I am fortunate to work at a school with such an incredible arts program. Whether students spend one year here or fourteen, they have many chances to share their creative selves with teachers and each other daily. From performances at Grandparents and Special Friends Day, to Revels and Spring Festival, our students consistently blow us away with their level of musical achievement and learning. Even students who do not take music lessons outside of school leave fifth grade with skills on the recorder, barred instruments, and rhythm instruments that will carry them throughout the rest of their lives.
I have been teaching in the Lower School for the past three years and am reminded each May of my two favorite hours of the year. In the midst of the busyness of preparing our fifth graders for middle school, deep in the fray of math assessments and end-of-the-year portfolio preparation, scheduled in-between Middle School elections and foreign language lunches, is Fifth Grade Music and Poetry Sharing. These two golden hours of tunes and words represent much more than just the few weeks that the students spend preparing in-class. For many students, this is a culminating moment, a time to share their hard-earned musical and creative talents with their classmates, teachers, and parents. After all, many of them spend hours and hours outside of school learning the piano, the violin, the cello, the guitar, the drums, the zither, singing, etc. When I stood in the back of the library this Wednesday morning, I’m sure I was not alone in being overwhelmed by the accomplishment of our brilliant fifth grade students and their undeniable, shining, raw talent.
But not only do these students inspire- they teach as well. The 5th grade year is united around three central concepts: Flex, Grit, and Heart. These three ideas unite our year-long curriculum of community building, learning about the food system, examining our identities, and mathematical problem solving. The fifth grade students, so serious in their presentation of song, poetry, and instrumental music, epitomized Flex, Grit, and Heart this Wednesday in a way that no amount of academic writing or self-reflection can compare. Mouths were open in disbelief as Sarah confidently demonstrated “how to be brave” in her performance of “A Thousand Years” by Christine Perri, Megumi showed undeniable grit as she belted a soulful and inspiring rendition of “Almost There” by Randy Newman, while Jake and Nate reminded us that “there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit” through their heartfelt tandem performance of Kahlil Gibran’s poem “Friendship” accompanied by Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” on the piano. I am reminded that, oftentimes, our students end up teaching us what we need to learn about our own curriculum, and not the other way around.
Bobby McFerrin, great American musician, has asked the question, “Is music older than words?” As a musician and artist myself, I also spend a lot of time thinking about questions such as this and the role of the arts in our lives. As Bobby McFerrin alludes to, the arts seems to connect us to a part of ourselves that is very old, primal almost. This week, many fifth grade virtuoso pianists, cellist, and violinist certainly connected us to this past, when they shared great works of classical music with us. And art certainly transports us to other places, as Angelika did with her Irish harp and Ava did with her Chinese zither. And it certainly inspires and uplifts, as Fiona did with her rhythmic and upbeat ukulele playing. But more than anything, the arts allows people to come together in community, as Aiden reminded us when he invited the audience to sing along with him as he played “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Just as we look to the past for inspiration, I am also heartened looking into the future. Our fifth graders are going off to middle school in just a few short months not only as eloquent mathematicians, deep thinkers, witty writers, and keen scientists, but they also seem to understand and feel the importance of something else, something deeper: a spirit of creativity.
So many schools don’t have the vibrant arts community that we so heartily support here at Catlin Gabel. As a recipient of the gift of Music and Poetry Sharing this week, I must thank you parents, so heartily, for supporting your students’ music and arts education. I am grateful that you remind them to practice their instruments, as begrudgingly as they may do so. I am grateful that you come sit in the audience as they perform. And I am grateful that you encourage them to express themselves in whichever form this takes. If the resounding applause for our fifth graders this week is any indication of the way in which the arts touches our lives, I don’t know what is. It inspires us, it reminds us to be brave, it teaches the value of hard work, and it leaves us all filled with something unexplained, something older than words, long after the last note dies away.
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