A Hierarchy of Performance Arts

Another work in progress.

Discussing the Accessibility of Arts Education at a Higher Education Level

Part 2

To voice an unpopular opinion, I believe that today there remains a very real hierarchical structure within performing art forms that places value on prestige perceived by ignorance.

Since beginning work in further education, I have quickly come to realise that there are genres of performance I have been almost entirely sheltered from, and that these genres can play an integral role in communicating and engaging with my students.

Allow me to offer an example:

I am fortunate enough to work with both ‘singers’ and those who regard themselves as ‘non-singers’. When working with musical theatre students I seek to create a sound knowledge of vocal science and implementation of singing technique through effective performance, and when working with dancers I revel mostly in encouraging enjoyment over fear when exploring their voices safely. I find joy in approaching the very different challenges set by both groups and consider each immensely valuable to the individual performer. That being said, it can be exceptionally challenging to coax a projected voice from a nervous dancer, even in a one to one session without the added anxiety of an audience of their peers. One particular class was no exception to this rule, and try as I may, I simply could not find a song that created the much-needed stimulus that would elevate us from nervous giggles and obvious discomfort to willing exploration and immersion in an enjoyable singsong.

I found an unexpected friend in an emerging musical that was pushing boundaries as yet untested in the world of theatre. Hamilton’s genre clash of hip-hop and musical theatre has already taken Broadway and the Tony awards by storm, and London’s West End currently awaits its UK premiere with bated breath.

Ever attentive to industry trends, I reached out to a local, well respected hip-hop artist and requested that he spend a day workshopping with our performance and musical theatre students. Here lies my first admission of ignorance and error. I had organised a workshop that promised an exceptional delivery of practical knowledge and demonstrations of hip-hop, rap and beatboxing, but only with our students that were already confident singers. I had made the all-too-easy assumption that because I was struggling to encourage our dancers to experiment vocally, another practitioner would only reap the same results. It was by sheer chance then that on the morning of said workshops, I should discover that these learners happened to have a free session during our scheduled time, and extended the offer of participating. Inevitably they did not all accept, however there were some striking milestones met by those who did. Learners with chronic anxiety demonstrated snippets of solo beatboxing rhythms for a studio full of their peers. Small groups of dancers created raps, rhythmical poetry and even volunteered to perform their incredible creations to rapturous applause. Initially I was dumbfounded. For an entire term I had battled with these learners on a weekly basis, trying to coax them from their shells just enough to spark their imagination on the possibilities they could achieve through music and song, and I had made such little, if any, progress. And yet here they were, having spent two hours with a perfect stranger, thoroughly enjoying showcasing their fantastically high standards of musicality and creativity to the very peers that I had considered to be more appropriate for these sessions. (This is not to say that our musical theatre students achieved substandard results, but merely that our dancers were very much on par with the musicality that was previously deemed intimidating simply because of the validation of their success provided by the label of ‘singers’.) Of course, it made perfect sense. There was such a huge and diverse variety of factors contributing to this perceived anomaly. Firstly, the majority of these learners specialise in urban dance, which by its very definition is ‘influenced by the rhythms and techniques of funk and hip-hop music’. I had blindly stumbled into their musical comfort zone, of which I had previously been so ignorant, and now that I was there I couldn’t help but notice a few other valuable lessons around me:

  1. There was an immediate rapport between our dancers and the workshop leader, and as I observed, it was immediately obvious that his entire approach was far more accessible, and far less threatening, that I had inadvertently created in my own sessions. Our guest tutor was mobile. It sounds entirely absurd, but as a singing teacher I spend the vast majority of my sessions working from behind a static piano. Yet here was Andy, swaying to the beat at the front of the studio, effortlessly sashaying around groups of students as he interacted with them on a far more personal level, welcoming them into a safe and creative space.
  2. The work that Andy was inviting our learners to perform was of their own creation. They had not been handed an intimidating booklet of sheet music and lyrics spread across multiple vocal lines, designed, in their view, to trip them up and make them look foolish, but instead trusted to create something valuable on their own, thus instilling a confidence and pride that I had not achieved.
  3. There was no prestige hanging over our heads indicating the possibility of failure. The art form that was being demonstrated, like any art form, was intricate, admirable and bursting with creative, emotive and political potential, and yet there were no perceived barriers to alienate individuals. There were no preconceived ideas about how a stereotypical hip-hop artist should behave or appear. These exist elsewhere, of course, but they were completely absent in this particular session, and I found myself considering the possibility that I had inadvertently invited such pressures into my own classes with these dancers.

I have always considered myself a respectful and approachable educator. I have always placed importance on the comfort of our students allowing them to engage fully within any given session. I have always welcomed questions or concerns raised by students, and value their personal input as the primary expert on their own learning preferences. What I was beginning to realise was that I had perhaps taken for granted that students either knew this, or felt confident enough on how to approach these topics, or even that they knew exactly what the problem was. It is entirely possible for there to be a large disconnect in a students learning experience, without them fully understanding what the root cause is.

I would like, in this particular case, to focus on observation three. I was trained first as a classical musician, later venturing into musical theatre. And thus far in my career, the majority of musical directors that I’ve worked with, as well as fellow singing teachers at regional masterclasses, have also been classically trained. It can often be rather unnerving the subconscious influence that our own teachers have on our styles as educators. I work with sheet music, and expect my students to do the same. I fluently and automatically use Italian terms when discussing musicality, and expect my learners to memorise these and integrate them into their own professional language. However, a performers natural talent and musicality is not defined by their prior exposure to standard musical training. A learner who has discovered a passion for music through second hand jazz or hip hop records will not always be able to afford, or even offered the channels through which to explore those underlying talents and interests, until they discover a funded performing arts course at a local further education establishment. And therein lies the problem. Whilst further education presents as an ideal opportunity to bridge the gap between secondary and higher education, there are also very real deadlines set for these establishments to achieve university offers for their learners. Therefore they must leave prepared for a level of study equivalent to their potential peers, but can a lifetime of music theory knowledge be taught during a diverse and strictly timetabled, two year curriculum? Is it essential that these learners master seemingly ancient skills and foreign language in order to further their talents and thus their careers? Well…surely not. Surely there is equal value to be found in a local singer songwriter, unable to read music but naturally gifted and well equipped with sound vocal technique, as in a classical composer creating symphonic scores. Both represent different performing art forms, but no one could possibly rule one superior to the other. Yet many continue to try.

Inevitably, it all comes down to money. Those who have trained in classical ballet or had instrumental lessons from a young age will absorb the perceived foundations of skills valued at higher education and conservatoire levels. The privileged youth will continue to be at a constant advantage to their peers living perilously near the poverty line, and yet this prestigious hierarchical structure is the very reason these ancient skills are at serious risk of becoming obsolete as numerous other art forms evolve around them yet the privileged few refuse to acknowledge their cultural worth.
Technology makes seemingly endless leaps and bounds in a progressive future and the world collectively ooh and ahhs at it’s phenomenal power and contribution, yet academics within performing arts continue to ignore such progressions. Scientists across the globe are praised for their attempts to thwart the laws of physics but exciting new dance forms receive the cold shoulder from those in a prestigious position of power.

How can it be fair that an affluent upbringing is inevitably an essential tool to academic success within performing arts? How can we justify leaving talented young learners behind because they have never been provided with the tools to master ancient trades that are so out of touch with their personal circumstances?

I am exceptionally proud of the achievements that occur regularly within further education. I believe that it exists to fulfill a crucial purpose. To provide a first, second or third chance to those who have previously disengaged with education for a variety of reasons. I also believe that often the needs of these learners have been failed for so long, that we, as educators, can find ourselves scrabbling to achieve a massive backlog of learning, and we’re under immense amounts of pressure to do so. Our learners can enter their studies with us at level one, two or three, depending on a wide variety of factors. This could be their grades achieved in school or extenuating personal circumstances that may affect their ability to commit to a larger qualification. Inevitably the ideal progression post further education study is university, and therefore it is our responsibility to assess an individuals suitablity for higher education. However often we have young adults audition for places who have disengaged with standardised education at secondary school level, and so have little or no qualifications. We are able to increase their number of educational credits with a vocational course of their choice, but universities will often specify a need for GCSE english, and so students who showcase talent and genuine enthusiasm at their audition are often placed on a lower qualification that will enable us to put them through the required exams.