Arts Better the Lives of Everyone

Posted by Dr. Rhoda Bernard, Jun 06, 2018 0 comments

I was recently on an extended vacation in Cuba, and I was struck by the ways that the arts permeate every aspect of daily life there. It seems every person you meet is involved in artistic creation on some level—whether they make handicrafts, sing popular songs, dance salsa at clubs, or showcase their paintings at an art gallery. When people in Cuba talk about the arts, they do not presume that some people are “artists” and others are not. To the contrary: in Cuba, the arts belong to everyone. Concerts customarily include passing the microphone to the audience. Club shows regularly feature people being pulled up to dance alongside the professional dancers. Galleries often contain a space where patrons are making art, too. The arts are not something rarified that belongs to only those who could afford them. Artistic expression is not reserved for the “talented.” The arts are not mysterious and available only to those who “truly understand” them. In Cuba, the arts truly belong to everyone.

I envy this openness to artistic experiences and artistic expression. I want to live in a world where anyone can be an artist. I want to live in a world where everyone can have meaningful experiences and education in the arts.

My artistic expression takes place through music. I am a singer who specializes in Jewish music in Yiddish and Hebrew. I perform professionally whenever I can, often at synagogues, Jewish Community Centers, and folk festivals. I attend concerts and music festivals often, and there is usually music playing wherever I am—in the car, in my house, and in my office. You’ll often find me making connections to song lyrics when I speak, and I’ll burst into song for a moment.

When I was a young girl, I wore out the grooves in my records and roughened up the smooth tape in my cassettes from listening over and over and over again to so many favorite albums. I sang for my classmates at school. I saved up my babysitting earnings and took piano and voice lessons for years. I was very active in the music and drama programs in my public schools. Chorus was the highlight of my day, and after school ensembles and theater rehearsals kept me busy and brought me great joy and powerful learning.

Unfortunately, while I had a terrific public school music education, the same cannot be said about my education in the visual arts.

I lacked a natural ability in visual arts. It was not something that came easily. It was not something I could do well at all. In ninth grade, my art teacher told me that I should sit in the back of the classroom and do my math homework, rather than participate in the activities in art class along with my peers. It was a stunning blow. In that fateful moment, my visual art education came to an end. So, too, did any hope of my developing self-confidence in the visual arena. For years, I avoided any visually artistic task as an art maker, and instead focused on appreciating visual art. I knew that I wasn’t any good at creating in the visual arena. I stopped trying. I gave up.

My story is all too familiar. As a musician and music educator, I regularly hear from people I meet that they were instructed not to sing in chorus, but “just to mouth the words.” Or that their instrumental teacher told them that they “would never amount to anything” as a musician.

These stories infuriate me. Who do these arts educators think that they are? How dare they become gatekeepers for art making, and arbiters of ability? Do they not know what they are doing by denying someone of the opportunity to experience the arts in a meaningful way?

I have devoted my professional life to increasing access to the arts and arts education. In my previous position at Boston Conservatory, I directed graduate programs in Music Education and trained public school music teachers to provide meaningful music education to every student. In my current role as the Managing Director for the Berklee Institute for Arts Education and Special Needs, I provide arts education programs for individuals with special needs, ages 3 and up, in music and adaptive dance, with a theater program under development. I have created the only graduate programs in music education and autism in the world, where my team teaches music educators on a mission how to reach every student in their classes, studios, and ensemble rooms. And I provide professional development to arts educators around the world in teaching the arts to students with special needs—aiming to address a significant gap in the pre-service education and in-service support for arts teachers.

At the Berklee Institute for Arts Education and Special Needs, we believe that the arts better the lives of everyone. This is something that they’ve already figured out in Cuba, but we still need to learn it here. We still need to learn to welcome all—including people with disabilities—into spaces where performances and exhibits take place. We still need to learn to broaden our understanding of who can be an artist, and what an artist looks like. We still need to learn how to open up our classrooms to all students and break down barriers to arts learning so that arts education, artistic expression, and artistic engagement can be a powerful, meaningful, and significant part of everyone’s life.

You’ll be happy to hear that, about eight years ago, I decided to rewrite my personal story with the visual arts. I took a couple of painting classes. A friend bought me a watercolor set, and sometimes I play around and experiment with it. I took a pottery workshop and got to feel what it’s like to throw a pot. I still have a lot to learn in the visual arts, to be sure, and I still have to battle with feeling like those activities just aren’t for me. But I haven’t given up anymore.

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