What Can Be Learned About Children from Producing A Musical?

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It is good to beck with you again. Our production of Grease School Version was highly successful and great fun. Now I am happy to once again have time to post here.

Last week the culmination of months of practice took place as my students gave performances of the musical Grease School Version. The students ranged in age from 8 to 12 years. I am now enjoying those few days after a successful run of shows when I can reflect on and appreciate what was accomplished. This time has also given me time to think about why some aspects of preparing the show were more difficult than others. The two most difficult things for the students to do were memorizing lines and remembering what their part in the next scene was going to be. I want to talk about these two difficulties, because I think there is good reason why they exist, and they bring important issues about American children in general.

Memorization is a skill, and skills need to be learned and practiced. Memorization is also undervalued and underused in education today. Many have concluded that because virtually any piece of information is instantly available through technology, memorization is unnecessary. One only needs to know how to retrieve information. Yet the arts make unique demands on the human memory. To draw a picture or sculpt an object, one needs to have a picture of what is being drawn or sculpted in one’s imagination before the image can be transferred to an observable work of art. Similarly, music must be cognitively organized and understood before it can be performed, and written-down music is most expressively performed entirely from memory. So it is not surprising that students would struggle to memorize lines, given that they spend relatively little time practicing the skill, and that it is not valued by those entrusted to educate them. On the other hand, it must be noticed that the arts make a critical contribution to a part of a child’s education that is otherwise lacking where arts education is missing.

The second area of difficulty was knowing what to do in the next scene. The students had a hard time Feed Your Brain Musicseeing the forest for the trees, seeing the sum of the parts and the parts at once. This too is not surprising. Much of the media we all consume is made of images and sounds that last only seconds, and frequently jump form one thing to another. Everything from music videos to television news to movies are put together in short segments that rarely require us to expand or attention spans beyond a few seconds, or unify segments over long periods of time.

Once again, we are dealing with a skill. This time it is the high level operations of analysis and synthesis. Analysis is the identifying and understanding of the individual parts, and synthesis is the understanding of how the individual parts relate to each other and combine into the whole work. In music, we teach motifs, themes, theme groups, sections, movements, and whole works. We see how the smallest parts are used to build larger parts, how they relate to each other and complement each other to result in a balance of variety and unity, tension and relaxation. In a play, each scene has the same function. Lines within a scene are used to build relationships between actions and characters, and to create drama which unfolds to tell an overall story over many scenes, which connect and relate to each other. This level of commitment to form and structure is rarely required outside the arts. Even in Language Arts, test taking skills and microform have dominated deeper level thinking and reasoning skills in an effort to improve scores on shallow standardized state tests. Analysis and Synthesis are also aspects of human knowing and learning that are prominent in arts education, which is more evidence of the need for arts education everywhere children are being schooled. As is often the case, though rarely acknowledged, curriculum writers, policy makers, and educators in other disciplines can learn much from arts educators, who have already been doing what the rest are now discovering is needed.

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