Connection Through The Arts
A Conversation with Madeline Cohen, Education Director of Symphony Space by Naomi Rodriguez
One of the most vital parts of the arts is education. It is often looked over and not emphasized in the same way as performance or visual art are, but education serves as just an important role. Madeline Cohen, the arts education director of Symphony Space, spoke with me earlier this month about her experiences with the field, her career, and personal journey towards art education.
She began with what inspired her to pursue an education and career in the arts.
Madeline Cohen (MC): I went to this very small public high school in Westchester County. I was in this little school district that did not have a lot of resources, so we didn’t have a theatre department. We did have art classes and music classes, and in eleventh grade, a new music teacher came in. He decided we were going to do a musical. We did the musical Oklahoma, which I got in the chorus of. I had been kind of an egg-heady, nerdy kid. I didn’t have a lot of friends. Being in the musical changed my life. I made a lot of friends. I observed people who would normally have nothing to do with each other having fun together, working together. There was this feeling of community and a communal drive to keep improving what we were doing. Let’s rehearse it again, all this kind of thing.
In so many ways it was the opposite of what I saw happening in regular old school, in terms of social interaction, ambition, drive, inspiration. And this, we need this in schools, but I didn’t know what that meant.
Cohen was not quite sure how to incorporate her interests into her career.
MC: I was interested in theatre, but I didn’t really think that was something you could do with your life so I majored in comparative literature. I read a lot of books, and I’ve learned to think about a lot of things. Then I went to graduate school and got a Master of Fine Arts in Costume Design. After I graduated, I came back to New York and tried to be a costume designer.
I was doing all these off, off, off, off, off, off Broadway shows. Basically, that meant not getting paid and making the costumes in my apartment. I had this tiny apartment that after a show looked like a volcano of fabric scraps had erupted, but I was having a great time. At an opera company in Florida, somebody mentioned something called the Lincoln Center Institute.
Through what is now called Lincoln Center Education, Cohen became a teaching artist in both New York City and Nashville, Tennessee.
MC: I ended up being a teaching artist with Lincoln Center for many, many years, and it was just about the most exciting thing I ever did in my life. There were so many kids that I worked with. I worked in schools all over New York City, and there were satellite programs around the country so I would go to Nashville, Tennessee.
The arts are a connecter, and there are so many ways to connect with the arts that kids that might not be doing well academically in school, kids who may feel out of it like I did, suddenly find that they can be the star. It’s something that makes them want to come to school, They understand things in different ways, and the arts provide so many ways of engaging. The whole methodology was not, “I’m the expert so I’m going to tell you what Hamlet is about so just sit there with your hands folded and take notes with your other hand, and I will tell you what you have to know and you’ll know it and then I’ll see you later.” This was more leading people through their own process of discovery, and that was something else that I felt was revolutionary.
Cohen detailed some fond memories of her work as a teaching artist.
I did quite a bit of teaching around opera in Nashville where of course they think of “grand ole opera,” and some incredible things happened. I worked in both inner city schools in New York City and in sort of rural schools in Tennessee. In both cases the students didn’t have any exposure to opera and they had plenty of feelings that they weren’t going to like it. It was La Boheme, in both places by coincidence, which happens to be my favorite opera.
[Once finished viewing the opera in Nashville] these big lumbering high school boys came up to me and said “Ms. Cohen, m’am, I cried.” I thought, “Victory!”
In New York City, I just had them listen to some of the music. I didn’t tell them the story or anything in the beginning and we were listening. When Colline is going to sell his overcoat to buy medicine for Mimí, and he sings goodbye to his overcoat. I just had the kids listen to it and I said, “What feelings do you have? Just try to describe what you’re hearing. Don’t guess what it’s about. What are the sounds you’re hearing?” Then we could get more to an interpretation. One kid said, “Is that from the elephant man?” I said, “Why do you think it’s from the elephant man?” He said, “It’s so heavy.” That’s when the word heavy came up and I thought, that’s listening. He heard the elephant man. He didn’t really know what that was, but he got a real picture of the music.
We spoke on the widening accessibility of the arts to create better connections between more people.
MC: When someone like you or someone like me thinks about the arts and what they’ve meant to us in our lives and how we can’t imagine not having them, it is a gift. It’s not a gift in a condescending way like, “Oh I go to the opera,” but rather, there is so much out there to love that will bring you happiness, that will bring you joy.
Some of those barriers get higher as you get older. If you introduce this stuff to kindergarteners they don’t have any feeling of, “I don’t want to listen to this kind of music or that kind of music. I only want to watch television. I don’t want to see a play.” They’re not there yet. That gets a little bit harder as people get older. If you make a personal connection and say, “I want to share with them something I really love,” it’s different. It’s really different.
I was thinking, “What is a teaching artist or a good teacher in the arts?” That person needs to have a drive to share what they love, that’s what I come across. 80%, or some high percentage, of what you teach is who you are. If you share that love, if you show that you’re passionate about that, it rubs off. Maybe not on every single person, but it may hit the spot in that one kid, and then maybe if he or she becomes interested it can start to be contagious.
In 1989, Cohen received an opportunity with Symphony Space, an arts center for education, performance, and outreach.
MC: They needed someone to run their arts education program. I had never worked in an office. I had never laid my fingers on a computer. This was 1989. In fact I only got a typewriter in college when I was a senior.
They needed someone to run the arts education program because the person who had started had an opportunity to live in Europe, and they had hired somebody but it fell through last minute. They were desperate and that was lucky for me because I didn’t really have the experience they were looking for. I’ve been there since 1989, so obviously I was able to grow into the job, and I didn’t know if it would suit me. The first couple of months I’m sitting there typing invoices and letters to schools to see if they wanted to have our program and I’m like, “This is why I have a MFA in Costume Design? To go ‘clickity clickity click’ on the computer?” But then I only had to go to one school and see one of our teaching artists leading a class and see how transformed and transfixed those students were. I thought, “I am on top of this. I do this, they get that. No problem.”
I then asked her what has been the most fulfilling part of being an arts educator.
MC: I often say I have the best job in the world. It’s certainly not the most high paying, but it is so satisfying.
I was talking to a man once on the phone, who I had never met, who had been a teacher in our All Write! program, the adult literacy and ESL program, and his program was being defunded and he was gonna lose his job. He said, “Other people don’t understand this. We have the best jobs in the world.” It’s when you see the pilot light of curiosity and excitement get turned on in a high school boy falling in love with La Boheme or something like that, it’s kind of like falling in love.
I sometimes worry. I feel like I used to be such an activist, and now I’m too middle class, too comfortable, but I feel in the arts, especially with questioning things, of not accepting the status quo, and even though we might be talking about an opera that was written 120 years ago or 400 years ago, or we’re looking at art that was painted in the 1400’s or music written in the colonial world, if it sparks imagination and curiosity and makes people want to know more, I feel so happy.
I feel like, in my own way, I’m doing something. It’s not world changing, but it might be moving things a little bit. We all can do what we can do. I could maybe do more if I had became a research scientist to cure cancer, but that’s not me, that isn’t what i’m good at. This is what I’m good at, and this is what I love. Sharing that with other people may help them say, “I’m gonna be a research scientist because I learned that my curiosity is gonna help me learn and discover and widen my life.” Those are the things I get to see a lot.
I worry about not working, not just for financial reasons, but I get so much of a sense of who I am from this kind of work. I don’t know if that is true of everybody and their job, but it is certainly true of me and I would say of educators. If they’ve gone in because they love their subject and they want to share it, and they get to do that, it’s pretty great.
Transcript has been edited for clarity.
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