Music Builds a Maker Mindset: The Power of the Performing Arts

Community, Leadership, Learner Experience, Learning

March means Music in our Schools Month (MIOSM) and Theatre in our Schools Month (TIOSM)!

I am grateful to have attended multiple American Choral Director’s Association (ACDA) national and regional conferences. I have done so as the parent of an honor choir student, and I continue to be struck by the power of the performing arts to impact students’ lives far beyond the stage, including their mindsets.

There are countless benefits to the performing arts, including the promotion of cross-curricular learning and the formation of innovation mindsets in students as they learn to combine effort, initiative, and collaboration.

In particular, the role of the arts in building maker mindsets stands out because – through powerful experiences – students learn that they can take initiative and create something special.

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Alexandra Eaton NAfME writes that music education is what students want and what the workforce needs. Tom Vander Ark, who has personally experienced the rewards of participating in choral groups, asserts that every student ought to have a powerful performing arts experience.

The examples below draw from the experiences of the 2016 Regional ACDA conferences as well as the 2015 national ACDA conference – – these are simply representative examples, as there are endless benefits we’ve seen through theatre productions and all of the performing arts. Through well-directed experiences, students (and their teachers) learn they can be:

Makers of music. Participants learned that they can both make (perform) beautiful music that others have written AND make (compose) their own. Before students premiered a piece commissioned specifically for the event, they got to meet composer Daniel Kallman (Kallman Creates) and benefit from his direct coaching on how to best perform the song. Interestingly, the lyrics for the song was the result of a crowdsourced co-creation process. The larger work,  “Passage of Wind and Water: A Collaborative Choral Poem,” was written by students and adults, thanks to editor Christine Stewart-Nunez. Meeting composers and writers reminds students that making music goes far beyond carrying a tune. We know that when students can envision, they can create.

Makers of community.  The skills required to build community are transferrable – take it from Director Jeffery Redding, who in addition to directing choirs around the world, was previously crowned Florida Teacher of the Year and also excelled as a football coach. He continually told his singers, “You are a community of singers – no one voice should stand out. You are creating a brotherhood.” While he set the tone, the onus to build community was on the kids. Dr. Redding reflected how similar his role has been from classroom to stage to football field. “People wouldn’t believe how similar! Most importantly, no matter what we are teaching, if we want to create community and learning, we can’t make it about us,” he said.

Redding Adam 680Makers of people. While building a community, Dr. Redding, through the teaching of music, was also building individuals. I asked our 14 year old, Adam (pictured with Dr Redding) to reflect on his experience.

Over the past few days I have been blessed to see who Dr. Redding is. He taught us much more than just music, but how to apply music to your life and how to apply life to your music. He has been one of the most influential people I have met. He is so energetic in all he does with us, and makes music fun, even when it’s 9pm and we’ve been practicing for 11 hours. Three of the keys to life he taught me are:

  1. Don’t compare: What good does comparing do?
  2. Give what others have given you, back to the world: Who is your hero? In all they’ve given you is what you can turn around and give back to the world
  3. Live life for the fullest: Every day is a new day. Use it wisely.   

In 3 short days, he touched all of us. He has made us better people. We need more people like Dr. Redding in this world. Could you see what would happen if we did?

Makers of meaning. Words and sounds together build meaning. During ACDA rehearsals, Conductor Bob Chilcott urged the kids, “Listen. You need to focus on what a lyric is about as you sing it.” In doing so, he reinforced the power of language and melodies to make meaning. For example, in a song about the Wright brother’s path to flight, proclaiming, “It was difficult!,” the kids learned to convey the meaning through their voice and expressions.  Music creates a perfect environment for students to learn they can use language to make meaning – and can transfer that to other classes.

Makers of history. Singing helps students learn that they can experience, shape, and make history in new ways. For example, the song Five Days that Changed the World spans 500 years of history AND draws connections to present day as they learned about the invention of printing, the abolition of slavery, and more. To help students begin to grasp the meaning of something as powerful and complicated as freedom, the director relayed his experience being present in Berlin the day the wall came down. All music has a story. As students sing the stories, they can be transplanted in time, bringing a greater depth of understanding to social studies.

Makers of change. An extension of making history, music can help change the world. When singing about the abolition of slavery and articulating, “One piece of paper can change the world…one person can change the world,” singers weren’t just retelling history. They were internalizing the fact that individuals have the power to change the world. Including themselves.

Makers of the intangible. Music is powerful in ways that can’t adequately be explained. I’d be hard pressed to think anyone reading this hasn’t been emotionally moved by music at some point in their lives, let alone this week. Lori Pope, mom and piano teacher from Clovis, California, underscored that teachers can reach students through music. She cited Hans Christian Andersen’s, “Where words fail, music speaks.”

While the examples provided draw from students singing at the highest levels, the concepts and learnings apply to all of the performing arts and to all people, whether they can carry a tune or not (the latter is the case for me).

As East Ridge High School’s theatre program director Amanda Hestwood says, “The arts provide a great way for kids to be well rounded and to sample what is available to them in the world. These experiences will stay with them for the long-term and influence them in the future.”

Providing all students with a sense that they can make meaning, make change, make history, and much, much more is a duty of our schools. A powerful performing arts experience can’t be replaced – and can help students know they are makers of something far bigger than themselves.

What steps can you take?

  • Administrators and Board members: Fund music and performing arts and ensure powerful performing arts experiences to all.
  • Parents: Advocate for the arts and expose your kids to early experiences – whether through lessons, Kindermusik, church, or community.
  • Teachers: Most importantly, draw connections for students regarding their ability to take initiative. Further find out about opportunities like this (and thank you to Mrs. Gullick for making this possible for Adam!). 
  • Students: Get involved in a variety of activities, including the performing arts!

Read more:

This is an update of a blog that originally ran on March 14, 2015.


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Mary Ryerse

Mary Ryerse

Mary is a Getting Smart Director of Strategic Design.

2 Comments

De. AnnRené Joseph /

Thank you for this inspiring and validating article. My published dissertation research provides causal relationship for arts and academic achievement, in support of your anecdotal testimonies.

James Mullen /

It’s important to support the arts, but make sure students actually have a good opportunity to build real skills, and support those kind of programs. There are many ‘poser’ programs that are in the ball park but wasteful. These days it’s important to find a solid program.