On Jan. 12, opera singer Dennis Tamblyn sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" for President Obama, Michelle Obama, an overflow crowd at the UA's McKale Center and an estimated 31 million viewers watching him live on television.
On Jan. 13, Tamblyn was back in a TUSD classroom, singing full-throated German opera to a passel of first-graders.
His performance at the ceremony memorializing the six who were shot to death in Tucson was "the single greatest moment of my life," Tamblyn says, speaking last week at Sam Hughes Elementary School. "I was humbled just to be there."
But he's as enthusiastic about singing to kids—and teaching them language arts through opera—as he was about singing before the president.
"It's so rewarding!" Tamblyn exclaims. "If I didn't believe in this program, I couldn't do it. The rewards come to me when I perform. The rewards here go to the kids."
Tamblyn is one of some 25 professional performing artists who work in TUSD's acclaimed Opening Minds Through the Arts program, or OMA. Opera singers, dancers and instrumental musicians—most of them well-known performers in the community—use the arts to teach kids about regular classroom subjects.
For instance, Thom Lewis, an award-winning local choreographer and dancer who also serves as the OMA program coordinator, uses movement to teach math to second-graders. Paula Redinger, a flutist with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, teaches the smallest kids listening skills, and starts them on the path to appreciating music.
Tamblyn himself sings regularly with Arizona Opera, the Tucson Chamber Artists, at a local church and at "random community events," he says. And besides teaching 630 TUSD kids every week, he's working on his doctorate in music at the UA.
"I'm the busiest person I know," he says. "And the happiest."
Tamblyn came to his passion for opera after turning down admission to medical school. Now, for 30 hours every week, the tenor transforms his beloved art form into a tool to teach small learners about story, narrative, writing and, along the way, the joys of Mozart and other operatic eminences. With the other two members of his school opera team—soprano Stephanie Carlson and accompanist Francisco Rentería—Tamblyn teaches 17 classes a week.
Earlier this month at Sam Hughes Elementary, in Ellen Dunscomb's first-grade class, the intrepid trio did a half-hour language-arts lesson for some 20 giggly 6- and 7-year-olds. The session was built around a Mozart art song, "Das Veilchen (The Violet)," about a shepherdess picking flowers in a field. A violet falls in love with the beautiful maiden, only to die when he's inadvertently crushed by her foot.
It's heady stuff for first-graders, but the kids were game. Tamblyn and Carlson divided the boys and girls into two groups for a mini-opera performance: the boys to play the violets, and the girls the shepherdesses. In a short rehearsal, the violets delightedly followed Tamblyn's instructions to mimic sorrow at not being picked by the shepherdess ("I want to see heartbroken!" he told them) and then fall on the floor, dead, when she stepped on them. (One would-be thespian was dispatched to the sidelines for flopping on top of a fellow violet.)
When the practice was finished, and the kids were ready to perform, Carlson and Tamblyn began singing. Their big, operatic voices burst out in the classroom with an unearthly beauty, with Mozart's German words flowing up and down the sweet notes Rentería played on the keyboard. Listening to the song, the children enthusiastically acted out their parts—not one of them knew German, but they could tell where they were in the story by the shifting moods of the music and the expressions on the singers' faces.
After the death of the violet, Rentería leapt to the front of the classroom. Now acting as a manic teacher-cum-game-show host, he helped the kids dissect the story, getting them to talk about such literary imperatives as point of view and main idea. The grand finale was a make-believe session of Court TV, in which one shepherdess was charged with the murder of the violet.
By the time the class ended, the kids had heard a live performance of music by a pre-eminent composer of the Western world, accustomed their ears to the sounds of a foreign language, and absorbed lessons in how stories are written and shaped. Plus, they had the most fun possible at school outside the playground.
"When you make school fun, kids really learn," argues OMA coordinator Lewis. Studies show that schools with OMA score higher in math, reading and writing than other schools, Lewis says, with low-income students in particular making gains.
The program now reaches about 13,000 TUSD children a year, which is just a fraction of the district's enrollment. Fourteen schools have a full-fledged, full-year OMA program; 18 other "affiliate" schools have it only part of the year.
It doesn't come cheap. OMA schools all have a staff teacher who's an "arts-integration specialist," working as a bridge between the professional artists and the classroom teachers, ensuring that the OMA classes are keyed into what the classroom teachers are teaching. The average salary for that specialist is $40,000. The annual fee a school pays for a trio of artists like Tamblyn's traveling team is $42,000 a year.
A little-noted side benefit of the program is that contract artists earn a steady salary with full health and retirement benefits.
"I'm very lucky and grateful," Tamblyn says. "For somebody trained as an opera singer to have job stability and benefits is unheard of."
Schools that opt for the program can pay for it in a variety of ways. Because OMA pushes up test scores in the three "R's," poor schools can use their federal Title I money for it. Schools without Title I money—Sam Hughes, for instance—have to rely on grants, fundraisers and state tax-credit donations.
Tax-credit donations can be a windfall for schools, and they cost donors nothing beyond the income tax they already owe to the state of Arizona. A married couple filing jointly can designate up to $400 of their taxes to go to a school instead; those filing singly can direct up to $200 to a school program of their choice. Donors get a dollar-for-dollar credit on their income taxes.
The OMA folks are making a pitch to locals to support Tucson kids and artists by sending their tax-credit donation OMA's way.
"As the economy tightens, we are striving harder to remind people that a tax-credit donation really costs you nothing, and does so much good," Lewis says.
The way Tamblyn sees it, if a president deserves to hear first-class singing, so do the students of Tucson.
"I've witnessed and watched this," he says. "I've seen what the arts do for kids."
Right now, he's gearing up to help his first-graders create their own opera. Starting in January, the kids will dream up a story, write the lyrics and compose the music, with the guidance of the opera team. They'll perform it for their parents in May.
"Every year, the parents get blown away," Tamblyn says. "They tell me, 'I had no idea my kid could do that.' But if you expect it, they'll do it. If you don't put boundaries on children, they can do whatever they want."