Performing artists are increasingly finding education to be an important facet of their careers. The Imani Winds, which includes bassoonist Monica Ellis ’95 and oboist Toyin Spellman ’94, built its reputation doing educational and outreach work, and the majority of its concerts still include an outreach component. The Providence String Quartet, which includes two Oberlin graduates, Sara Stalnaker ’98 and Jesse Holstein ’96, forms the core of Community MusicWorks, a community music school in Providence, Rhode Island. The quartet’s teaching responsibilities equal its performance commitments. Michael Morgan ’79, music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony Orchestra, has also adopted music education into his mission by spearheading MUSE, a comprehensive music program for 3,000 students in grades 3-12 at 18 Oakland public schools. The program involves not only Morgan, but also many members of his orchestra.

Community music schools also represent a growing sector in the music education field. The National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts (NGSA) has 330 member schools, half of which opened in the last decade, and estimates that there are at least 600 such schools nationwide. One recent entrant is the Oberlin Conservatory’s Community Music School, which offers private and group instrumental lessons and musicianship classes for students ranging from preschoolers to adults; 113 students are enrolled this fall. The program awards need-based scholarships ranging from 15 percent to 90 percent of the program’s cost. “Our hope is to reach the students who would benefit from private lessons but who do not have the means to pay,” says Andrea McAlister, director of the Music School and an assistant professor of piano at the Conservatory.


Nordhoff High School's Gold 'n Blue Chorale, directed by Bill Wagner '85, performs at the Catholic Church of St. Joseph in Speyer, Germany.
Photo courtesy of Bill Wagner

The school also offers private lesson scholarships to three students selected by the music teachers in grades 5-12 of the Oberlin Public Schools. “The Oberlin schools have strong music programs with wonderful teachers at the helm. We are here to help them in any way they see fit and give them the support they need,” McAlister says.

Still, artists, arts organizations, and community music schools cannot fulfill the real goal of a full, sequential music education for every child. “As a professional ensemble, any orchestra can bring lots of music to children,” says Susan Merrit, who directs the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s education program under Music Director Robert Spano ’83 and President and Managing Director Allison Vulgamore ’80. “But no arts organization can replace sequential music instruction. Arts organizations are put in a terrible position when schools rely entirely on us. We don’t have the resources to teach every child. Going flat out, we can only reach a small percentage. The schools need to hold up their end of the bargain, and there is woeful inequity when it comes to school music programs.”

Alexis Rainbow ’82 decided to take matters into her own hands. In 2004, she opened the Arts Academy of Lorain, Ohio, a charter school with 194 students in grades K-5. This current school year opened with 300 students enrolled in grades K-8, drawn from all over Lorain and adjacent counties. The school is also a hands-on learning laboratory for the six Oberlin grads on its staff, who, Rainbow says, are especially open to the unusual challenges of arts integration, the organizing principle of the Arts Academy. “Music was a tool for me to become a leader,” says Rainbow, a voice major at Oberlin. “Growing up African American in southern Indiana, the opportunity to study music was a driving force in my life. I want to give everyone that opportunity.”

At the Arts Academy, every child gets Suzuki violin instruction from kindergarten through third grade. Fourth graders begin on recorder and move on to an orchestral instrument. Every child also studies ballet, visual art, creative writing, and a language such as Spanish or sign language. Furthermore, the arts are infused into the academic curriculum. At the Arts Academy, multiplication tables are sung, danced, notated, played on instruments, and conveyed in sign language or in Spanish. “You can draw them,” says Rainbow. “You can teach the fives using stars with five points. You can teach the threes with the Little Sally Walker song. You don’t have to sit at a desk and repeat the tables over and over and over—you can step into a higher level of thinking. And you will retain it all better because it has been experiential.”

Arts integration works, Rainbow says, because the arts offer young people so many and such varied avenues to learning. A disciple of Harvard University education professor Howard Gardner’s theory of “multiple intelligences,” Rainbow believes that education should take into account the various ways in which people process concepts, whether verbally, spatially, kinesthetically, interpersonally, or musically. Arts integration is thus “a way to reach children right where they learn,” Rainbow says. “School here is never business as usual. Kids are not sitting still all day. The rooms are homey, and you will see joy in the faces of our students. There is always a place for a child to shine here, because we acknowledge that no two of them develop in the same way.” That approach has other benefits as well. “Our kids do so incredibly well socially and emotionally. Immersed in the arts, our students can freely discuss and express their feelings. Our culture is more accepting here, because we are looking at life and learning and human relationships in so many different ways.”

Next Page >>