Last year, on June 4, I had my own cubicle in Boosey & Hawkes’s midtown Manhattan office, a favorite sandwich shop on 7th Avenue, and plans to see the world premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Symphony No. 4 the next day. On June 6, after two flights and one long layover at the Chicago Cubs Bar at O’Hare (while wearing a St. Louis Cardinals T-shirt), I found myself at a summer camp in the middle of rural Michigan, standing next to a pile of boxes of recording equipment that would eventually become a recording studio—that I was supposed to be in charge of.
Thus began my first day working as a teaching artist.
To be honest, I didn’t really know what it meant. I’d worked as a teaching assistant in college and had taught composition for a couple of summers, but this was the first time I’d encountered the label “teaching artist,” let alone had it applied to me. Over the course of the next nine weeks, I would learn more about being a composer, a teacher, an artist, and a person than I ever thought possible.
The Association of Teaching Artists defines the position as a “two career professional: a working artist and a working educator.” These dual roles inform one another, with the typical artist bringing their experience as an artist into the classroom and their education experience into their studios. Teaching artists work in wide-ranging environments, including school residencies, after school programs, and summer camps. By integrating artists into these educational settings, young people encounter professional working artists and have a direct link to people who use their creativity to make a living. In the best of these situations, teachings artists are able to cultivate a sense of community and invigorate all students, teachers, and administrators, not just the one’s directly involved with their programming.
Three years ago, The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities launched the Turnaround Arts initiative, utilizing teaching artists and arts education as the basis for reforming failing schools throughout the United States. In the initial year, the program launched in eight schools. These schools were all considered to be high-poverty, low-performing schools and represented a range of communities, from the inner city to rural districts. In the three years since the launch of this pilot program, participating schools have seen improvements in math and reading scores, attendance, and a decrease in suspensions.
The organization I work for, Music Ascension, has seen similar outcomes as a result of our programming. We bring teaching artists and music technology into schools and summer camps throughout the United States. Our programming brings songwriting and beat production into classrooms, built on the concept of giving voice to young people. We’ve transformed traditional classrooms into recording studios, utilizing the same software that studios use around the world, creating a safe space for students to share their stories. Our teachings artists run the gamut from singer/songwriters and hip-hop artists to a classical composer. Each of these artists brings their own, unique sensibilities into their education setting.
This brings me back to my first day as a teaching artist. At 26-years old, I was about to attend summer camp for the first time. I arrived that day with a suitcase and a couple of guitars. One week later my first day with the campers began. Over the course of the next eight weeks, the campers recorded and produced a new CD, wrote over 50 new songs, and performed countless times across the campground. We covered Taylor Swift songs around campfires, explored musical structures, and talked about Brian Eno. I shared my day-to-day creative process as I built my first sound installation, I was walking home…or at least I thought I was walking home…, and shared my ambient work On the Verge while discussing the use of sampling in hip-hop. They witnessed both the pre-premiere anxiety and post-premiere anxiety when my work, the memory evokes, forget what time, premiered while I was at camp.
Over the course of this month, I will share my own experience as teaching artist, crossing musical genres, learning to become present in another’s work, and how working as a teaching artist has impacted my own creative work and professional goals. Although it was an unexpected career shift, working as a teaching artist has had a positive impact on me creatively, professionally, and is an alternative to more traditional tenure track career paths.
Chris Cresswell is an internationally performed, award winning composer, teaching artist, and arts advocate. As at ease in front of an orchestra as he is behind a mixing board, he can alternately be found composing new works for artists and ensembles around the country, helping students write their first songs, advocating for the arts with Congressional staffers, or covering the latest Taylor Swift single at a camp fire.