How arts education teaches life’s intangible lessons

This story is part of a series of 50 stories we are releasing to commemorate 50 years of opera in West Michigan. Browse more stories and follow our journey throughout the season.

Opera Grand Rapids Children’s Opera program with Creative Connections provides students with the opportunity to concept, produce and perform their very own opera production.

“Arts education is like the heartbeat of a human being. It is a way of connecting people with their passions, their ideas, their stories. The intangible things that come out of that, like your sense of self-worth, your ability to work with others, are limitless.” -Jill Collier Warne

You don’t see the Excuse Limit posted very often. This is likely because many areas don’t have strictly-enforced Excuse Limits; not so with the room in which Jill Collier Warne gathers her students. The Excuse Limit is prominently displayed on the inside of the classroom door. Foot-high musical note decals of green, red, and blue are splayed around the Excuse Limit sign, festively framing the no-nonsense numeral at the sign’s center: 0. A creative space like this is not a place of judgement, but neither can one run away. Once students are in the room with Miss Jill, they will tap into their creative potential, and no obstacles—internal or external—will stop them. The Excuse Limit applies to everyone, including the instructor.

For Jill, art is not just an aesthetic discipline.  “Arts education is like the heartbeat of a human being. It is a way of connecting people with their passions, their ideas, their stories. The intangible things that come out of that, like your sense of self-worth, your ability to work with others, are limitless.” The values of personal growth, collaboration, and disciplined practice are at the core of what Collier Warne does as the founder and coordinator of Creative Connections.

“I had a very classical education with cello, and that was wonderful,” says Jill. But she found herself frustrated, too. She felt herself hitting limits in terms of meaningful connections with the medium, and with her audiences. But even then, her Excuse Limit was 0. She sought out a Masters of Music Leadership from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. The program helped her transform her cello into a tool of communication and empowerment. She retained her love of classical music, but her passion became using her musical acumen to unlock the creative potential in others—especially children. To that end, she founded Creative Connections.

Jill Collier Warne with Coit students

Now, Collier Warne brings her cello and her expertise into classrooms like the one at Coit Creative Arts Academy in Grand Rapids, where she sits, flanked by a bouquet of guitars and a half-assembled drum kit. Her goal is a lofty one that looks nearly impossible on the first day of her programs: help students work together to create and perform a massive, coordinated ensemble performance piece in a short amount of time. To pull this off, Jill has to give kids a sense of permission to be creative and spontaneous, without letting the whole enterprise descend into chaos. She also has to learn the lay of the land socially and navigate subtle dynamics, such as a rivalry between sixth and eighth graders who initially don’t want to work together.

The process begins by teaching the kids to improvise and work together in abstract ways. During the last program, Collier Warne began by having the students make small compositions with their names. “Every group did it a little differently,” she says. Some focused on the rhythms of their names, and others derived melodies. After getting her students into a creative mental space, she conducted a brainstorming session to see what was important to the group. They would use conversations like this to construct a central theme around which to build their performance. “Conversations that started out about video games and unicorns suddenly started to hit a nerve,” says Collier Warne. Soon, students were talking about discrimination, favoritism, relationships, and kindness. “It was clear that these kids wanted to write something about justice, about fairness, and ideally, what kind of world they’d want to live in.”

Soon, her students transformed from shy and unfocused to prolific. Says Collier Warne, “They were working between sessions. They would come in with their notebooks and say, ‘Miss Jill, I think I’ve got a new melody!’ And they’d want me to record it.” Some even became mentors in their own right. “They were really into teaching the whole group [their new ideas], and then the group decided whether they wanted to keep them.” Ultimately, a battle to begin the creative process became a struggle to hone and assemble the fountain of ideas the children put forth.

The metamorphic quality of creative performance is why Collier Warne feels arts education is priceless. At the end of this process, the students have an amazing tangible result—a performance involving drums, bass, cello, rap, dancing, and singing—but the program’s true gifts live inside the students long after its completion. “People that have a deep immersion in musical experiences have skills and tools that can be applied to any profession,” says Collier Warne. Students with petty rivalries at the program’s outset ended up working together to create a beautiful, sprawling multimedia concert piece.

Coit Student Dominick Davin on the piano

Creative Connections’ partnership with Opera Grand Rapids gives the students an amazing toolset—emerging opera singers—to construct the performance of their dreams. The process often creates fascinating musical hybrids. (Our singers may find themselves singing over funky basslines and wild drums before passing the microphone to a young poet). But the deep value of our partnership is in the validation and tutelage the children receive by working with an opera professional.

Arts education isn’t about making pretty things that last for an afternoon. It’s about young citizens learning how to look past their differences to create something wondrous. It’s about failing sometimes, and learning that failure isn’t the end of their stories. It’s about understanding that the joy of expression and discipline go hand in hand. Should you happen by a cacophonous music classroom with a posted Excuse Limit, take a moment to study the din. That’s the sound of someone introducing children to their own best selves.


OUR FOUNDERS HAD A BOLD PROPOSITION: to build a professional opera company that would put Grand Rapids on the map for a very discerning audience. 50 years later, we are humbled to be the modern bearers of classical standards and modern ingenuity. Learn more.



As an integral part of our city’s artistic fabric, it’s our responsibility to see to its continual flourishing. Please consider donating to Opera Grand Rapids to ensure our artistic excellence for the next 50 years and beyond. You’ve already made us great. With your support, there’s no limits to the height our voices can reach together. Give today.