Seeing stars: Innovative collaboration brings top performers to school stages

Sixteen-year-old Rachel Wright takes center stage in the Mayerson Theater at Cincinnati’s School for Creative and Performing Arts. No one can see her sweaty palms or dry throat. She has a solo performance tonight—one that she’s been preparing for since she started at the school.
She steps up to the marimba, four mallets in-hand, to play “Mango Bay.” The cotton-like heads caress the metal. The melody is light, spirited and breezy. The two mallets in each hand glide smoothly from note to note.
“I’ve always loved music,” says the soft-spoken teenager. And although percussion wasn’t her first choice—she started as a harpist in fourth grade —now, she says she loves the complexity of percussion and wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Music is telling a story without using words,” says Wright, who is a double-major in instrumental music and technical theater at SCPA.
“Rachel is the quiet but intellectual kind,” says David Burchfield, who has been the band director at SCPA for six of the 36 years that he has been teaching in the music education field. “[She’s] not real outspoken, but when she does speak, it’s pretty significant. What she has to say, she says with music.”
Wright tells her tale with each tap of the mallets. It’s her personal translation of the sweet sound of success.
More than music
Burchfield has seen students’ interest in music translate into higher test scores, better concentration and overall, more successful students. He has also seen it shape tomorrow’s leaders.
Students who study performing arts, like musical performance, score 20-50 points higher on the SAT than students who have no artistic education, he says.
“Music is the ultimate discipline,” says Burchfield. “[It] creates a holistic thought process to think more critically, more independently.”
An overemphasis on test scores can be counterproductive, he notes, because a narrow focus on those numbers can discourage creativity, which inspires the love of learning itself.
“Music education is incredibly important, especially today,” says Isidore Rudnick, PhD, artistic director of SCPA. “[Music] promotes creativity and critical thinking. It emphasizes each child’s unique talents.”
The jazz-loving trombone player, who is also a nationally recognized music educator, conductor, composer and performer, says that music speaks to the students as well as their audiences.

The benefits aren’t just on stage, either. Studying music helps develop time management, listening and reasoning skills. And musicians have to learn to work well with others, be sensitive to the world around them and be ready to take on leadership roles when necessary.

Sounds a lot like the qualities necessary for success in any field.
Music education also gives students the opportunity to figure out where their personal contributions fit into a larger context, whether that’s in the classroom or the concert hall.
“It enhances intellectual development,” adds Bill Albin, PhD, who teaches music students at both SCPA and Miami University.
“The focus and concentration is every bit as demanding as a sporting activity,” Albin says. “[But] in music, you have one shot to get it right.”
Many of Albin’s students are studying majors outside of music, like medicine and business. However, the music he teaches gives them greater scholastic advantages than their non-musical peers. “Their intellectual level is kicked up a notch.”
Erwin Stuckey, director of Jazz and Percussion Studies at SCPA, sees yet another off-stage benefit of an exposure to the world of the arts: “Every young person needs tremendous balance,” he says. “Music and artistic development makes them better citizens.”
While music education benefits students’ academic achievements, it also gives them an upper hand to say “no” to negative influences, Stuckey says. “Each student has a unique voice, and music education allows that voice to be heard. Music is life.”
All-star support
At SCPA, students have the benefit of being part of the ongoing Mayerson Artistic Excellence Program, which started in 2009 and has received substantial financial support from the National Endowment for the Arts for this school year and next.
In 2012, the NEA awarded the Mayerson Foundation $45,000, which the Foundation matched to provide students with continued access to the city’s top professional artists from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the Cincinnati Ballet and the Contemporary Arts Center through master classes and other special programs.
The collaborative effort also maximizes visits from guest artists like violinist Joshua Bell and percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, both of whom visited SCPA last fall while on a trip to perform with the CSO.
For the 2013-2014 school year, the NEA has awarded the Foundation $60,000, which the Foundation will match, to keep up the good work.
The additional funding and support is an essential component for the truly one-of-a-kind school—the only public K-12 musci school in the country. “SCPA does not receive a single dollar more than any other school in the district for the arts productions,” Rudnick explains. 
Maintaining a vibrant program of arts programming while tending to the basic needs of students, more than 50 percent of whom meet the definition of “economically disadvantaged,” requires a constant balancing act that all faculty know well. Still, the school regularly scores higher on proficiency tests in nearly every subject than other schools in the district and across the state.
In addition, the latest Ohio Deptartment of Education Report Card lists the percentage of economically disadvantaged students who graduated within four years at SCPA at 95 percent, which is higher than the overall average rate in the school as a whole. It increased from 82.4 percent to 87.2 percent in 2012.
Graduating on time, attending college, finding passion in performance and art—all are important. But so is the sense of pride and confidence with which Wright wields her tools of creative expression.
As she creates the last note of “Mango Bay” with her mallets, she holds her stance, looks up and takes a slow and pronounced bow.
Jessica Noll-Korczyk, a regular contributor for Soapbox, is an award-winning and Emmy-nominated freelance multi-media journalist, full-time PR guru, photographer and social media aficionado. Armed with her master’s degree from Columbia College Chicago, she has contributed to several news outlets nationwide, including Fox News, Nancy Grace, CNN, MSNBC and People; as well as locally for Cincinnati Wedding Magazine, Story Magazine, Cincy Magazine, The Kentucky Post and WCPO-TV. She is currently the Community/Media Relations Director for 4 Paws for Ability.
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