Introduction

Totally unique among instruments, the theremin is the only one of its kind. While all other musical
instruments can trace their origins to primitive cultures all over the world, the theremin is completely
without antecedent. Nothing before or since has ever captured the imaginations of spectators and
musicians in the way this unassuming “box” does. A union of sight and sound, this method of creating
music is just as astonishing as it was in 1919 when Leon Theremin unveiled his Termenvox: the first
fully electronic musical instrument. Now, almost one hundred years later, it bears the name Theremin,
after its brilliant inventor. It remains, to this day, the only musical instrument ever invented that’s
played without being touched.

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Video: Making the Case for Classical Music

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Video: Diggin’ on Disney, Part One

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Resolved: The Arts Are Unnecessary

Part Five – Real Life and the Necessary Arts
(See Part One, posted on July 13, 2013)
(See Part Two, posted on July 18, 2013)
(See Part Three, posted on August 11, 2013)
(See Part Four, posted on August 29, 2013)


The eight cognitive outcomes resulting from arts learning and the four personal learning indicators identified
by Horowitz bear repeating:

  • the expression of ideas and feelings
  • focused perception
  • the ability to make connections
  • the ability to layer relationships
  • improved construction and organization of meaning
  • the ability to take multiple or alternative viewpoints
  • the ability to imagine new possibilities
  • improved sensory learning

  • The personal learning indicators resulting from arts learning:

  • risk taking
  • a sense of competence
  • a sense of ownership of learning
  • task persistence

  • I’ve stated that the seeds of a paradigm shift are extant in all of the items above because they transcend the
    classroom and academic subjects; they are attributes that can have profound impact on the developmental “real
    life” of every student. If arts learning is capable of engendering character attributes this deep, then arts
    teaching – everything from basic subject matter to the teachers’ approaches, to the presentation of material
    needs to catch up. That is, having identified these attributes, it is incumbent upon teaching artists and teachers
    of the arts in general to make a conscious effort to ensure that what they teach has relevance and importance
    in the students’ lives outside the classroom. This means moving away from a purely subject-centered approach
    which, in my experience, is the norm.

    Since it is probably safe to say that the arts, in any form, will never be included in standardized testing,
    arts educators are not, theoretically speaking, bound by the same constraints (either aesthetic or administrative)
    as their standardized counterparts. However, more often than not we see classroom regimentation (“today, class,
    everyone is going to sketch a sneaker”). Students are often subjected to a lacklustre and unoriginal approach.
    My own son’s fifth grade art teacher simply “taught” by rote, using Betty Edwards’s wonderful book, Drawing on
    the Right Side of the Brain
    . I witnessed first-hand how the exercises were rendered dry and boring when
    filtered through this particular educator’s “academic” sensibilities.

    Arts education ought to be a bastion of expression, of passions, of emotional exploration through each
    individual medium with students given free reign to experiment. There is nothing whatsoever at risk by making
    it so, nothing threatening to bring controversy or shame down on the schools.

    The new paradigm of a life-centered approach to the arts will, by its very nature, demonstrate just how necessary
    they are. This means change.

    The title of this essay, Resolved: The Arts Are Unecessary, was conceived to be intentionally disturbing and,
    yes, even to provoke some healthy indignation. Arts educators are crying out for change, but innovative ideas
    are a) in short supply; or b) brought to light and subsequently quashed by an uncomprehending administration; or
    c) a rehash or compromised idea that yields a convoluted version of the status quo — which is then used to
    null-and-void the idea of change, declaring it untenable. Change is demanded, yet, our own human nature is to
    undermine it; in every arena I’ve worked in, from the corporate sector, to marketing (which included both
    graphic arts and copywriting), to not-for-profit arts. When even a small change is seen coming around the corner,
    everyone clings either to what worked in the past, or worse, they cling possessively to what didn’t work (the
    very things that prompted the urgent demand for change in the first place!) out of fear of the unknown.

    The wounded collective arts ego, weakened by years of cut-backs, continually defunded and demoralized, has
    adopted a defensive posture, with each discipline proclaiming its own specialness, each fighting over the same
    scraps. This results in a) setting the various disciplines at odds, (very effective, enabling the “powers that be” to
    divide and conquer); b)each discipline closing itself off to the point where productive communication becomes difficult;
    c) repetition of the same ineffective patterns; d) a very prevalent, condescending stance, i.e., that our administrators,
    our audiences, our public officials, the public in general “need to be educated about the arts” in order to appreciate
    their importance. For over forty years, since I was in high school, I have heard that phrase spoken countless times by
    teachers, artistic directors, and arts programmers in virtually every field.

    This has brought arts education to the point where, in many ways, it has become woefully arts-centric. The
    teaching method is, to a great extent, teaching the discipline for the discipline’s sake. Many years ago, there
    I was in algebra class; I had the presence of mind to ask “when will I ever need this in real life?” So it is with
    students today. “Yeah, I heard Mozart in music class, but what’s he got to do with me? I’m into Sage the Gemini
    and I’m going to be a rap star!”

    The truth is, the arts are necessary. In fact, they are essential to just about every conceivable field of endeavor.
    Furthermore, without them, many businesses, industries and much of the global economy, would grind to a halt.

    In my opinion, students never learn this. Arts educators, at least in my experience, while ready at the drop
    of a hat to extoll the importance of the arts, seem barely aware of how to demonstrate, even at a basic level,
    how profoundly the arts permeate every facet our lives every day.

    So, the time for disturbing essay titles is over. Let’s lay out a basic framework for a paradigm shift.

    Coming Soon:
    RESOLVED: THE ARTS ARE UNNECESSARY
    Part Six – Good Things Happen in 3s

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    Resolved: The Arts are Unnecessary

    Part Four – Paradigm Seeds and “The Big T”
    (See Part One, posted on July 13, 2013)
    (See Part Two, posted on July 18, 2013)
    (See Part Three, posted on August 11, 20130)


    In exploring the objective of creating and bringing about a paradigm shift in the arts as they relate to
    educational programming, it is impossible to go back to “square one.” What would that square be? The
    current educational system’s methodologies for the way arts programming is perceived, handled, funded and
    treated are too deeply entrenched. The bureaucracy is fixed in place and only over time, repeatedly
    offered programming that utilizes a paradigm shift and delivers quantifiable results will the status quo
    be rendered obsolete.

    The seeds of such a paradigm shift are, I firmly believe, planted right under our noses. The shift begins
    with a radical rethink of a concept that’s been around a long time; this is the concept of “transfer,”
    or more accurately, “transfer of learning.” The term has two general applications: first, it refers to
    the ability to take what is learned or practiced in one lesson and then carry it over to subsequent
    lessons. Secondly, transfer of learning can mean the ability to draw parallels and useful connections
    from one discipline and utilize it in across other disciplines. An easy example is how studying music
    has been shown to enhance students’ abilities in mathematics. After all, reading music, at its core, is
    very mathematical. Note values are fractions: whole note, half note, quarter, eighth, sixteenth, and so
    on. Each measure, conforming to a particular time signature, is divided up into such fractions and each
    must total the correct number of beats in the measure. Music, like math, is analytical, it conforms to
    specific rules, etc. As a result, there is potentially a significant amount of “transfer” from one
    subject to another. With my own instrument, the theremin, there is significant transfer between music,
    the science of sound, physics, electronics and even history. However, the idea of transfer is nothing new.
    It has been around for a long time and the problem is that it has never been taken far enough.

    In his study, Arts Learning and Its Research: Implications of Learning in and Through the Arts,
    Dr. Robert Horowitz of Teachers College, Columbia University pointed out an astonishing number of
    difficulties related to the subject of transfer, not the least of which is its very definition as well as
    stating that “there is not one definition of arts learning on which our field can agree.”

    After wading through a miasma of difficulties, Horowitz and his colleagues threw out their entire first
    approach – to consider “looking at the transfer of higher order thinking skills directly from various
    kinds of arts learning into other disciplines, such as math or social studies.” This is completely in
    line with the predominant definition of transfer, yet he rejected it as too “challenging to define the
    learning in each subject, the transfer process, and the appropriate methods of measurement.” Instead, the
    point of departure was to examine broader cognitive proficiencies that they believed to be both endemic
    to arts learning and the learning of other subjects.

    Working with twenty-eight schools grades K-8, and over 2,000 students, the findings were that students
    with more exposure to arts learning scored better in all areas than those with less exposure. Horowitz
    identifies eight “cognitive outcomes.”

  • the expression of ideas and feelings
  • focused perception
  • the ability to make connections
  • the ability to layer relationships
  • improved construction and organization of meaning
  • the ability to take multiple or alternative viewpoints
  • the ability to imagine new possibilities
  • improved sensory learning

  • In addition, Horowitz identified personal learning indicators resulting from arts learning:

  • risk taking
  • a sense of competence
  • a sense of ownership of learning
  • task persistence

  • Such findings reveal the true value of “transfer of learning.” The seeds of a paradigm shift are extant
    in all of the cognitive outcomes and learning indicators cited above because they go far beyond a
    single academic subject and beyond subject-to-subject transfer. Their value extends beyond the school
    and reaches into the daily life of every student. Such extended reach is what all teaching artists and
    every program they offer should strive to demonstrate; that the skills, information, and values of their
    arts programs have meaningful applications in the “real life” of each child.

    Coming Soon:
    RESOLVED: THE ARTS ARE UNNECESSARY
    Part Five – Real Life and the Necessary Arts

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    Resolved: The Arts Are Unnecessary

    Part Three – The Elephant in the Room
    (See Part One, posted on July 13, 2013)
    (See Part Two, posted on July 18, 2013)


    In our current predicament, we make the same arguments ad infinitum; solutions, viable and lasting solutions, are
    unlikely. We’re far too caught up in decrying the status quo – a status that’s been abominably quo for a long time.

    Two days ago, I inadvertently tuned into the middle of an interview on NPR about arts programs and funding (or
    the lack thereof) in the New York school systems. There, condensed into the twenty minutes of driving, I heard
    the same litany of reasons why the arts are so important, the same sound bytes of politicians proclaiming
    that more money must be earmarked for the arts in our schools (and, of course, their actual record of taking any
    kind of action is usually revealed to be nil). As if it were planned to stuff every cliche into the program,
    one of the guests spoke of a new study that has just come out that shows once again that the arts are important
    in the development of well-rounded students. When the guests were asked point blank, based on the study and the
    sound bytes of politicians if any substantive measures would be forthcoming, both said it was unlikely. So,
    everything is stuck in same the rut it’s been for years.

    As I researched more and more, perusing arguments, reading essays by teaching artists, I believe I finally hit on
    something. Regardless of what side we’re on, we’re incapable of devising solutions and potential new avenues of
    approach because the view beyond the status quo is obstructed by a big, fragrant elephant in the room that needs
    some serious shoveling up after. I have absolutely no doubt that all factions would abjectly declare: “Hey, that
    elephant’s not mine.”

    The elephant is attitude – unproductive and adversarial attitude. In her essay, Opinion Matters: The
    Handmaiden’s Tale
    , arts educator and Harvard graduate, Lauren Jacobs asserts, “the unhappy truth is that the
    TAs [teaching artists] may never be fully respected by the educational system and the system will likely never be
    fully respected by the TAs.” There it is, stated definitively: neither faction will ever respect the other.
    According to Jacobs, that’s just the way it is; what else can we do but accept it? Trouble is, being resigned to
    the certainty that “neither faction will ever respect the other” is a lousy point of departure for any sort of
    productive dialogue or action. Buying into this notion as immutable, casting ourselves in the roles of arts
    adversaries with a lack of respect for one another, each forever complaining about the other is patently
    unacceptable. Jacobs goes on to offer a solution: “Give the arts the full respect they deserve by hiring scores
    more teachers of all the arts (Theatre, Dance, Music, Visual Art, Crafts, Poetry, Film, Multimedia Technology,
    Culinary Arts) with full roles in the educational system.”

    The author’s heart is in the right place, but her solution – to demand the respect that’s lacking – is like the
    old joke: “Doc, it hurts when I do this.” And the doctor replies, “Then, don’t do that.” The idea that the arts
    deserve respect is one that most people would probably agree with. So is the even more universal idea that people
    deserve respect. However, just saying that respect is deserved rarely makes it so. Saying, “give the arts the
    respect they deserve” and hire “scores more teachers” is a result, a final goal; it is not a course of
    action that can be implemented to bring about that result.

    The first real step toward a viable and realistic solution is to bring about a genuine paradigm shift. We also
    have to admit that nothing will ever be brought about by the mere act of saying “the real solution is to bring
    about a genuine paradigm shift.” Such a shift must be conceived of, planned, put into practice and then tested
    under real-world conditions.

    The good news is that the seeds of this shift are already planted – right under our noses.

    Coming Soon:
    RESOLVED: THE ARTS ARE UNNECESSARY
    Part Four – Paradigm Seeds and “The Big T”

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    Notes From the Street

    Part One: Sounds of the City – Musicians, Watch Out!

    New York City is catching up with Philadelphia in its quest to severely limit (if not eliminate) street
    performing in the subways and parks. Rather, I should say, New York City seems to be on a track that
    will take it back to the days of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s total ban on street performing. Luckily, as
    a member of MUNY (Music Under New York) I’m still able to go through official channels and play music
    underground – at least for now.

    The momentum being gained by those who’d ban such activities altogether is worrisome. The logic behind
    the reasoning is absurd at a level that’s laughable. It started with amplified instruments being banned
    from all parks. The thinking is that there’s a tendency to play far too loudly, impinging upon those who
    prefer quiet and tranquility. I’m all for a peaceful park experience and I understand completely. Music
    never discriminates; it reaches the ears of everyone whether they want to hear it or not. In that sense,
    it’s admittedly invasive. Considerate musicians will always choose a somewhat isolated spot and play
    quietly; it tends to be a sort of invitation for anyone interested enough to come and listen.

    Oddly, musicians are still permitted to play acoustic instruments in the parks. It may bring to mind
    images of quiet guitar players, maybe a lone violinist. But I’ve witnessed first-hand, people playing
    “drums” made out of 5-gallon plastic buckets, bashing away as loudly or louder than instruments
    connnected to amplifiers. I’ve seen (and definitely heard) a duo comprised of a sax player and full
    kit-equipped drummer playing fantastic jazz that could be heard throughout Washington Square Park and a
    full five blocks away from the park itself.

    On one occasion I performed above ground on a sidewalk two blocks north of the Metropolitan Museum of
    Art. I played at a volume level just loud enough for me to hear above the buses but soft enough that it
    was virtually inaudible from just half a block away. I played for three hours and people had a great time.
    A week later, during a crackdown, I was playing in the same spot and was confronted by an officer who
    claimed that I was standing on museum property and that amplified music was not allowed. I was kicked off
    the spot. Strangely, taking place at the same time two blocks down, right at the bottom of the front
    steps of the museum, there was a huge crowd of cheering spectators enjoying troupe of break-dancers
    (extremely talented, by the way) who were performing to ear-shattering plastic container drumming.

    The double standard of the loudness argument is ridiculous, even moreso when you move below ground into
    the incredibly noisy environment of the subway trains, with their screeching wheels, blasting horns and
    all-around thunderous presence. And the additional argument that loud music potentially obscures announcements
    that come over the PA system? As anyone who’s been within earshot of such announcements can tell you,
    they’re almost always unintelligible (for a perfect depiction of this, watch the train platform scene from
    the 1951 Jacques Tati film, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday). The truth is that underground, no one’s
    expecting peace and quiet; we put up with the noise and a lot more.

    When an actual melody reaches my ears from amidst the horrendous cacophony , it makes standing down there
    on the platform a little more bearable as I wince at the huge rat I’ve just spotted scampering along the
    filthy tracks.

    Coming Soon:
    Notes from the Street
    Part Two: It’s Music to Whose Ears?

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    Resolved: The Arts Are Unnecessary

    Part Two – Lip Service and Art Class
    (See Part One, posted on July 13, 2013)


    All the lip service devoted to how the arts are important are clichéd. Michelle Obama’s words on the last Oscars
    notwithstanding, the arts are continually “branded” as if they’re something outside the norm. Why? It’s due in
    large part to the fact that during students’ formative years, educators look at art as something exclusive to
    those who are talented. Art classes (the basic painting/drawing classes and music/band classes) do involve
    everyone but teachers gravitate toward those they perceive to have talent. It’s just a perceived “given” that
    most are average, and therefore either passed over or routinely accepted, but only those with promise are
    encouraged. What other fields foster that kind of attitude? In classes like Science, Math, History and language
    skills, yes, it’s understood that some possess more skill or greater potential than others, but all students are
    expected to measure up, regardless. At the core of such expectation is standardized testing. Our perception
    that these other subjects absolutely demand a certain level of comprehension and ability simply do not apply to the
    arts. This mentality relegates the arts to something for those that are interested in them or who demonstrate, if not
    an above-average ability, a strong desire on the part of the student.

    It’s obvious, regardless of subject, that there are some students who possess abilities that surpass their peers.
    Some love and excel at the sciences. Others at math. For some, these disciplines will engender lifelong career
    pursuits. This understanding, that some students gravitate toward specific subjects is, for the most part, nurtured
    in every area of endeavor except the arts. The prevailing parental attitude toward students who decide to pursue a
    career in the arts is that it’s more a flight of fancy than a valid career goal; the hope is that they’ll grow out of
    it. And most do.

    While the predominant perception of the arts in general, we’ve seen, is that they’re something extra, something
    outside the norm, the predominant media message is that the arts (and our school boards, public figures, politicians
    and celebrities say it with conviction) are still very important, “vital,” in fact. They’re so important that the
    minute a school district’s budget is shrinking – poof – like magic, the art class or music class disappears. As a
    teaching artist, I have been brought to schools in which my brief workshop, for a single class, was the only music
    program that existed in the entire school.

    One solution has been to make the arts an extracurricular activity, an after-school program. Students are neither
    required to participate, neither are they graded. Another solution is to bring in teaching artists occasionally and
    expose students to all the arts periodically throughout the year.

    But there’s a big, fragrant elephant in the room that needs some shoveling up after.

    Coming Soon:
    RESOLVED: THE ARTS ARE UNNECESSARY
    Part Three – The Elephant in the Room

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    Video: Vinegar Mother Live at Cornelia Street

    Lesson 9 of “Lessons from Vinegar Mother.” This version features new original video as intended for the
    performance piece. The spoken material is also clearer than the Asheville footage. The Cornelia Street
    Café is a much more intimate setting (with a much smaller stage) and it certainly captures the immediacy
    of the experience. Thanks to friend and owner, Robin, as well as curator Angelo for a fantastic evening.

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    Resolved: The Arts Are Unnecessary

    Part One – How to Upset Anyone Involved in the Arts

    Just say, “the arts are unnecessary.” We’re loath to say it. We’re defensive if the notion surfaces. However,
    somewhere along the line, despite the hype, despite the political-speak, the educator-speak and the
    arts-organization-speak, it’s staring us in the face. The arts have been rendered irrelevant. Unnecessary.
    (Are you getting upset yet?) Excluding movies and huge rock concerts, from a statistical standpoint, only
    about 5% of the population of a given region attend any live arts events. Of that 5%, only a fraction will
    attend a dance event, a classical music concert or go to see a play.

    Ask your neighbors; do they or their kids think about or use the arts in their daily lives? Do the people
    on your street come together for singing or dancing? It shows everywhere – people now believe the arts are
    for schools. They believe that artists are a special (and weird) breed, not everyday people. Ask your
    neighbors: what’s more important for a student – learn about math and science or learn how to play the piano?

    Ask any parent what type of profession they’d like to see their children go into. It’s a good bet that not
    a single art form will be mentioned.

    Virtually every major art form was originally central to the cultural life of the community, from a small
    tribe in the amazon jungle, to native americans, to the all early civilizations like the Chinese, Greeks and
    Romans. The arts were inseparable from the culture – dancing and singing were part of ritual and celebration,
    paintings and carvings adorned utilitarian objects (clothing, pottery, tools, etc.), and cave paintings were
    arguably the earliest form of documentary. In America, every artisanal craft from clothing to bowls to toys to
    religious objects is now factory-mass-produced. In China. True craftspeople are out there, but predominantly
    relegated to specialty shops and small venues, seen or experienced by a relative few.

    And the arts? Now? They are “electives” in schools; but they have absolutely no part in the all-important
    standardized testing. They’re the last programs to be considered and the first to go when budgets are cut. The
    litany of outraged complaints about how the arts are viewed and treated is too long to go into, and besides,
    arts educators and teaching artists already know.

    Even though those of us who care speak out, we’ve actually bought into it. If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t be in such
    trouble. Years of struggle have made us buy into the bleak reality as much as those we look to for support –
    support that goes far beyond the financial type. And all those funders, everyone from endowments to the big
    corporations looking to keep up their images as supporters of the arts, everyone is tired of hearing the same
    endless evidence that the arts matter and they’re weary of the same old pleas for help.

    Coming Soon:
    Resolved: The Arts Are Unnecessary
    Part Two – Lip Service and Art Class

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