An Interview with Daniel Levy, Author of A Teaching Artist’s Companion

Daniel Levy

Reading Time:   5 Mins

Published:   January 14, 2020

“When we embrace social justice as a motivator or organizing principle for our work, are we sure the art and art-making –with all the energy and ambiguity present in genuine quality work in any art form- are still the resonant core of what we are doing?”

When I first started my teaching artist career, I was hungry for practical reading that would help me on my journey, but the literature was few and far between.  Now as our profession grows and widens, writers are helping to encapsulate the many facets of what we do. Some recent examples are Eric Booth’s The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible and The Teaching Artist Sutras by Michael Wiggins.

Most recently, I read a new, fantastic book on Teaching Artistry by Daniel Levy; A Teaching Artist’s Companion:  How to Define and Develop Your Practice.  I was inspired by the clear pedagogy, along with Daniel’s clear personal values and reflective practice, I was compelled to speak with him further.  Our conversation went from the future of arts education, to spirituality, to sustainability, and more.

Here is an edited conversation, and while it’s longer than a typical blog post, I hope you will take the time to read in its entirety.  There are so many gems for teaching artists!

Justin:  In your book, you talk about the evolution of arts education and teaching artists, from the 1980s, with arts organizations providing services directly to schools, and artists were delivering the services.  Then the implementation of national and local academic standards in the 1990s, the Arts Integration Movement in the 2000s, and the current social justice arts education movement (p3).  Where do you think (or hope) arts education and teaching artistry will be in 10 years?

Daniel: It would be powerfully transformative if two trends would synergize: the social justice arts movement, and our field developing professional standards. Both are so important, but my perception is that they are running somewhat side-by-side, rather than informing one another. When we embrace social justice as a motivator or organizing principle for our work, are we sure the art and art-making –with all the energy and ambiguity present in genuine quality work in any art form- are still the resonant core of what we are doing? I trust engagement with a work of art or an art-making process to be inherently therapeutic and valuable, when a professional level of quality and rigor are present. How well are we artists serving our participants when we prioritize something other than the art-making? At the moment I think we are exploring how an art-centric core might best inform work that is meant to serve social justice goals. Finally – or maybe first- I’m hoping that we’ll all be paid a living wage or the actual hours and skills involved in the work. Our culture generally undervalues art, art-making, and education in ways that prevent this from happening.

Justin:   How do you see Teaching Artists as being uniquely positioned as change makers? 

DanielTo paraphrase Maxine (Greene), before we can change anything, we first have to see what is. Teaching Artists work to clear away the “cotton wool” that obscures unexamined experience. Engagement with works of art helps empower a deep and personal engagement with the stuff of life, with those mirrors that artists hold up to the world, as well as a tolerance for ambiguity. This kind of engagement can develop into (or provide a foundation for) a life-long habit of noticing, and being able to describe, analyze, interpret and judge what we notice. An individual with that habit and skill set sounds like an empowered citizen to me.

Daniel at PS54X (Celebration performance of student compositions, December 2019), photo by Anthony Ball

Justin:  How does your lifelong practice of Buddhism impact your teaching artistry and how does your teaching artistry impact your ongoing exploration of Buddhism?

Daniel:  I began both practices (TA and Buddhist) at more or less the same time, in my mid-20s. Self-reflection aka meditation is at the heart of Buddhist practice; self-reflection is also at the heart of art making and teaching artistry. In all three realms, reflection is constant, sort of the engine that makes change and growth possible. As I’ve cultivated the habit, all kinds of synergies and parallels between the practices pop up. I use Buddhist meditative techniques to prepare myself for classroom work, clarifying my intention to serve the beings I meet with, and afterwards evaluating the ways my actions in the classroom did or did not meet with my intentions. My classroom practice has shown me that my predictably ego-centric self can evaporate when faced with an opportunity to serve others, something that in the beginning of Buddhist practice I was not sure I was even capable of. I found that I was often able to be my best self –the person I aspired to be, with qualities I aspired to embody—when I was with students.

Buddhism also provided what became the View Design Respond framework for A Teaching Artist’s Companion:

View is … primary as the first of three terms—View, Meditation, and Action—that are used to frame Tibetan Buddhism’s Dzogchen teachings. To directly see the nature of mind is the View; the way of stabilizing that View and making it an unbroken experience is Meditation; and integrating that View into our daily life is what is meant by Action.

Whether or not you are a Buddhist, you can observe View, Meditation, and Action functioning in your life, because the sequence encompasses what is arguably the most common of human experiences. You already have a set of beliefs that grow and change over time, a developing understanding of the nature of mind (your View). You spontaneously reflect and compare your View with your specific experiences, mature as you reflect, and plan your future actions (your Meditation). You apply what you have learned during Meditation in daily life (your Action). Some of us are more reflective than others, but we all engage in these three practices to some extent.

View, Design, and Respond similarly encompass the teaching artist’s experience. You already have personal beliefs and understandings about art, teaching, and learning (your View). You plan what you do before you enter a classroom or workshop space (your Design phase). You apply what you know as you interact on your feet in the classroom or workshop space (your Respond phase). For our purposes, View, Design, and Respond are separated and presented in this order. But in practice, the three easily overlap and share common concerns and focal points. And all three are far from static; View informs Design and Respond, but also grows and changes over time according to what we experience during Design and Respond.

Justin:  Can you point to any moments in your development as a teaching artist that has contributed to a sustainable career?

Daniel:  Oddly enough, my work has been kept healthy by my walking away from or vigorously challenging work that I did not completely believe in, and in its place embracing work I did believe in. Sustainable means do-able very day. The match between our values and how our work plays out on a daily basis has to be strong if we are going to stay sane and happy and serve our participants. I’ve left good, stable jobs when they no longer matched my values. I’ve not been asked back to jobs after I questioned their structures and purposes (for better or worse, I have earned a reputation as a problematizer, interrogating programs that employ me with an eye toward making them as strong and effective as possible – not always wanted!). Luckily (so far) these partings opened up new possibilities. The blue sky periods can be alarming for a freelancer, but along the way I’ve been able to cultivate healthy, lasting relationships that have allowed me to do my best work.

Daniel at Lincoln Center Education Leadership Lab (2018) with Steven Herring (Bridge Arts Ensemble) and Liesl Thill

Justin:  Teaching Artistry can often feel a solitary pursuit.  How have you maintained a sense of community and camaraderie throughout your career?

Daniel:  You’re so right about the solitary aspect. We so seldom have a chance to observe each other, or even to talk shop. When we get a break from teaching, we want to go make some art, not attend a PD with our TA comrades. But 2018’s ITAC4 (if you did not see the videos of keynotes by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Liz Lerman, please be good to yourself and look them up) and last summer’s two-week Lincoln Center Education Leadership Workshop (with Eric Booth and Jean Taylor and a crew of rather amazing art-educators from all over the country) felt like homecomings to me, energizing and reassuring: we are not alone, we all care about pretty much the same things, and face many of the same obstacles. Isolation being one. The big gatherings help. The TAs at 92Y have a closed FB group, and we post stuff we are jazzed about for each other. Even easier: an informal howzitgoin? with someone you respect, while you walk to the bus after a PD. Oh, and a beer with your mates after a tough week doesn’t hurt.

But the biggest jolt of community and camaraderie I’ve experienced came when I invited 20 TAs from across the United States to define and share their Views. Dancers, actors, sculptors, poets, and musicians kindly responded. When these TA’s Views are placed side by side (on pages 39-52, A Compendium of Views), strong resonances and some gentle dissonances come up across disciplines and workshop types. Some of their most resonant formative experiences were captured as 350-word sidebars, like cameo appearences in the text, and I love the results. Best of all were the conversations we had before they wrote up their materials: what we do, why we do it, what would be most helpful to share. These are all such experienced, individualistic and generous practitioners: Barry Stewart Mann (theater, Atlanta GA), Heather Bryce (dance, Vermont and NYC), Tongo Eisen-Martin (poetry, San Francisco CA), Cynthia Campoy Brophy (visual art, Executive Director, artworxLA, Los Angeles CA), Margaret Peot (visual arts, New York NY), Derek Fenner (poetry, Oakland CA), Carol Ponder (theater and music, Nashville TN), James Miles (theater, Executive Director – ArtsCorps, Seattle WA), Jeff Mather (visual arts, Atlanta GA), Jean Emery Johnstone (theater, San Francisco CA), Aysha Upchurch (dance, Boston MA), Jennifer Oliver (dance, San Diego CA), Maggie Costigan (dance, Maui HA), Glenna Avila (visual arts, Los Angeles, CA), Sebastian Ruth, Founder & Artistic Director, Community MusicWorks (music, Providence RI), Eric Booth (theater, NYC), Larisa Gelman (Peace Center, Greenville, SC). Their ideas add so much to the book.

Justin:  Your essentials of teaching craft; Building Community, Anticipating Students Needs and Removing Impediments, Using Prior Knowledge, and Modeling are incredibly clearly defined in your book.  I find for so many TAs, including myself, the idea of feeling of fostering community feels essential but is sometimes elusive, often to do with the limitations within a 45 minute lesson plan!  Do you have any tried and true activities or general best practices you find success with that help foster that sense of community within a short time frame?

Daniel:  It would be great if there were a known sequence of actions or a set of words that would establish a sense of community. Until this Rosetta Stone is discovered, Teaching Artists will be the creators and maintainers of what I call containers for teaching and learning. Any good container keeps certain things out, and other things in. As most of us have experienced, there is no one single way to form a classroom or workshop container, ie a community. That said, I believe our success in forming effective containers for teaching and learning is based on the clarity of our intentions, in more or less this order: What do you believe in and value? Does your workshop Design reflect these beliefs and values? Are your interactions and relationships with students in the Container true to your beliefs and values? And for all participants: What qualities do we emphasize within the Container? There is a social contract that grows from who the TA is as a person and a practitioner. I’ve found that when I am clear about my View, my purpose, and my means/Design, I’m able to be relaxed and responsive to students’ needs (and quite the opposite when I am not clear). This responsive clarity puts them at ease, which builds a sense of community and common purpose: we are safe here; this is a place (maybe an exciting place) with a healthy balance of structure and freedom where I am seen and cared for. When “disruptions” come up, clarity of View and intention make it much easier to respond. I’m glad you asked this question, because so much of the book is about developing this clarity, confidence, and ease in our practice. Finding those qualities is a process, with self-reflection at its heart. Being well and truly grounded in those qualities makes our work more joyful and effective, for us and for those we serve.

A Teaching Artist’s Companion: How to Define and Develop Your Practice is currently available for purchase from Oxford University Press and Amazon.

Justin Daniel is co-chair of the Teaching Artist Affairs Committee and a board member with the Arts in Education Roundtable.  He is the Associate Director of After School Programs at Opening Act, as well as a teaching artist and theatre maker.

Daniel Levy is a composer and working musician in New York City. A leader in urban teaching artistry and arts program design, he has worked with numerous arts-in-education institutions, including the 92nd Street Y, The Little Orchestra Society, Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera Guild, and Lincoln Center Education.