Students in fine arts classes at Missoula schools might start to notice some common threads among band, theater, dance and art classes.

On Tuesday night, Missoula County Public Schools fine arts supervisor John Combs presented an update to district standards for fine arts music, theater arts and visual arts. (Current standards can be found here, here and here.) The guidelines outline the skills and concepts students should learn. The documents totaling 431 pages were written by district teachers after reviewing new guidelines from the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards.

Combs said one way the update is “significantly different” is the adoption of “anchor standards” that are common throughout all arts disciplines: creating, performing, responding and connecting.

The way some classes traditionally have been taught draw more heavily from some of those four core principles than others. Combs pointed to band as an example.

“We’ve been very good about taking Bach, Beethoven and Sousa and playing it the way it’s supposed to be done. But what about that kid’s music? How do we start having kids create?” he said. “What do you think they’re going to learn the next time they do take a piece of great literature, knowing what the process was for that composer to do that? The admiration for what they have in front of them skyrockets. And they get an opportunity to perform their own piece.”

In an online class with other music teachers across the country this summer, Hellgate choir director Ellen McKenzie heard the same concerns about the anchor standards. How do you take classes where “the main goal is the concert, the next performance” and find ways to have students improvise and compose?

“They’re the things we think we’d love to get to but we never have time because time is so limited already. Now, creating is so important we’re going to have to rethink our focus without totally changing what our classes are,” she said. “In individual arts (like painting), they do a ton of creating and maybe less performing and presenting to the public. It challenges us. It’s definitely pushing us out of our comfort zone.”

One simple way McKenzie incorporates “creating” into her choir classes is to ask the students to improvise based on style prompts.

“OK, we’re going to sing this song. Now, let’s sing it in a different style,” she said. “That’s a little bit of creating we can do quickly and easily.”

Big Sky band and music technology teacher Jesse Dochnahl learned a similar strategy from a theater teacher.

“Say this line as if you are devastated. Or, play this melody as if you are devastated,” he said.

The formal recognition of the obvious — that the multiple forms of arts share common themes — will open doors for new kinds of cross-discipline collaboration among teachers and reinforce those ideas for students, who “might not see that yet.”

“There’s certainly a unified thread that runs through all fine arts …. It allows us to share a similar language and a similar outlook,” Dochnahl said. “It’s beautiful.”

Combs emphasized to trustees that the new standards are a living document that will evolve with teacher recommendations and from discussion in professional learning groups, which are regular opportunities for instructors of the same grade level or discipline to swap ideas.

“We’re starting where we are,” he said. “This is open to growth and adjustment.”

The trustees have not set a date for when they will vote on the new standards.

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