NATICK, MASS. — Conductor Benjamin Zander was only 15 when he left his home in England to study cello. For the next five years, he gave up a normal adolescence and a traditional education to apprentice with the master performer Gaspar Cassado in Italy.
"It was a wonderful life, and I wouldn't give it up for the world, but it was very lonely," he recalls. "There's no doubt that I missed out on companionship, and academics, and the community building I've devoted my life to subsequently. I remember saying to myself, 'One day, I'm going to have to have a school that enables people to do what I'm doing and not have to leave school.' "
That's what he has found at the Walnut Hill School in Natick, Mass., where he is artistic director of the music program. Walnut Hill is one of only three independent residential high schools in the country that unites intensive training in the arts with a college-preparatory academic program. Along with Idyllwild Arts Academy in Riverside, Calif., and Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, it offers students the opportunity to integrate the kind of academic study necessary to function capably in the world at large with the serious pursuit of an artistic passion - music, dance, theater, creative writing, visual arts.
Over the past several decades, a movement has bubbled up in favor of a new approach to educating artistically accomplished children.
Fast fading is the stereotype of the child prodigy, the extraordinarily serious and talented young person who spends hours locked in a studio or practice room at the expense of life experience and general knowledge. Replacing it is the concept of helping a student blossom in an environment that nurtures the development of the whole child - and where the skills inherent to pursuing artistic excellence are brought to bear on a broad range of studies.
An integral part of this shift hinges on the very concept of artistic talent. "Talent is not rare," says Roger Shoemaker, dean for the arts at Walnut Hill. "Everybody can sing or play an instrument or draw - talent is out there. You could do programs like ours in virtually any school."
The goal, he notes, is not to turn out famous people. "We think the arts should be part of everybody's life. What it's all about is developing talent and doing it in a balanced way, helping people become the best artists they can become."
Walnut Hill calls it "arts, hearts, and smarts." The idea is that the same skills and strengths a student brings to pursuing artistic excellence are helpful in acquiring all types of knowledge. Many educators believe the basic model could be used to transform the traditional approach to general education.
An intense situation
That said, educators acknowledge that combining serious artistic training with rigorous academics sets up an intensive learning situation. But in many cases, the supportive environment for such focused pursuits encourages students to perform better in all their subjects, even with course loads that are often double those they would find in a standard high school.
"In my old high school, it was all about sports, but I loved theater," says Christine Casale, who graduated from Walnut Hill last year. "I was all set to drop out and just do theater for the rest of my life, when my parents suggested we look into Walnut Hill. Now I actually like academics."
The reason? "I've learned how to learn, how to attack problems, what questions to ask," she continues. "I know how much work goes into something in order to succeed."
At Interlochen in Michigan, the SAT scores of recent third- and fourth-year students were nearly 33 percent higher than the national average. And Idyllwild boasts a 16-member Calculus Club. "People think of the arts as not the real world," Mr. Shoemaker says, "but [intensive study of the arts] is very real, with very specific deadlines and requirements."
For many students, these schools offer the first opportunity to feel part of a larger community - a welcome contrast to having often pursued their art in spite of school, rather than in conjunction with it. Students typically hail from all over the world, helping them to gain multicultural awareness. "I'm more accepting of other people," says Ms. Casale. "I started off [at Walnut Hill] with a clean slate, and I've really become myself."
It also allows them to be in an environment in which their art is central rather than peripheral to their lives, and one that supports rather than merely tolerates their artistic passion. As Lauren Mefferd, a senior in visual arts at Walnut Hill last year, explains, "At our old schools, most of us were considered the weird kids."
Camaraderie amid solo endeavors
That sense of support, which can be almost familial in nature, is crucial to a child's emotional development and sense of well-being. "Unlike sports and other endeavors, [learning and practicing an art] is something you do essentially on your own," Zander explains. "To have others around doing the same thing and going through the same thing is enormously comforting. You get a great deal of identity going through things with others of like mind, and it changes the whole nature of the artist. They become part of a community and develop quite a sophisticated understanding of other arts as well. It strengthens the culture.
"Some students miss some of the activities typical of the traditional high school &#8211; proms, parties, pep rallies, sports events.
But few mind the trade-off. As Sarah Jane Watkins, a third-year dance student at Walnut Hill, puts it, &#8220;You find out what&#8217;s really important &#8211; how to prioritize your time, how to eat right, how to stay healthy ...,&#8221; skills many students don&#8217;t learn until college or after, if at all.
Though the majority of students at the residential schools go on to pursue their arts at the college level or professionally, some choose to continue only avocationally.
To Stephanie Perrin, Walnut Hill&#8217;s head of school, that&#8217;s a natural part of the process.
&#8220;We help the students make all the connections among all the things they&#8217;re learning and bring them to their senior year with enough information to make the next right step.&#8221;
The success of students committed to intensive training in the arts is an argument for keeping arts in the schools &#8211; even as many schools have abandoned arts in face of budget and time restraints. According to the United States Department of Education, only 1 in 4 American students currently has the opportunity to participate in the arts in school.
Yet as all arts educators agree, the arts can provide one of the most effective pathways to learning in the broader sense, taking advantage of what educational guru Howard Gardner has described as multiple intelligences. Ms. Perrin talks about an open-ended process of development and learning. &#8220;The model of music training is one that involves practice, reflection, self- assessment, and more practice, followed by performance and communication to others, with assessment from the audience,&#8221; she says.
&#8216;Educate them for life&#8217;
The focus on process is important to the school&#8217;s mission. &#8220;The outcome of such a learning model is not a test or a completion of a course, but a process which leads to more learning. Training students in the arts is a very effective way to educate them for life because such training develops habits and skills, such as persistence and self- discipline, that serve students well no matter what they do.&#8221;
Zander, Walnut Hill&#8217;s artistic director, notes that mastery in the arts takes great discipline and concentration, skills that schools are eager to foster. &#8220;That training and dedication and commitment can only stand them in very good stead,&#8221; he says. &#8220;I think they are then equipped to do virtually anything.&#8221;
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