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Virtual and vital: Strike up the band

Caught short by the pandemic, the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra takes to technology and shows that shutdown doesn't have to mean shut up

On that dark day in March when Oregon began to shut down, Metropolitan Youth Symphony’s leaders knew they had to move fast. “As soon as we knew we were going into lockdown, we tried as quickly as possible to transition to what’s next,” recalls music director Raúl Gómez. The Portland organization had to cancel not only its four upcoming spring concerts, but also its weekly Saturday rehearsals and its classes, affecting more than 500 students in 14 orchestra, band, string and jazz ensembles, including the 90-member Symphony Orchestra, and in beginning strings and theory classes. MYS leaders knew nothing could fully replace the lost programming, but they were determined not to leave a musical void in their teenage students’ lives.

“We had to find a way to keep the students engaged,” Gómez says, “to keep making music in some way.” 

Raúl Gómez conducts MYS way back in the days when they could all play together on stage.

But how? Governor Kate Brown’s emergency announcement prohibited gatherings required to put on a concert or a group rehearsal in the band rooms at its regular Northeast Portland and Hillsboro high schools. Nevertheless, MYS found a way to rethink — if not entirely replace — its major programs, including its crown jewel season closing concert. ArtsWatch readers, and everyone else, can see the result on their own screens this Saturday.

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A little ArtSpark in Eugene

As schools stay shut down, arts teachers in Lane County shift their studio classes online and take the art to kids across 16 districts

As Covid-19 shuttered schools across Oregon, limiting access to in-person learning of core curriculum and electives alike, arts organizations like Lane Arts Council pivoted on a dime, reinventing program delivery models to meet the changing needs of students in Lane County.  

ArtSpark Online has been created so that every student across Lane County can have free, flexible access through open-access video tutorials teaching a variety of art forms,” says the county arts council’s arts education program manager, Eric Braman. “We have reached out to every school district in hopes of encouraging teachers, parents, and students to stay creative with the tools around them – whether that is turning dandelions into dye or an old sock into a new puppet! Each video provides clear instructions, guiding students to engage directly with the ‘making’ of art, exploring both visual and performance art.”


THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series


Lessons vary in length, depending on the art-making process, Braman explains.

“Our goal was to create 15-20 minute videos that guide students through approximately 45 minutes of viewing/art making,” Braman says. “We wanted to avoid “lecture-style” arts instruction, and instead always have the video directing students toward the ‘making’.”

The videos provide clear direction for students to follow and regularly instructs them to pause the video and go do.

“In the observational drawing videos, this translated to the artist showing the students how to begin a sketch, then instructing them to pause the video and take some time sketching on their own. In puppetry, the lessons were much shorter, but the unlimited potential between the crafting of the puppet and the performing of the puppet are unlimited! Our hope is that each video will encourage approximately 45 minutes of active engagement with an art form,” Braman says.

Alex Ever, demonstrating on Vimeo how to make natural dyes. Photo courtesy Lane Arts Council

Lane Arts’ teaching artists are learning new ways of doing things, too. Before quarantine measures, artist Alex Ever primarily taught students about natural dyes.

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ArtsEd: Age of anxiety

Create More, Fear Less provides imaginative art projects that empower middle-schoolers to take on anxiety during school and in our new era of distance learning

By ALEX BEHR

Create More, Fear Less is an arts-based program that helps schools respond to their students’ anxiety levels, which had reached alarming levels in this country, even before the Covid-19 pandemic closed kids in. 

None of us is immune from either the anxiety or the coronavirus: Peel back the neutral façade of a reporter and who’s there? An anxious single mother trying to regulate herself and her high school son, home 24/7, while social distancing. A few years ago, I performed in Mortified comedy shows reading diary entries from my middle school years, the prime time for Create More, Fear Less art projects. To huge crowds, I said, “What’s wrong with me? Will I live my life in the shadows covered by doubt? … Why do people worry about who their gym partner is? Is that the purpose of school? Join the pep club? When children are starving in India?” I read these entries for laughs, though when I wrote them back in middle school, I was completely earnest. 

Since 2014 I have taught creative writing residencies through Literary Arts’ Writers in the Schools program, where I incorporate space on the packets I distribute for students to sketch before writing. Part of the reason for my months’-long reporting into Create More, Fear Less was to subtly incorporate de-stressing techniques into my teaching process, especially since my current residency is moving online. 

“capture the feeling” a drawing by Abby, age 10,
a student at Grout Elementary School/Image courtesy of Kathleen Lane

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ArtsEd: Two education experiments center arts practices

The ideas of the established Wayfinding Academy and brand-new Alder Commons lead to a central role for the arts

During the past few decades we’ve seen rising enthusiasm around new small, independent education experiments. It’s one of the many cultural changes in Portland during the past few decades that have tapped into the DIY movement. In many of these, the arts have figured prominently, both as something to be studied and as a way to engage students in doing things as opposed to crunching pre-manufactured information. When the arts began to disappear from public school curricula in the 1990s, it had the curious side-effect of spawning these new projects, commercial and nonprofit, to fill the void. The experiments continue, even after the passage of the Arts Tax, which brought back art teachers at least to the early grades of public schools in the city.

Two experiments in education are breaking new ground in Portland. The Wayfinding Academy, now on its fifth cohort of students, has carved out a new route for college-age young people looking to make their mark on the world. Meanwhile, a program on the horizon, Alder Commons, hopes to push the envelope further by serving all ages with special consideration for school-age children.

Wayfinding Academy keeps its core curriculum front and center./Photo Nim Wunnan

While neither identifies specifically as an art program, both cultivate an atmosphere that encourages and develops young artists in ways that traditional schooling often fails to. The early success of the Wayfinding Academy is exciting proof that viable alternatives to expensive four-year degrees are out there for young artists. Directly inspired by Wayfinding, Alder Commons will soon launch a great experiment to see what happens when community members of all ages who are looking to take control of their own education and creativity have a shared, nurturing home.

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Raúl Gómez: Living in a world of optimism

The Metropolitan Youth Symphony director talks full STEAM ahead about the vital positive links among science, education, and the arts

[Editor’s note: Gómez, music director of the Metropolitan Youth Symphony, delivered a version of this essay as a speech to Intel employees in November 2019. It has been updated, and edited for length. See also Vision 2020: Raúl Gómez, Brett Campbell’s interview with Gómez in ArtsWatch’s Vision 2020 series.]

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By RAÚL GÓMEZ

I live in a world filled with optimism. The reason is that I work with young people in the arts. Every Saturday, more than 500 students come to Metropolitan Youth Symphony rehearsals in Portland and Hillsboro. I get to conduct two out of fifteen ensembles at MYS. One of these ensembles is our most advanced full orchestra: MYS Symphony Orchestra. These are highly gifted young musicians, playing near or at professional levels, many of whom have made their ways up the ranks at MYS,  from our youngest entry-level orchestra to our top group, which recently came back from touring Italy and Austria.

These young musicians fill me with optimism every Saturday, because they walk in the door, they say “hi” to their friends from different schools, chat a little bit, then they sit down, we tune, and then, for three hours, they’re laser-focused on slaying some of the most challenging and rewarding orchestral repertoire there is. This include masterworks like Beethoven Symphony No. 7 or Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, and brand-new music by their peers: local, young composers from Oregon. 



THE ART OF LEARNING: an occasional series



My world is filled with optimism because after rehearsal, these kids go back home, hopefully rest and get some sleep, and then proceed to make it through their weeks at home, school, and their communities with the same focus, leadership, team spirit, and excellence that they exhibit in the orchestra. I go back home –exhausted and depleted of physical energy after rehearsing two ensembles for six hours – but on such a high. Five hundred-plus kids in Portland and Hillsboro just spent hours, under the leadership of an amazing team of conductors and coaches, doing what neuroscientists are calling “the brain equivalent of a full-body workout.” 

MUSIC & BRAIN DEVELOPMENT

As somebody who is a professional musician and as somebody who works in music education, I am very aware of the many benefits that music brings to anybody who engages in some kind of music-making on a regular basis. Music performance, music education, and the arts in general are good for the brain, and they are a booster for creativity and discipline. 

There are many studies, articles, scientific and scholarly publications about the correlation between music education and academic achievement. Students who participate in music score substantially higher on many standardized tests of math, reading, and writing, and in other measures of academic achievement and skill development.  

In the last few decades, neuroscientists have made great breakthroughs in understanding what music does to the human brain. A video publication by Dr. Anita Collins, a music educator in Australia, addresses this beautifully.

She explains that neuroscientists are able to monitor how our brains work with instruments like Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Positron Emission Tomography scanners. They monitor the brains of people who are doing activities like reading or solving math problems, and different areas of the brain are activated. However, when they monitor people listening to music (not even playing, just listening) multiple areas of the brain light up at once. The scientists compare it to fireworks.

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The Right Brain for learning

The revolutionary mission of an innovative program in the greater metropolitan area schools: to transform learning through the arts

Shannon McClure, an arts integration specialist for the Regional Arts and Culture Council’s innovative Right Brian Initiative, stood before a classroom of teachers this fall at North Clackamas Scouters Mountain Elementary School, helping to brainstorm as they kicked off the planning phase for this year’s artist residency. 

The residency, which brings an artist to the school to work with students over the school year, is a crucial component of Right Brain’s mission to use the arts to help spark learning in all disciplines. What exactly is arts integration, which McClure travels from school to school to nurture and promote? In the words of the initiative, which serves schools across Clackamas, Washington, and Multnomah counties, it’s “the secret sauce when supporting kids’ abilities to problem-solve, innovate and think critically. By introducing new ways to learn, kids will become more engaged students.”


THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series


Shannon started things off by mentioning a significant book in neuroscience and education – Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, by a trailblazer in the field, Zaretta Hammond – before offering the most simple and compelling explanation for why the Right Brain Initiative and arts integration in general matter so much: dendrites, the little tree-like extensions from nerve cells that spark connections. Shannon had just read some exciting research which confirmed “that the more we are able to form dendrite connections in our brain, the more we are able to retain over time. Arts integration – learning through different pathways – makes those connections in the brain.”   

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Shannon McClure in the classroom, spreading the Right Brain word. Photo courtesy Right Brain Initiative

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Dani Baldwin forges her own path

As her mentor Stan Foote heads into retirement, Oregon Children's Theatre's Baldwin stays committed to her Young Professionals

It was a surprise when Stan Foote decided to retire as artistic director from Oregon Children’s Theatre, but it wasn’t a shock. Foote, who left in September after 28 years with the company, has been one of the most prominent and respected figures on the Portland theater scene. And though his energy and creativity do not appear to have waned, he decided it was time to change. Dani Baldwin, Foote’s colleague, mentee, fellow-soldier-in-the-trenches and all-around best friend, knew the time was coming, just not so soon.

“He initially said he was going to retire when he was 70,” Baldwin remembers. “That’s three and a half years from now. So that was like, ‘Cool, that’s a great amount of time.’ Then he came to me and said, ‘Maybe two and a half years.’ And then he came to me and said, ‘Maybe one and a half years.’ And then it went down to seven months. So, we’ve had seven months to know he’s retiring, which has been kind of a whirlwind and a lot to adjust to in a short amount of time.”

Dani Baldwin, director of OCT’s Young Professionals Company.

Whenever as large a presence as Foote leaves a room, the people who were around him are bound to be aware of the void. But Baldwin gets it. “Why wait until you’re 70 to do something new and to explore possibilities?”

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