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sacred music in a public school setting

how do you deal with students who won't sing "sacred music" in class? we've had the dicussion about how it has a historical context but they don't care. Any tips?
Replies (18): Threaded | Chronological
on October 5, 2013 2:19pm
Dear Ben:
It takes patience, proactivity and support. From the outset, I tell administrators that there is a "musically educational reason" for the programming of the given piece. I outline my reasons for them, and then do the same for parents and students. I also provide program notes to the audience so they can also see my reasoning. If anyone has a question, my door is always open for discussion, but have never -- at least not yet -- been overruled.
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on October 6, 2013 5:03am
Ben - Here in Northern Virginia, an area with a tremendous number of students who come from outside the Western Christian tradition(s), this is an issue which is addressed, many times, by a statement in the programs of choral presentations that in essence says that, first, the Program of Instruction for X County or X Jurisdiction choral music programs calls for exposure to and performance of a wide and diverse range of music, to include sacred music.  Second, the choice of music is done for musical purposes and is not intended to promote or denigrate any particular point of view.  It would take a little research for me to find a program with the exact wording (and if you want that, I can find it for you),  but the bottom line is this:  There is no conceivable way for anyone to study choral music - and that is the point of these students being in a chorus class - without some exposure to sacred music of whatever tradition and that they would perform it - period.  To argue otherwise is to say that a study of mathematics can be considered significant and worthwhile without studying algebra, or geometry; or in history, to pass over the Civil War because it's unpleasant; or in political science not to have an exposure to specific forms of government.  Students are not there to impose THEIR view of the universe; they are there to learn how to deal with the varying views of the universe that exist.  If they, and/or their parents persist, I wouldn't be at all unwilling to look them squarely in the eye, after having made points not unlike what I've done before, and say:  "Then I'm sure you'll understand why you'll have a failing grade in this course."  Period.  We try far too hard to be nice and accommodating, and the end result is pablum.  If we are truly concerned about the intellectual advancement of our students, it's long past time to stand up for the right reasons to do the heavy lifting in ANY course, irrespective of what it is.  Do, however, make sure, as Ron Isaacson points out, that your administrators are on board - REALLY on board - and that they don't fold when confronted by some irate student and/or parent.  The job comes with tough stuff; this is one of them, unfortunately.  I have serious questions about how these students, should they be successful in getting you to fold on this matter, will deal with college professors (should they go so far) who frankly won't give a damn.  One way or the other, they're going to come up short.
Oh, and your comment at the end says it all, "...but they don't care."  That is an emotional response; yours is an intellectual (rational) exercise; they need to get a grip!  Go get 'em!
Chantez bien!
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on October 6, 2013 8:05am
I would also like to offer this link from NafMe.  This is their position on sacred music in the choral classroom. I have used this many times to support my agrument.
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on October 7, 2013 3:59am
Create or get invited to a special performance, perhaps out of town in which your singers will perform some saccred music. Make it an honor choir. This year, only take the non-complainers. Make the trip real fun. They will catch on.
on October 7, 2013 6:07am
I firmly believe in choosing music that all of my students can sing, which means that I don't program sacred music with my large concert choir. There is so much music out there that still allows me to accomplish the musical goals that I have. I'm currently doing a survey of music history with the students and we're performing Di Lasso, Handel, Mozart, Brahms, and Verdi. Everything is secular and allows all of my students to participate. That does not mean that we don't discuss important choral works--we do all the time. We listen and learn, but I have found with a little extra work, that I can achieve my musical goals and still have everyone participate. To have everyone making music all the time is the most important thing to me. 
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on October 7, 2013 7:17am
Good points.  Claire's info from NAfME is especially well-prepared and valuable. (Thanks, Claire!)
I have been in the position of a teacher dealing with this [but, thankfully, out of the thousands I've taught, only 3 have raised the issue.  Most folks understand.]
There is the "empty vessel" philosophy.  I addressed this in a recent forum. [ Scott Dorsey, could you help, please? I searched and came up empty.   I know it was within the last 2 1/2  months; probably early-mid Sept.  Can't recall the question/forum, but here is a summary:]
"Florence Kopleff, world-renowned professional contralto, though Jewish, sang solos in many Christian-based cantatas/oratorios.  She considered it her professional responsibility to sing them in such a way as to be meaningful to the listeners."
  Hence, we can affirm the concept that, as singers,  we do not always personally believe what we sing.   That's artistry.  An actor/tress may be required to do many things they would personally not do - use vulgarity, strike someone, etc..  This is because they are the "empty vessel"  - they must play the character so the story gets told.
This touches on another aspect of this issue: After the concert, movie, play, what-have-you, individuals in the audience may interpret the meaning for themselves as they wish.  "Let There Be Peace on Earth" could be a prayer, or a global urging, or both.  "You Raise Me Up"  can be a love song, an expression of thanks to God/Jesus/Buddha/Nature, or to a friend.  Songs are multi-useful for Life!
Maybe it is time for us to ponder possible ways that some of our "traditional" music can speak to some of the contemporary theology which tends to be pluralistic.  If we are asking our students, or even our worship choir members who don't quite "buy the package" of conventional theology, to sing a "Sanctus", and they can't quite wrap around/cuddle with "God/Holy"  - then we can ask them, "What aspects of your life feel special to you?  What is going on when you feel lifted out of the daily grind?  You can think of that here."
I once had the opposite problem teaching H.S. Chorus.  We were preparing "Little Innocent Lamb" (Bartholomew); I had chosen it from our festival/evaluation list.  For some reason, Schirmer had the word (caps were theirs/not screaming here :) "SECULAR" in large font on the cover page.  2 sopranos said, "We are not allowed to sing 'secular' music".  Their churches had taught them to associate this word with some of the pop-culture music that deals with drugs, misogyny, "evil", etc.  Of course they had been singing music set to non-religoius text for many years; they just did not realize all the aspects of these distinctions. (Why Schirmer chose to label it that way is beyond me... ;/)
Sensitivity, as the NAfme passge states, is important.  A Jewish Mom once explained to me, "Everywhere we go - at the mall, the bank, on the TV, car radio, etc., there is sound and decor that promotes a holiday [Christmas] that we do not participate in.  It is very difficult to raise my chlid toward our chosen faith in an environment that pushes this so hard."  I listened to her, imagining how I might feel if the schools, malls and media were covered with something I did not agree with/wish to expose my child to.
I began to understand why, when I was in H.S., there was a line on the first-day-of-school info form: "religious preference _________"  Might it open "Pandora's box"?   Or might the knowldege gained avoid issues later?  Probably depends on your community.  At least, we can mark it "optional".
Programs in our school systems [where my daughter sang] generally stated at the bottom: "The music presented here is chosen for its aesthetic, historical,  and educational value and is not intended to promote any particular doctrine."   - works well.
Best Wishes!
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on October 7, 2013 7:20am
This reminds me of my first holiday concert with elementary students.  I used secular wintertime and Christmas music, sacred Christmas carols, a song or two about Hanukah, and a Kwanzaa song.  We had parents pull out their kids BOTH because I used too many sacred songs AND because I used too many secular songs.  The principal laughed - I was an equal opportunity offender.
One thought I always have in this discussion is the role of the composer.  I don't think Handel was trying to make a great evangelistic or theological statement with "Messiah."  I have not done any research, but it probably did not arise out of his personal experience as a Christian.  It was a commissioned work first, as is often the case with great 'sacred' music.
on October 7, 2013 9:52am
This subject seems to keep coming up in various forums.  The NAFME link below is good.  Without knowing your scene better it is hard to give advice.  Where is your administration at on the subject? The problem is that the choral tradition is largly Christian sacred music.  I don't think you can just ignore it.  In a secular school setting one has to approach the music as music, history and culture. not as a belief system.  For my groups, we do sacred music, but there is a point where the text seems to cross a line where it would be inappropriate for us to perform it, and it would be better served in a church choir or Christian school.   For the winter perfomance Christmas carols are just part of the culture. Sorry.    I find that my students that may have some discomfort with overtly religious music are more relaxed about it when it is in a foreign language.  They almost all enjoy Latin.  My advice is to talk to the students who are really having a problem with this and get into it one on one.  Let them tell you what is the problem from their viewpoint.  See if you can bring them around.  This has always worked for me.  If it doesn't resolve, they can always sit those pieces out.  
on October 7, 2013 7:41pm
on October 7, 2013 7:56pm
I don't see how to teach choral music without incorporating some sacred music.  It would be like a visual arts teacher not teaching about Michelangelo's David or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel because the content is religious.  The simple fact is that, for the vast majority of the recorded history of choral music in Western culture, the church was the primary consumer/patron of choral music, which is why there is more sacred music out there than secular.  The further back in recorded music history you go, the more that seems to be the case.  Certainly, one can find a few secular choral pieces written by Byrd, Tallis, and Bach, but they are relatively obscure and are not generally considered some of these composers' greatest works.  Why would I spend precious class/rehearsal time teaching my students obscure music while avoiding other works that are considered by music historians to be the greatest of their genres?  
I really appreciate and respect anyone who wants to be inclusive and doesn't want to make a student feel uncomfortable.  But part of what we are educating students about is not just music but about historical context.  This discussion of "is sacred music appropriate for public schools" is a great opportunity to talk about the development of choral music as we know it today.  It didn't come out of a pod or a cabbage patch.  For hundreds of years, it evolved in response to the musical market of the times... which was driven by the church. 
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on October 8, 2013 7:07am
I found this site while Googling "Religious Music in Schools". Think of it as a 'What NOT to do' list or a checklist when confronted by this question:
Here is a very helpful brochure in PDF format that explains many facets of this concern:
Obviously this problem will remain as long as we are a nation of many religions and beliefs, including those who choose to NOT believe in any religion.
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on October 8, 2013 6:02pm
One more thought... two of the major genres of choral music of African-American origin, spirituals and gospel, are almost exclusively sacred.  These genres are a rich part of American music history and American culture.  Are we to simply not do spirituals and/or gospel music because they have religious themes??  Or are we expected to "sanitize" them, removing original lyrics and replacing them with historically inaccurate and/or stylistically inappropriate lyrics?  
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on October 9, 2013 9:44am
Ben, there are some marvelous answers written herein.  I read them with great interest.  Students are not the teacher; you are.  Parents are not the teacher; you are.  Administrators are not the expert; you are.  Be that expert.  Stand erect and proclaim that 95% of choral music is sacred; that if sacred music is not taught, the subject is poorly presented to the student; and, that you are teaching heritage and not offering conversion.  Now turn the confrontation onto them and place them under pressure by asking: shall we get rid of 95% of our museums because they contain items which we think may be politically incorrect to a particular group?  Shall we abandon our government because 5% do not like its religious foundation?  Shall we forbid the manufacturing and selling of the cross as jewelry because of its direct relationship to Jesus, the Christ?  Shall we forbid the use of all Latin phrases used in courts, writings, government, and elsewhere because Latin is also used in choral music?  Then I would present that choral music is the skeleton of ALL music.  In some cases it is also the musculature structure.  The pipe organ in all its various constructions was never that important of an instrument until Father Smith, a Catholic monk, decided to increase its size demonstrably and, once perfected, place one into a catholic cathedral in the era of 1300, and the organ's fame grew immeasurably.  Playing the organ these organs were not musicians who studied the organ for years, but the best musician in the area that could be enticed to play it.  He was often a person who led a choir whose members were called Triplum (treble), Superiors (soprano), Altus (alto), Tenorus, and Bassus which equates to our SATB.  Organ stops, other than the diapason (Principal) stop, imitate instruments.  As instrumental music grew, the music was written for them as SATB would have been.  Yes, the organ was vital in the shaping and development of Western music.  We still have brass and woodwind choirs.  The string section enjoys the SSATB of the renaissance choir. A section of the organ is called the "choir."  Ensembles that sang in the catholic cathedrals in the late medieval music era sat in the area known as the Quire, or Chor, or Chorus from where the ensembles name is derived.   Choirs performed religious music longer before this, not just in Christian settings but also in worship of Greek gods, et cetera.  Would the students have a problem if the title of a work was not given to them and the text was in a foreign language but the music was beautiful and/or exciting?  Is it the music or the text which draws the emotions?  The question then is not with the music but with their thinking on religion.  Now that is a different subject worthy perhaps for discussion, but music should not be, and cannot be, its whipping post.  As for me, my choirs sang mostly religious music, some in foreign language.  Annually we processed (a procedure used worldwide) to Adeste fidelis and incorporated my own accompaniments with the Sir David Willcocks' descant's and final verses as well as O holy night, a work which stopped WWII for one solid day/night in France, the first song played on radio, et cetera.  We also sang and hummed Silent night (Stille nacht).  The arts are by far the most important subjects in any school.  Studies have shown this to be absolutely true.  Music leads the way.  Chorus leads music's way.  Religious text leads the path of the choir.  You lead the choir.  Lead.
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on October 9, 2013 7:22pm
WOW! I just saw all these posts. You guys are SO AMAZING! What wonderful words you all share. I so appreciate all your time and thought with these ideas. I am so grateful for forums like this where we can share experience. Every day I learn something new. Thanks!
on October 10, 2013 3:44am
Dear All,
Excellent answers and links.
The founders of our country did not want religious dogmas to dictate our lives.  That gave us the freedom to believe what we wanted just as long as we did not impose those beliefs on others.
So when highly dogmatic secularists impose their secularism on school systems, it very much goes against the intent of the constitution.   
Nick Page
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on October 10, 2013 6:15pm
The Bill of Rights gives us freedom from government-imposed religion. Teachers need to remember that they are government as much as, if not more than, policeman, soldiers, or politicians. If the music we hand out to our students and expect them to learn is telling them what to believe without overwhelming and overriding musical value, we are taking an invaluable and inalienable right away from them.  In other words, it better be darned good stuff we're having them sing, or we have no business giving it to them.
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on October 11, 2013 8:21am
I would agree with you, Tom, but with this caveat:  ANY music (and there are postings elsewhere about doing "pop" music as opposed to just about anything else because it is, well, "popular" and "familiar" and "all the in thing" - sorry, I AM a child of the Sixties!) we present, whether in the classroom or anywhere else, had better be about "overwhelming and overriding musical value."  BUT - that's a value call; and we all don't share the same values.  I understand your concern; best not let it become such an absolute that we end up doing precisely the contrary of what we intend.
Chantez bien!
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on October 11, 2013 12:29pm
Ben and all, 
We seem to discuss this every year around this time . . . and similar answers always pop up.  I was in your place, Ben -- actually called out at school by a colleague who was also a stepparent of one of my students.  We have a tough job -- we have to PROVE that we are the curriculum experts and be respected in that role.  I participated in a HUGE discussion on a music teacher page on Facebook yesterday about this same topic.  Unless there is a specific religious reason backed by a parental note, I will make everyone participate.  
Ground your choices in music for music's sake -- you know your community and your students and make the choices for them.  We don't sing Silent Night for Christian children.  We don't sing it to convert NON-Christians.  We sing it for LOTS of other reasons -- we sing it in four different languages . . . we sing it purely for beauty . . . my Jewish kids sing Christian songs, my Christian kids sing Jewish songs, my anglo kids sing Kwaanza songs . . . we are learning about each other, not criticizing or changing each other.  Teachable moments happen -- 
I am a music teacher, not a pastor/priest/rabbi.  Complaints are frequent by those who are uninformed or scared.  NAFME has a great statement in support of us:
Twenty years ago, a good friend and mentor to many of us, the late John Howell, penned this sentiment:
"Are people too sensitive these days? Of course! I don't recall any provision in the Constitution that confers a right not to be offended. But as performers, what we do is done not behind closed doors but in front of the community we live in, and in every decision we make we have to balance the artistic and educational integrity we hopefully have against common sense, common courtesy, and self preservation."
I know that you will make the right decision based on the needs of your group and community -- defend what is right and stand strong in the face of defiance.
Good luck . . . one day you will be giving the advice on how YOU solved this challenge!
just a small-brained music teacher -- 
Paul Townsend
National Board Teacher Certification candidate – EMC Music
General Music K-5
Tavan Elementary School
Phoenix, AZ
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