Arts education head hopes for mass appeal

Steve Watson, the new education director at East End School of the Arts in Riverhead, said he hopes to recruit potential artists of all ages, while catering to special-needs students as well.

When Steve Watson was thinking about relocating from New York City to the East End, he had heard there was a local group whose mission was to support the arts and offer educational programs in the region.

He found that place to be the East End Arts Council.

And when he heard they were looking for a new education director, he, a former music educator in the New York City public school system and a nearly lifelong musician, knew he would be the perfect fit.

This July the classically trained bassist, composer and jazz musician officially stepped into that role. In the recently created position, Mr. Watson will oversee the school of the arts and seek to raise the art council’s profile in the community. He said he is most excited about new printmaking classes and the Tuesday night composer’s forum featuring workshops with jazz legends.

He and his wife are currently searching for a permanent home on the South Fork.

Q: Part of your role will be raising the school’s profile in the community. How do you plan to do that?

This Monday coming up, our choir will be featured as one of the performers when the Riverhead post office is dedicated to a fallen soldier from Vietnam [Garfield M. Langhorn]. I’m doing an arrangement of some traditional music for that. The choir was invited in as an inclusive approach to the event. Other ways we’ll be involved is partnerships with other organizations to co-produce events, whether they be gallery openings or arts, visual and music presentations. The relationships with other arts organizations are key. We are a regranting organization, in other words, we facilitate and administer grants to other arts organizations and help them with whatever their projects happen to be.

Also, definitely making use of social media and the internet to draw on people’s awareness. Within Riverhead specifically, the post office is the best example of the type of place we can be.

Q: How do you market classes offered at the school to someone who has a limited artistic or musical background?

We want people to be encouraged, to get introductions to things that they’ve heard about but might not know about. Some people might be interested in a beginning class. Their knowledge of watercolor or acrylic might be limited where they don’t know that those are different things. Another person who has been painting or drawing might want to get more information about what they’ve been doing.

So we’re catering to both. Currently the bulk of our enrollment comes from public-school-aged children or individuals who want to revisit the arts from an earlier period of their lives. Coming on board, the first thing I did was to get a program together for the courses we offer.

As far as introductions, I want to encourage more of our course offerings to be aimed at introductory and continuing education. Also, reaching out to people with special needs, senior citizens, early childhood learning and the home-school population, all these different avenues of areas of our society.

Q: You were a professional musician for nearly 20 years before you became involved in education. Why did you decide to become a teacher?

A: I had an opportunity to go to India, the Middle East and Auschwitz prison camp. I saw beautiful things on the planet and I also saw horrible things on the planet. When I was there I thought to myself maybe there was a way to do something more useful with my life that would be helpful to others. When I came back to New York, I ran into one of my former professors and off the cuff he said they were looking for school teachers in the public school system and he might be able to recommend me. I got hired the next day at a school in the Bronx which was basically a school that was in major trouble.

I got put into a position to teach general music to a high school population of kids who had to be there but didn’t want to be there. There were no instruments, there was 46 desks and 50 students and most of the time the class was not full.

The kids in the class would be ninth grade through twelfth grade all in the same classroom. Some with special needs, all different cultural backgrounds, and all different education levels. I had to reconsider how to teach something I’ve done my whole life to someone who has never done any of it.

Q: How did moving into an educator role change your perspective on art and music?

The thing that I’ve learned the most about teaching general music to a general population is that every human has the ability to understand art from several different points of intelligence. In the same classroom I’ve got over 35 kids. Maybe one is an immature 13-year-old and the other is a graduating senior. They’re from different cultural backgrounds and different situations at home. In this kind of environment, the child is looking for a way to express him or herself and yet the way they are asked to do it is confined to reading or writing. But there is tactical, mathematical, visual learning. These are different ways to look at the same thing. I had to learn that it is not only what I’m giving, but how that person is perceiving what I’m saying. It also helped me to understand music in a new light. There are many ways to appreciate any particular work be it visual, theatrical, musical, literary.

For a complete listing of the classes offered by East End Arts Council visit or call 369-2171.

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