Lin-Manuel Miranda has often spoken about origins: His own, his family’s, his musicals’, Alexander Hamilton’s, etc. He has written about them in lyrics, including the one above from “Alexander Hamilton” and his well-noted “we were that kid” rap in the 2013 Tony Awards opening number: “Bigger.” It’s a common theme of his interviews, whether he is the interviewee or the interviewer. Clearly Mr. Miranda seems to think our origins are important.
And I agree.
Particularly when it comes to the arts and educating young people. I firmly believe that our experiences and exposures as children have an incredible and lasting impact on how we interact with art for the remainder of our lives. And this includes formal and informal educations, extracurricular activities, time experiencing art with family and friends, exposure to all forms of entertainment, financial abilities, general access, community practices, and much much more. Every experience in life involves art in some way, and every exposure is another puzzle piece in a child’s education.
So how do we best serve young people? What kind of education do they need or should they have? What if some want to pursue the arts and others just want to enjoy them? What about those who have fewer resources available or greatly reduced ability to access art? Where does it all begin?
Once Upon A Time…
Most artists that I know or that I have heard interviewed (and I listen to many a podcast!) have a certain experience in their lives they can point to as the moment where they realized they could be or wanted to be an artist. An “Aha!” moment, if you will. And for many this is true.
However, I find that when I am asked this question, I cannot put my finger on one moment. For me it was more a collection of experiences.
I grew up in Central NY in a time and area where arts education was not only not a focus, it was relatively lacking. And I only know now how lacking it was because of living in other places and seeing what kind of access children had, and have, in other areas of the state and country. Yet here I am.
How did that happen?
I had a decent music program in school and was given the ability to study music outside of school through a Yamaha early childhood program, but that was the majority of my music education. We did not have a robust theatre program, though one did exist and I did take part. Our area placed little emphasis on visual art, though I was privileged to grow up with a professional artist and art teacher as a grandfather. Boys in my area were not encouraged to do much more than play an instrument, and I was often made fun of for singing well and enjoying anything else artistic. And boys certainly did not dance (unless you count avoiding a tackle on the football field, that is).
So if I didn’t grow up with the opportunities that many grew up with, how did I end up an artist? How do people with far fewer opportunities than I had end up as artists? Where did these educations come from?
From what I have gathered as an artist and an educator, it comes down to 2 main things:
It’s All Relative
It is no secret that family plays an incredibly important role in the development of children, and where the arts are concerned it is no different. The opinions and attitudes of our families toward the arts are very powerful and influential - not just in a general sense, but also in terms of what we are ultimately exposed to and how our tastes develop.
If you have parents who love movies and take you to them often, chances are that you will have a particular affinity toward movies. If you have siblings who tease you or anyone else who does theatre, you may stray away from stage performance. These are, of course, very general statements and patterns, but they should sound relatively familiar (familial?).
But now I’d like to broaden the definition of family past blood relation to also include anyone a child trusts, feels comfortable with, respects, spends large amounts of time with, and feels love for.
How does this broader definition begin to redefine our education and exposure? Does this increase a child’s chance of experiencing more? I believe so.
The people we spend the most time around have the greatest influence on us. And those people may come in and out of our lives as we grow and develop, but they are a huge piece of our educations as people. And if those people have opinions about art, they will influence our opinions about art.
As children we may not have much control over the types of people we spend the most time with - generally the adults in charge of a child’s care have that control - but as we grow older we can begin to make those decisions for ourselves. And by seeking out people, opinions, and experiences that are different than our own, we can increase our exposures and give ourselves a better education.
People say that you can choose your family, and in the arts this tend to be true. We often call our artistic families our “people” or our “tribe.” We all enjoy spending time with people who share our beliefs and our passions, and these people remain a tremendous influence on us long after they are gone from our lives.
As an arts educator, I continually marvel at how young people talk about their most formative experiences. And the reason I marvel? Most of them began as casual, everyday experiences which suddenly sparked something new within them. A movie. A play. A song in chorus. A Youtube video. A random TV show they scrolled onto. A painting. A building. A particularly excellent day. It could really be anything at any time.
And this is what makes this category tough, especially from a parental point of view.
You never know what is going to be a life-changing experience for a child, and you cannot possibly give every child every experience. Variety is the key.
The more that we are able to give to children, especially experiences that will be brand new to them, the more they learn and grow. How can they possibly know the depths of what they will and will not enjoy if they haven’t seen or heard or felt them yet?
And of course this is where our education and economic systems in this country fail our children. Where you grew up and where you live have an astounding impact on what you are able to experience. If we could fix this (no small feat), a variety of exposure would be available to everyone and our entire society could be more educated and well-rounded. As it stands now, we can only do what we are able for the young people in our lives.
Wait, But What About You?
I began by saying that I did not have one ultimate experience that brought me to this path, but many. So how have Family and Experience shaped me into who I am? In too many ways to write down, but here is a little taste:
My grandfather was a Visual Artist and an Art Teacher
Multiple family members Sang and Played Piano, and often
My family was heavily involved in the artistic-based sport of competitive Baton Twirling - my sisters were champions and my mother taught and judged competitions (and still does!)
We all loved to watch Musical Movies - they are some of our most played VHS tapes
My father often sang Musical Theatre references - something I wouldn’t understand until I was much older - which came down to him from family members singing often in his childhood
Musical ability was genetically passed down from both sides of the family
My mother was always with me at my Yamaha classes and for my at home practices
I found my first Theatre Family in middle school and it was life-changing
And there is so much more! My biggest takeaways here are that, yes, I was surrounded by artistic influences in my family, but I was also incredibly well-supported. I am quite lucky.
In first grade, seeing the High School put on a production of one of my favorite musical movies: Annie
My third grade field trip to the 1 nearby professional theater, the Cider Mill Playhouse, to see Little Shop of Horrors
Watching every musical Disney movie in theaters (from Beauty and the Beast onward)
Playing piano in general, but particularly Christmas carols with my mother and then later realizing I could play musical theatre songs on piano as well
My fourth grade chorus teacher encouraging me to audition for the American Boy Choir (I got in but did not attend) and to write my own piece of music (my very first!)
Getting my first solo in a choir concert in fourth grade
My first time onstage as the Wizard in The Wizard Of Oz
My first lead role as Ebenezer Scrooge in the 7th grade musical
My first ever Broadway show at 6 years old: Beauty and the Beast
And SO many more
“We Were That Kid”
It’s true. Everyone who is professionally in the arts was once a kid who lived for as many artistic experiences as we could possibly get our hands on. We found something that sparked life and joy and energy and desire into us, and we asked for more. And luckily, we got it.
Every child should be so lucky.
As an arts educator I try to do 3 things:
Encourage young people to find what excites them.
Encourage parents to encourage their children and their children’s passions.
Provide as much variety in their education as I am able.
Even if only a handful of my students go on to do this professionally, they have all received experiences that told them “yes I like this” or “no, I’d like to pursue something else,” and that’s worth every moment they spend learning with us.
Let’s find more ways to provide all young people with as much experience as we possibly can. After all, they are our future.