Imagine a stage. The backdrop shows a city skyline, with buildings and clouds, and mountains in the distance. Designer-furniture adorns the scene as well. From the wings, several actors walk and begin speaking their parts. Then, within the context of the play, dancers appear and begin their routine. To accompany them, an orchestra in the pit begins to play. What we have at work are four major divisions of art: theater, dance, music, and visual art. Now imagine that throughout the performance, from time to time, the one, two, or three different performers (including the background art) disappear, leaving only one element. Depending on the play, this is not an outlandish idea. All of the four elements can stand alone or work together. But they can’t be taught together. Each is a separate discipline in its own right, and must be learned that way. How K-12 students take to each of these four disciplines is the subject of this short essay.
Not surprisingly, each of these artistic forms comes with various ready-made sets of standards. They can be amazingly comprehensive, and provide exacting goals of what all K-12 students should be proficient at in these four arts. There is little need to do more than summarize a representative sample. The Kennedy Center divides each discipline into four parts, by grade: K-4, 5-8, 9-12. Each grade is then subdivided into 6-9 standards (ArtsEdge, 2012). Students are theoretically expected to meet each level of practice and performance before moving on to the next. Thus, anyone contemplating a program of the arts education and training for students must decide whether or not to adopt such standards, ignore them, or use them to create their own.
Looking at these disciplines individually but not so programmatically, we can draw certain conclusions about how they are or should be taught, apart from any set of standard rules. And from these conclusions we can derive certain expectations. Many dances, for example, are going to be identifiable by their culture, if only from the clothes the dancers are wearing. In this case, both students and audience learn about that culture by watching or participating. Visual art, on the other hand, if it is being created originally by the students, will tend to be more personal and so more cross-cultural in is appeal. Basically, the younger the kids, the more similar their work will be. But in visual arts, there is also more latitude for individual talent than in dancing, which depends on developing physical coordination and endurance. That takes time to develop. The same can be said for acting. Here, as in dance, the importance of practice and growing maturity means that fewer young practitioners will shine noticeably, although that is by no means unknown. By contrast, the talented visual artist among the students will often begin to stand out earlier — and be noticed by peers and parents alike. Acting, unlike dance, will not be dependent on a specific culture, except through language. A play at the school-level will likely be on some universal theme, because such themes are more easily learned and understood. This is also true of music, which is nothing if not universal in its appeal, especially group singing. Even indigenous folk-songs can have appeal far beyond the cultures that foster them. Singing, like visual art, also gives early vent to unique talent — a child or teen may be gifted with a unique voice and musical ability. And everyone is familiar with the child prodigy on piano or violin. But a prodigy, indeed even noticeable talent, is noticeably rare.
In both musical-instrument performances and theater presentations (and modern dance), the audience plays a vital role: that of showing tolerance. Any discussion of teaching the arts must include comments on the role of peers in the audience. One can perhaps grade the quality of a school’s theater- and musical-arts programs just by watching the performers’ peers. They have to learn too — learn to listen, to watch, appreciate, and, if possible, to understand. At the school stage, it is a discipline that must be learned, a performance art in its own right, and one perhaps not given its full due in arts education. The performers must not throw tomatoes at the audience.
ArtsEdge. (2012). The Kennedy Center. National Arts Content and Achievement Standards by Grade. Retrieved from http://artsedge.kennedy-center.org/educators/standards/ national/arts-standards/collections/arts-standards-by-grade.aspx