Public high school choirs and choir directors should not be preaching religion; we should, however, be programming music rooted in culture, historical significance, and quality.
This blog is a follow-up to Ryan Guth’s “Technique Tuesday” Podcast where I spoke about “Religious” Music in the Public School Setting. The merits of exposing our students to historically significant and well-crafted religious music are undoubtedly clear, as is the support from our music educational organization. So why is “religious music” such a touchy and tricky issue?
We must begin by asking ourselves why we teach music? What do we want our students to learn? We must also ask what the expectations of our students, and their parents, are as they enter our classroom. While most are not musically-educated, they are still stake-holders in their own choral experience.
“Religious” music or non-secular music is music that contains a religious subject. Sometimes it is blatant with words like “Jesus” or “Allah” written in plain sight. Sometimes it is blatant, but written in a language other than English. Other times, the music is clearly describing a religious story but contains no “trigger” names/words that excite ensemble members or a potentially uneducated audience member.
We must alway remember that when we perform a piece with a sacred text in a non-religious setting, it is no longer being used for religious purposes; the song then becomes a piece of art, just as taking a painting off of a church wall and bringing it into the classroom for art students to learn from would not be religious. If students visited the Sistine Chapel to view Michelangelo’s artwork, it would not be considered a religious viewing, since they weren’t partaking in a religious service and were viewing it from the artistic and historical lens. If students were to draw a sketch based on the Sistine Chapel, this lesson would not be considered religious.
Assuming we already know and believe this, we must realize that students may be entering our classrooms with a different belief system; while their belief system is not based on studying and understanding music education, it is based on their parent’s life experience. If we want our students and parents to be positively exposed to the history, art, and beauty that we are excited to share, we must also understand that it is also our job to properly prepare them by creating the appropriate contextual framework to begin their studies.
AVOIDING DISCUSSION OF RELIGIOUS LYRICS
I once worked with a director who said he taught “religious” music, but only in other languages, this way his students didn’t know what they were singing about. Well, that is not the appropriate framework for incorporating non-secular music into our curriculum. If we are going to perform music of historical significance or even living composers who utilize sacred texts, we must not be afraid to discuss the texts with our students.
If we are afraid of discussing lyrics, we are ignoring a crucial core element of the piece, through which the composer began his/her journey. If we are avoiding a discussion of the lyrics, we should not be choosing that song.
There should be no barrier between us, our music choice, and our students. We are the teachers and the facilitators of our students’ choral education. We teach music and we teach life through music.
AVOIDING HOLIDAY MUSIC and/or RELIGIOUS MUSIC ALTOGETHER
I’ve heard choral directors and even entire school districts choose to eliminate all religious music in order to not offend anyone. This, of course, has been the societal trend in corporate America for roughly the past decade. Many major retailers have been eliminating all hints of Christmas as store employees are instructed to only acknowledge customers with, “happy holidays”.
The idea of eliminating beauty, love, and warmth because someone will be offended due to their own religious beliefs is truly something our culture needs to rethink. Perhaps we need to think of ways to include everyone even more, but to intentionally ignore someone’s celebration seems way more offensive. We are not being religious by wishing someone a Merry Christmas.
SETTING THE CONTEXTUAL FRAMEWORK WITH 9 GUIDELINES
It is our job to bridge the gap between our desire to bestow high-quality choral repertoire and our students’ uneducated view of choral repertoire. One major aspect of their ignorance is routed in non-secular music, especially when our song choices do not align with their religious or cultural upbringing. We must make an effort to bring students and parents toward understanding, rather than expecting them to gladly abide by our programming choices. This by no means implies students and parents play any role in the decision-making of our curriculum; it only implies we need set a proper procedure for educating and bringing awareness to all stakeholders.
These 9 guidelines are intended to acknowledge, embrace, and educate students, parents, and the community about the value of incorporating non-secular music into our curriculum:
1) Be excited about each piece we choose!
Why wouldn’t we be excited about every piece we choose? When students see we are excited about each piece we hand out, they will know that the piece has meaning to us. They will also recognize the fact that we want to share our excitement with them.
2) Always have a good reason why we choose any piece, and explain those reasons to our group.
This is for all music, not just non-secular music. If we explain why every piece is chosen for our ensemble, the students will realize serious thought was given toward their education. When students get used to hearing an explanation for each piece, they will not draw their own conclusions that we are suddenly trying to convert them.
3) Discuss the lyrics and the meaning to all pieces in class.
The meaning of music isn’t always what meets the eye. There are far more factors to discuss than just a text. Who was the composer? Why was the piece written? Who was the piece dedicated to? What does the literal text mean? What is a larger, more global meaning, etc. Sometimes there is a deeper level of “meaning.” A spiritual, for example, frequently has an underlying meaning that doesn’t even appear on the page, as the slaves wrote “Christian” spirituals to communicate with one another while trying to appease their owners. The sacred text itself was merely a code. Check-out these resources for more information:
4) Discuss how the meaning of all pieces connect to our choir members.
Besides the many different analytic approaches to lyrics and meaning discussed in #3, we should also approach a song by how it connects with us as individuals and as a unified ensemble. Our ability to find purpose and meaning in every text is what allows a true connection to the music. When a sacred text is understood for it’s larger meaning (for example: songs of unity, belief in a higher power, stillness, etc), there can almost always be a secular meaning that can be reached. It is important to note that the stories in the bible can be used solely for the purpose of conveying life lessons and deeper spiritual meaning. It is our job in a well-structured group discussion to help the students search for a message that speaks to them.
5) Express sensitivity for students who struggle with “religious” texts.
While we are the music educators, others who are less informed might not see things our way. Religious families may not understand why we sing songs about a particular religion when there are tons of non-religious songs that we could have chosen instead. We need to validate who they are and their belief systems before we can properly educate them. As we continue to follow all nine guidelines, we need to respect student and parental wishes to abstain from specific songs. Should these students stay vested in our program and we continue to follow our guidelines, there is a very good chance they will come around.
6) If the group doesn’t connect to a piece, disconnect.
If after learning a piece of music the majority of the students don’t connect with the song for any reason, we can respect a group’s wishes and not sing it at the concert. This rule doesn’t just apply to non-secular music. If after our excitement, group discussions and listening to recordings, our choir just isn’t feeling it, there is no reason to try and sell it to an audience comprised mainly of their parents. Save it for another year!
7) Be culturally inclusive both in rehearsals and in concerts.
When choosing concert repertoire, we must consider who will be singing as well as who will be attending the performance. When we acknowledge both in rehearsals and at the concert the diversity of our program and our willingness to explore the beauty of all cultures, we have then set the tone for cultural inclusion. Our decorations, program notes, and even our welcome speech can do a lot to set this tone.
8) Use the concert as an opportunity to educate our audiences.
In our concert programs and in our concert speeches, we should take the time to briefly explain our vision of sharing music of all cultures and historical time periods. We must always view our concert through the lens of a parent who has never experienced a choral music concert before. Would they be taken back by hearing Jesus for the first time? If so, how can we prepare them prior to this? What can we write in our concert program to diffuse this? What can we say to not only disarm them but to even open them up to what they are going to hear?
9) Especially for holiday concerts, keep with the traditions.
If we provide a consistent balance in the form of our annual traditions, parents will see that we care about all cultures right off the bat. This will allow for more flexibility in our unique annual programming. For example, having the same Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa song every year will instill a sense of tradition and recognition among the community. If the goal of these pieces is to bring about community, traditional songs will allow for more creative additional programming for the rest of the concert that perhaps doesn’t need to be as “balanced”.