Anyone who thinks that opera singers are self-interested divas should take a peek at ArtSmart, an educational outreach organization started by Met favorite Michael Fabiano, and maintained with joy and commitment by Met Opera Extra Choristers Megan Pachecano & Tom Mulder. The Met Artists Newsletter sat down with Megan & Tom to find out more about the amazing work they're doing with some very talented young adults who go to school right here in the New York metro area.
by Megan Pachecano, Tom Mulder, with contributions by Lianne Coble-Dispensa
How did you get involved with ArtSmart?
Tom: I got an email in the spring of 2016 from Michael Fabiano saying he was interested in speaking about a teaching opportunity for the coming school year. I chatted with him and Co-Founder John Viscardi about their new organization ArtSmart, and their vision for changing the landscape of arts education in underserved communities, and I was immediately hooked. I started teaching at our Pilot Program at East Side High School in Newark that fall, and picked up some of the administrative duties for the organization because I felt so passionately about the cause.
Megan: I've been working with ArtSmart for a little over a year. Tom recommended me for the Marketing & Communications position because he knew that I had past experience at a digital advertising agency. I think it's a testament to the versatility of artists (and a prime example of the education and opportunities we're trying to give our students) that Tom and I have come full circle from singing together in regional opera productions and a young artist program, to working together to help build a new nonprofit arts organization, and now back again to being artistic colleagues at the Met!
What attracted you to the organization, and why did you want to work there?
Megan: ArtSmart is doing something completely different than a lot of other organizations out there, and on a larger scale too. We are giving weekly private lessons (which are usually a cost-prohibitive educational extracurricular) to talented students who deserve access to these teachers just as much as the next kid. As someone who was fortunate to have piano and voice lessons as a child, I know firsthand what a significant impact that had on my life. What about the many talented, deserving kids out there whose families just can't afford it? I take immense pride in working for an organization that is striving to close that privilege gap.
Tom: I had been teaching at a wonderful private school in New Jersey and looked forward to engaging a different kind of student and growing as a teacher and a person. But the thing that I found most attractive about ArtSmart was that they wanted to use data to create a powerful argument for stopping the cuts in arts education. We track absences, tardies, disciplinary actions, and GPAs, and monitor whether those areas improve when students are involved in the ArtSmart program. So far the results have been staggering even within in our small sample.
What inspires you about the organization?
Megan: The people who work for ArtSmart all care so much. The mentors can't stop talking about their amazing students. When I talk to John on the phone, I hear the excitement in his voice about the work we're doing and the dreams he has for the organization. I see Michael posting on Instagram from a dressing room across the world and then five minutes later I get an email in my inbox about something he remembered we need to do for the organization. This is a team who is ready to make a difference, and they inspire me.
What is ArtSmart's mission, and how does it differ from other non-profit arts organizations? What need does it fill in the community that was not being filled?
Megan: We are an organization that empowers students in underserved communities to develop their skills as musicians and artists through high-level technical training and cultural immersion. But the key difference in our organization is the importance we place on mentorship. In meeting with their voice teachers each week, students benefit socially, developmentally, and academically from consistent one-on-one guidance. There is also an incredible amount of research available about the effect of music on child development. The inaugural class of the 2016-17 pilot year showed a significant decrease in disciplinary action and absenteeism compared to their previous school years, and the average GPA of our ArtSmart students jumped 0.9 points over the course of the year. As a group, they also reported a marked increase in desire to pursue a college education. There's just no denying results like these, and it propels us forward.
Tom: We call our teachers mentors because our primary goal for our students is to prepare them for life after high school, no matter what career path they choose. We do not expect all of our students to apply to Juilliard (though some of them will), but we do expect them to learn responsibility, how to communicate, and the skills to learn and research what they are passionate about. Our hope is that whether our kids become doctors or electricians or musicians, that they will be strong learners and communicators.
The two of you, and co-founders of ArtSmart Michael Fabiano and John Viscardi, are professional singers. Does working as a performer help you with ArtSmart?
Megan: Absolutely! Actually everyone in the organization is a performer. Michael, John, and percussionist Brian Levor co-founded the organization with the help of our general counsel, Liz Letak, who is a pianist. All of the mentors they then hired are professional singers in their own right who perform all around the world in many capacities. We take so much of what we are experiencing on stage and in our own artistic endeavors and give it back to our students. Creating art with people across the country gives me a "big picture" outlook and helps me realize what's actually important to focus on in my own personal teaching.
What is the future of the organization? What do you hope to accomplish in the next few years?
Megan: For the 2018-19 school year, ArtSmart is on track to more than triple our number of programs and serve ten schools. We'll also launch our group program, "Amplify - Youth Voices for Positive Change," as well as a multi-week master class series with Michael at the Ruth Asawa School for the Arts in San Francisco.
Tom: We hope to expand to over 100 schools within five years and create a strong statistical argument based on what many of us know anecdotally: when students are engaged in an area about which they are passionate, they are not only more excited to come to school, but perform better when they are there.
Is there anything else you'd like us to know about ArtSmart?
Megan: We are a very young, but growing organization. We can only offer these lessons and continue expanding our program to more schools with the help of fellow music lovers and supporters of arts education. Some choose to give a monthly donation through our Patreon page, some give a one-time donation through our website, and some give through our social media channels like facebook. Every little bit helps to give these students quality music education that they would not otherwise have access to. And it is a joy to see just how much they are thriving because of it!
Megan Pachecano and Tom Mulder are Extra Choristers at the Metropolitan Opera. Both are graduates of the Masters program at the Manhattan School of Music, and they work together for the nonprofit organization ArtSmart, which provides free weekly voice lessons to students in Newark, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and soon, New York City. Tom is the VP of Operations as well as one of the Newark voice teachers, and Megan handles Marketing and Communications for the organization.