By Moa Golster
It’s a cold Monday afternoon, and the growing snowfall is soon going to send students at LIU Post home early for the day. In a Tilles Center dressing room, I’m trying to search for any sign that this is the temporary den of a world artist. Except for the man with the beanie sitting in front of me, all I can find is a whole ginger root on the dressing table.
Despite the throat-soothing vegetable, Billy Joel hasn’t come only to sing. He is here to help support the survival of the Long Island High School for the Arts.
In late January, Joel, a Long Island native, announced that he would pledge $1 million from his foundation to help save the school. The gathering on Feb. 8, however, was an effort to address what remains as the school’s biggest threat – declining enrollment.
Invited guests, including students from the arts school and LIU, filled the 490 seat capacity Hillwood Recital Hall. The event, called an “Afternoon of Questions & Answers . . . And a Little Music,” lived up to its name. An excited, seemingly star-struck audience shot questions at their local hero, resulting in a mix of career anecdotes, tips for aspiring musicians and, as promised, a little music.
While Joel shared information about how he writes his songs–for example, the names of people and places in his songs are usually picked only because they sound good– he played bits of popular tunes like “All for Leyna” and “Allentown.”
Joel started his foundation to help young people in the music field. Budget cuts, Joel told The Pioneer, has become an unpleasant norm in public schools, and while sports are usually kept in place, music and arts programs tend to be reduced or eliminated first.
“I came up through public schools,” Joel said. “There were music teachers, there was band, there was chorus, there was music theory, there was music history.” Today, Joel said, a lot of young people may not have the chance to get the music education they want.
Joel spoke warmly about the public music programs offered in his early years, and emphasized their importance for his career. “The man that was teaching the music classes in my high school was probably the biggest influence on me of all,” Joel said. “As a matter fact, he was the one that said to me ‘you should consider being a musician, a professional musician.’ No adult had ever said that to me in my life.”
While others warned him that a career in music was a probable future of “struggle, poverty, drugs and misery,” having the support of an adult was a revelation for Joel. “That made a big difference in my life… All my music teachers made a big difference in my life.”
Despite the uncertain future of the high school, happy faces filled the audience, and some arts students and educators took their chance to thank Joel for his support.
“It’s wonderful to have such support from a fellow artist,” said Dina Denis, dance department director and teacher at the arts school. Denis said she was devastated when she heard that the school might have to close. “We are changing lives, and we are cultivating young artists,” Denis said. “These are our future creative thinkers. Don’t take that away from them.”
The support from Joel, Denis said, as an artist and community member, has been honorable. “To come out, talk to our students, and just raise awareness about the importance of music and arts education. It’s wonderful,” Denis said.
“We need the arts just like other students need other every-day school curriculum stuff,” said Aggie Lesser, a senior drama student at the art school. “To have someone appreciate that as much as Mr. Joel did, it’s very exciting.”
Enrollment declines and dwindling tuition revenue has led to threats that the Long Island High School for the Arts will close after June 2016, Newsday reported on Nov. 19. However, in a letter addressed to Nassau BOCES trustees in November, Joel urged them to keep the Island’s only public high school arts program open. He offered the monetary contribution under the condition that Nassau BOCES keep the school open for three years, Joel’s spokeswoman told Newsday on Jan. 21.
The Long Island High School for the Arts was established in 1973, and has shared its Syosset campus with the Doshi STEM Institute since 2013. The total enrollment in both schools is 138 students, according to Newsday, which is less than half of the facility’s 300-student capacity. Ninety-two of these students attend the arts school, Nassau BOCES officials told Newsday.
When Joel heard about the possible closing of the arts school, he knew that he could help. “One of the reasons I’m here today is to raise the profile of this school,” Joel said. “I hope that people learn that there is a place like this on Long Island.”
“If you think about all the talent that came out of Long Island,” Joel said, “musicians, actors, comedians, people who are in the entertainment field… This is like a breeding ground for talent. To not nourish that, and to not fund it makes no sense to me at all. That’s our future.”
At the age of 66, and with over 50 years in the industry, Joel is possibly going stronger than ever before. When he announced that he would be doing a once-a-month show in Madison Square Garden for as long as it sold out, he didn’t know that he would still fill the prestigious venue over two years later.
“I just assumed we were going to run out of people, out of ticket buyers,” Joel said. Thirty-three shows have sold out, and there are only three shows left this year. “So by all appearances, we’re going to be able to keep playing there, and it may go on ‘ad infinitum.’ Not that this is a problem, it’s a nice quandary to find yourself in,” Joel said.
The success has reached outside of his home state as well, with sold-out shows in cities like San Diego, Seattle and Pittsburgh– places in which he said he was never very strong– and appearances at Wrigley Field and Fenway Park for the third year in a row.
“This is crazy,” Joel burst out. “I’m a little overwhelmed by it. I mean, I’m 66 years old.” How long he will be able to continue at this pace is uncertain. “I figured, if there is a demand, I’ll try to satisfy that demand,” he said. “But if I become physically decrepit, I’m going to stop,” he continued, chuckling.