The arts enrich the lives of children in powerful ways
When I was growing up in small-town Michigan, my mother was offered a hand-me-down accordion after cousin Billy got a new one. She asked me whether I would take accordion lessons, an offer I politely declined, and I’ve regretted that decision until this day.
I love the arts but never took lessons in a musical instrument, in singing, in painting or any other artistic pursuit, but I’ve seen the power of art in the lives of my children and others. Whether it was in the beautiful rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend” that my older son sang to his wife at their wedding, or the excellent education my younger son received at an art charter school after he couldn’t find success at mainstream schools, I’ve seen the difference art can make in the lives of kids.
And in Dakota County, the opportunities are everywhere for children to succeed as artists, even if they can’t succeed as athletes or scholars. No one knows that better than Helen Peterson, who has spent her career teaching young people to play musical instruments. She is director of the Minnesota Valley Conservatory of Music and Kindermusik of the Valley in Burnsville.
While expressing optimism about her thriving private businesses that provide musical instruction to youth, she is distressed by cutbacks in music programs in the public schools.
“It opens the brain and calms the body,” Peterson said about music in the basement office of an old mansion that is home to her businesses and other arts organizations. “Music touches every part of the brain.”
Later in the day, she would be teaching a music-appreciation class to toddlers and their parents. No, she isn’t teaching babies how to play the piano, but she is letting them feel the rhythms of music while parents rock them and massage them. She believes that a child who hears a musical piece when very young will retain some memory of it when he or she hears it later in life. That familiarity, Peterson believes, breeds a comfort with music that helps kids learn reading, writing, math and other life skills.
“I think the arts – whether visual art, music arts or dramatic arts – put math, science, the social sciences into context,” she said. She said jazz helps us understand the events of 1920s America. And musical beats, she said, are mathematical. Music students tend to learn other disciplines, such as math, more easily, she said.
So she offers Kindermusik movement and music classes to children from newborn to 6 years of age at the building on River Ridge Circle overlooking the Minnesota River. And in her other business, the Minnesota Valley Conservatory of Music, she offers instruction to older children and adults in a dozen instruments. She also teaches in a North Minneapolis outreach program, where she sees the calming effects of art on the at-risk youth who live there.
“Children learn that music is something they can use to work through emotions and to control their emotions,” she said.
Peterson, who took over the conservatory of music after its founder, Scott Winters, couldn’t keep it going while he was dealing with other business issues at the old mansion he tried to turn into a center for the arts. Because she was operating her Kindermusik franchise down the hall from the conservatory, she decided to try to keep both businesses going. Both are now profitable, proving to her that there is great demand for music education in Dakota County.
Despite that demand, she said, music programs are being cut back as school districts wrestle with funding issues.
“It breaks my heart,” she said, “to see how much music is being dropped out of schools.”
She mentioned cuts in music programs in Lakeville, where she lived before moving to Savage, and the threat to the arts as the financial pinch forces cuts in other local school districts.
Getting back to my two sons, I think about the gift their artistic skills have made in their lives.
For Eric, who is 36, music was an activity that he pursued in addition to athletics. He was captain of the soccer team at Edina High School, but he also sang in the school choir, and he now uses his singing voice at weddings – his and his sister’s in recent years – and in bars equipped with karaoke machines. For Zack, who is 21, art played a more crucial role when he was young.
Zack had soccer skills, but his attention deficit disorder made it difficult for him to comply with the directives of coaches and to coordinate his play with teammates. His teachers tried to be patient with him, but large classrooms and homework made it impossible for Zack to succeed in the Lakeville schools. During one of his most difficult times, in fourth grade, he agreed to try out for a play by Giant Step Theatre, which is run by Pete Martin, the longtime, now retired, director of community education in Lakeville.
Zack, like so many young people, didn’t fit in on the athletic field. But he found his place at ARTech charter school in Northfield, on the stage of Martin’s Giant Step and in welding classes at Dunwoody Institute, where he learned the skills he needed to become a metal artist.
We tend to salute the people who teach our kids to hit a baseball and kick a football, and they are to be thanked for their efforts. But it’s just as important to thank the Helen Petersons and Pete Martins of our community, who teach our children the value of art, which, Peterson says, is more than a sidelight for kids.
“It’s a way of knowing,” she said.
Larry Werner is editor and general manager of Sun Thisweek and the Dakota County Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com. Columns reflect the opinion of the author.