You wouldn’t know it by looking at him, but drummer Ben Hansen is exhausted. Yesterday he played two two-hour sets with his performance group Street Beat, a high-energy Stomp!-style act of drummers and dancers bashing beats out of auto parts, water drums, trash cans, paint buckets and pots and pans. Tonight he’ll join singer-songwriter Chad Gendason for a few sets at the Santa Monica Bar and Grille.
But Hansen, lithe and wiry in black T-shirt, jeans and boots, just did one of the most dangerous things one can do at 10:30 a.m.: He doled out empty five-gallon paint buckets and pairs of drumsticks to 20 seventh graders and told them to pound away.
The resulting, deafening noise is coming from Hansen’s biweekly class in Room 210 at the Los Angeles Academy of Arts and Enterprises, a public-charter, junior high school on the edge of downtown. Luckily, most of the kids keep the hip-hop beat Hansen has been teaching them for several weeks in preparation for a December 11th performance.
“That sounded like the building was falling down,” Hansen marvels after one particularly cataclysmic run-through. Unabashed giggles and attempts to master the one-handed drumstick twirl abound.
Hansen, who has performed with Ozomatli, worked with Anthrax’s Neil Turbin and is under contract to producers Matrix Music Works (Avril Lavigne, Liz Phair), is not a parent or a credentialed teacher. He’s one of dozens of professional L.A. musicians working as part-time teaching artists in K-12 public schools — earning extra cash and inspiring kids who never would have had the opportunity in the classroom to pick up a paintbrush or a drumstick.
“I didn’t learn my instrument only to teach. I’m a performer, but I wanted to combine it,” says Hansen, who teaches drumming, rhythm theory and stage presence in his program S.B. Kidz. “You can take a third-grade class of 30 students. They’ll all be given a paint bucket and two pairs of sticks, that’s all we work with. And it ends up sounding amazing.”
Thanks to a healthy boost in arts-education funding in California’s 2008-09 budget, narrowly passed by Governor Schwarzenegger and state lawmakers in August, teacher/artists may be in demand next year as never before.
In an attempt to resuscitate arts programs that had all but vanished from public schools, thanks in part to the national No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the state has allocated $109 million dollars in grants — a $4 million increase from last year — that school districts can use to hire more teachers and implement new music, theater, dance and visual arts classes. The No Child Left Behind Act requires states to test for basic skills in certain grades in order for those states to receive federal funding for schools. (Ironically, the Legislature didn’t increase the embarrassing $5.8 million allocated for arts funding in the budget, underscoring California’s reputation as the state that gives the least amount of money to its artists and arts organizations.)
Now with money to spend, school administrators can search and hire myriad working artists in L.A. — everyone from street drummers to L.A. Opera’s mezzo-sopranos — through the L.A. County Arts Commission’s program, Arts for All, a 10-year initiative to help establish better arts education in all K–12 L.A. County public schools. The Arts for All Web site (www.laartsed.org) features a database of 225 arts programs helmed by teaching artists like Hansen, searchable by art, subject, grade level, program type and cultural origin. All of the programs adhere to the visual and performing arts standards for California Public Schools.
Arts for All’s Director of Arts Education and Community Development Ayanna Higgins says the initiative has already made a huge impact since it launched in 2002. “We’re providing technical assistance to about 28 districts throughout the county,” she says. “When we first began .?.?. there was only one school district, the LAUSD, that had an adopted policy and a long-range plan for arts education.”
“In the last 20 or 30 years, local artists have been providing the arts almost solely in many of our schools and many of our districts,” adds Arts for All Policy and Planning Manager Sofia Klatzker. “We’re in this transition point of districts taking that back and we want our artists to meet the educational needs.”
Teaching artists can apply to have their programs approved and included in Arts for All’s database. The initiative also offers a 23-week teaching-artist training program Higgins and Klatzker recommend for those without much teaching experience. The enrollment fee is $100.
Triola Sanneh, who teaches African drumming, dancing and language with her husband Niancho, said Arts for All has gotten them more gigs throughout the county. “Just being a part of it has helped us get more work because people are able to go on their site and see what standards we are matching with African traditional art.” A former site coordinator for after-school programs, Sanneh adds that working as a teaching artist also allows one to teach without slogging through the crippling bureaucracy and paperwork mandatory for credentialed teachers.
Of course, school districts are glad to have more funds, but money has not been the major problem for educators struggling to fit the arts into school days that are already crammed with lessons preparing children for standardized tests.
“In our own local research, time was the number-one impediment. Not money, but time,” Higgins says. “But when you have the commitment, you not only find the money, but you find the time within the school day.”
Bradley Kresde, executive director of Rock the Classroom, a nonprofit elementary school program listed in Arts for All’s database, said he encountered the same problem when he and RHINO Entertainment founder Richard Foos and Chrysalis Records CEO Adlai Wertman began their nonprofit in 2003.
“[We] would go to a school and say, ‘Hey, here’s a free music program,’?” says Kresde. “?‘We’ll bring in the Beatles, bring in Mozart.’ They’d say, ‘Gee, we’d love to have it, but we can’t make time. If we fall behind a week in our literacy curriculum, we could be fired.’?”
The answer for Kresde was to create classes that mix music with schools’ academic curricula. For example, Rock the Classroom artists will teach a unit on the Blues and its roots in slavery to a class studying the Civil War.
Singer Destani Wolf, who has recorded with the Pharcyde and the 88, performs with Bay Area Afro-Latin-hip-hop group AguaLibra and recently released her debut solo album, teaches fourth and fifth graders at three different schools through Rock the Classroom. She notes that the program allows her to keep a flexible schedule rarely found in other day jobs.
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“That’s what the program wants, people who are out there doing it, making it happen,” she says. “It’s not just people who used to be out there performing. I think it comes across with the students because they can feel that they’re performing, too.”
Fifth-grade teacher Alberto Ramirez says just interacting with Wolf once a week has been a revelation for his 11-year-old students, most of whom are learning English as a second lanugage at Santa Monica Boulevard Community Charter School in East Hollywood.
“It goes beyond just music,” Ramirez says, turning to Wolf. “You don’t know this, but the kids have to write biographies of people that we admire. They’re writing biographies about you.”
“What the kids need to understand is that they can be this,” he says motioning to the now teary-eyed singer only 10 or so years older than Ramirez’s charges. “This is not just somebody they could never be.”