By Dana C. Lamb
Last week, I had the opportunity to accompany my daughter to a Music Theater International music theater workshop on Broadway. We were thrilled that she was accepted after her audition and it truly was a week of a lifetime. The organizers and educators involved with the week-long camp were absolutely outstanding. As her mom, and as a music teacher, I was beyond thrilled with the quality of her experience. Fortunately, I had another student who was accepted as well for the week my daughter was there, and I have another student who was accepted for this week’s performance. I would be lying to you if I was not a little bit proud of the fact that three students auditioned and they accepted all three.
While we were there, I treated my children to two extremely different Broadway shows: Phantom of the Opera and Aladdin. Phantom has been on my bucket list for well over twenty years and I finally saw the breathtaking spectacle that is this quintessential global classic. We sat fourth row so I could literally see the stitches on the most gorgeous costumes and the eyeliner on Christine. I have always been an Andrew Lloyd Webber fan and now that I have actually seen the performance, and not just imagining it in my mind as I listened to the soundtrack, I am in even more respect for his body of work and consider him one of the master composers of this contemporary age.
The next night we sat second row at Aladdin. Honestly, this was more of a quid pro quo choice when selecting musicals because my children were expected to appreciate Phantom, and I, in turn, would appreciate giving Disney even more money than I already have. What I wasn’t prepared for was the phenomenal spectacle that completely renewed my love for this story, the music, and the characters. It is obvious to me why the Genie won the Tony last year because his performance was one of the best I have ever seen on the Great White Way. I haven’t laughed that hard or been wowed by a showstopper like that in a very, very long time. And their sequin budget must have been thousands of dollars.
After camp, and being in the audience at two extremely different breathtaking musicals that took us through the spectrum of human emotion, my daughter announces that she is going to pursue New York-based colleges and wants to do what she can now to prepare to audition for Broadway after high school. This is the part when a mother inhales sharply to avoid going verbal with the first forty-three thoughts that ploughed through my head. Does she realize how competitive it will be? Does she realize how much dance education she needs to focus on in the next four years? Does she realize that she needs to start getting into every possible show that she can (which, where we are is tough)? Does she realize that she will live in a coat closet and eat sodium noodles from Styrofoam cups?? Does she realize that a $5 Starbucks latte will now be an unheard-of luxury? Does she realize that that the odds are clearly not in her favor when stacked against thousands of wannabes that all share the same dream? And yet my heart hopes for her and begins to research dance education when the house is quiet in the wee hours of the morning.
All of this experience has gotten me to start thinking about the hierarchy of dreams. Why is it that when a child says that they are going into medicine, we applaud, smile, and well up with pride? Why is it that when another child says that they really want to be in full commission insurance sales, we may silently hope that another alternative presents itself? And why is it that when a highly creative and musical child says that they want to go to Broadway, that our good judgment immediately considers every possible odd against them? As parents, we claim to want nothing more for our children than health, safety, and happiness. So why when they begin to dabble in their possibilities, we suddenly evaluate where their dreams fall along the cultural hierarchy?
I think it’s because of the construction of this hierarchy of dreams. My generation was told to do well in school and go to college. If we didn’t go to college, we became the inadequate, or the “losers,” and then had to prove that we still ended up OK after all with our blue collar, private sector, or entrepreneurial alternatives. Thanks to the miracle of Facebook, I am still in contact with many of my high school classmates. One makes award winning gourmet cheese on her farm in Maine, one enjoyed raising her four children and is a pillar in her community and then helps run her husband’s highly successful pool business, and one is also a music teacher who is a respected trainer of Welsh Corgis. But you know who did the best by the standards that were spoonfed to us? The plumber. He lives in a 5,000 sf house on the water that is paid for. What I find the most remarkable about all of these stories? Each of us are all happy with the paths that we chose, we know love, and we have enjoyed the lives we have created for ourselves. When all is said and done, it honestly isn’t all about the degrees on the walls or the numbers we report to the IRS every April, as we were told it would and should be.
This brings me back to the purpose of writing for Muzart World Foundation. It’s no secret that I will vehemently defend arts education as it should always exist in public schools. But for the purposes of this blog, I think it’s important to consider another reason why music should remain in schools beyond the overblown emphasis on standardized testing, the imbalanced educational diet, and the radical shift in priorities in public education.
Eventually, all kids have dreams. We put sugar on our smiles and honey in our voices and ask the youngest ones, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” We encourage them in these dreams by enrolling them in sports, dance, music, and whatever else we can find to help hone their talents. We are so proud of these activities, we immediately post pictures to social media and slap all kinds of paraphernalia on our minivans as evidence of our unwavering commitment to our children’s dreams. Yet somehow, by the end of elementary school, or early middle school, we encourage (pigeonhole?) them into a monogamous relationship with science, technology, engineering, and math, which you may recognize as the words behind today’s trendy educational acronym known as S.T.E.M. Muzart recognizes that something is missing, which is why they are all about Full S.T.E.A.M. Ahead. I believe that science, technology, engineering, and math are vitally important, but I will argue that the arts are equally vital and it’s about time that we recognize it for the multi-billion dollar industry that it is in this country. No question, it is a viable and worthy sector of the American job market, even if you are not the one on the stage singing the solo. So why do we place it so low on the taxonomy of the hierarchy of dreams?
Now it’s time for the open-ended questions I often write at the end of the blog that are meant to inspire personal thought, and hopefully discussion or even action in your own communities and schools. What if schools were menus of opportunities, places to try on dreams, repositories for the research and experimentation with dreams as defined by the student’s interest, and not by the system? What if we, as a nation, stopped our Monday-morning quarterback S.T.E.M.-based response to the digital revolution that occurred twenty years ago that caught our public education system totally off guard? What if we took the vertical hierarchy of dreams as it currently exists and flipped it horizontally, like a continuum, with the logical disciplines of S.T.E.M. as equal, as vital, and as viable to contribute economically to our nation’s health as the creative disciplines? Personally, I do think S.T.E.M. is extremely important, but often too much of an all-eggs-in-one-basket approach to the education of the next generation. If educational excellence is inextricably linked to economic solvency, and if we know that music, theater, film, dance, digital media, television, and other sector of the arts are viable career alternatives, then why are we pouring concrete over the garden where these creative dreams germinate? Better yet, what if my kid, or your kid, could actually make it to the stage of their dreams, allowing their life to be an exercise in self-expression and unbridled creativity? And finally, what is the point of something as magnanimous, uplifting, exclusively and artistically superior as Broadway that is one of the cornerstones of New York tourism and economic vitality if we tell the youngest ones that the only opportunity they will probably ever have to be on Broadway will be as a ticketholder?
The final questions I can come up with is why we allow the continuation of arts and music education to be considered second in quality or opportunity compared to other career choices when our country holds the corner real estate on the very best of the performing arts? And where do you think the next generation of leaders in the arts are every single day for thirteen years through early childhood and adolescence? They’re sitting in our classrooms.