Children in the arts

By Tracy Patterson
Special Contributor

Hannah Hurst has a typical toddler-sized schedule of displaying her new running skills, learning signs, being read her favorite books, learning to identify animals and cutting teeth, but at the wee age of 15 months, Hannah also is already somewhat of a “veteran” of the arts.

Since she was 6 months old, Hannah, daughter of Luke and Ann Hurst, has been finding her unique voice, discovering new objects, dabbling with musical instruments and performing her own kind of  “boogie” to many types of music in her weekly Kindermusik classes.

An international music and movement program for children from newborn to age 7, Kindermusik is offered locally at the Abilene Performing Arts Company (APAC) for children up to age 5.

“At first I was really skeptical…I mean classes for babies?” said Ann, whose other daughter, 4 1/2-year-old Gracie, has also been in Kindermusik since the age of 3 months.

According to the Arts Education Partnership Web site, “Compelling evidence exists that early arts experience has an impact on all aspects of a child’s learning and development and that, in many ways, earlier is better.”

After getting involved in classes with her daughters, Ann said she “just loved it!” and is now a certified instructor. “It is amazing to see how kids have grown and developed during their semester.”

She also enjoys seeing the social interactions of the babies and opportunities for parents to understand the development of their children.

As a parent participant and now a teacher of the program, Ann is able to see the benefits of children’s early involvement in arts programs, but research also confirms the lifelong benefits of such participation.

Studies have shown that “early, positive, age-appropriate experiences with music—like Kindermusik—can have a remarkable and research-proven impact on children’s learning, including language and literacy skills (e.g., vocabulary, comprehension, listening, expression); social and emotional development; mathematics and pattern-recognition skills; and even ability to plan, guide, and self-regulate behavior,” according to the Kindermusik Web site.

The site also refers to Don Campbell, author of “The Mozart Effect,” who traced neurological development and found that by age two, “the brain has begun to fuse with the body via marching, dancing, and developing a sense of physical rhythm. The more music children are exposed to before they enter school, the more deeply this stage of neural coding will assist them throughout their lives.”

Furthermore, findings from the “Living the Arts Through Language + Learning: A Report on, Community-Based Youth Organizations,” by Shirley Brice Heath, (Stanford University and Carnegie Foundation For the Advancement of Teaching, Americans for the Arts Monograph, November 1998) show that:

Young people who participate in the arts for at least three hours a day, three days a week for at least one year are:
•        4 times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement
•        3 times more likely to be elected to class office within their schools
•        4 times more likely to participate in a math and science fair
•        3 times more likely to win an award for school attendance
•        4 times more likely to win an award for writing an essay or poem
Young artists, as compared with their peers, are likely to:
•        Read for pleasure nearly twice as often
•        Perform community service more than four times as often
•        Participate in youth groups nearly four times as frequently
•        Attend music, art and dance classes nearly three times as frequently

Music is an important part of 10-year-old Briarston Ashford’s life. The daughter of Aaron and Sheila Ashford, Briarston became involved in music when she auditioned and was selected to sing in the children’s chorus of Chorus Abilene when she was in the third grade. Her music teacher at Taylor Elementary recommended that she audition.

“It’s fun, and you do a lot of fun songs. The director (Jonathan Krake) is fun, too,” Briarston said.
As a member of the chorus she has the opportunities to perform in a Mexican dinner concert, a Christmas concert, with the Abilene Philharmonic and a choral part in Abilene Ballet Theatre’s “The Nutcracker” snow scene.
Sheila said that participating in the chorus has been good for disciplining her daughter to be committed to something and stay with it. In addition to learning how to read notes and music, participating in the chorus has improved her grades and contributed to her social development.

While many children participate in choirs and voice lessons, Trevor McCoy, son of Todd and Kathy McCoy, chose to become involved with music by playing an instrument. He began playing the violin in pre-kindergarten at the age of 5. Now 9 years old, the Thomas Elementary student takes lessons from Joyce McGlaun and has opportunities to perform at school, at family events, at Art Walk and at nursing homes. His two older brothers--Jimmy, 19, and Dylan, 15--also studied violin when they were younger, and Trevor wanted to follow in their footsteps.

Studying violin “gives them some discipline to practice,” said Kathy. It also helps with memory development and learning to “play by ear,” which the Suzuki method emphasizes at first before students actually learn to read musical notes.

Sara Voller also reiterated that participation in the arts has taught her daughters, Lucy and Grace, to be disciplined, and it has also taught them tenacity. It taught them how to strive for a goal, “because it’s not always easy,” she emphasized.

The 13-year-old daughter of John and Sara Voller, Lucy followed in the footsteps of her sister, 19-year-old Grace, who started ballet lessons at the age of three. Lucy started taking lessons when she was four years old and is now a company member of the regional dance company Abilene Ballet Theatre. While Grace has taken a leave from ballet to go to college at Texas Tech, Lucy continues taking four classes a week at the company’s ballet school, Ballet Abilene, and enjoys performing in “The Nutcracker” and most recently in “Cinderella” with the company.

“It’s really a way for me to express myself,” Lucy said about ballet. “I started (dancing) because of Grace, but I’ve always loved it,” she said.

Her mother appreciates that participating in ballet has helped her daughters to be more organized with her time and has created more well-balanced children.

Another Abilene Ballet Theatre company member, 17-year-old Hannah Capra, has been with the company for several years and has been selected to participate in the Joffrey San Antonio Elite Ecole Summer Intensive Program several years. She also attended Regional Dance America’s Craft of Choreography conference this summer at the Northwest Pacific Ballet studio in Seattle.

While Hannah, daughter of Jay and Nancy Capra, is heavily involved with and enjoys ballet, she also shines in the visual arts as well. Since first being given disposable cameras at the age of 4 or 5 years old, Hannah has embraced the art of photography and now has a host of awards to her name. This summer Hannah is spending a month in New York City to study photography at the School of Visual Arts. She has also studied ceramics, 3-D design, collage and enjoys painting and drawing.

“I use photography to confront my fears, capture my dreams, and inspire my mind,” Hannah says, “Photography has made me better at seeing with an unbiased eye.”

Hannah’s mother, Nancy, said that her other children have been involved in visual arts as well. Donald, 23, has always enjoyed drawing and cartooning and likes incorporating humor into his work. Daughter Sarah, 21, has her own jewelry company called Prairie Gypsies. She said that involvement in visual arts has made her children more observant and more open-minded; they don’t just make assumptions or “judge something right off the bat.”

Another popular art form is musical theatre that enjoys a large following in Abilene is musical theatre. Participating in musical theatre classes at APAC helped 14-year-old Kaitlyn Hammack come out of her shell, according to her mother Stacy. One of two homeschooled daughters of Trevor and Stacy Hammack, Kaitlyn has spent the past three years taking acting, musical theatre and hip hop classes at APAC. Her sister Rebekkah, who will be 18 this month, spent nine years in Chorus Abilene and spent some time at APAC as well, taking musical theatre, voice, hip hop and jazz classes.

“Kaitlyn was just kind of shy and not real outgoing,” said Stacy.

She started taking classes, and Stacy said they could “start to see this huge change in her. She’s done a complete one-eighty. Now she thinks the whole world is her stage,” Stacy said.

APAC executive director Lanie Westman said she has observed the change in Kaitlyn as well. “Kaitlyn has been with us for about five to six years. She came to us very shy and withdrawn. The Kaitlyn we know today is amazing.  She is a ray of sunshine,” Westman said.