Tring Park School for the Performing Arts in Hertfordshire is one of nine Music and Dance Scheme (MDS) schools in the UK providing specialist arts tuition as well as top-quality academic education to young musicians and dancers. Pupils can join the prep school from year 3; from year 7 they can specialise in either dance or performance foundation; and in sixth form they can focus on dance, commercial music, musical theatre or acting. Around 70% of pupils board.
Discussion about performing arts education is becoming increasingly fraught, what with the government defunding creative university courses, secondary arts and design teachers leaving the profession, and schools still not having completely recovered their arts teaching after lockdowns.
Not to mention the low wages for many performers and ever-climbing live performance ticket prices.
Arts and academic performance
So, what place does a specialist performing arts institution have in a society that’s dragging itself through a cost of living crisis and can teach itself guitar for free with YouTube?
A strong one, it turns out. Firstly, a good performing arts education also improves attainment in other subjects. For example, studies show that students who consistently learn and play instrumental music show significantly higher levels of maths proficiency, thanks to an understanding of rhythm and pitch. Skills like accurately counting beats, dividing up time proportionally, measuring tonal distances between notes, and especially learning piano are said to directly aid mathematical understanding by improving spatial-temporal reasoning.
“… studies show that students who consistently learn and play instrumental music show significantly higher levels of maths proficiency”
Government efforts to boost the UK economy involve cutting funds for arts and design higher education courses and redirecting money towards ‘high-cost, high-value’ STEM subjects. However, not only do arts and design skills directly benefit skills in STEM, they also add great monetary value of their own – the creative arts contributed more than £100bn to the economy in 2017.
Harder to quantify but widely believed is the idea that we learn about empathy, identity and social interaction best through the arts. A performing arts student walks in other characters’ shoes, connects with ensembles, exists within communities, works through conflict with others, and creates projects and works they can call their own.
Much of Jeffrey Boakye’s arguments in the Guardian for the good of English degrees can be applied here, too: “If the only prize on offer is personal economic gain, humanity suffers. Because ultimately, the real prize is insight and empathy, which has to be why we read – and write – in the first place.”
Stefan Anderson, Tring Park principal of 20 years, says of his students: “Performing on stage gives them confidence. And that springs over into anything they do. They’re usually quite articulate and have great presentation skills.”
However, at Tring, he says, developing these abilities doesn’t tend to lead to arrogance in the pupils – “…that is certainly not encouraged here. We do try to make them into people who will be good members of the community, whether they’re performers or whether they choose to do something else”.
“We do try to make [pupils] into people who will be good members of the community, whether they’re performers or whether they choose to do something else”
Studying any kind of performance also teaches children how to deal with disappointment. As Stefan says: “Only one person can get the lead role.”
A past Tring pupil who became successful in business in later life recently told Stefan that her ability to keep going, despite multiple health issues and professional setbacks, was because the school gave her ‘grit’.
“I think if we can teach the kids grit, resilience, whatever; that’s about the best gift we can give them,” says Stefan.
“Nobody goes through life with everything being a 100% hunky dory, pollyanna, whatever you want to call it. So, you’ve got to learn to deal with failure. But what better place to deal with failure than being in a supportive community?”
The four Cs
And it’s not just emotional or social resilience that future generations need. David Ruebain, Conservatoire for Dance and Drama CEO, points out that underinvesting in the arts is shortsighted when creative jobs could well be some of the least vulnerable to automation, and says that the four Cs of critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity (“hallmarks of a performing arts education”) are what will set people up best in a fast-moving world.
Similar to Boakye, he says that though the performing arts offer significant returns on investment, “the strength of any country and its people is about far more than the financial wealth it generates”.
Tring may be helping scores of passionate students achieve their wildest dreams, but it has a realistic outlook.
“Young people, their parents and the general wider public know that if you come to a place like Tring, you can get three A-levels in biology, physics and chemistry, plus training to be a dancer, musical theatre actor, or musician, and go ahead and have a great career in those performing arts fields,” says Stefan.
“But if it doesn’t work out – and I think this is a great strength of Tring, in particular, because we offer the widest range of A-levels of any of the performing arts schools – you have a really good academic education as a fallback.
“If you’re a dancer, you get injured and your dance career’s over, you need something else you can do. Especially ballet dancers, who have a relatively short shelf life. For women, by the time you’re about 35, all that time spent en pointe has wrecked your feet. Men can go on a little bit longer, maybe still be dancing after 40. But dancers need a second career, whatever happens, however successful they are.”
In an age of bedroom musicians and home-taught TikTok dancers, Stefan says a traditional performing arts education gives a performer superb technique that can be applied across all genres of dance, music or drama.
“You’ve got to learn to deal with failure. But what better place to deal with failure than being in a supportive community?”
“The stronger the classical dancer you are, even if you don’t go into that genre as a performer, the better your other disciplines will be because your body’s been trained in a certain way.
“And, yes, contemporary dance, jazz and so on, are very different stylistically. But it’s no surprise that most dancers have started off in ballet and then moved onto other things. And, similarly, with classical music, if you’ve got a really good classical technique, you’re going to be a much better jazz pianist than if you have a very average technique.”
Priced out of opportunities
As fewer standard schools are able teach creative subjects, and art and music teachers continue to drop out, specialist schools like Tring could help fill a gap, but a good arts education costs money and MDS schools don’t have endless funding.
Though scholarships go some way to remedying this, large swathes of promising young people are being priced out of opportunities to hone their potential in the performing arts. This, coupled with government cuts to creative HE courses, is contributing to the arts becoming “a pursuit for the rich”. Says Stefan: “I would love if we could actually say we can afford to take everybody in. Everyone deserves to be here.”
“We can’t give out the funding to so many of those young people. So, it’s heartbreaking to have to turn someone down, when this school would be so right for them, just because their parents can’t afford it. And we haven’t got infinite resources.”
The situation doesn’t get much better once students leave formal education. Understandably, many pupils, and their parents, are probably hesitant to plump for a performing arts career when low pay and poor job security awaits them after graduation. It’s been said that the consistently lower take-up of arts subjects at GCSE over the past decade is down to the government promoting STEM subjects at art’s expense. Ironically, when the world is falling apart and in need of art’s soul-healing properties the most, it’s the so-called ‘high-cost, high-value’ STEM subjects that receive the most attention.
A lot has changed at Tring in recent years, from introducing a commercial music course and increasing the number of A-level choices from 12 to 23, to building a state-of-the-art dance studio complete with real grass roof to accommodate higher pupil intake and complement its listed original Christopher Wren mansion.
It’s moving with the times, but let’s hope the times move with it, and we can work out a way to support and nurture our beloved artists and the education they need.
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