The Arts and Young People / by Jeannine Cook

On Sundays, I frequently listen with fascination and pleasure to the NPR programme, "From the Top", hosted by Christopher O'Riley, during which amazingly talented young people play classical music and talk with Christopher. This past Sunday, a delicious young woman, aged nine, was interviewed and then played Franz Liszt's Gromenreigen (Dance of the Gnomes). Her name is Umi Garrett and she is garnering prizes and kudos both in the United States and Europe for her mastery of the piano. What interested me and resonated especially was that her early talent for music was also accompanied, from 2 1/2 years old, by classical ballet. She also loves to paint and is good at maths, science and a host of other things.

In other words, she is a stellar example of what can happen when a young person is exposed to the best in what the arts can offer. It is not just in school that children need to be exposed to the arts, it is in everyday life, in every imaginable sphere. This is one area where it becomes so serious that the Georgia Legislature envisages elimination of the Georgia Council for the Arts, the central state funding mechanism that fosters the arts. When possibilities for young people to attend performances of music, ballet or theatre, to visit art museums, galleries or festivals or learn of new forms of art in the public arena dry up, the general level of culture is diminished.

I know personally how memorable live performances can be to a child. Growing up on a farm in Tanzania, there were few such opportunities. It was thus all the more special that on my first trip to England, my mother made a special effort to ensure that I was able to see the Royal Ballet dancing Swan Lake. I was five years old - it was magical - and I have loved ballet ever since. In the same way, a year or so later, the legendary pianist, Paul Badura-Skoda, came to our nearby town, Arusha, to visit his brother. He was persuaded to give a piano recital, in a small theatre with a tin roof ... it rained during his performance and the din above seemed only to underline the exquisiteness of his interpretations of Chopin or Mozart pieces. That evening was one of the most memorable moments of my life - I was so excited that I was soon learning to play the piano myself, not at all well, I hasten to add. But the whole experience helped make me forever a lover of music. I was lucky - my family made the effort to give me such opportunities. But in Georgia, if opportunities for young people dry up, then we are all the poorer.