Skip to main content

North Hills Monthly

Future Leaders Getting Well-rounded Education through the Arts

Oct 01, 2016 02:06PM ● By Jennifer Monahan

Shady Side Academy

Andy Warhol. Meryl Streep. Yo-Yo Ma. These names evoke awe and admiration. Where will the next great artist, actor or cellist come from? That might depend on the quality of arts education available in local schools—good news for lots of talented students in the Pittsburgh area. And for the vast majority of students who will end up pursuing careers in other fields, arts education is just as important.

While art and music programs have been scaled back in recent decades because of constricting school budgets, most educators recognize the importance of arts instruction.

“Arts are very strong in North Allegheny schools because there has been a commitment from the school board over many years to make the arts a priority,” said Bob Tozier, chair of the music department at North Allegheny Senior High School.

North Allegheny School District (NASD) offers a robust music program that includes orchestra, band and chorus for students beginning in third or fourth grade and continuing through senior year in high school. Close to 85 percent of students participate through middle school, and almost 50 percent of students remain involved at the high school level. North Allegheny’s annual spring musical has a stellar reputation and relies on student talent to fill the orchestra pit as well as perform on stage. 

At the high school level, North Allegheny offers courses in multimedia arts, songwriting, electronic music, pottery, sculpture, jewelry-making, painting, drawing and photography, plus traditional music classes at all levels—including an AP Music course taught by Tozier.

At Shady Side Academy, a private school educating students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, the commitment to arts education is similarly strong.

“The arts are critical to who we are as human beings,” explained Dr. Dan Brill, who chairs the arts department at Shady Side Academy’s Senior School. A sound curriculum in visual and performing arts, Brill said, helps develop the mind and gives students the opportunity to be creative, to collaborate, to perform in front of an audience and to gain hands-on experience. He added that those life skills apply well beyond the high school stage or art show.

“The act of preparing something from scratch and then performing—or producing a final product—is critical in any field. Creativity, patience, perseverance and discipline are qualities that serve us all no matter what we choose for our life’s work,” Brill explained.

Shady Side’s visual arts course offerings include painting, drawing, metalwork, glass, ceramics, digital arts, photography, architecture and general studio art. The music department includes two choirs, a string orchestra, concert band, symphonic band and jazz band. Students who wish to be part of small musical ensembles have the opportunity to do so through extracurricular activities, and the school produces an annual musical. Students interested in drama can choose courses in playwriting and acting. Classes in music theory and electronics, as well as sound engineering, round out the list of available electives.

One of the strengths of Shady Side’s approach to arts education, according to Brill, is an emphasis on hands-on education. “We rehearse, and then we get up and do,” Brill explained.

Whatever level of talent or experience students might possess, Brill believes that the arts are critical to a well-rounded education. Art and music are the only disciplines that simultaneously require the involvement of mind, body and spirit, Brill said. 

“When you perform a musical piece, you are thinking through it. You are curling your fingers a particular way around the violin, you are breathing a particular way when you sing or you are holding your body in a particular way on stage. You are emotionally invested in what you are performing,” he explained.

Arts education is important because it helps students develop a lifelong love of and appreciation for the arts, according to Megan Koroly, chair of the art department at Oakland Catholic High School. It also provides an outlet.

“Students have a need to express themselves and make their voices heard,” Koroly said. “Visual and performing arts offer the perfect opportunity to do that in a safe, creative and enriching environment.” Koroly added that creating art boosts students’ critical thinking skills, creativity and problem-solving ability.

Oakland Catholic offers a wide selection of classes in art and music. The visual arts program includes studio art, painting and ceramics as well as AP Studio Art. Music courses include chorale, band, chamber singers, music appreciation and music theory. Oakland Catholic has a theater arts class and puts on plays in both the fall and spring.

One of the strengths of Oakland Catholic’s arts program is that the administration is so supportive of the faculty trying new things, according to Koroly. The school recently began a spring arts and music festival and is starting a women’s a cappella group. Oakland Catholic boasts a beautiful theater and recently created a clay studio with five pottery wheels for students to pursue clay and ceramics. The school’s proximity to a number of downtown art galleries is another asset.

Quigley Catholic High School in Baden offers three separate choir classes as well as popular piano and keyboard classes. Students put their skills to use as they lead the music for school Masses. The all-school musical is another big draw, with anywhere from 65 to 80 students involved annually.

“Music provides a sense of community,” said Marta Zak, a music teacher at Quigley Catholic. “When students come together to sing in a choir or perform in a musical, they are part of something bigger than themselves.”

Zak’s colleague Mary Jane Herrington is in her second year of growing the school’s fine arts program. Ceramics is offered at levels ranging from beginner through a College in High School course. Herrington also teaches foundational art courses that include drawing, painting and sculpture. Her ultimate goal, though, is to help students build their confidence—to see themselves as people who understand and appreciate art. 

“Creating art draws upon students’ work in other courses and requires higher-level thinking skills because they are always problem solving,” said Herrington. 

Tozier, Brill and Koroly agree that arts education enhances and supports students’ learning in all areas. 

“Critical thinking and creativity are desperately needed in the workforce. Students need these skills to be successful,” Tozier said. While some students may go on to performance and artistic professions, most will apply what they have learned in other areas. The metacognitive skills they develop transfer to every other discipline, he explained.

For now, these educators are focused on inspiring their students through art education and helping them to make meaning through art or music or drama. 

Concluded Brill, “Getting the kids to give something of themselves—that’s what it’s about.”