PIVOT: Arts education in action


Arden Dickson

Senior section leader Abbey Thompson directs the low brass at practice. She remains socially distant and masked. “I always struggled to find motivation to get into a practice routine but with all the extra time with quarantine I was able to dedicate real time to practice. I saw a pretty big improvement not only in my sound but also my confidence as a musician,” Thompson said.

By Arden Dickson, Parkway West High School

I had my first dance recital when I was five years old. My mother likes to remind me that she thought I had the best costume: a black and white tulle dress, pink bows on my tap shoes and a feather in my hair. I don’t remember much of the routine, but I do remember hating every moment of it.

One jazzy routine in particular started with a dance move that drove five-year-old me absolutely insane. I was never able to turn the right way or use the right foot, all while watching every other girl around me execute it flawlessly. It wasn’t until this year that I remembered what the dance move was: a pivot. Little did I know how topical my childhood frustration would become.

Artists have always had to pivot. We adapted to incorporate technology into our practice. We worked with one another across disciplines. We turned this word over, dumped it inside-out and did everything in our power to understand what this meant for us. 

To pivot, as it means to the artistic community, is to adapt your skill set, goals and outlook in order to keep up with a different environment. 

The act of pivoting might mean taking up a survival job like nannying, freelancing, blogging or working at a restaurant. I follow a number of different artistic bloggers on Instagram, and each of them has repeatedly emphasized the importance of versatility in their careers. Artists are already subject to the hindrances of an unstable income, not to mention both the increasing social stigma surrounding their craft and the state of the artistic community following the effects of COVID-19.

Band Director Brad Wallace directs his socially-distanced marching band students through one of their pieces. (Arden Dickson)

The difference between a loss or golden age of art lies in our arts educators. They are aware of the outlook of the arts community and have been fighting tooth-and-nail for its survival throughout their careers. In this way they are no stranger to pivoting. Rather than exposing fallibilities in our performance and visual arts departments, the pandemic has shined a spotlight on the capabilities of our arts education staff and solidified their place in our community.

This is how they pivot.

                                    Arts education in action

Art is changing.  

In the wake of a hurting world, artists everywhere– though this path already has one of the slowest growing job outlooks– have been forced to pivot. Couple this challenge with the trials and tribulations of teaching, creating multiple curriculums and parenting. A month ago, this was the mountain that stood before arts teachers.

Art is collective.

“I felt a lot of complicated things,” visual arts teacher Ashley Drissell said of the initial shift to virtual learning. “[I felt] sadness that I would not be seeing my students in person, overwhelmed at the thought of homeschooling two littles and teaching 75 high school students and also overwhelmed by the technology overload. It was a lot to take in.” 

Theater teacher Amie Gossett made similar changes to her curriculum. Gossett was tasked with creating curriculum for five online classes, three of which were used districtwide.

“First and foremost, I had to really evaluate what skills were the most important to teach related to theater. I then had to seek out resources in a digital format to be able to supplement and support what I was teaching in class,” Gossett said. 

Senior Becca Vierck is a student in one of her newest courses, Comedy in Action, which was created with the virtual format in mind. 

“We’ve been doing a lot of activities that don’t require physical interaction between the players, but instead just rely on our voices and our physical portrayal, like stand-up, where all we need is a clear view of the performer,” Vierck said.

In conjunction with the other theater teachers throughout the district, Gossett worked to create a series of online workshops to ensure theater’s extracurricular presence in a virtual classroom. She estimated the entire creation process took her upwards of five weeks. 

It is so important in the arts to be adaptive and creative with how things are presented. I think for theater this concept has been the most easy to ‘pivot’ because we have to do it daily. You can only do Shakespeare set in Elizabethan times so many times before it becomes stale, so we think of new ways to reinvent it.”

— Amie Gosset

“It is so important in the arts to be adaptive and creative with how things are presented. I think for theater this concept has been the most easy to ‘pivot’ because we have to do it daily. You can only do Shakespeare set in Elizabethan times so many times before it becomes stale, so we think of new ways to reinvent it,” Gosset said.

A virtual classroom produces challenges for arts education– though they are challenges Band Director Brad Wallace is willing to accept. He utilizes breakout rooms and screen share to create smaller ensembles and allow students to work with each other. 

“In the arts we focus on the aesthetic and allow our students to share their thoughts and ideas in different ways. These different ways cannot really be replicated virtually,” Wallace said. “Sure, we can work on technique and learn about the band heritage, but making music with a group of your peers is irreplaceable.” 

Senior band student and section leader Abbey Thompson shares her thoughts on virtual band classes.

“Band has always been a huge part of my life. Since fifth grade, I always looked forward to that class. It was my escape, where I got to see my favorite people. While that still is the case, online band is just not the same. The program and Mr. Wallace are doing their best to replicate what they can, and it shows in new and fun types of activities, but the change is noticeable,” Thompson said. “On this same note though, through virtual band, I’ve gained a new appreciation for my love of music. I feel that since the whole band and staff had to go through this transition together, we gained better understanding of each other, and are closer as a program.” Thompson said.

Wallace wanted to ensure that students still had some semblance of marching band while also abiding by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. His students practice on the football field, consistently stationed six feet apart and wear masks when not playing.

“As I enter my eighteenth year as a music educator, I know that I look at many things differently.  I view education differently, and I am very proud that we can offer our students so many musical opportunities here at West. I also know how impactful music can be.”

Art is important.

As we move forward, it is important to acknowledge the importance of the arts and why it is imperative art adapts. Studies show that students with a high involvement in the arts outperform their peers in a wide variety of subjects. A study conducted by Keller Independent School District in Texas observed that arts students were 20% more proficient in math and 16% more proficient in science and history. However, the value of the arts lies beyond facts and statistics. 

Senior Drum Major Claire Reifschnider conducts the marching band through their piece. This is Reifchnider’s second as Drum Major, the leader and field commander of the ensemble. “It is on that podium that I feel completely at peace and confident in myself, and while that may seem completely arbitrary to most, it is something that I will value for the rest of my life,” Reifschnider said. “I have come to realize that I will always be learning and progressing in anything that I choose to do. This position has taught me both perseverance and humility, two things I wish I could have learned last year, but I wouldn’t trade what I have received from this season for the world.” (Arden Dickson)

“I am an art teacher because making and doing have helped me heal and find purpose and I actively encourage my students to do the same. We can learn that it’s okay to be quiet and to make mistakes and to question. We can fully be ourselves and be accepted in a space that is diverse,” Drissel said. “Being an art teacher has shown me that we are human, we all have anxious minds, we all make mistakes, and we can all be both vulnerable and safe. I can see the beautiful humanity in people when we tell our visual stories. Art speaks to us in ways that words cannot.”

From a more statistical standpoint, the arts are–despite the stigma– valuable and contribute about 877 billion annually to the economy. This is why it is so necessary that art adapts to a changing world and lives to tell the tale. 

Luckily for us, we possess an artistic faculty that will stop at nothing to ensure the arts will continue to flourish at West. Wallace, like Drissell, encourages his students to take this time as a challenge to grow.

“I remind students to enjoy the journey. It is not all about the concert and the end result, but more about how we get to that point,” Wallace said. “The struggles and successes that we all go through together as a band are what makes it such a special experience. That is where my students will hopefully develop skills that will serve them for a lifetime.”

This story was originally published on Pathfinder on October 27, 2020.