Make Art Anyway
Okay, but Seriously, Can Music and Art Change the World?
Photos by Alice Wheeler
"Music appears in myth as an affirmation that society is possible."
—Jacques Attali, French economist
"This is NOT Mr. Holland's Opus, or Stand and Deliver, know what I mean? Let's stop romanticizing the truth shall we?"
—Carla Moreno, schoolteacher and MusicianCorps fellow
T here's a stretch of pavement one block east of Lake City Way at 110th Street that's been painted so it looks like the clearest aquamarine river. It's wide as a street and populated with birds and fishes, and everyone knows that the fake river running down the middle of the Low Income Housing Institute apartment complex is intended to make them feel better.
Last summer, the longer-term residents came out of their apartments and painted it together. These apartments house situations ranging from eking-by to unspeakable: Children are left to take care of each other for days at a time, adults scream at each other out the windows, things happen at gunpoint. Now these apartments sit on the "banks" of this cheerful river, the sparkling blue of which recently inspired four girls and a boy who have bullied and fought with and yelled racist remarks at each other all school year—just as their parents have: African Muslim versus African American, mainly—to write a song together called "Oasis of Love." They picked the themes; they wrote the lyrics. The themes include "family," "friends," and "arguing."
In the process of talking about the year and writing this beautiful ballad, they told their music teacher bluntly, "We don't love you. We just don't love everybody." A few months before, their discouraged teacher, Carla Moreno, had written on her blog, "This is NOT Mr. Holland's Opus, or Stand and Deliver, know what I mean? Let's stop romanticizing the truth shall we?"
More from Moreno's blog:
When we do get to the music lesson, they're learning the true meaning of teamwork and it ain't what our society tends to teach us about that word, which is: that we're all perfect, in rhythm, in sync...
Teamwork is about working with and working through the person that's not quite getting it and may never get it...
See, I've made no impact teaching world music—the poo hit the fan a long time ago. They could give a rat's ass about learning African dances, playing Gamelan instruments, and what not.
No connection. Nada. Zip. Zero.
The thing is, I can't teach music to these kids, they have to experience it for themselves, but they have to experience relating to one another before the musicking becomes meaningful...
Music isn't gonna save these kids from domestic abuse, or save them from school suspension, nor save them from a night without dinner because they ran out of food stamps. It might get them through pain and turmoil, but it doesn't save them. Not yet...
And that utopist idea that music is "universal" is really confusing and somewhat inaccurate.
What's universal about it? What universal message are we transmitting? That we all share the commonality of music perhaps, but it doesn't convey the same emotion to all people.
The music pounding from their boom box, for instance, wasn't reaching everyone, it was annoying and negative! And clearly the music I exposed them to wasn't reaching them either.
You see, I have no commonality with their lives. I was raised in a functioning community, and therefore function rather successfully in our society. But as much as my heart is there, and my compassion is there, and my willingness and dedication are there, it doesn't change the fact that the kids and I have nothing in common.
This is what it really looks like when you're serious about arts education for "underserved" kids. It's the opposite of the classic, quick field trip—this is an immersion, and not just for kids, but for teachers who adjust to make it work, and adjust again, and again.
Moreno, a daughter of Honduran immigrants who's always being mistaken for a Mexican, was a 14-year veteran of public-school music teaching and a world-music performer when she signed up to teach a couple days a week at the Low Income Housing Institute's Meadowbrook View Apartments in Lake City. Quickly she upped it to four days a week (for the same pay: $23,500 plus health benefits for 11 months of work), realizing there was otherwise no hope of forming relationships with her crew of wary third to eighth graders. The kids liked songwriting, stepping, and hiphop, so she adjusted her curriculum. And she added early-afternoon classes for infants and parents—recognizing that mothers needed music class as much as their older kids.
Adjustments are good; adjustments help. But Moreno will be the first to say she hasn't figured out the perfect system. She wishes she could get the more devout Muslim kids out of their apartments and into class. She misses the talented boy she had to kick out for endless bad behavior, the two girls whose family lost its spot in the complex and had to move suddenly, the 22-year-old track-star mother of three who disappeared to a women's shelter after she was attacked in her apartment.
But the rule is: Make art anyway.
T hat's the official slogan of Arts Corps, the powerful network behind Moreno's unconventional work this year. Arts Corps started in Seattle in 2000 and is the biggest school in the city without a building. Sometimes it seems like nobody knows about Arts Corps. Like it's the most awesome secret thing in Seattle arts. Why is it awesome? A few reasons: first, because its teachers are all working artists (who need whatever opportunities they can get to make extra money). Second, its organizers believe that art has real, not just symbolic, power. Third, Arts Corps accepts the necessarily imperfect system of striving and failing and trying it another way, of never losing hope that art can alleviate the fucked-up realities of racism and poverty but never using art as a distraction to cover or prettify those realities.
Arts Corps has about 30 teachers and plenty of awards. Harvard researchers have used it as an exemplar of progressive arts education. But this year it jumped to a new level. In addition to continuing everything it's been doing, Arts Corps was one of two established organizations trusted to run the local chapter of a national pilot project called MusicianCorps. (MusicianCorps was named after AmeriCorps, President Clinton's service invention; Arts Corps was named after President Kennedy's Peace Corps.) The MusicianCorps pilot happened this school year in Seattle, the Bay Area, New Orleans, and Chicago. Across the country were 21 teaching fellows who brought music to public schools that didn't have any (or very little), community centers, parks, and low-income housing. MusicianCorps is run differently in each of the four cities; Arts Corps was chosen to run the Seattle branch because it was already doing essentially the same work and already had the local relationships. MusicianCorps is seeking federal appropriations from the private-public entity Corporation for National and Community Service (which funds AmeriCorps) so it can grow to other cities, too.
Moreno, the teacher at the Meadowbrook View Apartments, was one of the 21 fellows chosen to kick off MusicianCorps.
It hasn't been easy. "I have felt ineffective as a person this year, and that's been a shot to me after 14 years of public-school teaching," she admits. "I've been kicked in the ass in more ways than one. But when they wrote that song, it was a turning point. I would very much like to stay there. I don't care what I've done, where I've been, what I know—if I don't have relationships, it will never count, it will never matter, and the relationship is finally blossoming. Now it is starting to feel different. Now I kind of dream."
Last fall, when MusicianCorps was just getting off the ground—MusicianCorps teachers in Seattle are just artists working for Arts Corps—Tina LaPadula, a performing artist and the Arts Corps education director, said of MusicianCorps, "It's true to who we are, but it's just deeper, and how can that go wrong?"
She laughed when she said it, knowing it sounded way, way too earnest.
T here are about a million studies documenting why kids need to study the arts—on top of the intuitive sense pretty much everyone shares that life without the arts just wouldn't be life at all, and how are people supposed to do art as adults when they never did it as kids?
What hasn't had much study is how much arts education kids actually do get in schools. In Seattle, individual schools have been hacking away at their arts programs for 30 years. But nobody was keeping track of which schools had made the deepest cuts and what was left. There hadn't been a district-wide survey of how much art instruction kids actually get since the 1970s—until January 2009, when the Seattle Arts Commission and the Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs finally got involved.
The Seattle Public Schools Survey of District Arts Activity (posted in its entirety online) reveals a pattern of arts instruction in Seattle schools that's not unlike a severely balding head of hair: very thin, very patchy. Elementary students are lucky to get 10 hours of classes annually. Art and music are taught most, with theater a distant third. You can forget about dance; almost nobody's teaching it.
"What we do know is that PTAs"—basically, parent groups—"are being counted on to bring in enrichment, and that creates a huge gap" between rich kids and poor kids, says LaPadula, the Arts Corps education director.
And in Seattle, despite the bussing system put in place in the name of integration in 1978, schools are still very segregated. In Northeast and Northwest Seattle public schools, 65.7 percent of students are white, compared to 13.3 percent of students in South Seattle and 6.6 percent of students in Southeast Seattle. Of course, the "link" between race and class is more like a vise grip. Whiter schools are richer, and richer schools are whiter, the study starkly shows. What hurts poor kids in this city hurts kids of color—and perpetuates systemic racism.
Systemic racism is the grim backdrop to the greatest success story in Seattle public arts education: the revered music program at Garfield High School. Garfield's ensembles travel the country gathering recognition, but what goes largely unrecognized is that while Garfield sits at the heart of Seattle's historically African-American neighborhood, Garfield's music ensembles are disproportionately white.
That's a shameful demonstration of today's race-class axis in Seattle, says Aaron Walker-Loud, a white guy who graduated from elementary, middle, and high schools in the Central District, and who still lives in the house where he was born on 32nd Avenue and Yesler Way. (His mother, active in Seattle's civil rights movement since the 1970s, lives next door, along with his sister.) Walker-Loud played in jazz band at Garfield, and now is a gigging percussionist and a full-time MusicianCorps fellow like Moreno.
He is maybe the easiest person to find in the entire city: At any given time on any given day, he is somewhere in the few-block radius between Garfield, Washington, Bailey Gatzert, and Leschi schools in the Central District, shuffling between the schools he once attended.
"The music program at Garfield wasn't, like, a rainbow when I was there, but it was more diverse than it is now," he says. "This is not just about how nice it is when kids play music. Because there's so little teaching of music in schools, kids are competing based on whether their parents can or can't afford private music lessons. You can get your hair done so it looks nice, or save up for nice clothes, but when it comes to what's inside of you in terms of skills because of white privilege and all that—when it comes to whether you know your musical scales or not—that's probably one of the first experiences kids have of how the dots connect, and you can't paint a pretty picture of that. If you're not prepared for music class, you're not prepared. Sixth grade is hard enough. You're trying to stay out of fights, stay out of gangs, stay sane, stay confident, stand your ground—and now you've got to run up against the good ol' boys club even in music classes?"
Walker-Loud has two goals: He wants to see younger kids in the neighborhood better prepared to try out for the vaunted ensembles at Garfield (in-depth music education doesn't really exist in the lower grades), and he wants to broaden the overwhelmingly classical band-orchestra-choir curriculum by using more things like hiphop, rock, and drumline. "We work on music theory, on reading and writing music, and on technique, but there's also more opportunity for students who thrive in smaller learning groups or who want greater creative input. Jazz band was my thing, and I can identify with kids who need and want the chance to express themselves in the moment, or to creatively compose—not just learn a piece and play it."
Walker-Loud is amazing. MusicianCorps and Arts Corps—which last year brought classes to more than 3,000 students in 35 locations all over Seattle—are amazing. This is largely because they never work alone, and they generate new partners all the time, like a march that keeps picking up marchers as it goes.
On weekday afternoons, the gym at Washington Middle School booms with the beats of Walker-Loud's drumline—it's so loud in these clangy rooms that you vibrate—but he's not the only leader there. Three adults are helping the class tear open boxes of brand-new drums recently: Walker-Loud, Tony Sodano (a teacher at Garfield), and Amma Anang (a parent).
Anang's son Sanai plays a wicked, wicked solo and keeps an ear out for who's off while the group is playing; he's sort of like Walker-Loud's student teacher. Sanai has been learning Ghanaian drumming with his father since he was 2. This is a kid who was going to do just fine in music at Garfield with or without MusicianCorps (in an interview on the bleachers in the gym, Sanai announces, "Drumline is okay, but I would like to learn some harder songs").
But Anang grew up in this neighborhood, still lives here, and noticed the broader importance of Walker-Loud's drumline: Most of the kids in the drumline do represent the racial diversity of the area (and more than half speak English as a second language) and also have little to no prior music experience, unlike Sanai. In January, Anang applied for a grant from the city's Department of Neighborhoods. She got it. That money bought the new drums and pays for Sodano, Garfield's drumline director, to co-teach once a week. "Our band/orchestra doesn't reflect the population, doesn't reach enough kids of color," she says, watching the kids unpack the boxes. "We've got the talent, and now we've got them some quality instruments." She hopes they're going to surprise people. "Y'all gonna be off the chain," she calls to them.
A handful of tough kids—they've been sent to Southwest Interagency Academy because they didn't fit elsewhere—is crowded in a recording studio and having trouble focusing. One, unexplainably, has to leave five minutes after arriving for class. Another wants to go say hi to his uncle in the hall real quick. Two girls are guarded and restless. At an earlier class, they all wrote a song together, but they do not seem in the mood to practice it. The lyrics go, "We were down, but we came up/Above the surface you know what's up/Rise as one, together we cry/Coming out of Southwest/Like the sun in the sky." Super-catchy recorded beats pass by where the singing is supposed to be, over and over, but the high-school kids only mumble occasionally.
One kid, Jay B., has positioned himself in the driver's seat at the console, and he's been silently hunched over a notebook the whole time, until he rises up to show the teacher that he's written down four new rhymes. What happens next is out of a movie: He raps on the mic for the first time in his life.
He has his back to everyone else and holds his notebook up in front of him. At first he insists everyone get out of the room and leave him alone. His teacher says, "Okay, but we could also stay and support you," and Jay B. thinks about it and uncomfortably tries it. The takes get successively louder and better, and so do the cheers each time he finishes. It's only four bars, and there are only five kids involved, and it's only 10 minutes, but it's a pretty awesome 10 minutes. Everybody is excited to listen to the best take. "It's a'ight," Jay B. says when he sits back down.
"That's cool, but then what about when you go home?" says Amos Miller a couple of days later. Miller is the teacher of the recording studio class at Youngstown Cultural Arts Center, another part of MusicianCorps this year. "It's deep and dark out there beneath the surface. I live between two worlds, half with liberal white people who are like, 'Let's change the world!' and the other half with people who are like, 'There is no changing it, this is how it is for us, it's all systemic.'"
In some ways, Miller has the most difficult assignment of the four Seattle MusicianCorps fellows, because the kids are already in high school and already barely hanging on. (The four fellows are Moreno at Meadowbrook View Apartments; Walker-Loud at Central District public schools; Miller at Youngstown; and Eduardo Mendonça at Seattle Center and community centers. Mendonça is a force. He is a musician who has been teaching with Arts Corps since it started 10 years ago, and before that, he was the youngest and first black principal in his native Bahia, Brazil, overseeing a school of 8,000 kids in the capital of Afro-Brazil at age 29.)
In the studio, Miller is all energy. He jumps around and yells about who's in the house and who's about to get down, and he waves his arms like he's rallying a crowd. Generally he behaves like his hair looks: It's big spiral curls. "If you want them to be open, you gotta be open," he says. ("His vulnerability is the essence of his excellence," says Arts Corps board president Vivian Phillips.)
But outside the studio, on a gray Saturday afternoon, he's grayer.
"At the end of the day, these kids don't have services and we do," he says. "When I tell people that I met the president and that I thanked him for his work with youth and got to hang with Bob Dylan with all these kids, people want to celebrate me—they feel like, 'Yeah, the world's not so fucked up!' But it is."
Miller is referring to a group of Arts Corps students who organized an art exhibition at the Frye Art Museum this year. Their performances at the opening inspired the Seattle Public Schools community-arts liaison to secure a place for them at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day concert at the White House. Arts Corps hustled up the money to pay for the travel, and when everybody got snowed in at the hotel in D.C. for an extra day, the Arts Corps kids led a shut-in talent show with kids from around the country.
Arts Corps has many quantifiable, feel-good successes. Last fall, Miller's kid-run record label, Youngstown Records, brought a group of students from Foster High School in Tukwila to record a song they'd written after the Samoan tsunami—many of them have relatives there, and they used the song not only to come together here so far away from their families, but to raise relief money to send back. It was a sight to see a school bus full of Samoan kids crossing the street in Fremont to get to Stone Gossard's recording studio.
But what's great about Arts Corps isn't only what looks great from outside, quantifiable things like trips and recordings and fundraisers.
"They went to the White House, but what now? You gotta be careful," Miller says. His comments are like the scribbles on a whiteboard at the Arts Corps office recently, from a workshop on how to teach antiracism: "EXPERIENCE DISCOMFORT," the board said.
In June, all 21 MusicianCorps fellows from around the country will meet in San Francisco to start evaluating the pilot year and talk about what's next. Kiff Gallagher, the San Francisco–based musician behind MusicianCorps, has applied for AmeriCorps funding for the program for 2010 and 2011 (funding will be announced in June), and he's optimistic since support so far has been broadly bipartisan, from liberal-leaning politicians to Mike Huckabee.
Music National Service—Gallagher's nonprofit umbrella for MusicianCorps—doesn't fit categories. It was the only national service organization represented on President Obama's National Arts Policy Committee and the only arts organization on the Service- Nation Coalition.
"I think we're creating something that really could be a blossoming Artist Corps," Gallagher says in a phone interview. The idea sounds too good to be true, and yet it's happening. "Hopefully, the administration hears the call and we can get that funding. But we're going to do it one way or another."
This story has been updated since its original publication.