably give back to society. Music has made me a better person every area of my life, and I know that others have benefitted as a result.

As a young artist, I followed what I like to call the “American Plan” for developing a career as an opera singer. I got my Bachelors and Masters Degrees in voice, and started making my way up the Young Artist Program ladder. For me, included work at the Des Moines Metro Opera, Chautauqua Opera, Virginia Opera, and finally the Merola and Adler Fellow programs at San Francisco Opera. Three of these companies ran their own programs to bring music, and namely opera, to children in their school programs.

Des Moines Metro Opera, which is a summer program, has a separate outreach program that meets in the winter known as Opera Iowa. As a member of this group in 2005, I drove all over Iowa presenting the Three Little Pigs (the children’s story adapted and set to music of different Mozart operas) and a shortened English version of Cosi fan tutte to thousands of children. We performed 2 shows a day, 5 days a week, for 3 months. Each time we performed, we would follow it up with a question-and-answer session.

This group also provided a class before each performance. The schools had the option to choose between 5 different types of presentations, and the team of 6 Young Artists had been previously assigned to work in pairs or trios that were responsible for the different presentations. The themes varied, but they were all designed to showcase music and opera as something fun for the kids. Some schools were prepared more than others, but all enjoyed our presentations, and I think they will remember the time those weird loud singing people came and showed them what opera was.

Virginia Opera had a similar program that ran concurrently with the concert season at the time of my Apprenticeship in the 2007-08 school year. They offered a greater variety of programs each year than Des Moines, and usually one of them had some relevance to an opera in the season. I performed in a shortened version of The Pirates of Penzance, which was adapted specifically for children from the real show which was going on on the mainstage.

In the second half of the year, I was involved in two alternating shows. One was Alice in Operaland, which, as you can imagine, was a compilation of different opera duets and arias translated to English, that told the story of Alice who meets all these strange characters from various operas. We depicted the large cast of characters by changing costumes. The other show was based on the history of Virginia itself, written and composed by Glenn Winters, Virginia Opera’s Community Outreach Musical Director. Much like the Des Moines program, we performed about 2 operas a day, 5 days a week, and we did a question and answer after each show for the kids. This was the longest education program that I knew of at the time, with a 9-month schedule. It currently has had to downsize due to budget constraints within the company.

Lastly, here at the SF Opera Adler Program, we do a small amount of outreach where we visit schools and sing a few arias, after which we answer questions about the life of an opera singer. We visit about 6 schools each year, and there are 10 of us in the program. It’s less intensive outreach than the other programs I’ve participated in, but at least they make the effort to bring some opera to kids.

There are lots of outreach programs across the country, but in general there is not enough to make up for the incredible loss of music in the schools themselves. If the government can’t fund music programs in the schools, then how on earth can the opera companies, already reeling from the effects of the economy, make up for it?

Lately I have been giving this a lot of thought. When I was in the programs, outreach wasn’t something I looked forward to every day. Singing at 8:30am and then again at 10am in a sickness enriched environment isn’t what I’d call an ideal “day at the office” for any opera singer. Since then, I’ve come to realize how incredibly important my work in these outreach programs was for the kids in their local school programs. For this reason, instead of giving gifts in opening night to co-stars and staff in the operas I’m in, I’ve started donating the amount I would’ve spent to charities such as The National Association for Music Education or VH1-Save the Music Foundation, which is a much better use of the money than the usual knick-knacks. It’s time to stop living in the NOW for the NOW and start living in the NOW for the FUTURE otherwise where is the future of opera or any art form going to come from.

I am not the first one to start thinking like this. I’ve been working with Renee Fleming in the San Francisco Opera’s production of Lucrezia Borgia. She just started this great program in Chicago called the Fleming Initiative. This program gives kids with special abilities and an interest in music the opportunity to study it in-depth. Renee is hands-on with the kids themselves, giving them Skype sessions while she is on the road and other meetings in person throughout the year. This is amazing – one of the most famous, living, performing sopranos makes a little time and shows a little “initiative,” and now a bunch of kids are getting opportunities to make music and develop what very well might be the future stars of opera or any other number of musical opportunities in the world. It’s got to start somewhere. By the way – Renee really liked my idea of a donation instead of the usual gifts on opening night, so don’t be surprised if that is something she picks up on and starts doing too.

I’ve taken the initiative to supplement music education for the companies where I’m working this season, even though I don’t have the clout of someone like Renee Fleming yet. I’m asking the opera companies where I am schedule to appear to help arrange some presentations in their local school districts while I’m in town. It wouldn’t take much of my time, and I might be able to convince some of my co-stars to come along with me from time to time to help out. I’m working on figuring out the best way to schedule these visits around my other commitments, so I don’t overextend myself. In general I’m usually thinking that during the performance schedule of my visits with companies there are always a few days free in between shows so that’s where I’ll start.

I think it’s time we all showed some initiative and realized the benefits of how music helped us become who we are and how it can help others too. Take 5 minutes and think about what we can all do to help. I’d love to hear more about examples of effective music education programs, and learn about how my colleagues and I can support them. I’ve included donation links to some of the organizations that I’m currently supporting, and a couple of others that are doing some great work in communities around the country, and hope that you will join me in supporting them.