Teaching Artists – Then and Now
I am a Teaching Artist and next to mother, it’s the title I am most proud to hold. It’s a label that has shaped and encompassed my beliefs and values in arts education during my professional journey of 30+ years. During that time I have been called director, assistant dean, teacher, consultant, temporary worker, author, writer, musician, manager, lecturer, instructor, coordinator and Teaching Artist. All of these teaching and administrative labels influenced my work as a Teaching Artist in some way. In all of my full-time positions I have had the good fortune of incorporating Teaching Artist work as part of my responsibilities. In between full-time work, my Teaching Artist gigs kept me learning and developing my craft.
Flashback to the early 1980’s. I was a Teaching Artist without the title of Teaching Artist. As a teacher at the Toledo Museum of Art, I led tours and interactive musical classes for children and adults with the galleries as my teaching space. As a young arts educator, little did I know that this rich environment of visual art would have such an enormous impact on how I would approach music and arts learning for the rest of my career.
When I teach a lesson from a book, it is almost always a picture book. When I teach how to produce sounds on musical instruments, it is with a variety of discarded and found objects that challenge students to construct and play their creation. Nobody taught me to do this; it was the visual inspiration of amazing story paintings by great artists like Jacques-Louis David and Peter Paul Rubens as well as the assemblage boxes of 20th-century American artist Joseph Cornell that were my first classroom.
Concurrently, during the first half of the ‘80s, nearby Bowling Green State University initiated an aesthetic arts education institute called Arts Unlimited, affiliated with the Lincoln Center Institute. The Toledo Museum of Art was a partner and I officially began my career as a Teaching Artist for Arts Unlimited. It was the best of times and worst of times: During the Reagan administration, funding for arts education in schools dropped sharply. Arts organizations and private donors helped picked up the slack and a flurry of programs were developed to provide arts programming to schools.
There was a demand for Teaching Artists and I was privileged to be trained by professionals from Lincoln Center, where the focus was on an aesthetic experience that offered students and teachers an understanding of the building blocks of the arts as well as an understanding of the decision-making processes used by artists. By “getting behind” a work of art, students and teachers gained a new way of looking at and developing control of their environment. Arts Unlimited was a vibrant institution in Northwest Ohio schools for about 20 years. The Bush educational program “No Child Left Behind,” with its emphasis on standards and testing, spelled the end of many of these wonderful arts opportunities for students and teachers nationwide.
And that is one of the main differences I see when I think about then and now. Today, the Teaching Artist field has professionalized and offers many opportunities to train and develop skills, but robust programs that can guarantee long-term residencies are sometimes hard to find. In the ‘80s our work with Arts Unlimited was spread out over a year, beginning in the summer, with paid planning time and multiple visits to the classroom. Students were guaranteed a live experience with the art form studied, be it a performance or visit to an art museum.
Today, one might call arts education Arts Limited. Many Teaching Artists today have one hour with a group. A Teaching Artist today may not have the support of a classroom teacher or the luxury of a student ever seeing a live performance or an original work of art up close.
Teaching Artists today, however, have a valuable tool not available in the 80’s – the computer and the Internet. When I think back about preparing lessons back then, I remember that often I would have to find the recording of a piece of music, make a cassette tape of the recording and then carry huge cassette players with us to the classroom – just to play a piece of music! Today, a phone or iPad does all this in minutes. Easy access to the Internet simplifies the Teaching Artist’s use of professional online resources in the classroom.
Technology is a wonderful tool, and many of us who are the “seniors” in the field, may lack the techno-savvy that younger Teaching Artist’s possess. We have much to learn from our younger colleagues. But here’s what we do know: the personal connection is essential to the arts. Facilitating audiences in the active, creative process of the arts has the strongest impact when it includes the human touch. This is why one-on-one teaching in music hasn’t changed much in 500 years. The expert passes on aurally in lessons what he knows in a physical experience. This continues for years until the student becomes the expert and the next generation repeats the process. And how do I know this? From art!
Do I teach differently now than 35 years ago? Of course. My years of experience, even my drum circle from last week, inform my next teaching experience. I strive to be relevant in my approach to all my audiences. Many of the approaches and experiences with which I lead groups I developed back in my early years and I repeat them in a relevant way for the 21st century. What we teach in the arts doesn’t change, though how we teach surely does.
My advice on being a successful Teaching Artist in 2016 and beyond? Find your inner teaching karma. We are blessed with teaching opportunities that don’t cater to a set of dry standards with one-dimensional results. Accept as many opportunities as you can to work with different audiences and in different environments. Keep notes on every program. Repeat and refine. I am so grateful for the thousands of individuals I have worked with who taught me so much about sharing my love for music and offering the chance to be transformed through the power of music, dance, art and theatre.
Gerard ter Borch (Dutch, 1617-1681), The Music Lesson, 1660s, oil on canvas, 34 x 27 5/8 in. (86.3 x 70.1 cm), Toledo Museum of Art, Purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey, 1952.9
Amy Dennison is the Program Manager for the Preparatory Department for the College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) at the University of Cincinnati. She has been a Teaching Artist for over 35 years for students of all ages and in a wide variety of settings including public and private schools, community music schools, art museums and colleges. Ms. Dennison is professional oboist and active performer playing oboe, flute, recorder, dulcimer and several other instruments. She shares her music in medical settings as part of the Healing Arts Project and is a beginning cellist in the CCM New Horizons String Orchestra. Amy is a certified Health Rhythms Drumming Facilitator, leading drum circles to promote relaxation and stress reduction. She has two passions: creating accessible pathways into music for all people and to stimulate curiosity and creativity through creative musicmaking and recycled instrument making. Amy received her Bachelor’s of Music Education from Eastern Michigan University, a Master of Music from Michigan State University and a Master of Music Education from CCM. She is the co-author of “One Voice – Music and Stories in the Classroom.” In her spare time Amy enjoys baking, biking, swimming, planning parties, hanging with her husband and cats, playing Candy Crush, and her newest endeavor, a musician in a cover band.