A Test of Character — The Immeasurable Impact of the Arts

By Truly Render

I read a headline in The Onion recently that hit close to home: “Struggling High School Cuts Football — Nah, Just Kidding, Art It Is.” As a 2004 college grad, I’ve spent the bulk of my professional life to date weathering the financial storm in the nonprofit arts world. And while the headlines focus almost exclusively on dried-up dollar amounts from government, corporate, and individual giving sources, there is a larger issue at play causing serious repercussions to our cultural landscape — cuts to arts education. 

When Bush introduced No Child Left Behind in 2002, standardized test preparation became paramount, sucking resources dry for everything else. So the eighth grader in 2002 is now the 26-year-old who looks at an orchestra concert, art exhibition, play, or a dance performance and scoffs, “This isn’t relevant to my life, this has nothing to do with me.” And they’re right. At best, cultural outings for many millennials are a reason to dress up and do “something fancy.” Our country has failed to raise these individuals with a shared language to think and talk about their own culture. Worse still, this approach to education reinforces discomfort with the grey areas of open interpretation, emotion, and unfamiliarity instead of building a student’s capacity for these 21st-century skills.

Perhaps the weirdest side effect of No Child Left Behind has been arts advocates turning to neuroscience to justify their existence. We can’t cut the music program — not because music is a timeless and essential thread in the fabric of human existence — but because learning to play an instrument improves executive functioning, focus, and the ability to multi-task. We can’t cut the art program — not because “visual” is our species’ first language — but because art benefits literacy skills. Creative endeavors are now categorized, justified, and defined as a means to a more important end: testing.

I’ll risk being a “bad” advocate here: the arts never helped me take a test. I was heavily involved in the arts as a high school student — choir, solo & ensemble, theater, media arts, and creative writing club. And while these activities were the reasons that I came to school most days, I consistently tanked at standardized tests. A verbal processor, I craved informed conversation around subjects of inquiry. True or false reasoning in a silent room stifled my synapses and created a sort of blinding anxiety. It still does.

While the arts failed me in the realm of standardized testing, my high school arts education provided me with incredible learning moments; specifically, drama club and choir built my character in ways that have had a direct impact on my career trajectory and successes.

A snapshot of my drama nerd creds: president of Drama Club my senior year; cast in every play and musical throughout my high school career; wrote and directed one-act productions; produced/directed a 9-hour production/fundraiser called Theater-A-Thon. There may even have been some miming involved. I was in deep.  

As much as I loved theater, most of the time I wasn’t the star of the show. During our production of Camelot, I auditioned for the role of Morgan le Faye but wound up as a dancing tree in her enchanted forest. As much of a disappointment as a non-speaking role was to my 16-year-old self, I took our theater teacher Mr. Tice’s words to heart: a production is only as good as the smallest part. I decided I was going to be the best-goddamned tree anyone had ever seen. I quickly learned to take solace from my embarrassing foliage-littered leotard in the company of my fellow trees.  After college, when it was time to “pay my dues” in career-land, I was stuck with any number of boring, semi-demoralizing duties: schlepping boxes, collecting and collating endless departmental receipts, and sifting through vast landscapes of Excel spreadsheets. But after silently cursing these dull duties, I’d hear Mr. Tice’s voice in my head — a production is only as good as the smallest part — and I’d kick my work into high gear, taking solace in the camaraderie of my colleagues. My rigorous, thorough approach to the smallest of tasks, combined with my collegiality, earned me my very first promotions in the workplace. In teaching me to embrace the smallest roles, Mr. Tice showed me how to grow beyond them.

From grades 6 to 12, I participated in Vocal Solo & Ensemble Festival, the annual convening of teenage masochists. While most humans navigate around life’s gaping canyons of public humiliation, my love of music convinced me I could sprout wings and fly over them. Most of the time I was wrong, but it took me six years to figure that out.

The first time I participated in Festival as a soloist, I was a gangly, flat-chested eighth grader. I had to rummage around in my mouth to pull spitty cross-lateral bands off my braces to get full jaw extension. But my choir teacher, Mrs. Linder, looked beyond the orthodontics, the wire-rim glasses, the acne, and the scrawn and saw a young alto with an expressive voice, a love for vocal dynamics, and a warm tonality. She suggested “American Lullaby,” a 1932 piece by Gladys Rich. The song is about a nanny caring for a baby whose parents are preoccupied in the adult world. While I hated babysitting and was skeptical of anyone who crapped their pants on a routine basis, there was a haunting loneliness underscoring the proffered comfort of that song that struck a chord with me. The feeling of the song was universal. I sang it all the time, I experimented with it, I made it my own. I got a blue ribbon at Festival.

The following year in high school, my choir teacher, Ms. Warren, saw my skinny pip of a self and assigned me “Cherry Ripe,” a terrible screech of a song from 1879 by John Everett Millais, someone who clearly believed that young women and warbling birds were one and the same. As a freshman, I was a stranger to Ms. Warren; she didn’t know me well enough to hear my strengths, to know my weaknesses. I gave the song all I had, but I only succeeded in hitting the notes when I was making fun of the song, which was often. Solo & Ensemble was awful that year. At the very start of the song, my voice cracked and it was over. My nerves drove my pitch sharper and sharper and drove the tempo faster and faster. I was a horrible mess of nervous vibrato and shame. I got the lowest possible score. After the performance, I went to the girl’s bathroom with my best gay choir friend, Keith, to cry red-hot tears on his shoulder. After a few minutes of sobbing, I farted. We laughed so hard we thought we’d die. And then Keith said, “F*&% that song.” And all at once I realized how personal singing is. There is no such thing as being a bad singer or having a bad voice; it’s a matter of finding your song.

When I think back to my time as a teenage singer, I’m also struck by how committed my teachers were. After a long day of school, my choir teachers stayed late to give private lessons to Solo & Ensemble participants — forsaking their families, their free time, and their own creative endeavors. This level of intense dedication sailed directly over my self-absorbed teenage head, but it became something I would marvel over in adulthood. These teachers were incredible and showed me the level of one-on-one, personal, mentored support that young people need to grow. I’m not a teacher, but I work with a lot of undergraduate interns. For interns who go the extra mile, I make it my business to go there with them, offering everything I’ve got to help them build their careers, figure out their footing, discover their voice, and find their song.

My teenage arts participation taught me how to be a collaborator, how to respond to constructive criticism, how to be a leader, how to be creative in a deadline-driven environment, how to embrace experimentation, how to cope with failure, and how to market an artistic product. In many ways, my arts education taught me who I was, how I could fit into the world at large, and how important risk, and sometimes even failure, is to that process. Great arts educators might not do a damned thing for our test scores, but they do something better. Great arts educators provide opportunities for curious students to immerse themselves in the traditions that make us human, giving us a shared language to understand, appreciate, and participate in our own cultural landscape. Through these opportunities, students gain an understanding of the challenges the world holds for them and how they can help. Arts educators help students grow into leaders, advocates, and engaged community members who want to make a difference. And that’s more than any test can say.

Truly Render is the Director of Communications & Marketing for the Stamps School of Art & Design at the University of Michigan. She is also the founder of Truly Render Creative, a boutique marketing and copywriting service. When not at work or Girl Scouting with her daughter, Truly enjoys reading, writing, and experiencing the incredible cultural offerings of southeastern Michigan with friends and family. Connect with her at trulyrendercreative.com or trender@umich.edu.

Posted on December 31, 2015 .