Why More Than 1,500 People Are Pledging to Preserve HB’s Performing Arts

by Hannah Schmidt

“I was really aware, even while it was happening, that the discovery of arts education in my life sort of saved my life.” – Daveed Diggs (Original cast of Hamilton on Broadway)

I could say arts education has saved my life as well. Before my sophomore year in high school I loved musical theatre, writing and piano, but never imagined I could combine all of my passions, nor did I have the confidence to do so. However, after loving HB Singers my freshman year and wanting to be more involved with Vocal Arts, I timidly signed up to take Songwriting 1, and it literally changed my life. I went from never writing a song to writing my own musical as a Strnad and considering songwriting for college. Songwriting 1 and Advanced Songwriting have taught me technique as well as how to use my voice and communicate my emotions. But last week I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me when I heard Advanced Songwriting was not being offered next year.

As I scrolled through the 50-plus page PDF of the 2018-2019 course catalogue posted publicly on the HB website, I saw that not only Advanced Songwriting was missing but so were several other performing arts classes. In fact, to my shock, half were gone, including Black Box Ensemble, Improvisation, Choreography, and Advanced Technical Theatre. I walked through the rest of my day with tears threatening to pour out of my eyes, feeling hurt and betrayed. I couldn’t believe it; my favorite part of HB was going away.

As upsetting and confusing as last week was, the response from the HB community has been unbelievable. In less than 24 hours, an online petition collected nearly 1,500 signatures from current students, family, friends, and alumni who support the performing arts curriculum continuing to provide challenging classes. As much as I was starting to doubt HB’s commitment to the arts, the quotes left by people who signed the petition proved how the performing arts programs impacted their lives. Some of the most compelling comments have come from graduates who reflected on how their HB performing arts experiences have had positive long-lasting effects.

However, the response from the HB administration put out in an email on Friday confused the situation more. The email stated that the course catalogue was just a draft, and that they were not cutting but “consolidating” the performing arts offerings. To me, those two words sound very similar, and since there was no further explanation, I had a difficult time understanding the difference between the two. This major change to performing arts programming was communicated and handled in a way that seems to have taken lightly the opinions and feelings of the very students it would be affecting, leaving us with many big questions weighing on our minds: Why does the performing arts curriculum need to be consolidated? Was there a problem with the current performing arts program? Is the money currently used for performing arts going to be allocated towards something else? What will this new “restructured” arts curriculum entail? If it’s going to be “innovative” and “dynamic,” why were students not asked for feedback on what they’d like to see enhanced about the performing arts program?  

I asked Ms. Ritzman to answer some of these questions. In an email she sent me Saturday evening she listed the performing arts classes to be offered next year. The list confirmed that HB will still be cutting four performing arts classes: Improvisation, Music Theory for Singers, Choreography and Composition, and Dance Ensemble. Black Box Ensemble has been added back, while Advanced Songwriting and Advanced Tech Theatre are still in question. She said that classes are reviewed every year and one of the things considered is enrollment numbers. “When courses have enrollment numbers in the single digits for a number of years, we have to wonder if these classes are meeting the needs of our students since we gauge student interest based on how many students take a particular class,” Ms. Ritzman said in the email. She went on to explain that if there were enough students enrolled in both the basic and advanced classes of songwriting and tech theatre they would run as separate classes as they have in past years. If not, the sections would be combined into one class.

This explanation concerns me because one of the selling points of this rigorous private school is the opportunity to benefit from small classes with individualized instruction at the highest level possible. HB holds itself to this standard in other disciplines. For example, would HB combine a post-AP language or very high-level math with an AP class just because the numbers of students in the classes were small? I can’t imagine students feeling challenged if they were repeating lessons they had done the prior year. Performing arts students should be granted the same opportunities to keep moving forward in their disciplines. Students deserve to be pushed to their highest potential in whatever they are passionate about, and weakening the advanced classes in these areas would show a disregard for the creativity and drive of HB’s performing arts students. The third sentence of HB’s motto reads, “[HB’s] a training ground for athletes and dancers and musicians and actresses.” The possibility of “consolidating” the basic and advanced performing arts classes clearly defies that statement. It also calls into question how certain students could achieve the brand new Creative Arts Designation.

If HB’s shrinking of the performing arts program is a financial decision, I believe it’s short-sighted. HB prides itself on the academic achievements of its students, which should mean that investing resources into the performing arts is a priority. A study conducted at UCLA observing 25,000 middle and high school students concluded that those involved in the arts scored higher on standardized tests and participated in more community service, according to a 2002 study published in Critical Links: Learning in the Arts in Student Achievement and Social Development. A number of other studies have found a similar link between academic success and the arts.

The performing arts also gives students an outlet to relax and build community. In a highly rigorous academic environment like HB, this outlet is crucial to maintain students’ well-being. Events such as the Improv Assembly are extremely well-loved based on the ever-present big crowds and standing ovations. These performances create joy throughout the HB community, along with exposing students who don’t participate in the arts to different parts of culture. Without the Improv class what will happen to this assembly? Along with the positive impact the performing arts has on the overall HB community, students within the performing arts classes experience a much needed break from the stress of everyday high school life. This year, my Advanced Songwriting class has become so much more than a creative outlet; it is a family. The best part of my entire schedule is those two sacred lab periods when I go down into the basement and listen to people sing and play their own pieces of art. Nothing makes me feel more at home, and nothing makes me happier. The community built in that class is something truly unique and special that I haven’t found elsewhere at HB. Those types of moments are the things students will remember for the rest of their lives and are being overlooked in these consolidation decisions.

I have to question if HB is underestimating how seriously we care about maintaining a wide array of performing arts options. The HB email and comment on the petition referred to the outpouring of support for HB performing arts as a “social media” or “grassroots” campaign. However, those descriptions don’t do justice to the passion behind this movement. We are a group of determined young people coming together to use our voices, just as HB has always encouraged us to do. This article is not an attack on the administration; this is my truth and the truth of so many other HB community members being affected by the changes. There are so many creative ways to promote the performing arts classes to grow enrollment numbers if only HB made it a priority.

I urge everyone to attend the upcoming open forum scheduled for this coming week and share their opinions on why the arts matter, not only for current upper school students but for the primary and middle school students who deserve the same performing arts options we have now. We are still awaiting many answers to our questions, and we deserve to receive them. One thing that makes HB so unique is the amazing opportunities we have to train in the performing arts. I implore the administration not to replace the current performing arts programming with what appears to be a watered-down version. I can’t let that happen quietly, nor can the 1,500 other HB community members who are standing together to support HB’s talented and driven artists.

Here is a link to our online petition: https://www.change.org/p/hathaway-brown-school-support-for-the-performing-arts-at-hathaway-brown-school?recruiter=438112922&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=copylink&utm_campaign=share_petition

“I took Contemporary Dance Technique as a freshman, and now I’m taking Choreography. My experience in the class has been amazing and having the support of other dancers has made me more relaxed and willing to try new things. Every day when I walk into the dance room I think to myself that I will never regret my decision to switch to HB. We have the most honest and open conversations and the atmosphere is very friendly and supportive. The emphasis is not on how people will judge you, but on how you can express yourself clearly to others. This has helped me not only in dance but also in communication in general. We also work on choreography too, not just technique which most schools don’t offer, and it really gives you a whole new view of dance.”

  • Lina Yu – 10th Grade (Contemporary Dance Technique, Choreography)

“I have really enjoyed and had a lot of fun in these classes. I’ve gotten to meet some upperclassmen and some in my own grade. It’s a great way to meet new people. I was hoping to take the choreography class… and I don’t understand why the school needs to make these cuts.”

  • Sarah Scott – 9th grade (Contemporary Dance Technique, Orchestra)

“As a member of tech crew, I’ve had the opportunity to work on productions across all disciplines of the performing arts. I’ve been backstage during countless dance concerts, running lights from the booth for musicals, and mixing audio for Cabaret. During busy weeks, my favorite class would be tech theatre because it let me shift my mindset and focus on something outside my normal core curriculum. I found a family within the performing arts community; we’d laugh, cry, and put on amazing performances despite tech week stress.”

  • Hanna Keyerleber – Class of 2017

“I’m sad Advanced Songwriting is being cut because I think it is an important step for people who took Songwriting 1 and want to go the extra mile in improving their work, and I will miss having that space to create and collaborate. I’m also sad that incoming classes will not be able to have the same amazing experience that I did.”

  • Yardena Carmi – 11th grade (Orchestra, Songwriting 1, Advanced Songwriting, Music Theory)

“I hate that arts programs are often the first departments to be put on the chopping block when it comes to moving money at schools. HB has the resources to maintain and encourage a thriving arts department, and it should. Because even if the performing arts classes don’t appeal to every single student who passes through, they offer life changing opportunities that students should always have available to them.”

  • Emma Picht – Class of 2017

“The performing arts are so important to me! Hathaway Brown’s amazing performing arts department is part of what makes it so special and without it HB is not HB. High school is a critical time for young performers to develop their talent and these courses should not be cut because offering them gives aspiring singers, dancers, and actors the opportunity to pursue their dreams.”

  • Elena Flauto – 9th Grade (HB Singers, Songwriting 1)

“The buzzwords I’ve put on job resumes and college applications – ‘personable,’ ‘communication skills,’ ‘good at compromise and leadership’ – are all things that I learned the best in the vocal arts room in the basement of Hathaway Brown. Not only am I a more than capable musician in my own right, I am also a better person and a better student for having been a part of the Vocal Arts family. It makes me sad beyond the telling that HB is considering depriving current and future students of the vital experiences that I value and cherish so much.”

  • Anna Hollweg – Class of 2017

“Throughout my years, during both middle and high school, the dance department allowed me to grow as a person and pursue an interest that wasn’t simply academic. I believe the arts are very important as they center around creation, the sharing of ideas, and utilize different skill sets enabling one to become increasingly multifaceted.”

  • Jadzia Walker – Class of 2017

“HB should have performing arts programs such as music and theatre classes because without them, the ability to express ourselves (students)  and do the things we love is completely taken away. Having talent and feeling passion for something is such a gift. In no means does it make sense for that gift to be taken away.”

  • Emme Semarjian – 10th Grade (Songwriting 1, Advanced Songwriting)

“Participating in the performing arts was undoubtedly my favourite part of being at HB. The community created by the department not only created some of my closest relationships, but also gave me an incredibly supportive environment to learn and grow as a performer. Getting to work with my peers and teachers on such amazing projects was unforgettable. I have no doubt that the reason I am a performing arts major is because of the incredible direction and encouragement I got at HB.”

  • Alex Wiebe – Class of 2017

“Throughout high school I struggled with anxiety and depression, along with identity issues that caused my self esteem to plummet. The only relief I had from my own mental illness was HB theater. Being in shows and being part of the performing arts community gave me a release, a place to focus my energies while I healed. The Tempest, the first play I did with HB, still holds a special place in my heart because of the positive influence it had on my state of mind. All my friends were also in performing arts, and my happiest memories from HB are going to see my friends’ performances. I can say for a fact that I would be less of a person if I had not had access to the arts at HB like I did.”

  • Jaspar Solt – Class of 2017

“One of the biggest reasons I came to HB in high school was for the performance opportunities. At my public school, I was never given a chance to be a part of a production or sing with a small ensemble or even the choir.”

  • Josie Carlson – 11th Grade (Acting, Improv, HB Singers, Bravuras)

“I was hoping to continue to advance in Music Theory for Singers, as I believe this is an extremely important class for artists. I was also planning to continue writing songs in Advanced Songwriting. After hearing the news I was shocked and confused. These classes have benefited many students. One of the main reasons I chose HB was because of all the programs and the amazing courses regarding the performing arts. I am extremely sad and hope something can be done about this.”

  • Katy Nettis – 10th Grade (HB Singers, Bravuras, Songwriting 1, Music Theory For Singers)

“Advanced Songwriting offers something no other class does: Advanced songwriting gave me confidence, an ability to express myself and to give and take good criticism and, above all else, Advanced Songwriting gave me a family.”

  • Brett Parsons – 12th Grade (Songwriting 1, Advanced Songwriting)

“Even though my upper school experience at HB has not been defined by the arts i️t is still a huge part of life at HB… I believe that this limits HB’s mission of helping students finds new things to explore and take interest in by limiting activities they offer.”

  • Sophia Hanna – 10th Grade (No Performing Arts)