Allow Sacred Music in Education
by Cheryl Mathis on October 11th, 2013
I love singing publicly. I have a “sweet” voice. I cantor at St. Anne’s Parish in town. I probably wouldn’t have been chosen to be in the Master Singers, but I’m okay with that. I can sing in Latin. And, because of my high school music teacher’s choices for us when I competed in the state choral competitions, I can even sing in Spanish and French. The pronunciation of foreign words was important, but I didn’t spend much time thinking about the translations of the lyrics, so I couldn’t tell you what the songs were about. I even had the opportunity to sing soprano in Handel’s Messiah when I was a junior… but that was at a church. The surge of inspiration and what can only be described as ecstasy during the Hallelujah Chorus had little to do with the lyrics and more to do with the majesty of the harmonies. I love choral music.
I know a lot of singers, and as it turns out, I also know a lot of graduate Master Singers who uniformly praise the director and their experience of him as one of the most tolerant people in town. I also heard testimony that he usually just cares about the musical qualities of a piece above the actual lyrical content. But I’ve never met the guy. I was also never a student in the Wausau School District.
I am a Citizen, however, and one with kids in the district. I also have a brain, and I’m not overly emotional about the topic, so I guess that qualifies me to share my opinion about the drama going on in town about the religious content of holiday music.
Let’s get the issue of elementary schools out of the way quickly. I hate kids’ holiday concerts, though I go to smile with pride at my children. I find the secular music trite and ranking right up there with Pop Goes the Weasel. I think the benefit to public performances for kids is to raise their confidence levels and give them experience with being in the spotlight and surviving it with dignity and pride. But I kind of hate them, so if they need to skip them, they can go away, and I won’t be too sad. Kids are precious, and holiday concerts are saccharin, but I’m a cynical old crow, and if I hear “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth” again, I might scream and kick the nearest person in the shins.
So I’ll segway into a short rant about atheists who are offended by public displays of Christmas. I was engaged to an atheist once, and we fought all the time during the holidays because he’d freak out if he heard any Christian content in holiday Muzak at the stores or playing softly at the University Center. Even if it were secular music, he’d still be disgruntled, because he didn’t want to be subjected to any reminder of the holiday season. He had an extreme position, and most atheists I’m friends with are more tolerant of the people around them. Most people know that out in the public arena, other people will be different from you, and we should mostly live and let live unless we are actually being harmed.
But what place does Christian-themed music have in the public school system? Well? It’s hard to say. Along those lines, acknowledging the holiday in any sense would then be wrong, and trying to make it into a secular celebration of the “season” seems forced to me. Not everybody has a faith, so there is no “season” for them. They are being subjugated to sit through other people’s traditions. Ask teachers why they weave the mention of holidays into their curriculum… perhaps it is because kids will pay attention more to something if it connects to their own experience and cultural traditions they see going around in the community they live in.
I could say a lot more about tolerance and respect at this point, but that’s a dead horse that’s been beaten enough. The big thing I wanted to talk about is the Master Singers and elite choral music.
Let me start by saying that in high school, I was a geek. I was in all the AP courses to prepare for college, and in those classes, I got a small taste about how college courses work. So even as a high school senior, I learned about working independently, fleshing out huge reports with more than fluff and nonsense and managing my time effectively. When I went to college, I had a bit of a head start above my classmates. I sailed through my GDRs because I had covered most the material in high school.
In my mind, the Master Singers is the AP music course. It gives students a taste of what they’ll experience in college if they go on to study music. In college, nearly all of the rules about keeping religion out of learning go out the window, especially in the realms of the humanities, and music with religious lyrics is studied not to convert to the Christian faith but to place it in context and learn about the history of music. Choral music is, by and large, historical and classical. There is not a lot of secular music that is at the same level of Bach, Handel, Mozart, etc. So, if they are to try to train with glorious 12-part harmonies like that found in the Hallelujah Chorus, they will have to sing it. They will learn a lot about harmony, counter melody, concentration and so much more by trying it. There just aren’t many other pieces of music that would challenge you at that level.
The Master Singers is not a music course, however. It is an extracurricular group that students can only join through auditions. It is not part of the curriculum of the District any more than the Girl Scouts or football teams. These are students who want to go beyond what they can get in the classroom. Maybe they even want to study music at the college level. If they are planning to avoid all religious music because it goes against their belief system, they are “believing” themselves into a corner, because most classical music is religious.
Why is that? Simple. In that time period, the way that composers made a living was by commissions from kings and the Church. They drew their inspiration from the stories they grew up with. Some of the music was composed directly for religious settings, some not. But by and large, it had a religious context because that was what the culture of the time expected. In the same way, artists of the time were usually commissioned for portraits and depictions of religious themes. Would you suggest that an art appreciation course not bring up the Sistine Chapel or any of the great works of art from the past that might have religious content? In this regard, excluding all religious content from education is not education at all, because choral music and fine art has more to say than the lyrics and subject matter.
My solution to this whole mess isn’t a very popular one by either camp in this fight. I say make the Master Singers go private. Cut official ties to the school system. Surely there will still be interested in keeping the group active and vibrant. Surely they can raise enough money on their own to pay for their expenses. Encourage the disenfranchised to form another elite choral group where they avoid all sacred music. If they are able to train at the same level without that huge chunk of music history, more power to them. I don’t personally see how it is possible. I envision more of a Glee Club than a Choral Group.
So what about the performances? The Master Singers perform all but one of their concerts off campus. They sing for people who want to be entertained during the holiday season. Let them sing! Let them inspire people with their beautiful voices. Let them reach out to people and show them that not all teenagers are selfish, obnoxious twerkers with no appreciation for the finer things in life. They all fought hard to be on that stage. In all this mess and drama, don’t forget these kids who are trying to see above the fray of a mundane, average life, who want to see the beauty in the world.