In Central Texas, The Biscuit Brothers are practically a household name. Their TV show, filmed here in Austin, has earned them two Emmys and is syndicated as far away as Florida and New York.
The show spawned nearly fifteen years ago, when Jerome Schoolar and Allen Robertson were asked to fill in on a farm-themed sing along, initially a one-time gig. But the personas of Dusty and Buford Biscuit stuck – and expanded into a successful PBS kids show.
Now the duo is stepping into a new realm – as teachers.
The team turned an abandoned storefront in southwest Austin into an indoor farm, complete with grass and play animals. There the brothers will host a variety of music, theater, and art classes for children. It's a project that Jerome Schoolar said he’d contemplated long ago, but always eluded him. Now that his kids are all grown up, he thought it’d be the perfect opportunity to jump into action.
“It just seemed like the right time,” Schoolar says. “We wanted a space that we could not only dedicate to the Biscuit Brothers but to the kids.” Schoolar says other arts venues allow children, but many times they're regarded as “second class citizens” while older students take precedence.
It's this scarcity of arts education, particularly for elementary-aged kids, that resonated not only with Schoolar, but with other parents.
Cindy Shelfenbuele has an eight-year-old daughter enrolled at the art farm.
“When I was a child, I went to school in elementary schools in Texas … and I had music every day, and that was fantastic," she says. "Now my daughter has music every third day. I see it as a supplement. I see it as a great opportunity for kids who don’t get music every day in the schools."
Why do parents feel their kids aren’t getting enough arts education? In 2011, the Texas Legislature cut nearly six billion dollars in K-12 educational funding. While some of that funding has been restored, the cuts still left many schools stretched thin.
In many districts, core curriculum takes priority over arts education, leading to classes like music and art being cut or downsized. David Hunter is a professor of musicology at the University of Texas, and says cutting arts education is a shortsighted move.
“The brain is such a malleable organ when we’re growing up," Hunter says. "And what music does is that it enables various connections to be created which otherwise would not be created as a result of the physical movement, and the hand-eye coordination. … There really is physical structural differences in the brain with people who learn music at an early age compared with those people who don’t.”
And that's what The Biscuit Brothers intend to remedy. Right now filming for the Biscuit Brothers is on hiatus, but it's hardly a vacation – the music and sing-a-longs are still going strong at the Fine Arts Farm.