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Suzanne Tobias: Arts provide kids with life lessons

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, March 6, 2013, at 11:06 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, March 7, 2013, at 8:11 a.m.

Jack recently learned to play “Gangnam Style” on his trombone, which is pretty much as nightmarish as you might imagine.

And yet.

I love a house filled with music – Taylor Swift on my daughter’s iPod dock, concertinos on her violin, “Star Wars” theme from Jack’s stereo and, yes, even low-brass K-pop on a middle-school trombone.

I appreciate the lessons my kids learn from practicing and performing their music, and through the years, it has become increasingly clear that fine arts – music, drama, dance and visual arts – aren’t an “extra” but an integral part of their education and their lives.

If you’re a teacher or parent, you’ve no doubt heard the acronym STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and you’re aware of the frenzy of activity to increase children’s exposure and achievement in STEM fields.

Science fairs are now called STEM fairs. Schools want more students to pursue STEM careers. Districts want STEM grants for STEM classes or STEM magnet programs. They want to improve the teaching of STEM areas because STEM is crucial and STEM is global and STEM STEM STEM STEM STEM.

I get it. I do.

But some experts in the arts community and beyond have suggested that the ubiquitous acronym might be missing a letter – that STEM should be STEAM, with an A for the arts.

In a piece published on ARTSblog, Lisa Phillips, an arts educator and author of “The Artistic Edge,” listed 10 skills that children learn from studying the arts that are important in other subject areas and life in general. They include things such as focus, confidence, problem solving and perseverance.

At a recent Wichita school board meeting, board members asked a group of award-winning young artists what lessons they learned from studying fine arts.

Several mentioned creativity or time management. One student said he learned to never assume something won’t work until he gives it a try. Another girl quoted Edgar Degas: “Art isn’t what you see but what you make others see.”

On our morning drive to school this week, I decided to ask Jack and his friend Luke, a trumpet player, what they’ve learned from studying and performing music.

“Appassionato,” Jack answered in his best Italian accent.

What?

“It means ‘passionately,’ ” he said. “It’s at the top of one of my new songs.”

At first I thought Jack just meant he learned a new word. He’s building his vocabulary – and boosting his college entrance exam scores – by learning things like allegro (lively), adagio (slowly), con larghezza (broadly) or pianissimo (oh, so softly).

Then I realized he meant more. He and his sister, who has studied classical ballet along with violin, aren’t learning just what those words mean, but how they feel – how to communicate joy, heartbreak, fear or passion nonverbally, how to capture an emotion or tell a story through music or dance.

Luke’s answer was more direct: “Don’t play louder than the melody.”

Indeed. Collaboration and compromise – finding that delicate balance between melody and harmony – isn’t the realm of orchestras alone. Those are life skills.

“Through these experiences children gain confidence,” Phillips writes, “and start to learn that their contributions have value even if they don’t have the biggest role.”

Hannah thinks music helps her with math, reinforcing the neurological processes and all that jazz, but mostly she just loves ending her day with orchestra class. At home she listens to pop, country and folk and writes songs – not poems, she insists – in notebooks or on Starbucks coffee cups.

Science, technology, engineering and math are noble pursuits. But so, too, are music, art, drama and dance.

Learning both? Magnifico .

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SuzanneTobias.

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