I was excited to enter Randolph High School back in 1980, mostly because of its thriving music program. I couldn’t wait to sing in the different choruses, and to audition for the competitive show choir. Yet when I arrived at school, I learned that, as a result of Proposition 2 ½, music had been cut from the high school curriculum—along with other reductions to busing, foreign languages, sports, and library staff. I was devastated. My arts education had come to a sudden end.
Fashioned after California’s Proposition 13, Proposition 2 ½ severely limits the amount that assessed property taxes in any city or town in Massachusetts can increase in a given year to 2 ½ percent, and requires a grassroots override vote by any community that wishes to increase property tax revenue by a greater margin in a given year for a particular project, such as constructing a new school building. Today, nearly 40 years later, Proposition 2 ½ remains the law in Massachusetts.
My arts education may have come to a sudden end in September 1980, but my education as an arts advocate was just beginning. Along with other students and parents, I wrote letters and attended meetings with administrators, urging them to bring back the music program at Randolph High School. We implored them not to abandon the music program, a critical aspect of our public-school education, and one that had been recognized just a few years earlier by the state association. Several of us performed at a school committee meeting, hoping to gain their favor through the experience of music.
Our efforts began to pay off. After a few months, a couple of choral ensembles were reinstated. And that wasn’t all—our teacher, Mrs. Browne, found a way to resurrect our show choir, too. She held auditions, and I was fortunate to be selected as one of the four sopranos in the group. At our first meeting, which was held at a coffee shop across the street from the high school, Mrs. Browne told us that she would continue to teach the show choir on her own time, as long as we could meet somewhere other than our school. My parents agreed to host our rehearsals two nights a week in our basement, where there was an upright piano and plenty of room to rehearse our choreography.
Thanks to Mrs. Browne’s dedication, I continued to have access to a music education. Making music remains a very important part of my life—I gig on a regular basis, singing jazz music and klezmer music (Jewish music in Yiddish and Hebrew) whenever I can.
Inspired by Mrs. Brown’s example, I have devoted my professional life to advocating for and striving towards access to arts education for all.
Today, I am the Managing Director of the Berklee Institute for Arts Education and Special Needs, a new Institute that stems from the recent merger between Berklee College of Music and Boston Conservatory. The Institute is a catalyst for the inclusion of individuals with disabilities in all aspects of visual and performing arts education. Our work has three main pillars, all of which focus on increasing access to arts education for all students: Arts Education Programs for individuals ages 3 to adult; one-of-a-kind Graduate Programs in Music Education and Autism; and Professional Development for the field. We are dedicated to ensuring that all students receive a meaningful arts education, and that they are taught by educators who have the tools and support that they need to reach every student.
Our flagship professional development program is our annual conference. Begun six years ago at Boston Conservatory, before the merger with Berklee College of Music, this conference (then named Teaching Music to Students on the Autism Spectrum) brings together artists, arts educators, special educators, teaching artists, higher educators, researchers, administrators of arts programs, community arts educators, students, and families from all over the world.
The merger with Berklee College of Music provides us with an opportunity to rebrand and expand this conference, beginning in 2018. The newly named ABLE Assembly: Arts Better the Lives of Everyone, will take place on April 6-8, 2018 in Boston. The conference schedule includes more than 50 presentations and workshops featuring all art forms and a wide range of populations.
This conference, as well as the Institute’s other initiatives and programs, is the continuation of my advocacy for arts education, which began nearly 40 years ago.
I challenge you to think about the origins of your advocacy in the arts—how did you begin this work? How are your advocacy efforts today linked to your story as an artist or arts educator?
Mrs. Browne and I recently reconnected over Facebook, and I told her about the ways that her inspiration has guided me in my career. I wanted her to know how much her efforts and her example have meant to me over the years.
Is there an artist, arts educator, or arts advocate in your life who inspired you? What would you like to tell that person, if you could?