On the creative edge
In a state where funding for arts programs in public schools is limited, is it better to try to lobby for more dollars, to make due with what you have—or to just ignore the whole argument and shoot for the stars?
Jesse Kilburn, one of a few kids hanging out after school at Reno High, demonstrates part of the percussion set-up. The 15-year-old climbs up onto the scaffolding and stands on a plywood platform holding a set of drumsticks. He bangs out a solo on a motley assortment of trash-can lids, rusty kitchen equipment, muffler pipes and part of a music stand, all dangling off wire fencing. At the same time, across the warehouse-sized band room, someone practices a few lines on the tuba.
“This is the high school version of Stomp plus Blue Man Group,” Chris Haskell says matter-of-factly. He’s the band leader. He’s distinguishable from his students mostly by his adult size and by the fact that when people call, “Haskell!” it’s sometimes prefaced by a “Mr.” He dresses like a college guy in a long-sleeved Stomp T-shirt and white sneakers. At first glance, his mannerisms appear carefully designed to relate to high school students. But his relaxed stance and easygoing demeanor are more genuine than that. A lot of Haskell’s enthusiasm comes from having found a way to make a living indulging his passions—music and performance. That, and he actually does relate to high school students.
“Hey Carlos!” he yells to a sophomore in a button-down shirt as they cross paths outside. “You’re cooler than I tell you you are but not as cool as you think.” They both laugh.
“I like playing what you write,” says a girl with long, wavy hair after rehearsal as Haskell breezes past her on the way to the copy machine.
Without stopping, he returns the salute: “I like writing for you.”
Haskell says she plays tuba and electric violin and is one of the top 50 high school musicians in the country. “There isn’t any music for concert electric violin,” Haskell says. “So I had to create it.”
“It’s called Edge,” says Haskell, referring to the Stomp plus Blue Man Group musical production his students are practicing for their winter concert. The first number is titled “Postcards,” and he’s a little disappointed that not many people have picked up on the pun, (as in Postcards from the …)
It’s a percussion-heavy show, as evidenced by the scaffolding contraption, a multi-tiered patchwork of wooden platforms with an artfully raw arrangement of drums: congas and snares along with plastic buckets, trash cans and car doors. A bunch of different-sized amps face in several directions. The performance also showcases saxophone players, a brass octet, a whole rock band and, naturally, electric violin. If it sounds custom-tailored to the 28 students who perform in it, it is. Haskell wrote the whole show.
Incorporating upbeat, mega-hit, mainstream performance art into Reno High’s music curriculum has earned the band director a lot of clout among students. Since moving to Reno a little more than a year ago to take the job, Haskell has seen student enrollment in his subject double. About 300 of the school’s 1,800 students are in the music program, making it the largest in the school system. Under the direction of Haskell and two part-time instructors are two jazz bands, two concert bands, music appreciation classes and individual lessons.
If Haskell and his students acquire all the instruments and music they need for the growing program, and if all the DVDs, videos, multi-media productions and live performances on their list come to fruition, they’ll need $65,000 this school year. That’s not including trips. The school kicks down $1,700.
Back in April, the Nevada legislature passed a resolution “recognizing the value and need for the study of the arts in public education.” The resolution lists several reasons to champion arts-education funding, citing studies that report heightened student morale and better academic performance.
Assembly Concurrent Resolution 19 states that the members of the legislature “recognize and support the efforts of all those who encourage the study of the arts in public education.”
The resolution enjoyed a bit of localized fanfare when it made the cover of the Nevada Arts Council’s fall newsletter (circulation 3,000). In the newsletter, the NAC extrapolated that this would give arts educators and advocates “a powerful tool.” I rushed to the phone expecting to hear about how administrators were basking in this newfound jackpot of “support.”
Seven months after the resolution was passed, Haskell hadn’t heard of ACR 19, nor had he seen any effects of the declaration. Neither had Steve Mulvenon, the well-connected spokesperson for Washoe County schools. Cheryl Shingler, the district’s music coordinator (and also the de facto art and drama coordinator, since there is no such position for art or drama) also missed it. I read the resolution again. It didn’t promise any specific action. Its purpose was simply to voice the legislators’ opinions that funding school arts programs sure sounds swell.
Mulvenon points out that Nevada usually rates among the worst in the nation for per-pupil funding. A report released in March 2005 ranks the state at 47th. He says the assumptions people may have about high school musicians with battered instruments envying football players’ plush new uniforms are unfounded. Arts programs in Washoe County aren’t any worse off than athletic programs, debate teams or any other programs, he says. But resources are limited all around, and individual programs often raise their own funding.
“It would be nice if kids didn’t have to sell wrapping paper and do car washes and do all the other sorts of things that they do. But it’s sort of the way the game has come to be played,” Mulvenon says.
In any creative arena—music, visual arts, theater, etc.—there are arguments about entitlement. Should performers’ efforts be publicly funded? Should artists be required to function under the same sink-or-swim principles of business as the rest of the world? Do publicly funded arts programs ultimately benefit the public, or are they just a form of specialized welfare for artists?
In any case, the people who get things done are the ones who are driven enough by their own ideas to find a way to realize them.
“I don’t pay much attention to what the politicians say,” Haskell says, sitting on the edge of the now-empty stage after most of his students have left for the day. “It doesn’t make much difference in my classroom. Last time I checked, I’m the only one who can make a difference in my classroom.” So far, Haskell, his students and their parents have raised $22,000 of their $65,000 budget.
“We got real creative,” he says. The band depends on some of the old fundraising standbys, such as rummage sales and student fees. They’ve also come up with a few more creative methods for filling in the budget, bit by bit. At shows, they sell T-shirts, concert DVDs and CDs they’ve produced and earplugs. (“If you sit anywhere in the first five rows, you’re gonna need them,” one student reports.) Haskell, a self-professed “arcade addict from the ’80s,” bought two full-sized arcade games for the band room. The revenue from the games’ quarters is about $100.
In-kind donations from parents and equipment loans figure in, as well. The band has borrowed instruments from other schools. Parents helped Haskell salvage a 60-year old set of vibes from Carson High. They designed and built a new frame that looks straight out of a contemporary design magazine with its industrial, welded steel frame and oversized wheels. Parents also get recruited to cook for band trips, and they built a practice room out of re-used lumber and carpet.
One of Haskell’s dreams for the near future is to start a thrift store as a source of continually renewable funding. Another is to win the Grammy Foundation award he’s applied for.
Haskell is my son’s babysitter’s husband, and many times I’ve arrived at the end of the day (the end of my day, anyway) to find him composing parts of the score with my toddler sitting on his lap. They’ll both be grinning at the iMac on a small wooden desk in the kitchen, engrossed in the soft, swirly sounds emanating from its speakers.
“Check this out. This is cool,” Haskell will invariably say. I’ll check it out. It’s cool. The snippets of freshly written backbeat are a little rock ’n’ roll-ish and just new-agey enough to be kind of outer-spacey. It has that Cirque-du-Soleil type of sound: on the exotic side but easily accessible.
Haskell, 34, studied music at Boise State University. Originally, he planned to pursue a career in composition and music theory.
“But I realized that doesn’t support a whole lot of children,” he says.
Haskell’s children are 5, 8, 10 and 12—past the age of grinning at a screen with Dad. They’re usually busy dressing up as princesses or filming stop-animation movies of toy cars or designing scientific experiments to try to uncover the mystery of which chocolate brownie recipe works best in which solar oven. No one in this house ever goes bored from lack if ideas.
He continues his thought: “And I liked working with teenagers, so I switched gears.”
On a Wednesday afternoon, the sun is almost gone from Reno High at 4 o’clock. Four teens stand around, hands in pockets, shuffling Dr. Martened feet and chatting in a circle. Four others walk toward the parking lot, shaggy hair and brassy instruments gleaming in the sun. The school is quiet, with one exception. A steady, energetic rhythm of drumsticks on plastic is clearly audible through the theater building’s chunky, red-and- blue-striped concrete walls.
The performers call it quits for the day. A few minutes later, Brian Alderon—a confident-looking 15-year-old in a black T-shirt with short, uncombed hair—oversees the moving of ladders, the adjustment of stage lights and the placement of wires and speakers. The younger, astute Joey Hemingway, 14, is a non-band member recruited from the choir to be the assistant tech. Holding a big roll of tape, he pauses for Alderon’s input, absorbs the advice and proceeds to conceal several feet of speaker wire with the tape.
Haskell’s collaborative spirit appears to have set the tone. The boys work independently, pausing to consult with him about a technical detail here and there, then they go back to moving and adjusting lights, curtains and wires.
Some artists love teaching. For others, it’s a good way to make a living while they pursue their craft. For Haskell, teaching music isn’t antithetical to creative expression. It’s just another art form. From the looks of it, he gives the project more than 100 percent. When I was trying to nail him down for an interview, he asked, “Can you get here at 5 a.m.? That’s the only quiet time of day for me.” Another day, after school, he looked sleepy. “I hit the wall every day about sixth period,” he said. “Then I have to shake off the cobwebs for afternoon rehearsal.” He remarked that many days are so long they feel like two.
While it’s inspiring to consider the dedication of a teacher like Haskell, his situation begs some questions about the system in which he’s carved his niche, the same system in which the legislature expresses its “support” by drafting resolutions. Do we need to find a teaching force of educators who can stretch themselves that thin, then cross our fingers and hope they don’t burn out before they’re 40? Is it a good idea to require that teachers be apolitical enough to ignore the ideals of what “should be” and focus on the practicalities of “what is”?
If you consider these questions within the context of music and arts, they become even more complex. Haskell and his students aren’t just covering the basics of music education—they’re shooting for the stars. But then again, anyone who’s ever accomplished anything remarkable in music has put in more than 100 percent, gone above and beyond “the call,” cultivated a level of unrealistic optimism that’s unadvisable in most fields and poured their heart and soul into something without knowing how much compensation they might receive, if any. Budding performers have no real option other than to shoot for the stars. Unrepentant dreamerdom is, by necessity, their baseline. At Reno High, the band teacher sets the example. By all appearances, young performers are motivated to follow it.
As the two student techs finish up for the evening and turn off the houselights, Joey Hemingway says with a conspiratorial grin, “Haskell, I love your evil plans. A good portion of them actually work.”