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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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The Week: It’s Stan Foote Day

Plus: It's a print in the Gorge, a paint-out at the coast, dance for a prince, a Woody Guthrie opera. The week that was, the week to come.

Stan Foote: today’s the day. Photo: Rebekah Johnson

WE DON’T KNOW IF SOMEONE’S GOING TO GIVE HIM THE KEY TO THE CITY, but today is Stan Foote Day in Portland, and if there’s anyone we’d trust with the key, Stan’s the man. After a stellar 28-year career with Oregon Children’s Theatre, Foote is retiring as artistic director and headed south to the sun and sea of Mexico. Mayor Ted Wheeler has announced that Thursday is officially Foote’s day in Portland (it’s also his birthday: talk about a two-fer), and at 2 p.m. in Council Chambers at City Hall, the proclamation will be read. For a man who’s devoted his career to creating first-rate theater for young people, this amounts to an exceptional, once-in-a-lifetime review: a kind of standing ovation from an entire city.

What makes Stan Foote so special? In May, on the day that he was in Atlanta to accept one of the highest honors in the world of American children’s theater, ArtsWatch dug deeply into the question, and one of the things we noted was his respect – for the theater itself, and for the intelligence and openness of his company’s young audiences. “Under Foote’s tenure Oregon Children’s Theatre has developed a reputation not only for producing new works and clever adaptations aimed at young audiences of different ages, but also for maintaining high professional standards and not playing down to its audiences, but respecting their ability to meet the storytelling on its own terms,” we wrote in our profile Stan Foote, at the top. “Theater is theater, Foote says. He objects to the belief ‘that directing a children’s play is different from directing for adults. It’s directing. It has all the same techniques; all the same elements of telling a story to an audience.’”

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PHAME and friends rock out

PHAME Academy and Portland Opera collaborate on original rock opera

Photos by Friderike Heuer

Two summers ago, Portland Opera Manager of Education and Outreach Alexis Hamilton attended an original musical performed by artists from Portland’s PHAME Academy, which serves adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She hoped the 35-year-old organization might help her make the Portland Opera To Go program more accessible to people with disabilities. But she was so impressed by PHAME’s 2017 production that she imagined a bigger project.

“After I saw that,” Hamilton recalled, “I was really on fire” to collaborate with PHAME.

PHAME dancers in rehearsal.
PHAME “movers” in rehearsal.

That production coincided with the arrival of PHAME’s new executive director, Jenny Stadler, who was looking for ways “to overcome the invisibility” that separated many people with disabilities from the rest of society. One method: give PHAME students opportunities to tell their own stories to the larger public. After Hamilton approached her about collaborating, Stadler woke up with a “middle-of-the-night epiphany: we help them become inclusive, and they teach our students how to create an opera.” 

This weekend and next, 18 months of groundbreaking work by PHAME and Portland Opera staff — and above all the students themselves — culminate in what Stadler calls ‘the biggest project we’ve ever done.” PHAME’s original new rock opera, The Poet’s Shadow, runs for seven performances this weekend and next at Portland Opera’s Hampton Opera Center. 

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