During its program for elementary school students, the Minnesota Percussion Trio bangs out complex rhythms on five-gallon plastic pails. The group also uses hockey sticks, baseball bats, pot lids and other unlikely instruments to perform music that's both rhythmically and visually engaging.
According to founding member Bob Adney, the trio's school appearances are often the first concert experiences for many in their young audiences.
"I want them to be excited about music," he says. "I think percussion is easy for younger people to understand and I think it creates a wonderful entrance into the arts world."
The members of the Minnesota Percussion Trio are among a few hundred professional artists in the state who work in the schools through performances, workshops and residencies. These musicians, writers, painters, photographers, dancers and others share their talents with Minnesota's young students in the belief that the arts enhance education.
Retired teacher Carol Westberg says the artists who came into her Montevideo classroom brought an expertise that she didn't have. Westberg saw first-hand that visiting artists could draw out students who weren't especially gifted in the three r's.
"You'd say, 'Oh, I'd never seen that side of that child before,'' she remembers. "It gave them their chance to shine."
Westberg says one of the big changes she's seen in artist residencies recently is a push to integrate the arts with core subjects like math, science and reading. This has come as schools face the usual budget challenges as well pressure to improve test scores under No Child Left Behind legislation.
Mary Jo Thompson has been a public school teacher for 34 years and manages an arts education project for the Minneapolis Public Schools and the Perpich Center for Arts Education. She says the arts are included as a core subject under No Child Left Behind, but she says teachers often instinctively focus on tested subjects like math and reading.
"It's an unfortunate downside to the law," Thompson says. "The law may be well-intentioned, but that kind of behavior by a school leaves kids behind. It doesn't address the various ways they learn. It doesn't show them the relationship of what they're learning to its application or give them chances to think in deep ways or create new ideas. It doesn't let them be the producers of knowledge and not just the consumers of it."
Many of the artists working in the classroom have adapted to the pressures schools face. One of the reasons the Minnesota Percussion Trio developed a simple program with buckets and invented instruments is that it's inexpensive; schools with limited resources are more likely to bring them in.
And with the importance placed on standardized testing, dancer Jane Peck says she must create classroom residencies closely tied to core curriculum goals of teachers.
"My own mission is to go in and help students experience math through moving," she explains, "or, for example, teach social studies through some of the dances that people have done in the past and share some of the events they might have lived through in their daily lives. The benefit I find is that they really remember these things."
But arts educators are under pressure to prove the benefits of their work in more than an anecdotal way. Daniel Gabriel of the arts education organization COMPAS says Harvard and other institutions have issued studies examining arts in schools.
"Personally I think it's reductive to try and worry about the proof when you can see it in the faces of the kids right there in front of you," he says. "There's nobody on the front lines that doubts this."
Gabriel says not every artist can be effective on the front lines. It takes someone with what he describes as "a heart for the work" and an ability to communicate that passion quickly to all kinds of students.