If you are reading this blog it is probably a safe assumption that you are a fan of musical theatre. And who could blame you? Musicals are fun, entertaining and thrilling experiences for both the participants and the audience. But with school budgets stretched to their breaking point, and fears that American students are falling behind in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), educators are often told that there just aren’t enough resources to support theatre in the schools.
Fortunately this marginalization of the arts has been met with strong resistance by those that understand that musical theatre (and arts in general) are not “just” fun, they also have very real, and measurable, educational benefits. Time and again, we see that students who participate in the arts have better results in their other classes as well. This observation has been a driving force for the movement to refocus on the arts in school, changing STEM to STEAM.
In this three-part series, Eleanore Speert takes a closer look at the educational benefits of musical theatre and the educators that are observing it firsthand. Eleanore Speert is the president of Speert Publishing, the Buyer for The Drama Book Shop and has been working exclusively in theater publishing for over thirty years.
Part 3: Musicals Enhance Learning
Local schools and community theaters use musical theater to have fun, to build confidence, and as a ticket to learning: music (art, mathematics), dance (art, athletics), tech (mathematics, philosophy), story (literature, history), house (logic, statistics). What we learn on and around the stage is sheathed in reason, civility, and responsibility (social science, citizenship). Education and musical theater offer quite a partnership.
Working on a musical production when the classroom is included improves learning skills necessary to higher education. History teachers emphasize research as a tool in learning about a show’s time frame (Hair prompts discussion of the 1960s), or in looking at how the theme of a show ties into today’s world (Porgy & Bess: how race was, and is, perceived in society). In English class, Shakespeare can be discussed as literature and performance when The Taming of the Shrew becomes Kiss Me, Kate. In math, algebra becomes immediately useful when related to a light board or blocking. Musicals can be an instrument of academic learning when the school or community theater productions include, or even allude to, what students are doing in the classroom.
In an earlier blog I introduced you to Bob Frisch, from the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts. Over many years working with high school students, Bob found musical theater to be the course that helped some young people stay in school. Think about that – it’s the subject of study that keeps some students IN school so they can graduate. For these students the sense of contribution and responsibility, the discovery of new worlds outside their own, drives them to their diploma.
When Beach Channel School was created, the administrators were concerned that the location of this target school for marine biology – on the edge of Jamaica Bay, in Queens, New York – might deter some students from applying. They also wanted their student body to be as diverse as possible, emphasizing different socio-economic backgrounds. They decided a good way to attract students to the school would be to create a performing arts program. They asked Barbara Abbate to help. Barbara is a former New York high school teacher of performing arts, author of the book, AWARENESS, HIGH SCHOOL (Balboa Press, 2015), and a staunch advocate of performing arts in schools. The program she launched relied heavily on musical theater, drew students from economically diverse backgrounds and filled the school. The program helped the young scientists enhance communication skills in writing, speaking and collaboration. Longstanding friendships were formed. There was that boost in confidence in learning which aided attention and retention.
Working in theater also helps build skills that are crucial for other areas of performing arts. Lester Thomas Shane is a Teacher, Director and Actor who teaches at the college level in New York and around the country. Lester works largely with all aspects of Voice, and with those wanting to enter the performing arts as well as established artists. Through the years, he’s seen positive results when incorporating musical theater into his curriculum. One major benefit is the discovery by students of “…the compatibility of domains in theater work. Students learning voice and speech who then work in concert with a singing teacher, to learn to sing on stage, learn the similarities of using voice in speech and song.” He cites how effortlessly Audra McDonald transitions from speech to song in 110 in the Shade. “Students then understand the minimal effort needed to move from voice to song, and discover the synergistic effort in learning.”
Working in performing arts in schools requires time and commitment. It takes dedication, collaboration, strategy, and more time than we anticipate. You and I remember those teachers who let us take a test late so we could attend a rehearsal, or who let study hall morph into a tech session, but many teachers today feel strained to be as lenient. Now there is more concern about “teaching to the test,” and much of the extra time teachers contribute goes toward tutoring in core subjects, leaving them less time to help with a show. Yet, with all the benefits musical productions afford, teachers strive to do all they can to make sure the opportunity to participate is there for their students. Their efforts help bring us this resource and its rewards.
Musical theater enhances education, and the positive outcome from this cooperative combination has our continued applause.