It's more than that.
Art is important because we want and need citizens who have a broad and complete sense of who they are within the context of our community and world.
This is [part of] what a teaching artist does: A teaching artist helps people learn to appreciate something they didn't previously understand.
From my music-centric perspective, I ultimately don't care if my kids in Camden remember how many symphonies Beethoven wrote, or who wrote the Hallelujah chorus. Instead, I want them to remember the power of the arch of a symphony within Beethoven's 5th, and the way the different musical textures interacted to create a meaningful conversation in Handel's Messiah. Then, I'll have succeeded.
For many, not understanding is scary. We don't understand, and we tend to shut down. This inevitably leads to polarized and uninformed viewpoints and ideals. The most extreme versions of this creates the end of culture, and the end of a society that has any hope of progressing. Bridges can't exist and we stand on isolated and insulated islands.
Example: I believe in social programs. I don't understand when they're not supported. I think that fiscally conservative people are jerks and I don't want anything to do with them.
And then there are those who don't understand, but don't quite submit to the fear. We take a gulp and figure out how to look across the gap. We, at the very least, try to learn the 'other.' This means we can begin to see the full picture, and we can begin to figure out where the middle territory might exist.
Example: I understand that fiscally conservative people still value humanity (of course they do!) and that they have other ideas as to how to create the most successful society. I will read as much as I can in order to fully understand.
But, that isn't enough. It's not enough because it doesn't allow for problem solving, or the creative process. It assumes that the shortest path between two points is a straight line. Anyone who knows any geography or geometry knows that's not necessarily the case.
So, appreciation. There's the most important step. Learning to appreciate something you didn't previously understand means that you've reached inside yourself. You've examined who you are and what you believe, and you've allowed yourself to be open... not only to the ideals of others, but to new ideals that have yet to even exist. And when that happens, you become open to discovering new solutions, artistic creations, and pathways yourself. You become an evolving culture.
'You learn to look at things as if they could be otherwise... to see beyond necessities and imagine the possibilities" - Maxine Greene
Back to music (an anecdote that I think aptly describes what a music teaching artist can do): One week shortly before the winter holidays with a 3rd grade class in Camden, I led a lesson plan on Handel's Hallelujah Chorus and the different musical textures. We started out by feeling our shirts. What's the material like? It is one piece of fabric? (monophony) Is it knitted? (homophony) Are we wearing more than one layer? (polyphony) We talked about the words for texture in music (monophony, homophony, polyphony) by breaking apart the word and defining it by root and prefix (phony=sound, mono=one, homo=same, poly=many). We wrote all the definitions in our journals and then thought... What could this mean within music?
Brace yourself: To discover musical textures, we learned the Ha-lle-lu-jah refrain on recorders and first created a monophonic version, where we were all playing the same part. Then, the classroom teacher added a supporting chord on the step bells underneath our melody, and we had homophony. Finally, I took out my flute and played a different part of the chorus while the classroom teacher lead the kids in the Hallelujah refrain... and we had thus created our own polyphonic version of the Handel's Hallelujah chorus.
I am so glad no one ever heard those little performances because they sounded exactly the way you'd assume: horrible (but somehow, also hilarious).
We ended the class by listening to Handel. We separated into three groups and slowly worked our way through his chorus. The students wearing a simple shirt raised their hands together when they heard monophonic music. The students wearing more knitted material raised their hands when they heard homophony. And of course, the students wearing layers raised their hands when they heard polyphony. To further reflect, we talked about how we knew what we were hearing, and if we could switch groups and still identify the musical texture.
I was happy with the lesson. We had cross-curriculum success with the talk of root words and prefixes. We got (a little) better at the recorder. We learned an important (and seasonally appropriate) piece of music and created our own music. We practiced and we performed. We understood and could identify musical texture within both Handel's and our own version of that music. We worked in groups to identify those different textures when listening. I felt as though it was a strong and successful 45 minutes. This, I thought, is being a good teaching artist.
And then, we were packing up and an argument began between two students about who was going to pick up the recorders and journals. The classroom teacher and I both moved toward the students to fix the problem. As I'm beginning to talk to the students, another little girl tugged at my shirt and said "Miss Susanna, Miss Susanna." I turned briefly to her, but then continued to pay attention to the arguing students.
"Miss Susanna, Miss Susanna!" The little girl was persistently tugging on my shirt. "Yes, Destiny? What is it?" I finally answered her; the classroom teacher was dealing with the argument.
"Miss Susanna. They're doing polyphony," she said as she pointed to the students arguing and talking over each other and the teacher.
And see, THIS. This is what a teaching artist can do. While information was gained, Destiny was not simply memorizing facts. She instead was engaged enough to internalize the information herself without being asked. She understood that polyphony, and texture in general, was not something that merely existed within Handel, and it wasn't even something that was solely in music. Texture (musical and otherwise) is all around us, and she got that. She appreciated something she didn't previously understand, and now she could begin to experiment with new textures, new ways of thinking about music, and so much more.
And that is the meaningful type of assessment; all the graphs and charts in the world can't possibly describe the life changing experiences these students gain. I'll probably get into trouble for saying this, but... while I know playing an instrument is valuable (I obviously love teaching flute and playing flute and everything else flute), delving into music like this at such a young age (oh, at any age) is something completely different; from a humanistic point of view, I'd venture to say it's more important.
If Destiny can have that experience with music, she can have it in every other aspect of her life. Once you can learn to appreciate something you didn't previously understand, once you understand the value in being able to do so... then you can not only learn in a complete way, but you can also discover and invent.
"Whenever I catch myself playing something that sounds mechanical but dead, it’s because either I’m not paying attention or it’s something difficult that I haven’t solved. Sort of like a physicality issue that, you know, sudden tension, so I freeze up and become more internalized, so I can’t love it. Loving something implies going outside yourself and fear means retreating into yourself. I’m scared. Well, go back into yourself. That’s a metaphor for societal fears when a whole people are scared of something that they can’t control and sort of hits them, what do they do? It becomes more tight, they will make much, much more conservative decisions. The counteracting of that is culture." - Yo-Yo Ma
First and foremost, I am a musician. I enjoy performing, and I play at a high level. I imagine that (barring something unforeseen), performances will always be part of my life, and will be something I love. (Creating musical meaning with a group of people, connecting with others through your most powerful outlet... what could be better?)
I have also come to both understand and appreciate that I am most complete through teaching artistry in its many different shapes and forms. (And yes, I fought and struggled with this at first.) This does not mean I teach because I can't do. It means that within music, and within teaching, I'm searching for more outlets (those that work for me and those that can work for others), and I'm trying my very hardest to make sure the next generations keep their minds open.
We need those minds; we need new solutions, and we need art.