In a school learning environment that champions STEM initiatives and all-digital classrooms, it sometimes is easy to overlook a discipline that combines many subjects into one — the arts.
West Orange students are fortunate to have not only access to award-winning programs in dance, music, theater and more, but also a strong arts proponent in their community.
Joseph McMullen, founder and CEO of HapCO Music Foundation, is a strong supporter of keeping art programs in schools. The foundation’s mission is to provide kids greater access to artistic instruction by supporting educational arts programs in low-income communities, particularly in West Orange.
“Art is really attached to almost anything and everything you can think of,” McMullen said. “And if you see someone who is involved with art and music, you will see that they really have a well-rounded approach to their education. I’m not saying that they’re going to be the smartest student, but they do have a way of approaching their academic work in a unique way.”
He has evidence to support that theory. McMullen recalled the story of a girl named Brianna he once met. Brianna was a middle school-age girl involved in the visual arts and theater program who he considered “a true introvert”because she typically “kept her head down and would never look at people in the face.”
After a few weeks of classes, however, he watched her gradually become outspoken and social. In one instance, McMullen recalled, he had some kids interested in their art programs get an introductory tour of the classes – with Brianna acting as the spokesperson.
“She was showing her work; you could tell how proud she was of what she was doing,” McMullen said. “And I, and one of the board members who was there, remembered her on day one … and yet here we were looking at her six to eight weeks later, and she was just such a vocal person.”
Increasing one’s self-esteem also can improve academic performance. A high level of confidence has been correlated with stronger academic performance in numerous studies because it increases one’s sense of self-efficacy.
West Orange High School orchestra director Jenna Vincitore agrees with the benefits of art instruction in building confidence and encouraging strong academic performance. She has noticed many students involved in art programs such as band, orchestra and chorus consistently rank in the top percent of core subject class and score higher than average on test scores.
“It’s a couple different things, but they know that to be in theater or music or involved in another performing arts course, you have to hold yourself to that standard,” Vincitore said. “For example, my kids, I know they can’t perform if they have less than a 3.0 or a 2.5 GPA. … Also, a lot of the time, music relates to math and other disciplines, so I just think it’s that extra practice with music that other kids aren’t getting.”
In addition to the advantage art instruction might give students in some academic classes, Vincitore believes the component of public performance is a primary influence in developing self-assurance.
“It helps their confidence because we perform on stage a lot,” Vincitore said. “We perform solos, duets, trios as well as ensembles, and I know that our counterparts in band and chorus do the same thing. And so, even in the first couple weeks of schools, we tell them, ‘Guys, you have to get used to performing in front of one another and performing in front of an audience.’”
Thespian Madeleine Montz, a senior at Dr. Phillips High School and the senior president of the drama department, said her involvement in theater since fifth grade has made her more social and influenced the development of her character.
“The best part about (theater) is having no fear to be who I am,” Montz said. “I can sing in public or do a full tap number with my friends at Disney and be proud. ... I have learned an entire different level of professionalism and respect because of working with different directors and cast mates. I feel comfortable in my own skin, and I can gladly explore the world around me with an open mind and heart.”
Montz said theater also has contributed to her work ethic given the Dr. Phillips High School’s rehearsal schedule and that it inadvertently increased her knowledge of history and literature, aiding her comprehension in those courses.
“Throughout my high-school years my theater classes have given me more background in subjects (such as) history and literature,” Montz said. “I read and performed in the play ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ as Scout before some high-schoolers even knew about (the author) Harper Lee. (I knew) the HUAC trials were the inspiration to Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ before any junior covered that in U.S. History (class). It’s extremely interesting to see the growth between the theater magnet students and regular students at the school. Not to say that we have an unfair advantage but, in a way, we do (because) our minds have been opened to so much more theatrical literature and experience.”
Contact Gabby Baquero at [email protected].