Imagination at work

Kids delve into the arts while spending summer in the city at NJPAC.


During summer break, children and teens enrolled in arts education courses at NJPAC take the initiative to assign themselves “homework” – and often without thinking to tell their teachers.


When they’re not in class at the Center for Arts Education, they’re phoning their new friends to help them write a lyric. They’re signing up for open mic nights at cafés to try out a new song. They’re gathering their dance classmates to form an ensemble for a local talent show. 


“They’re facilitating a peer support that sometimes they don’t get in other realms and trust develops – so they can practice and take risks together,” explains NJPAC hip-hop teaching artist Purple Haze (née Sheikia S. Norris). “We’re finding out they’re doing songwriting outside of here and calling each other. … They’re going on YouTube and looking at more of the history of what we’re introducing them to, that’s what we want. We get to the point where we say, ‘Where else are you going to use this skill?’”


Each summer, one of the most diverse collections of arts students found anywhere in New Jersey, drawn from all walks and all cultures in Newark and beyond, spend full days at NJPAC immersing themselves in the performing arts. (Not everything focuses on the “performing” aspect, as you’ll see later.)


There are apprentice and advanced divisions of the Young Artist Summer Intensive (YASI), which puts 10- to 18-year-olds in touch with their inner artist in dance, devised theater and musical theater. The Jazz and R&B Intensive, back for a second time and extended to two weeks because of its popularity, gives young vocalists, instrumentalists and songwriters the tools they need to build repertoire, musicianship, ensemble work, and improvisation.


NJPAC Summer Filmmakers, an intensive offered in partnership with Downtown Community TV, introduces teens to storytelling via camera work, editing and digital video production. In addition to holding roundtables with media professionals, the program culminates with a film sharing, where students showcase their works.


The week-long All-Female Jazz Residency has received national attention for its advocacy of young women musicians seeking careers in a largely male domain. Held overnight on campus at Rutgers-Newark, the residency was most recently led by acclaimed pianist and composer Geri Allen until her death within weeks of the start of the program last year. Jazz violinist and ever-busy recording artist Regina Carter will be the new artistic director. The residency is especially prized for its remarkable faculty of jazz professionals and the amount of one-on-one coaching and mentoring they provide to the select group.


Purple Haze, a Newarker who shapes the curriculum for the four-week Hip Hop Intensive, emphasizes that arts learning comes with fringe benefits for life, like teamwork and self-knowledge, and techniques for improving skills like memorization. The misperception that hip-hop culture is all about busting moves on the dance floor or rapping on stage excludes the creative fields of art (graffiti, wearable art and mural-making), spoken word (MCing), entertainment law, music journalism, recording and/or production.


“We don’t necessarily have young people who want to pursue a career in hip-hop or who are interested in performance,” she says. “When we take the emphasis off of performance, we have students exploring, curious, and using their imagination. … Where does a young person find their niche? They find it in self-expression.”


As an example, Purple Haze talks proudly about a 10th-grader who was dubious about where he fit into the hip-hop program. When he discovered beatboxing, he “got the bug,” which led to his performance of a challenging four-minute, 27-second solo beatboxing session in his high school talent show. Already studying jazz trombone, the teen is stretching his musicality by using his voice, instrument and a chorus for his own compositions.


“So now he’s rapping, he’s performing beatboxing – looking at competitive beatboxing – collaborating with other genres and music forms. And he did some dance in the summer,” she adds with a smile. “He ran for class president last year and wrote an original rap for his speech. He did not win, but obviously he changed what leadership presentation could be, and he became very popular.”


Alison Scott-Williams, NJPAC’s Vice President of Arts Education, says her team specializes in “amplifying a student’s authentic voice” through creativity.


“That voice is the sound of empowerment,” she continues, “and it’s heard in the child’s community of support, from peers to family. We want our programs to encourage students to express their views on the world at large, through the world of the arts.”


There’s no shortage of success stories among kids who engage with the arts, as Purple Haze and other arts education faculty at NJPAC attest. One painfully shy girl, with the support of her friends, found a voice in dance and songwriting. Another boy who yearned to practice on sound equipment reserved only for high-schoolers was given special permission to use a soundboard after advocating for himself to school administrators. At the conclusion of last summer’s programs, all the students let down their guard and jumped into an impromptu lunchtime mash-up: singers, dancers, jazz instrumentalists, musical theater students and hip-hop artists.


“And that’s the type of courage and confidence we look for,” Purple Haze says. “That you love it here, you learn it here, and you keep risk-taking beyond these walls.”


Information about applications and tuition is available at (973) 353-7058 or by emailing [email protected]


May 21, 2018