Up Close With Dr. E

Dispelling myths about art, artists


Today’s story begins with three panic-stricken parents:

Parent 1: “Doctor, my 18-year-old daughter left for Art School today -— Juilliard — to study ballet. Know what happens to ballet dancers?” “Hmmm,” I said, “They grow stilt-like legs, sprout flamingo feathers and forage for clams and mussels?”

Parent 2: “Doctor, my son is studying painting at the Art Institute in Chicago. Know what happens to painters?” “Hmmm,” I said, “they cut off their ear (like Vincent Van Gogh) and scream forever (like ‘The Scream’ by Edvard Munch)?”

Parent 3: “My boy’s going to be a video game designer. Know what happens to gamers?” “Yes,” I said. “They earn 10 million a year, crisscross the globe in private jets and throw penthouse parties in Paris.”

All joking aside, let’s look at the reasons these parents are so fearful.

Myth: Starving Artist Syndrome (SAS). Earning a living, raising children, and paying the bills seems incompatible with the life of an artist. But that’s because the SAS is a lie. Aspiring artists know full well they must have a day job (nose to the grindstone, 40 hours a week) as well as a night job as an artist. The following fact may soothe parental fears: very few beginning artists make it into the big leagues.

What’s that you ask? Since so few make it professionally, isn’t it a waste of money to send your son/daughter to an art school? NO.

Three reasons to allow your child to attend art school:

1. To develop discipline. Discipline is the mental skill required to complete tasks, especially those you don’t like -— homework, dishes, exercise. What happens when a young person fails to develop discipline? They live hard lives due to school, job, and relationship failures. Contrary to the second myth: artists are wild and can’t control their whims — good artists are highly disciplined. They must be. Why? Allow me to explain using my own musical background.

There are four string instruments in a symphony orchestra: bass, cello, viola, violin (ordered by size, largest to smallest). At eight, I began cello lessons. Unlike the bass, which is played standing up, the cello is played while sitting down. To play a note, the fingers of the left hand are placed on one of the four strings and pressed down hard against the wooden fingerboard.

Next, the right hand draws the bow over the string, making it vibrate, and then, presto! A note flies out. Unlike a piano or guitar, where it is impossible to play a note out of tune, the fingerboard of a cello is as smooth as a baby’s behind. If you place your left finger too high, the note is sharp; too low, the note is flat.

So how do fingers learn the exact spot to press down? Muscle memory. How does one acquire perfect muscle memory for a cello? Practice. As a child, I practiced 30 minutes a day, six days a week. As a teen, it went to three hours a day. To become a good cellist, I had to conquer the Hercules-like task of acquiring perfect finger muscle memory for each note.

Every art form has its own unique Hercules-like hurdles. That is why I view art school as an anti-drug curriculum. Even the most minute alteration in brain functioning (caused by drug or alcohol) can destroy the artists skill sets.

2. To learn how to be a team player. Performing artists must learn how to form cooperative, not competitive, relationships with the entire cast or crew. The skill, being a team member, rests upon the ability to do what is best for all. Does that sound like a good model for raising a family?

3. To learn how to turn one’s impossible dream into a reality. When you are sitting in the audience, spellbound by the performance of great artists, the beauty they create is not a mere act of showmanship. No, part of what makes their performance so powerful is their awareness that, once upon a time, they were just like you — sitting in a seat in an audience, dreaming about their own impossible dream — could I ever be up there on that stage?

Great art inspires us to be better and kinder people. But more importantly, it gives us the strength to never let go of the conviction that there is much more good in this world than bad.

The content of this article is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for treatment by a professional. The characters in this story are not real. Names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.


Dr. Richard Elghammer contributes his column each week to the Journal Review.