Is arts education just for aspiring artists? According to Paul Saronson, the principal of New York City’s LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts*, arts training can help graduates excel in any field, from dance to dentistry.
Can you tell us a little about your school?
We are the specialized high school of the arts in New York. We serve students from all over the city, all five boroughs. They come here for programs in dance, drama, vocal music, instrumental music and fine arts. The school accepts students by audition; we have approximately 2400 students currently on register.
Your school is thought of as the “Fame” school that was depicted in the musical and TV series. Is it really like that?
It’s a very stimulating place to be. You have students here who are extraordinarily talented, and they bring their rich backgrounds to the school.
A lot of students tell us that they were the outsiders in their previous school experiences, but here they’re with people who share their interests and their aspirations. They really blossom in this kind of environment.
Would you describe a student’s daily schedule?
We offer a full pre-conservatory program in the arts, as well as a full academic program that qualifies graduates to go on to colleges or universities. We do an extended day for students, which means that they take nine periods of instruction during the day, as well as a period for lunch.
The day is configured so that there is a block of time either in the morning or in the afternoon, depending on the level the child is at, for intense study in their area of art. That can be as long as the equivalent of four 45-minute periods of instruction that are blocked together. It’s a very full day for students.
In addition, every year we produce a major school-wide production with the New York City Opera. It is open to students of all departments. This year we are doing “Into the Woods.”
What is your approach to arts instruction?
One of the things that we find very important, especially in the dance department and the drama department, is to provide youngsters as much real life professional experience as possible.
For example, in the dance department we have a course called Choreography, which students take in the Junior and Senior year. In that course students not only create their own original work, but they also work with professional choreographers.
The course leads to pieces that are choreographed by these professionals with the students’ assistance. Then the students perform those pieces in our June dance concert, which is always a marvelous, marvelous evening of dance. But this year, in addition, they’re working with a professional choreographer who is choreographing a piece with our students which will be performed at La Mama as well as in our own concert hall.
Do you think that all students should receive training in the arts as well as academics?
I wish it for all students, especially in the lower grades. Students are often not aware of the joy of art. They’re not aware of their own talents, they’re not aware of some of their own abilities. It’s important that they experience this at an early age, and that it be carried through for them whether they can get to a school like LaGuardia or not.
What about people who don’t intend to be artists?
The answer is simple. If you look at the alumni of this school, I would say that the vast majority of them do not go on to careers in the arts. The president of our alumni association, who is a graduate, is one of the senior vice presidents of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
If a graduate becomes a dentist, they feel they are a better dentist because of the things they learned through their studies of the arts. If they are a doctor or a lawyer, they see things from different perspectives than some of their colleagues because of their training and because of their love of the arts.
And many of them do continue to perform, whether it’s in community groups or amateur chamber music groups. They also become the patrons of the arts. Lincoln Center has some pretty big houses that have to be filled every night, with the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Opera, the Avery Fisher Hall.
We hope that we are developing students who will, whether or not they produce art for the rest of their lives, will become lovers and patrons and supporters of the arts. And that we find to be true of our alumni.
Do you find that the parents of your students worry that their children won’t find jobs?
I think there’s some of that, to be honest with you. But once they see the program here and they see the child thriving in the studio and in the academics, they feel very good about the school. We’re taking in students who are fourteen years old — thirteen, in some cases — and we know that all of these students are not ready to make a career decision. That’s why we do have a very strong academic program and we do prepare youngsters for options.
Our senior class president last year was accepted on a full scholarship to Vanderbilt, and also to Julliard. When we see a student like that, we feel we we’ve succeeded because we’re prepared them for both worlds.
What do you like best about your job?
The students are just so unique and wonderful. When you see them succeed — when you see one of them do something marvelous, whether it be a dance performance, or a theatrical performance, or singing an aria, or a painting — you just feel such a thrill for them. Not only are they talented and bright, but there is a quality about them that’s just a joy to be around.
It was my pleasure.