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Voices of the Global Community

Shaun M. McCracken, Virginia Commonwealth University

Shaun McCracken.jpgI recently had a conversation with a colleague, the director of the Virginia Commonwealth University Discovery Program for Undeclared students, who  was looking for a way to help his population understand the day-to-day reality of being an arts student. What skills are truly needed beyond the technical jargon posted on audition and portfolio Web sites? Let's be honest, I can tell a student that he or she needs to memorize two contrasting monologues of one minute each for the Theatre Performance program...but the audition is a nanosecond in the course of the arts training.

As an “arts” advisor, I frequently speak with parents about the “practicality” of an arts degree. Many parents want to know exactly what their student can “do” with a degree in Music, Theatre, or Dance. Parents understand the reality of the current economic climate, and they understand the hard truths of the job market. All too often, parents are locked into the idea that their student should do something “practical” so the student can earn a living. Parents need assistance to see that the skills the student learns in an arts program have merit in non-arts fields.

Much of the literature provided to arts advisors (and to undeclared advisors talking with potential arts students) addresses how students can translate their 'arts' skills ( i.e. 'soft' skills) into the business world. Yes, arts students generally are better at critical thinking, communicating and understanding ideas, collaboration, leadership (not to disparage my colleagues in Business), and public speaking. But there are skills we are forgetting; skills that when viewed in a different light provide clues to solving BOTH problems we have discussed. These skills include:

  • Idea Synthesis. Arts students learn to compile data (often in text, image, and sound form) and synthesize that data in new and compelling ways. They do that in dance, graphic arts, fashion, film, music, and theatre. Oh, and they will probably need those skills in the business world too!
  • Focus. No one can focus (when they want to) like an arts student. Are we capable of spending three hours standing in front of a mirror working to position of our feet like a dance student? Are we willing to spend 20+ man-hours on one project like the graphic arts student? That focus comes in handy when these students are given a task in the 9-to-5 job world too!
  • Visualization/Interpretation. Can we see a constant movie in our heads? Can we, with deliberation and accuracy, slow down that movie and notate everything that is happening? A film major can. This ability to visualize an artistic ideal is necessary for every artist (the artist should say to himself, 'THIS is how I want it to be,' and then make it happen.) The ability to visualize ideas is vital no matter where we work.
  • Physical Mirroring/Detailed Correcting. Most artists understand that the smallest features in their work can help them attain perfection. The ability to look at something, identify a specific problem, and correct it on a finite scale is vital to the artist AND to the working professional.
  • Specificity. When an artist walks into a room and participates in 'group work,' we hear her say (with sometimes alarming frequency), 'give me the specifics...Let's talk about THIS THING...'  The focus and correction of detail discussed earlier color the artist's view on any project. Artists are capable of focusing on, and correcting, specific areas of a project (be it a concerto, a monologue, a pas de deux, or a painting). This specific, focused approach is part of our artistic methodology. A musician cannot work on an entire symphony at one time; she must work in pieces.

So what do students do in the arts besides learning music, painting pictures, and telling stories?  They focus on their work in the most intimate ways possible. They open their minds and (more painfully) their hearts to the creative process. They allow others to judge their work and they judge others (what non-arts people call 'critical thinking'). They spend hours in front of mirrors. They know their strengths and weaknesses better than the individual with an Accounting degree, and, at the end of the day, they can sit down and work with that person. 

As advisors working with students in the arts, and their parents, it is incumbent that we stress the connections between theory and practice. We must encourage our students to look beyond the day-to-day practicalities of their arts training and understand why they do what they do. We must teach our students how to “spin” their arts training so they may become more effective participants in the global job market. And, finally, we must encourage parents to look beyond the “practical” concerns to support their student’s true passion.

Shaun M. McCracken
Academic Advisor for First-Year Performing Arts Students
University College
Virginia Commonwealth University
smmccracken@vcu.edu

Cite this article using APA style as: McCracken, S. (2010, September). Understanding arts training: Beyond 'soft' skills. Academic Advising Today, 33(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]

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