From The Voice to PBS: Reality TV Might Save Arts Education in America

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - SEPTEMBER 28:  Singer Chris Mann performs at Operation Smile's 30th Anniversary Smile Gala at the Beverly
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - SEPTEMBER 28: Singer Chris Mann performs at Operation Smile's 30th Anniversary Smile Gala at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on September 28, 2012 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

I was freezing on a red carpet at the Rockefeller Center Tree Lighting in New York City. A crowd of thousands was gathering where, only a few years before, I used to eat a brown-bag lunch at my Bank of America day job. Now I had the honor of lighting the famed tree and performing two holiday songs alongside the likes of Mariah Carey, Rod Stewart, Tony Bennett, Cee Lo Green, Victoria Justice, Scotty McCreery and Il Volo. The energy was electric.

I was halfway through the press line answering questions like, "What's your favorite Christmas song? What was it like singing with Christina Aguilera? What's your favorite holiday memory?" Then I was hit with an unexpected question: "Do you think there are too many singing competition shows on television?"

Having had my "career break" on NBC's singing competition show The Voice, I wasn't sure if I should be offended by this question. Even more surprising than the question was my answer: "Yes."

"Really?!" I asked myself as a myriad of thoughts flooded my brain. I felt like a traitor but part of me did think there were too many of these shows on the air. I mean, my DVR could literally combust recording American Idol, The Voice, X Factor, The Sing-Off, America's Got Talent, The Next, The Glee Project, Duets, Nashville Star and God knows what else. Plus, I was never really a fan of these shows. I always found the criticism and crushing of people's dreams for entertainment's sake too uncomfortable to watch. Then again, I'm a wimp; I have a hard enough time watching some poor sobbing girl go rose-less on The Bachelor. Not that I watch The Bachelor... with my fiancé... every Monday.

But in this moment of reality TV betrayal, I had a change of heart. "No," I said. "There are not too many singing competition shows on television."

Here's why:

Having been an independent artist in Nashville, New York and now Los Angeles, I know firsthand the struggle of pursuing a career in music. Having to work three day jobs to cover rent and play shows at night to build a fan base is a right of passage. Both are experiences I wouldn't trade for anything. Although I've done it, touring was always a challenge since my music is symphonic with big production (read: expensive). I didn't have the resources to replicate my record "live in concert" the way I wanted. I've always been jealous of the singer-songwriter who could just throw his guitar in a van and tour somewhat affordably. For my genre, I felt I really needed a major record company to help realize my vision.

And though getting a major record deal is harder now than it used to be, getting a chance to be heard is easier than ever. Platforms like YouTube and singing competition shows are removing the gap between undiscovered artists, their fans and record companies. These shows' auditions give thousands of singers the chance to be heard by major label executives and millions watching at home, when they would have otherwise gone unnoticed. I should know -- I'm one of them. Singing competition shows give performers from all genres and backgrounds a chance to achieve their dreams at a time when it's increasingly hard to do so.

One additional benefit I didn't foresee was the educational benefit of being on The Voice -- it's like Music Industry Boot Camp. If I had one piece of advice for competition show hopefuls, it would be to check your ego at the door, become a sponge, listen to your stage managers, producers and coaches to grow as performers and leave the show better then when you arrived. You'll need every tool in the box when you get into the real world.

The second reason there aren't too many singing competition shows is because these shows keep music accessible to young people and act as an educational supplement when school music programs fall short and exposure to the arts through public broadcasting is threatened.

As budgets tighten and our country teeters on fiscal cliffs, music education and the arts continue to be underfunded, often being last added and first dropped from curricula, despite overwhelming evidence linking the arts to student achievement and success.

In January 2002, No Child Left Behind was signed by President Bush, reaffirming the arts as a "core academic subject" that all schools should teach. It put the arts on equal footing with the other designated core subjects -- English, reading, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics, economics, history and geography -- and it paved the way for the arts to be recognized both as a serious subject in its own right and as a part of a proven strategy to improve student performance in the other core subjects.

Sadly, the fulfillment of these guidelines has waned. Schools in some states report the amount of instructional time devoted to core subjects has increased, while for the arts it has declined. Other schools, including a few presently in the state of New York, have begun trimming their art and music departments altogether. This is a step backwards.

Reforming the American education system by refocusing solely on the "STEM" subjects of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics is a lost cause without the creativity learned from the Arts. A recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 leadership quality of the future. By cutting music and arts education in schools, students can't reach their full creative potential and their futures are jeopardized.

Some states are taking action to reverse the STEM trend; in Rhode Island, Representative Jim Langevin (D-RI) has introduced House Resolution 319, which states that adding art and design into STEM fields not only encourages innovation, but also economic growth in the United States. Government agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts are joining forces to support turning "STEM to STEAM" as well. This is a step forward.

I'm very proud to be a product of public school music education programs, as well as city-funded music programs in my hometown of Wichita, Ks. These programs not only gave me an education but also an opportunity to perform on stage for the first time, learn to work with others, experience and overcome any fear of public speaking, experience victory and defeat through the audition process, gain self confidence through performing and have a blast doing it. Further, these programs inspired me to continue studying music at the collegiate level and achieve a Bachelor of Music degree from Vanderbilt University. I know I "am who I am" thanks to my deep participation in music education programs.

Additionally, I grew up in a town that didn't draw major concert tours, so we relied on Public Broadcasting through networks like PBS for their televised music specials. It was one of the best ways I had to be exposed to, learn from, and be inspired by great music performances of all genres. Naturally, I was disappointed during the recent presidential election debates to hear that funding cuts for Public Broadcasting and PBS were being suggested to help reduce national spending and the deficit: 'Hey, MTV doesn't play music anymore so let's just cut music in schools and get rid of PBS too. Yay balanced budgets!'

With so many students growing up without school music programs and low funding for public programming, the plethora of reality TV singing shows is a very good thing. I auditioned for The Voice with an operatic pop song and later learned, via Twitter and Facebook messages, that many viewers were hearing this style of music for the very first time. I never thought my semi-final performance of "Ave Maria" would introduce viewers to the classical repertoire of Franz Schubert and I certainly never predicted that singing an Italian duet with superstar Christina Aguilera would inspire so many young singers to enroll in music classes. From these overwhelming audience responses I would argue The Voice, and the other singing competition shows, are a new form of arts education in America. If they can't get it at school, at least they can get it at home.

In addition to creating career opportunities, these shows are also broadcasting music into millions of American homes every week. I wouldn't be surprised to see another gaggle of music shows introduced this year and I'd consider them all must-see-TV knowing they offer kids a chance to be exposed to new types of music, a platform for an aspiring, unknown singer and an opportunity to make dreams come true.

My dreams sure have -- my first television concert special, Chris Mann in Concert: A Mann for All Seasons, airs nationwide this March... on PBS.