Learning Career Skills Through Arts Education

Every year, as children prepare to return for the new school year, it seems inevitable that we hear about another round of budget cuts to arts education programs across the nation, leaving many institutions with greatly diminished programs at best and non-existent programs at worst. This year is no different with extra cuts due to the COVID-19 pandemic leaving schools with even less. New York City has slashed its budget by 30%, with many other districts following suit. While there is no shortage of evidence telling us that these classes are imperative to the development and well being of our students—from increased scores in math, reading, and writing, to improved mental health—they are too often considered superfluous. In doing so, we are providing our students with a disservice. How do I know? Well, arts education has been the jumping-off point for many of my leadership skills.

Upon learning about scales, harmonies, and music theory, my high school course offerings extended into undergraduate and graduate degrees. Despite my love of music, I eventually decided that academia and gigging were not for me and decided to take up coding. Oftentimes, I get asked how someone could go from something like writing music to writing code; they seem so different from one another. But the fact of the matter is that they come from the same place and require a very similar skillset, one that I would not have acquired if not for my background in the arts.  

Thinking with Both Sides of the Brain

Left- vs right-brained associations have led us to look at things as logical versus creative, artistic versus scientific. The simple fact is that whether writing code or writing music the two go hand-in-hand. There is a problem that must be solved within a particular set of limitations. That limitation could be a set duration or a specific ensemble or it could be a fad Javascript framework or legacy code. Either way, it requires logic to get from point A to point B and creativity to do it within those limitations. By solving problems in a creative and logical way, when it came time to switch from music to code, my thinking didn’t have to change, just the language I was writing.

Bouncing Back After a Setback

Learning a skill is hard work, whether it’s playing the violin or coding in Python; deadlines are stressful, whether it’s a symphonic suite or a mobile app; rejection can be devastating, whether it’s getting passed over for the leading part or the promotion.

Navigating a path in arts programs teaches resilience and perseverance in navigating a complex career path and promotes patience and determination in learning new skills. Having to deal with these issues taught me the right mindset to push through these challenges and to come out better as a result.

A Team Player

Like most musicians, I was a member of several varying ensembles for a majority of my life: large choirs comprising hundreds of singers, chamber ensembles of fifteen to twenty instrumentalists, small groups comprising two to three members. We had to collaborate and work together to achieve a common goal.  Each individual contribution is integral to the ensemble’s success. If one person missed their cue or didn’t know their part, it affected the ensemble as a whole. It taught accountability, it taught how to compromise, it taught how to take direction, and it taught responsibility. 

These skills are vital to working in a team. At Lform, everyone has a role to play, whether its account management, project planning, design, or programming. We have to work together to achieve our goals and meet our deadlines.

Leading the Ensemble

As a composition student, I had the responsibility of leading the musicians assigned to play my work. This ranged from everything from standard chamber orchestras and string quartets to triangle duos and tuba ensembles (I erred toward the avant-garde).

When writing for each instrument, much care had to be taken to ensure that a particular instrument was not only capable of performing a part but that the musician behind it was proficient enough to perform the part they’re tasked with. Much time was spent with each musician learning their strengths and weaknesses and delegating melodies accordingly.

Once a piece was composed and ready to be rehearsed, it was my job to convey the ideas and goals of the work to the ensemble, to coach individual musicians in their parts, and to find solutions to problems preventing the composition from coming together.

While today I’m coaching junior team members, delegating work to those with the capabilities and bandwidth to achieve those tasks in time, and focusing the team on a client’s vision for a project, I’m keeping the ensemble together, and working in concert.

I was lucky to have a public high school with a strong arts program and a supporting family that enabled me to study music at a higher level. Not every student has or will have that opportunity. This is unconscionable, not because every student should pursue a career in the performing arts, but because the skills acquired as a result of arts education at all levels are so important to both current and future successes. As we continue to slash arts programs the number of students who will have access to these programs will diminish and along with it a safe environment to learn some key life-skills.

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