According to my friends, I have led a very interesting life. It began in a small, rural town in South Texas that few people knew. In fact, there was a dormitory on my college campus, which housed a greater number of people than my home town. But before I was 30, I had worked with internationally known opera and ballet companies, created scenery for a major television network, and rubbed elbows with celebrities, heads of state, and others who have made significant contributions to our nation, such as Presidential Medal of Freedom winner John Kenneth Gailbraith.
If you are wondering how I got from Point A to Point B, I can answer you in one word: art. You see, it all began the first day that Martha Luigi walked into my third grade class at Live Oak Elementary School. She was our music teacher. In addition, she also directed the choral music programs at my hometown's junior and senior high schools. Right away, Mrs. Luigi noticed that I had an enormous voice--a voice that she would keep track of and train all the way through high school. Five years later, at 14 years old, I would have the opportunity to leave my small town and travel to Europe during the summer--not because I was good at math or science--but because I could sing and Mrs. Luigi had built a world-class choral music program. That summer, 73 students from rural Texas competed against some of the best choirs in the world, and I got an life-changing look at the world beyond the borders of my own home town.
Sadly, few K-12 arts programs today have the fiscal support that we had then. I often wonder how many other lives would be so positively impacted if they did. When school funding issues are debated, all we ever seem to hear about are "math and science," which brings me to my "other" career. You see, though I have remained a visual artist, I retired from show business at 29 due to injuries received in a high fall. During my rehabilitation, I decided to learn a programming language and eventually became certified as a Microsoft Solution Developer. This led to a prestigious career in the technology industry. In 2008, I received an Enterprise Information Management Innovation Award from one of the world's largest software companies. This award was in recognition of work that I performed on the nation's organ transplant network, and it led to may participation in speaking engagements at technical conferences throughout the nation. Once again, my arts training gave me the skills that I needed to succeed--my job required exceptional communication skills. There was no computer club in my high school. In fact, we did not even have computers in our school until half-way through my senior year. No, I have David L. Rice to thank for that success--he was my high school drama teacher. Having succeeded as both an arts and a technology professional, I am uniquely qualified to discuss the value of art education in an increasingly technocentric society.
When many people think about art classes in school, they think about fun. Yes, art is fun, but there is nothing wrong with that--kids that have fun in school, stay in school, and our nation's drop out rates are a problem. However, what most people do not realize is that art has a physiological impact on the brain that enhances a child's ability to excel in other subjects. According to Neuroeducation: Learning, Arts, and the Brain, published by the Dana Foundation in 2009, researchers have found strong links between arts training and improvements in attention, cognition, and learning. Children who have received training in visual or performing art demonstrate a deeper level of engagement in all of their school subjects, retain more of what they learn, and apply concepts across multiple subjects with greater ease than their peers. Furthermore, the majority of today's graduates are entering the workforce without the critical skills that arts training is known to produce--collaboration, creative problem-solving, and the ability to apply knowledge across multiple disciplines.
Thanks to contemporary neural imagery, each art form has been found to engage and integrate a specific part of the brain and strengthen the brain's executive attention network. Musical training enhances the part of the brain responsible for reading. And from an early age, a child's ability to discern shape, form, and spatial relationships informs their intuition about numbers. Thus, visual arts training also prepares the brain for learning mathematical concepts. The executive attention network plays a key-role in a child's self-control, attention span, and ability to apply knowledge across multiple diciplines. Is it any wonder that the number of children with Attention Deficit Disorder has grown as the support for arts education in our schools has decreased?
From my own personal experience, I can tell you that the thought process involved in designing a theatrical production is the same as the thought process involved in designing and enterprise-level computer system. The lingo is different, but the process is the same. However, I also believe that my arts training gave me an edge in my technology career that my colleagues did not have. So, regardless of what career path a child ultimately chooses, art-training can only help them succeed. As a parent, wouldn't you want your child to have the best possible preparation for their future that you can provide? I know I would.