The Role of Art. Music, and Theatre in Life

Hello from the study,

Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak with a former student, someone who cared for Lydia after I first left Wisconsin and someone I admire for so many reasons. She was shy and unsure of herself when I first met her in that freshman writing class, but she is now an incredible art teacher, has completed one Master’s is half-way through a second, an amazing wife and mother. She, like her father, is one of the most incredible artists I have ever known. She can draw like no one I have ever met. It was her birthday and she is now in her thirties. She told me she was old, and I unfortunately asked what that made me, and she noted significantly older (my words for her answer). I noted that I still have some of her art work when she was a student. If you want to see some of her incredible drawings that are a sort of diary or journal of who she is, check out _tugaboo_ (include the pre- and aft- underscores) in Instagram. She started these in college. She is insightful, creative, and thoughtful. She has always been a critical thinker and a keen observer. She misses nothing.

One of the things I remember most from her stories is here recounting her struggles when she was small to make her letters or begin to write. She noted that an art teacher took a cookie sheet and poured granular sugar in it. Then she had her trace her letters in the sugar. That feeling or sensation as well as watching the movement created a connection with her. Between the feeling, the sight, and the repetition, she learned how to write. What is important in this story was the insight and creativity of a teacher. Too often when making cuts to curriculum, one of the first things on the chopping block are the arts or music programs. Unwisely, these are thought of as extracurricular, extraneous, or simply of lesser value. This is both foolhardy and wrong. Creativity and critical thinking are closely related, and scholarship supports that (Paul & Elder, 2006; Gude, 2007); Adkin, 2010; Alter, 2011). Both art and music encourage the development of thinking through possibilities, analyzing the situation, and then making thoughtful choices. Many times when I have spoken with people who interview or work in HR, they talk about the importance of being able to think creatively or imaginatively. Synthesising multiple ‘inspirations’ (such as ideas, images, knowledge) in the development of creative work requires an imagination; it requires wondering about the possible. Both arts and music classrooms offer the space and possibility to do this. Imagination is paramount to managing our futures. Those who theorized getting to the moon in 1960 were challenged by a young President to make it there by the end of the decade, and it happened. Even many of the tools were are presently employing in our Covid-world educational classrooms had to be imagined, considered, pondered before they were developed. Much of our struggle with critical thinking now is because we are bombarded with sound bytes and tweets that offer generalities. It is not by default that digital literacy has to mean a lack of thinking or analyzing, but too often it seems that is what we get.

I was fortunate to have private music lessons when I was small and into middle school. I was fortunate to have piano lessons for a time also. In addition, I was in the Sioux City Children’s Choir, an ensemble of about 80 eight to thirteen year olds. Then I was involved in the Sioux City Community Theatre’s Children’s Theatre. All of these things gave me the confidence to see something beyond the home life that was more than a struggle for me at times. It seems somewhat counter-intuitive that while home was so difficult, I was allowed to go outside the home and be involved in things. That causes be pause as I try to imagine what was behind the seemingly Jekyll and Hyde existence my childhood perhaps was. What I believe happened was an exposure to the way others lived or thought. I remember meeting a child both in the theatre and the choir. She was a wonderfully cute and sweet girl and she lived on the Northside of town. Where I grew up, if you lived north of 18th Street and on the other side of Hamilton Blvd., you were upper middle class or rich in my eyes. She lived on about 30th and Nebraska Streets. That was quite incredible to me, but there was a difficulty. She was Roman Catholic, and I was told I could never, ever go out with a Catholic girl. As I look back that was even more ridiculous because half of my family was Catholic. Gosh!! While I was in marching and concert band throughout my high school years, and continued in community theatre, my family never really attended such things. My parents did go to my concerts and such, but I knew little or nothing about classical music or art, ballet, opera, or anything of the sort until I attended Dana College. Dana opened my eyes to a world I had only observed in books. The year before I went to Dana, while traveling on the Lutheran Youth Encounter Team, Daybreak, we went to a ballet together as team. I was so unacquainted, I whispered to my teammate, when do they start speaking? Oh my!! She looked at me rather stupefied and said, “It’s a ballet; there is no speaking.” “Oh,” I replied, still unsure of why that was. While at Dana, in college choir, in my humanities classes, and in my first trip to Europe during interim, my life was changed. I should also give a great deal of credit to someone I dated as a freshman and into my sophomore year. Her name was Sarah Hansen, and she was a music and  piano performance major. She regularly played classical music for me and would ask me to identify things long before my music history classes with Dr. Brandes. I still thank her for all she pushed me to realize and appreciate.

What I know from singing in Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem (once at the University of Iowa, in German, and once at MTU in English), as well as a time singing The Messiah, I have been blessed to learn so much more about classical music. My trips to Europe since has deepened that appreciation because it causes me to ponder and thing about the intricacies of those composers and their understanding of so much about their world. Learning and understanding our world history is often first done by considering art. Many elementary schools are named after someone or something that has significance. Early grade schools might have a mural painted above a main entry way that demonstrated something important about the history of that area. The display cases had pictures and trophies from the past. I remember pictures of Washington and Lincoln, one on each side of the clock in my room in third grade. Often a consideration of that history might motivate research into historical events, and revise understandings of historical topics through the art created in a classroom. The artist pondering or seeing the past can revision and shape it in a meaningful way for the present social environment. To do something like this requires thinking and analyzing options. It requires connecting the past to the present, but imagining the future. I remember my walk into St. Peter’s Basilica or the cathedral in Copenhagen with the incredible statuary of the apostles. I still remember clearly the statue of Bartholomew. The history of the apostles and what happened to them following the death of Jesus is not something everyone knows or considers. I remember sitting in the cathedral in Lubeck, the city in Northern Germany, and listening to the music of Buxtehude. The German/Danish composer and organist had roots in Lubeck and to be in the cathedral he once occupied as a musician was like walking back in history. Music and art both have a way of transporting us beyond the boundaries of our physical reality. We remember things; we emote things once again; we make connections and weave together various strands of our lives. That takes imagination, thought, and analysis.

As we move beyond this time of lockdown, what we will experience; what we will need to do; what we need to realize and learn from this experience is beyond my paygrade. Even so, I am sure we will need to realize that we are more dependent upon each other than our nationalistic, individualistic, monolithic attitudes  might be ready to admit. Perhaps it is a good thing we have been in this three plus year experiment of hyper-national populism because it is evident to more than just the liberal wing of the Democratic party that there are some profound problems. It is stunning to see that 11 years of job growth could be wiped out in about 6 weeks. It is just as staggering to see how many people had less than 60 days cushion. It should not come as a surprise, however. The reality of many of the jobs created in the last 11 years were not, for the post part, jobs that were well paying, jobs that could support a family decently. The stories of those who are working two or three jobs to make their mortgage or keep their family supported had become more and more commonplace. However, to return to my blog theme. It is my hope that we will realize the importance of educating students in a holistic, well-rounded, and liberal arts sort of manner. I can tell you without hesitation that my history and humanities majors from Dana have served me well. My advisors, Drs. John W. Nielsen and Richard Jorgensen were, and are incredible scholars, and they pushed us to think, to analyze, and to synthesize. As I have noted more than once, synthesis is what has served me the best. How do things fit together. They connected history, politics, art, music, poetry, religion, theatre, and all of the arts in such a way it was impossible to not be amazed by all they offered. I remember both in Western Civilization class and in an American Revolution class working with the theatre department to once be Rousseau and then the father of Benjamin Franklin. Using Steve Allen’s Meeting of the Minds format instead of a final paper, we created a dialog. In the first, considering the French Revolution, Kristi Swenson (as a peasant woman), Dixie Frisk (as Marie Antoinette) and myself (as Rousseau) had a dialog about the three estates that were warring in the Revolution. We had to research, think, and create a dialog that laid out the issues. We were so pleased that Dr. Jorgensen gave us a 99% on that presentation. Many do not know that Ben Franklin and his father were on opposite side of the American Revolution. Again, Michael Henriksen and I worked with the theatre department, makeup, costumes, and all to investigate and reveal this difficult relationship between the father and one of the integral members of the founding of the country.

The picture at the beginning of the post is my younger sister, Kris. She is my biological sister, and I am fourteen months older than she. On Wednesday, it will be 12 years ago she passed away. She was an exceptional artist, a great piano player, and she loved nature. She cared deeply about the earth and she loved being creative. I dedicate this blog to her. She would agree that art, music, and theatre are the things that feed the soul, but also stimulate the brain. They help a person reflect, a person create, and a person connect parts of their life that are necessary to make sense of our existence as we move from childhood through adolescence, from young adulthood to middle age, and now for me into the time where I can look back and give thanks for my education at Dana College. It has, and will, serve me well as I continue on this journey. If you have young people in your lives or will have, encourage and support the arts in your schools, your towns, and in our states and country. Without it life misses so much. The arts are more that thinking, creating, and pondering, they are the essence of life. Become the captain of your life.

Thank you for reading as always.

Dr. Martin


Published by thewritingprofessor55

I am a professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and the director of and Professional and Technical Writing minor, a 24 credit certificate for non-degree seeking people, and now a concentration in Professional Writing and Digital Rhetoric. We work closely to move students into a 4+1 Masters Program with Instructional Technology. I love my work and I am content with what life has handed me. I merely try to make a difference for others by what I share, write, or ponder through my words.

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