Upper School student painting a winter scene in Foundations class.

Creative excellence. Intentional collaboration. A fierce commitment to “real world” teaching methods. These are the hallmarks of an Arts education in Middle and Upper School at Riverdale. Here, the arts include the study and practice of visual art, theater, music, film, and dance. Perhaps because the faculty in the Arts are themselves professional artists – with extensive directing, designing, performing, writing, composing, and exhibition credits – there is a quality of self-expression and exploration across all disciplines.

The professional activities of the teachers provide interesting and unusual opportunities for students through backstage tours, master classes, professional performances, and studio visits.

Also, says Laura Desmond, Chair of Theater, Dance, and Film, “I think we are really good at putting students in the role of artist. Obviously there’s a teacher and a set curriculum, but the kids are encouraged to make their own artistic choices and find their voice.”

Students perform in the Middle School production of Rob Hat Guy.

Bringing the World to Campus

“As far as Visual Arts, I think what makes us stand out is our sideline into design as of the last few years,” says Visual Arts Chair Jason Ruff. “Six years ago, I started a graphic design class, and now we moved into an Introduction to Architecture class, which I think is really unique because we have an architect that I co-teach with, and she zooms in every day from her downtown studio on Leroy Street.”

Through their learning, students are often grappling with social issues, and this is especially apparent in the PICA program – Projects in Contemporary Art – where students choose a theme, such as waste and sustainability, or mass shootings, and create artwork in response.

Upper School students practice life drawing in drawing class.

Students also have numerous opportunities to present and share their work, both on and off campus, through showcases, art exhibits, staged readings, film screenings, performances, and concerts. There are also often opportunities to interact and learn from guest artists and musicians who visit classes, and to work with professional actors during filmmaking and playreading projects.

Variety and Excellence

Another thing that sets Riverdale apart is that we require a three-year art credit,” says Ms. Desmond, “and this allows us to offer so many classes. We have a comedy lab class, an advanced acting class, playwriting, filmmaking, a pointe class in dance, and so many more, in all the disciplines.”

Not only is variety important, excellence is a goal in all areas of the Arts at Riverdale. For example, in Music: “Our orchestra is performing at a pre-college level,” says Music Department Chair Jason Curry, who is currently performing in the orchestra for the Broadway show, MJ: The Musical. “What I mean by that is that you have academic year-long music-immersive programs at various conservatories with some of the best musicians from all over the world, and our orchestra has a similar level of expertise.”

A chamber ensemble performs at an assembly.

Inclusivity and Collaboration

Collaboration among and between the disciplines is fostered through many avenues, beginning with meetings of all Arts’ departments. “What’s really unique about this school is that we try not to silo the disciplines,” says Mr. Curry. “Faculty are always looking for ways to enrich student learning by working together in ways that professional artists often collaborate.” Ms. Desmond adds, “In the past couple of years, we’ve come together more often as a group of artists. If I have an idea, typically the response is ‘Yeah, let’s talk about that.’ It’s nurturing.”

As a result, the Arts team works together on such large-scale projects as the Upper School musical, which, this year, also included a Visual Arts installation to demonstrate the production’s themes.

And the spirit of collaboration is not limited to the faculty: “Throughout the program, I see peer coaching going on between Middle School and High School students,” says Mr. Curry.

Students create a large scale art installation which which was created collaboratively with the Upper School musical production of Urinetown.

Special Features of a Riverdale Arts Education

Another special feature of the Music program at Riverdale is the music production and technology program, where the students are making deeper connections to the art of audio recording and many facets of music technology.“They’re learning how to compose, manipulate, and sample music with digital audio workstations, building live and studio recording skills and techniques such as microphone placement, and what it means to be an audio engineer and music producer,” explains Mr. Curry.

“I also think what’s really unique about the Music program is the Chamber Music program. About 80 Middle and Upper School kids are involved,” says Mr. Curry. “The small mixed instrumentation ensembles convene during lunch and free periods. They have faculty coaches who engage them in performances and support their musical interests by selecting a repertoire that fits their backgrounds and experience. They even played for their peers at Assemblies.” 

Technical theater students run the lights and sound production during the Upper School drama production of Game of Tiaras.

“And our Rock Band opportunities have really exploded,” Mr. Curry says. “There are two classes plus a waiting list. Our private lessons program has more than 75 students taking lessons at various times of the day. And our choral program involves more than 100 students”

Another unique example for students at Riverdale is in the fast-growing area of technical theater. “Students run the show,” says Ms. Desmond. Beginning in Middle School, students are responsible for nearly all or all of the technical aspects of a production – from hanging the lights to running the sound board.

“If you look at our visual art as opposed to other schools, it stands out as not being a cookie cutter visual art program,” says Mr. Ruff. “I think about the strength of the Maker program and how we’ve folded that into Visual Art, creating things like the Lindy 500 (an annual race of vehicles designed and powered by students).”Not a lot of New York City schools are welding,” adds Mr. Ruff.

“We have a license from the administration to dream big,” says Mr. Ruff. “We’re creating these great memories for kids, and they’re expressing themselves and picking up skills. And that makes Riverdale, Riverdale.”