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Cultivating Agency through Performing Arts 

Cultivating Agency through Performing Arts 
Michelle Kiehl, Performing Arts Department Head and School of Music Executive Director

Performance opportunities for performing arts students are king. . . or queen. . . or whatever represents your ideal. As a performing arts administrator, I work to offer more and more creative performance opportunities for our students to work toward and to develop the skills associated with preparing for, and leaning into, the spotlight. It’s also an understatement to proclaim that performances build community, but that’s the subject for another day’s Roar blog.

Last summer, in community with two Dana Hall colleagues, I had the great fortune to attend the Project Zero Classroom, a four-day professional development program hosted by Harvard University’s School of Education. Project Zero’s mission “to understand and enhance learning, thinking, and creativity in the arts, as well as humanistic and scientific disciplines, in formal and informal contexts, and at the individual, group, and institutional levels” felt broad and obscure, but I was determined to attend the program and to shape Dana Hall’s performing arts programming with the golden nuggets I hoped to uncover there. And I found one, indeed! I could apply this concept to Dana Hall's Performing Arts Department, not because it specifically applied to performing arts, but because it didn’t, necessarily. But I could see an exciting connection to our work educating performing arts students, and I’ve not been able to get this concept out of my mind since this program’s end last June!

The concept I carry with me daily from Harvard’s Project Zero Classroom is referred to as "fast fish" learning. Like the way fish create tiny eddies and vortices to push off from to propel performance through challenging current (did you know that this is the way they can swim against current seemingly impossible to face head on?), humans can, and would fare better by, actively modifying their social, emotional and physical environments to best support their performance. 

Marrying this “fast fish” takeaway with our passion to provide more and more creative performance opportunities to performing arts students at Dana Hall, we are driven to think about how we are we guiding our students to deliberately consider and to shape their contexts—how they can influence for the best possible performance outcomes (which build community, something I can’t help but mention at every opportunity).

How can we guide students in actively thinking about, understanding and communicating what they need to best engage on stage or in concert or recital? We can practice with them. During practice, during rehearsals, and leading right up to performance, we are encouraging students to think about and communicate what they need to feel the most comfortable while performing, because it’s then that they’ll achieve their best. We encourage their pause that may be necessary to consider whether they are supported by their environment or need to actively make adjustments for their own success. We have coached students to voice which light best supports their ability to read their music on stage, how sound should allow them to hear their own voice or the harmonies that accompany them, which is the most supportive height of their microphone or their chair or their music stand. And we recently and specifically praised a student who wisely uttered "No" to a very-last-minute performance idea that carried a risk greater than its reward. 

Dr. Tina Grotzer, our “fast fish” seminar leader at Project Zero, described her own experience creating a vortex from which to propel. Upon one of her early obligations to address a large room of parents, in a flash, she thought about and enacted a change in her environment that produced a more positive outcome. Dr. Grotzer explained to her audience that she was a reluctant public speaker. She then proceeded to verbally encourage her audience members, especially those in the front row, to offer her a smile. From there, she was off and running and enjoyed a gratifying and productive presentation.

With practice, and our reinforcement, students will develop the agency of successful performers; they will take a lead in their own experience on stage and have a greater hand in their successes. Let every performance inform their next performance  — and yes, build community — and be among the many opportunities we continue to develop for Dana Hall performing arts students.

    •    How Fast Fish Sink or Swim: Adopting an Agentive View of Learners
    •    It Takes Two To Feedback