In 2004, I was a first-year music teacher in a magnet middle school in East Hartford. Any public school educator will tell you that the first year of teaching is pretty much one long stress dream. Classroom management, copy machine jams, IEPs, formal observations, parent-teacher conferences—all those things you never learned in school pile on to the already daunting task of getting a bunch of twitchy twelve-year-olds to focus (while keeping the percussionists from dropping things down the marimba resonators). My left eye twitched for the first four months of that school year. On top of the stress of the job, I also had to deal with the culture shock of going from a conservatory training program, surrounded by fellow musicians in life-long pursuit of artistic excellence, to a public school where the arts were valued largely as a means for providing “academic” teachers their contractual 45-minute prep period. That is not to say that there was no support in my school for music. Many of my colleagues attended band concerts and recitals. They supported our theater program by helping make sets and props. The secretary made ten tiny sequined flapper dresses from scratch for our production of “Bugsy Malone, Jr.” While some of my colleagues questioned the need for pull-out lessons, others went so far as to set timers in their classrooms to remind students when it was time to go. With few exceptions, everyone working at the school generally agreed that arts classes were good for the kids and probably made the school a nicer place to be.
But the arts didn’t really matter. Not really. When we talked about schoolwide and district-wide goals, the arts were not just at the bottom of the list. They didn’t even make the list. In fact, they didn’t even merit consideration for the list. When I got to the school, the musical skills of students in both instrumental and general music classes were far below what would have been grade level standards (if the district had had grade level standards for music). Very few of the band students could even keep a steady beat. They didn’t listen to each other, and they didn’t read music. I remember calling my college professor in a panic in early November when I realized that all the music I had picked out for our winter concert was too difficult. But I was the only person in the building that cared about any of that. The focus was on getting the kids to be able to read and do math, the two things that were generally accepted—and would be tested by the district and the state—to determine whether our school was doing its job. As my first semester went on, though I was working feverishly to improve the musical skills of my students (or at least produce a concert that was not embarrassing), all this focus on the “important” skills of math and reading made me wonder if what I was doing really mattered. If these kids couldn’t read, who cared if they could play the saxophone? Why should a kid miss math class to practice paradiddles?
You’ll have to forgive my lack of faith. First year teaching is hard, and I really wasn’t prepared for the degree to which my chosen discipline would be constantly questioned, disparaged, or just ignored in the world outside music school. Today, having fourteen years of teaching under my belt, I could give you a hundred reasons why the arts are important. I would explain to you that schools have a duty to educate children as complete humans, and that the self-expression and connection that are fostered through classes in the arts are an absolutely essential part of humanity. I would argue that if as a teacher I could teach only one thing, it would not be reading, writing, or music, but empathy. And I could show you a PowerPoint about why music is an exceptionally good medium for developing empathy and self-expression. But back in 2004, without the benefit of experience, I was worn down and starting to believe what all the signs around me were saying: maybe the arts just weren’t that important.
Then at some point around Christmas time of that year, I had a conversation with my friend Jim. As we were catching each other up on our lives since college, I told Jim about how now that I was in the “real world” I was starting to realize how many things were more important than music. Jim, who was working as an actor at the time (and is now a teacher himself) told me something I will never forget. He said I was thinking about it all wrong. He reminded me that if one kid came to school that day because she knew she had band, then it was essential for that one kid. And if it was essential for one kid, then it was essential. I don’t know how he was already so wise, but this was exactly what I needed to hear, and ever since that conversation I have never doubted the value of my work as a music teacher.
[SIDEBAR: Not to get too hippy-dippy on you, but I read in an Alan Watts book about this concept from Hinduism (I think?) that expands on Jim’s point. It goes something like this: Each of us defines “the universe” as all the things outside ourselves. To me, the universe is everything that’s not me. To you, the universe is everything that’s not you. And so, by definition, each of us defines his/her own universe. And who’s to say that my universe is any bigger or smaller or more or less important than your universe? By definition, the universe is everything. If something has power or meaning in my universe, then it has power and meaning in THE universe. In other words, if music means the world to one kid, then it means the world, period.]
I remember several years ago seeing a picture on facebook of a sign posted on the bulletin board of some music school. (If anyone can find me this picture, I’d be so grateful!) The sign said something like this: “You may think, ‘I’m only in music school, not medical school. The work I do is not that important.’ But some day, you will be playing a concert, and someone will enter the hall bearing the weight of the world. Maybe they are dealing with a devastating loss, struggling with a rejection, or carrying an overwhelming burden. And your music will be the thing that they need in order to carry on. So you must work with the knowledge that in that moment, you may literally save someone’s life.”
That last bit might seem a little melodramatic, so here’s one more story, which is a little more down-to-earth: A little over a year ago, my friend Steve decided that he needed a new creative outlet, and he asked if I would collaborate with him on a musical for kids and grown-ups. I said yes immediately, simply for the joy of making something and also because Steve is one of the funniest people and best writers I know, so I was excited for what this project could be. He sent me a synopsis, and we went back and forth a couple times on some ideas. I pointed out one spot where I could already imagine a song, something for the mother character to sing to her daughter. We made plans to meet for some brainstorming/writing sessions, but we could never get our schedules to line up so we just sort of dropped it.
Then one evening about nine months later, my idea for that mother song randomly popped into my head again, this time with some lyrics and a tune, and suddenly I was in the zone, creative juices flowing and sense of time suspended as I stayed up into the wee hours of the night. Some songs I have written came to me slowly and laboriously, as if I was chiseling stone with a spoon, but this one came quickly and easily, about 4 hours from start to finish. The lyrics were about the simple things a parent wants for her child: to be happy, to be brave, to be good. I was so excited about it that I immediately made a recording to share with Steve, even though at this point it was well past midnight. I looked back at our old emails about his show idea and replied to the last one, attaching the recording with a message that said something like “Don’t listen to this at work unless you like to cry at work.” I hit send and waited. Now, Steve is generally pretty quick at responding to me, but we usually communicate via text instead of email. When I didn’t hear back, I figured maybe he didn’t check that email account every day, or maybe he was on vacation. I decided to check Facebook, and I discovered that it was actually Steve’s birthday. Pleased that I had this convenient excuse to follow up without having to ask “hey did you get my email?” I wrote him a Happy Birthday message and told him there was a gift waiting in his Gmail account.
The song I wrote was just over 4½ minutes. Five minutes after I posted on facebook, Steve texted me: “Holy crap Melanie. Literally sobbing.” I teased him about how he shouldn’t have listened at work, and he told me that he wasn’t at work. I probably called him a slacker or something and joked about his taking off work on his birthday. But then he told me that the reason he was home was because of his son, who had been struggling with mental health issues over the past few years. He had been going through a really tough time lately, worse than I had realized. So for Steve, getting this song from me out of the blue, a song about a parent’s hopes for a child, took on a much deeper meaning than I could have even imagined. We were both sort of awed by the timing of this. There is no reason why I should have written that particular song on that particular day, so that it ended up in Steve’s inbox on his birthday, and at such a tough time for him and his family. In fact, had I known what he had been going through, I don’t think I could have written a song for him, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have tried. To quote another song of mine: The universe sucks and is awesome.
I don’t teach public school anymore, and sometimes I feel guilty that instead of being in the trenches with my teacher colleagues I get to sleep in, make my own schedule, and spend most days making art with other creative folks. When I was working in public schools, providing kids with what might be the richest musical experiences they would ever have, I knew I was doing important work, and these days as I coach aspiring actors and music direct professional performers I sometimes wonder if the work I’m doing now is as important. But just like Jim’s words reminded me of the value of my work as a music teacher, knowing what my song meant to Steve reminds me of the importance of putting art out into the world. On that day, in that moment, my song was exactly what he needed to hear. To have someone tell you that is an incredible feeling, and I will always remember it anytime something makes me question the value of what I do. And it should serve as a reminder to all the artists out there: we may not create a masterpiece every day, but what we do is important, because one day it will mean the world to someone.