I remember straightening my back, bracing myself at the piano keys and trying for the hundredth time to tap out "Winter Dance Melody." Even after four years I continued to struggle with the piano, from the minimal strength required to press down on the foot peddle to the constant ticking of the metronome. Eventually, after a few crying fits and calls from my piano teachers telling my parents that I "...lacked focus and passion," my parents begrudgingly allowed me to quit (or as they called it "freeing yourself to pursue other interests"). It is true that piano was not my most successful endeavor, but I do wonder now if my parents would have encouraged my musical ambitions more if they had known all of the benefits, both immediate and long term, associated with children engaging with the performing arts. Maybe instead of giving me an out to explore other ventures, my parents would have simply handed me a tissue while walking me back to the ivories.

Research has long supported the benefits of children engaging in the performing arts. As recently as 2009, Johns Hopkins University School of Education reported "children showed more motivation, paid closer attention and remembered what they learned more easily when the arts were integrated into the curriculum." Though parents may remember the music programs of their school days, it was not until 2000 that Congress took the symbolic step of signing the "Goals 2000: Educate America Act," which "identified the arts for the first time in federal policy as part of the core curriculum." Today, school systems recognize that performing arts are more than just an extracurricular activity but are an essential part of a well-rounded education for students. For children in the D.C. metro area there are many choices in performing arts programs, both in and out of school. The performing arts typically include theater, choir, instrumental performance and dance. Whichever your child chooses, experts agree that the most important factor is that she tries. Even if your child is not the star of the production, the benefits are lifelong.

Increased Academic Performance

From daily practices to the preparation for the ever-important recital, participation in the performing arts demands the utmost focus of its pupil. The ability to focus is similar to an instrument, it must be tuned and practiced in order to operate at its best. Children quickly learn that not practicing results in embarrassing lessons and prevents them from achieving their full potential. Researchers have found that this practice in focusing has a direct positive correlation with students' academic performance. According to the American Alliance for Theater and Education, "Students involved in drama performance coursework or experience outscored non-arts students on the 2005 SAT by an average of 65 points in the verbal component and 34 points in the math component." Participation in the performing arts is not a guarantee that a child will go on to pursue it professionally. Instead, the spotlight should be on learning life skills in a creatively charged environment. "Those who don't go onto professional careers in the arts, they go on to become doctors and physicists because they have the discipline," says Michelle Lees, principal of the Maryland Youth Ballet.

Collaboration

"The orchestra serves as a model for society...you don't have to like your stand partner, but you do have to start playing at the same time," says Liz Schurgin, executive director of the D.C. Youth Orchestra. Teaching children the importance of collaboration is essential for future endeavors, whether academic or social. With performing arts, children learn the importance of working together, while working through differences. As Schurgin explains, children come to her program with very different backgrounds, but it is the students' responsibility to learn how to work together and find a common ground. This ability to work together, despite their disagreements, is a life skill that Josh Sticklin, managing director of the Loudoun Arts Center, sees as essential for every child. He agrees that the ability to work together respectfully and productively is a lesson he sees his students carrying into all aspects of their lives.

Self-Expression

Often lost among the hectic shuffle of quizzes, tests and homework is the important lesson of teaching children the necessity of healthy self-expression. "Theater teaches you how to put that emotion someplace...you're not going to learn that in math," says Sherion Cosby, drama director at Northwest High School. As she explains, her students must have their emotions readily available, but they also must learn how they can express these emotions in a controlled, healthy way.

For professional actor Chris Dooly, a 2009 graduate of Northwest High School, the stage was an opportunity to find himself. His interest in acting began at a young age, with participation in local theater productions, but it wasn't until middle school that he realized how much he enjoyed the sense of community that theater provides. He explains that through theater, "I was able to express myself...in middle school and high school, and that's hard to find at that age." Cristina Demiany, executive director of the National Children's Choir, agrees. In her experience, students "find a real strength of self" through their involvement in the arts.

Participation in the performing arts is not about being center stage, or getting the staring role, it's about helping children build their confidence and find their voice. As Donna Rathe, owner of Tiny Dancers, explains, "there is a release of energy into a positive activity like dance, it's like magic."

Star Quality

Today, I still remember the basic key and finger movements for "Winter Dance Melody." However, my musical performances are now limited to singing melodies to my steering wheel, and Keith Moon style finger tapping on my desk (which I know my coworkers greatly enjoy). Despite knowing that I would never have achieved professional proficiency with my piano skills, I sometimes catch myself wondering if I didn't let myself down by quitting the piano.

It took nearly 15 years, but I realize now that one of the biggest reasons why I quit was because of my own insecurities of never being the "best" piano player. To my credit, you can only be seated in the front row of the piano recital so many times before your 10-year-old ego begins to bruise. But that's exactly what keeps many children from pursuing things with their full effort.

The performing arts offer a perfect opportunity to teach children that they don't have to be the best to participate. All a child has to do is try, and keep trying even when it's difficult. That is a life lesson that she will carry with her forever. Encourage her to take the stage and hold her head high no matter what her position is in the recital. It's not about being the star, it's about continuing to give your whole heart until the last curtain falls.