Balcony view of the Madison Symphony Orchestra onstage

Inside ‘The Final Forte’: music educator discusses student prep for competition

March 23, 2022 Tara Lovdahl Leave a Comment

Four of Wisconsin’s finest high school musicians will compete in the 2022 Bolz Young Artist Competition finale. Wisconsin Young Artists Compete: The Final Forte will broadcast live on PBS Wisconsin and air live on Wisconsin Public Radio 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 13. 

In anticipation of the competition’s finale, PBS Wisconsin spoke with Chris Gleason, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) arts and creativity consultant. A band teacher for 25 years, Gleason discusses what it takes for students to compete at this level and the value of arts education.

PBS Wisconsin: Can you start by telling us a little bit about your background as an educator?

Chris Gleason: I grew up in my father’s band room in Arcadia, Wisconsin, and fell in love with teaching and watching him change lives and just kind of modeled myself on trying to do even a part of what he did. I’ve spent the last 25 years teaching in the public schools in Wisconsin — East Troy, La Crosse Logan Middle School, and then I’ve been in Sun Prairie for the last 18 years at Patrick Marsh Middle School as a band teacher. I’m still teaching part time as I transition into this new role with DPI.

PBS Wisconsin: Have you ever worked with students in the Bolz Young Artist Competition?

Gleason: Two of my former students won the competition. Seeing those kids go through that process was pretty outstanding. That was amazing.

PBS Wisconsin: Can you tell us what it is like forming the teacher-student relationship when you take on a special competition like this versus typical classroom instruction?

Gleason: Teachers don’t necessarily prepare artists and dancers and theater students and musicians for competitions. I mean it’s part of the culture. It’s part of what we do. But every single day, there are educators across our state who are working with students to lead them to success, whether that be through a very prominent competition or honestly to get them to come back the next day with a twinkle in their eye and excitement to do it again. 

I often refer to those beginners. You know, they get so excited on the first day because it’s like everything is new. But after about two weeks they’re like, “This is kind of rough! This is hard!” And, that’s the thing. Nothing that’s really worthwhile is going to come easy. You have to push through that. And I think that’s just one of the many benefits of striving for excellence and striving for goals whether it is a competition or honestly the next concert or just the next page in the lesson book. It’s “can I get past this next hurdle?” And if we can teach that, instill that in kids, man, look out. Anything is possible.

Four high school students stand for a portrait in formal attire

The 2022 Bolz Young Artist Competition finalists from left to right: Zak Chen, Jane Story, Ellen Zhou and Clark Snavely. Photo credit James Gill.

PBS Wisconsin: Do you ever worry about the pressure this type of competition puts on students?

Gleason: I find that it takes a certain kind of student. What I think the preparation needed to pull that off though, is not only the skill level but also the confidence that’s needed to know that you’re going way beyond the notes. Those students aren’t worried about playing the next note right. What they’re thinking about is the phrase; they’re thinking about the musicianship. They’re thinking about expression, like the notes were figured out long, long ago.

They’ve practiced so hard for so long. The instrument becomes an extension of that student. They don’t think about the technique anymore. They think even beyond that. So I think students are capable of doing these sorts of things when they have had a good fundamental base, they’ve had good instruction and then they just put in a whole bunch of work and desire to do it. You could see magical things happen there.

PBS Wisconsin: Can you talk a little bit more about the benefits of music or arts education for students in general?

Gleason: We lost a great educational advocate and thinker in Sir Ken Robinson just about a year and a half ago. And I love his quote. He says, “The arts aren’t just important because they improve math scores. They’re important because they speak the parts of children’s being which are otherwise untouched.” And I love that because a lot of times the arts are validated because they improve math and literacy numbers, scores and so on. And I think that’s fine, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But that’s not what they’re for. Rarely do kids get out of bed thinking, “I’m gonna improve some math scores today.” The arts are important because they create better citizens. They create well rounded individuals who can think in different ways.

The arts will challenge people, and I like that. If people go see great art, visual arts or music or dance or poetry, or a great musical or drama, you know, it causes them to think, and slow down and really consider things, and boy, that value has never been more needed. I think that really brings a lot to the table.

PBS Wisconsin: What have you seen your students go on to achieve after competing at this high of a level?

Gleason: I got in touch with a winner from a few years ago, and he’s in college and he still plays piano beautifully, obviously. But he’s in science, I mean, he’s in, like bioengineering. There are great musicians in this world and artists and so on who don’t do that for a living, but it enhances who they are.

Life is not siloed. It’s not like, “Now we’re in math. Now we’re in science.” I think you would find that some of the best mathematicians are the ones who see the elegance of the proof. And even scientists, I mean, good grief, they’re all about experimentation, obviously, but they’re also about curiosity and wonder, which overlaps completely with the arts. 

So, I think we need to break down these false narratives that everything is separated. A lot of these students go on to do a multitude of things, and the arts only help to allow them to be more successful in the future because they have that background, they have that capability, that way of thinking.

Featured image courtesy of Madison Symphony Orchestra online Press Room. Photography by Amanda Dill.

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