Guitar Hero = Arts Education Hero…?

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One of the coolest things at the Americans for the Arts Convention last weekend was the Guitar Hero/Wii set up. Yes, I am a video game geek as you know, and when I discovered in the “After Words Lounge” that there was not only a Wii set up, but a Wii set up with a data projector and big screen, I just about plotzed. Audibly.

My friend Graham and I played a few rounds of Dance Dance Revolution, but I suck at it, even though I have the game. It’s really difficult. Then we broke out the Guitar Hero and I schooled him and schooled him until he gave up and went to bed.

A bit later, I realized I was the last person in the room. And it was 2 a.m.

The following day, between some slow sessions, I wandered around the conference’s main networking area, where they had a little bookstore, some internet kiosks, and (?) a man cutting mirrors into small pieces that he then strung up and dangled on a wire.

In between his table and the bookstore was…Guitar Hero! Just on a regular screen, but, you know, whatever. Guitar Hero. !!!

I put my bags down and played for a while. I don’t mean to brag, but I’m not bad. I can rock out to Hard on most songs, and I almost never fail out of songs (except for Steely Dan–lame!).

A few people wandered over while I played and tried to talk to me, but when I play Guitar Hero, I go into full on Rain Man mode and can’t participate in the outside world.

That is, until a middle-aged woman approached me.

“Does this even help you play the guitar?” she asked?

I tapped away on the buttons, my fingers little blurs on the fretboard. “Well, no,” I said.

“I didn’t think so,” she said. “My daughter plays the guitar and she’s been asking for this, but I don’t see the point.”

“Well, I couldn’t walk over and be able to play it after playing Guitar Hero,” I said, circling my point like a shark ready to feed, “but it does teach you some skills that are important to playing guitar.”

“Like what?”

“Like visual rhythm comprehension,” I said, tapping out a riff for emphasis. “I have to take the notes on the screen and, based on the time signature of the song, play them at the right time, on the right rhythm.”

She was quiet.

“Plus there’s the whole sight-reading thing,” I went on.

“Sight reading?”

“Yeah, like, I’ve never played this song before, so I’m basically figuring it out as I go, which is all sight reading. That’s a skill I learned in band class. My teacher would put music in front of me and I’d have to figure out the notes and the rhythm on the first try.”

“Oh.” She wandered away.

But I think I made my point, especially to myself. I’d never considered that Guitar Hero could be a form of music education, and while, yeah, you can’t play an actual guitar without some help, the last time I checked, playing race car video games didn’t teach you how to drive. (Right, mom?) But they can train your reflexes and coordination, which makes you a better driver even if it doesn’t make you a driver in the first place.

I think people would more readily see a connection between dance education and Dance Dance Revolution. In that case, you have to time your steps to the floating arrows on the screen–basically the same concept, different controller–and, if you’re good, you can make it look like you’re actually dancing.

If you’re me, you can make it look like you’re actually seizing.

Ballmer

I spent my weekend up in Baltimore at the Americans for the Arts Mid-Century Summit. It was awesome.

I presented on a panel called “Leadership and Influence,” and talked about my experience “embedding” myself in the DC area arts community after moving here two years ago. I spent quality time with the Emerging Leaders Council members doing a lot of our annual work over a few days of meetings and networking sessions, and I really enjoyed meeting the new arts professionals who attended the convention, many for the first time.

I left with a lingering question, though, which was: where were my literature peeps?

The Americans for the Arts Convention drew about 1,000 people from all over the country. It seems evenly split between professionals who work in state and local government agencies and professionals in private nonprofits. Many of the panels and talks are oriented toward business-related concerns; this year, for example “exploring new business models in the nonprofit sector” was a big and important topic–and also a slightly incendiary one!

Over the course of the weekend, I compared this crowd and experience with AWP’s annual conference, which now attracts over 8,000 people, most of whom are employed by or involved in higher education. But through my involvement with AWP’s Writing Conferences & Centers program, I know that there are a significant number of independent nonprofit literary organizations who attend AWP, who present there, who exhibit there. These organizations would really benefit from a connection with Americans for the Arts, and I think as our world becomes more interdisciplinary and “hybridized,” connections with our arts colleagues in other areas will be more and more important.

Consider, for example, that a huge portion of the Americans for the Arts event is build around Arts Education–both understanding what makes it successful and how to rally public and private support for it. But many organizations in the nonprofit sector also engage in arts education, including literary organizations like The Writer’s Center, so it benefits us to be connected to the larger discussion, to have colleagues in the field.

The Emerging Leader Council has been a true gift to me personally and professionally this past year, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to serve on it. The convention this year will full of young leaders and leaders new to the arts administration field who represented workers at all levels in their organizations. The literary world, too, is full of smart, passionate, and entrepreneurial leaders who found presses (No Tell Books), establish affinity organizations for writers (Kundiman), and convene (Lambda’s seminars for GLBT writers), yet those perspectives and talent were absent from this weekend.

When you consider that more and more of “literary” (scare quotes intentional) publishing is moving into the nonprofit sector, I wonder why more and more professionals aren’t reaching out to be a part of the sector as a whole. We rely more deeply on governmental grants and funding from philanthropic foundations, yet we aren’t a part of the organization that lobbies Congress on behalf of art everywhere.

Is it too incendiary for me to posit that we might be reaping too many benefits and sowing too few seeds?

From my perspective, with seven years of experience in this field, I can honestly say I feel dance and literature are the two arts most commonly “left off” the catalog of arts disciplines in our country. I’d say that even film, despite its connection to a robust for-profit enterprise, is still more commonly recognized as “art” than writing and dance are. Yet writers are one of only two kinds of artists who receive direct financial support from the National Endowment for the Arts. It’s a strange conflict to witness. I’ve watched literary orgs jump back and forth between arts councils and humanities councils because their programming seems to wear the other hat (or both, or neither distinctly enough for their tastes). And now I feel like I see the community of literary professionals forsaking involvement in the greater arts conversation that could, over time, get us a better seat at funders’ tables.

Does literature’s symbiotic relationship with the academy separate us from the arts community? I did notice that another underrepresented group at the Americans for the Arts Convention were arts administrators who work within systems of higher education. (In fact, the first time I attended this Convention was during my tenure at ASU, and I came away feeling like there were no colleagues for me or information relevant to my job at that event.) And it’s true that for many university presses, rather than lobby their elected officials for funding, they lobby their administrators and regents instead.

But I can’t help feeling that the stronger our arts field is, the more inclusive and diverse it is, the stronger our impact will be, the more readily funding will be made available and a greater diversity of voices will be heard.

What do my literary colleagues think about this?