#WeAllDeserveArts: Jane Coffey – AEMS Trustee / Development Director, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company

August 7, 2020

The Right to Joy or How Music Teachers Hold the Key to Lifelong Happiness

“We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.”

I am honored Quanice Floyd asked me to write a blog post -after all I am not an artist, nor am I an educator. I have been really impressed with the eloquence of other blog posts and I hope my post adds the perspective of an arts advocate and arts supporter. Each blog post has included many of the benefits of arts education, but several have mentioned joy in passing.  Joy, or in other words, the pursuit of happiness is the reason I agree #artsareahumanright and #wealldeservearts and arts education.  

I’m afraid my story will seem like I’m bragging – but it’s really not my intention. I am lucky to live in an  arts -full house and I think it is the main reason this is a contented, peaceful and happy  house. Isn’t this what everyone wants and more importantly, deserves? If the US Declaration of Independence stated that we have an “inalienable right” to pursue happiness, why does it seem that the choice to become an artist in our society is woefully undervalued? Artists who pursue their art full time bravely do so; risking the disapproval of anxious parents and unpredictable “gig economy” income. Yes, some famous visual artists become revered and can earn a good living, as do famous musicians – but the average, run of the mill artist who is laboring over scales, or sketches, or dance moves are often doing so out of love and a fierce obsession. If they know their lives will have a lot of risk and uncertainty, why do they do it? More interestingly to me, though is despite these risks, artists look very happy with how they spend their days; even stubbornly, obsessively, content.  What do they know that the rest of us don’t? Why do studies show that artist feel happy with their lives, and not frustration? The starving artist, depressed writer with writer’s block, the musician working away in obscurity in their basement; these tropes are truthful, but they are not the entire artists’ story.  I know this first-hand because I live with a musician, and our daughter is a graphic artist studying animation in college.

When I met my husband, he was a full- time musician who was becoming disillusioned (Listen to this Stoop Story episode that explains why).  Appropriately, we met at a concert; “hooked” up at another one and have been having an endless conversation about music that moves us ever since.  We are music people, to borrow a tag line from WTMD. After several years of being a full-time musician, he decided to go to law-school; and he is a lawyer now. But he really is a musician all the time, and the law happens to be his job. People are often surprised by this, but I don’t think they should be. Having a day job keeps him motivated to be efficient and get back to what he’d really rather be doing, which is writing songs.   This balance works very well for him and is one I think every artist must figure out to manage the  risks of pursuing their passions.  We learned this the hard way early on.

Early in his legal career, he stopped playing music. This turned out to be bad idea for him, and by extension, our relatively new marriage. He was depressed and irritable, so much so that I begged him to start playing music again. Once he did, it helped his whole outlook on life. He was less irritable, his outlook became brighter, and we were happy. He was able to tolerate legal work a lot better. He started working out and music ideas would come to him. Soon he had several songs written in his favorite style. He made a CD. People listened and liked it. He formed a band. 10 CDs, one child, and 15 years later, music, especially live music, is our lifestyle.

My husband is always writing music, collecting music of all kinds from many different genres, and practicing the guitar. I do none of these things, but boy do I benefit from his obsessions. There is never a bad soundtrack in my house. I share the joy of deep dives into back catalogs and exploring connections. Who played with whom, who learned from who…I started to realize that I was learning a lotMy ear got more finely tuned. I could hear excellence in performances that I didn’t hear before. My appreciation deepened. This brings me joy.  

Luckily, our musical house proved to be a good environment to bring up a child, especially one who has been drawing since she was 5. By the time she graduated from high-school, I calculated that she had spent 3,000 hours on her craft; why would we ignore or even worse, try to suppress this need of hers to draw? As college loomed and life choices were on the horizon, she knew exactly what she wanted to do. It made the college choice easier – and she landed at the Columbus College of Art and Design, a 150 year old Arts college in Columbus, Ohio, to study animation. Happily, Netflix, Disney Channel, Apple TV and a few others are expected to launch 50 animated shows in the coming years. Maybe, fingers crossed, there won’t be overly much “starving artist” in her future. 

Our musical lifestyle has been a boon in #Covid19 time too. Music keeps us focused on the positive, especially in these stressful times. This is a messy, flawed country, with this promise of happiness as a God-given right and ideas that are never lived up to. When subjects that teach the skills that can lead to lifelong  happiness and creative satisfaction is continually underfunded and cut off at the knees – how does that even make any sense?  Teachers know their kids need arts; they know the arts are what feeds their students’ souls. Budgets, policies, and official priorities need to reflect what our founders knew (and today’s experts know) about the means to pursue personal joy.  

I know that I have two retired music teachers from Cambridge Maryland, my husband’s hometown, to thank for a life full of fun and joy. When he was in middle school, they recognized my husband’s talent and encourage him to this day. (They come to his shows when he plays on the Eastern shore) I’m not sure music teachers (and other arts teachers) know they are planting the seeds that can grow a joyful life, but they do every day. Doesn’t every child deserve to learn lifelong skills that can bring joy and happiness  too? This is why I support the work of AEMS/Arts Education in Maryland Schools. #wealldeservearts

Jane Coffey

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