Art Can Be Taught, Art Can Be Learned
“…I think undoubtedly everybody ought to be taught to draw, just as much as everybody ought to be taught to read and write.”
“Oh by the way, you are the music teacher too.” These were words uttered by my principal at my first teaching job in a very rural Montana school district. My 22-year-old self had my art teacher credentials in hand, but none of the qualifications required to be a licensed music teacher.
Luckily for me, the music education association in Montana was better informed and organized than any mafia, and quickly learned an unqualified educator was to teach band and choir in the middle of nowhere Montana.
They immediately sent me a mentor who arrived with a ten gallon hat and a handlebar mustache. This singing cowboy, I soon learned, was known throughout the state as one of the greatest music teachers of the ages. Mr. M had arrived.
One of the first days he came to help me in my classroom, I was attempting to teach singing to a class of students. Unfortunately, three out of my seven students were completely tone deaf.
Drawing on the prevailing knowledge I had absorbed about teaching art from leading art education journals, I assumed that there was nothing I could do about this. I was particularly afraid of ruining their musical creativity, whatever that meant.
You see, the prevailing sentiment in art education even today is that input from a teacher somehow ruins the creativity of the student. I was taught that students either “had” art, or in this case pitch, or they didn’t. They needed to “dig deep” to find their own “inner voice” without the perceived “pollution” of a teacher telling them how to sing.
So as far as these tone-deaf students went, I mistakenly believed that they just needed to be more creative somehow in order to sing on pitch. Nothing I could do about it, really.
But Mr. M, upon observing the situation, quietly came up to me after class and mentioned that some of my students were singing out of tune.
“Oh, I know. They just don’t have ‘it’” I replied to him.
His face was one of confusion and consternation.
“If you know they are singing out of tune,” he said, “then it is your job as an educator to teach them how to sing on pitch.”
“Impossible!” I thought to myself.
But boy was I wrong.
The very next lesson Mr. M sat down at the piano with my least pitch savvy students. He played two notes, very far apart on the piano, and asked them which was higher and which was lower.
Each day he would bring the notes closer and closer together, until the students learned to hear the pitch accurately. Once they could hear the pitch, they could sing the pitch. Before I knew it, these previously tone-deaf students were singing on pitch!
This was an absolute revelation to me. For the first time in my life, it occurred to me that art was not something you “had” or didn’t, like I learned in my own art education studies. It was a skill, like all other skills, that could be both learned and taught.
For the first time, I began to believe that if I found the right teachers and studied the right skills, I could achieve a childhood dream of being able to paint like Rembrandt.
After extensive research, I discovered that there were still a handful of schools that taught the skills of the Old Masters.
I have followed that dream relentlessly ever since, leaving my teaching job to attend multiple ateliers, or schools that specialize in teaching realistic drawing and painting skills, and opening up my own teaching studio, The School of Atelier Arts, to pay forward the learning my teachers so generously shared with me.
I’m an art education expert – I’ve taught for many years in classrooms rural and urban, children and adults, North (Manchester, New Hampshire), South (West End, North Carolina), East (Jersey City, New Jersey), and West (Seattle, Washington), and also in England (Bath). I am the former Co-President of the Washington Art Education Association. I have a degree and licenses in two states that say I’m qualified to teach art.
And I’m here to tell you that art can be taught. Anyone can learn it. If you have a knowledgeable teacher at your side to help you recognize the high and low pitches, you can sing in tune in art.
In this Dept. of Aesthetics Blog, that is exactly what you have – a knowledgeable teacher to guide you through the many notes of seeing like an artist so that you can perceive, experience, and learn from the visual music around you.