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Choral Programming: Choosing Music That Honors

Tradition And Diversity By Patricia Kelley Keith Douglassville, PA Reprinted From Maryland Music Educator

from NAfME, National

Association for Music Education, formerly MENC (full statement from NAfME: http:// schools ): Does music with a sacred text have a place in the public schools? “It is the position of NAfME, The

National Association for Music Education, that the study and performance of religious music within an educational context is a vi- tal and appropriate part of a comprehensive music education. The omission of sacred music from the school curriculum would result in an incomplete educational experi- ence.”

strewn about the piano. Lists. Piles. Ros- ters. There is so much to consider. Will I have enough male voices? What will please the crowd.? Actually, more specifically, what will please the stu dents and what will please the audience.? Is this the perfect music to educate my stu dents? How will this year’s selection of music teach them music theory concepts, music his tory concepts, and prop- er vocal technique.? Yes, we have all spent hours and hours, no, days and days, weeks and weeks pondering these questions in musty choral rooms in August when every- one else is still at the pool. On top of all of that, how do I make each of these important decisions when I don’t even know all of the students yet? Even if I have heard every student on my roster sing before, I have never heard that totally original syner gy that occurs when all these voices come together for the first time in this year’s unique combination. I typically have a few pieces ready to go on the first day of school that I know will work. This way I have a few songs we can begin preparing in September. To me, pieces with Latin text and canons offer benefits to every choir. With pieces in Latin, you can make so many historical connections, and the open ness of the vowels is perfect for learning tech nique. Canons are a great way to get every one singing in harmony early on in the year. I also always choose some- thing that I know they will consider “fun” in those early pieces too. I want them all to start the year knowing that choir is the best and most fun class. Bevond those first few pieces, though, I then wait until the end


h! ‘Tis the season for agonizing about what to program in your next concert! The octavos are

of September to officially decide the rest of my program. I need to know what music will reach this year’s stu dents and meet their needs - intellectually, emotionally, and vo- cally.

When programming, there are

certain things that I try to include in every program. This practice makes it almost im- possible to have a theme and I always felt themes limit ed me; my theme was variety! However, I have seen others use themes ef- fectively; keeping the theme broad seems to be key. Consider including: 1. Pieces of historical significance that demonstrate different styles of music as well as different style periods, being mindful to demonstrate many various religions, cultures, and languages. Thoughts of Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and 20th Century musical periods helped me in my quest.

2. Other important genres, such as con- temporary

choral gems, popular

music, world music, spirituals, gospel, American patriotic and folk songs, jazz, musical theater.

(Not every concert had every category in #1 and #2, but throughout the year or over the course of a student’s time in the program, the goal was to capture many or most.)

3. Foreign language text (which lan- guages and how many various lan- guages are determined by the age/ level of the choir).

4. Piece to feature the males: my person- al goal for this one is to select some- thing that will have the audience cheering. Men and boys in choirs aren’t cheered often enough!


5. Piece to feature the females. 6. At least one piece of music that is a cappella (the best way to teach into- nation and vowel matching).

7. Something to please the students. I unapologetically program something in a popular style that the students love. This is my gift to them. To them it means, “My teacher cares about what’s important to me”. In return, they then care about what I want to share with them. They are then much more will ing to give me the emotional space to stretch their musical boundaries later; it’s a gift that keeps on giving!

8. Something to please the audience, for the same reason. I want the audience to be happy too, and I will admit this loud and clear to anyone who asks. I am a musician; what I do in the prac- tice room/choir room is meaningful work, but never takes flight until I share it with an audience. The audi- ence is the final ingredient after months and months of preparation. Do I want to please them? Umm, you bet your sweet bippy!

Over the years, I listened as teachers

told me that they had been instructed not to perform any music that is religious in na- ture. This makes my heart weep. It makes my mind scream. To simply wipe out an entire rich treas ury of music that our students de- serve; no, that our students need to experi- ence for countless reasons that include but also stretch far beyond religion? This practice is unreasonable and unacceptable. We all have to take the path of least resistance some- times, but I firmly believe this is not the place to take that path.

MAY 2012

Guideline Questions To Consider: 1. What is the purpose of the activ-

Is the purpose secular in nature, that is, studying music of a particular composer’s style or historical period? 2. What is the primary effect of the


activi ty? Is it the celebration of religion? Does the activity either enhance or inhibit reli gion? Does it invite confusion of thought or family objections? 3. Does the activity involve excessive

entan-glement with a religion or religious group, or between the schools and religious organiza tions? Financial support can, in cer- tain cases, be considered an entanglement. “If the music educator’s use of sacred music can withstand the test of these ques- tions, it is probably not in violation of the First Amendment.” “Since music with a sacred text or

of a religious origin (particularly choral music) constitutes such a substantial por- tion of music literature and has such an important place in the history of music, it should and does have an important place in music education.”1

What the American Choral Direc-

tors Association has to say about this issue?

(ACDA’s stance in its en-

tirety, “GOAL: To improve music education

by assisting educators and the community in identifying ways of studying, creating, and performing music from a wide vari- ety of religious/cultural traditions. “With- in limits defined by

the United States

Supreme Court, government (i.e., public schools) is neither to advance nor inhibit

MAY 2012

religion(s). This commitment pro vides one of the important foundation stones for the establishment and mainte nance of an open, just, and peaceful multi-religious society.” What I hear in the above statement is that we should program a wide variety of reli gious/cultural traditions. We should do this neither to advance nor inhibit religions. In summary, should we use our

program ming to advance one particular re- ligion? Of course not! By the same token, should we inhibit all religions? Of course not!

Also From ACDA “Academic study about religions can

con tribute to the protection of this free- dom by providing information and experi- ences that help to dispel stereotypes. Such study can also help develop a sense of hu- man com munity and an appreciation of our common humanity in the midst of our di- versities. There are, of course, other impor- tant rea sons for studying about religion(s). For example, religions have had a continu- ing influence on human history. Develop- ing an adequate understanding of history thus requires study about religions.”2


brings to mind the inspiring and powerful Caldwell/lvory arrangement of the traditional Jewish song “Ani Ma’amin”.* Caldwell and Ivory have included a poignant narrative to be read during the stunning introductory violin obbligato that tells the history of the piece, makes connec- tums to the Holocaust, and sends the important message that we, the singers, sing this because we want this story to be heard. We want to learn from the past and prevent future atrocities. What could be more important?) “Academic study about religions in the public schools, contrary to widespread opinions, has not been prohibited by the United States Su- preme Court. “Any work of art studied or performed should be selected for its inher- ent beauty of structure and form. Its pur- pose in study should be learning for the sake of develop ing artistic understanding and responsive ness. Often artworks are related to a spe cific religious/cultural tradition. The study of such works of art can enhance one’s understanding and appreciation of a cul- tural product that a particular tradition has fostered.”2 First and foremost, music you pro-

gram should stand alone as a musical work of excellence. Anyone who questions your pur pose in teaching a piece of music can and should he answered with your long list


of its musical values regarding, for instance: the registration, the historical perspective, the foreign language diction, the beauty of the musical line and more. “To exclude from a public school curriculum all choral music that has a religious meaning associated with the text is to limit severely the possibilities of teaching for artistic understanding and responsiveness.

Such exclusion has as its

parallel the study of art excluding paintings related to the various religions of the world, the study of literature without mention of the Bible, or the study of architecture with- out reference to the great temples and ca- thedrals of the world. “Care should be taken in the performance of music associated with any religious/cul tural tradition that it not be construed as a religious service or religious celebration. Whenever possible, a multiplic- ity of cul tural traditions should be included in musical programming.”2 In summary:

1. Program a variety of styles of music. 2. Immerse your students in the historical significance of the pieces.

3. Let your students delve into the deeper meaning of the piece from a composer or lyri cist’s eye view.

4. Take an academic, not devotional, approach when programming religious music.

5. Educate, expose... do not impose or pro mote.

Fellow music educators, let us be edu- cated on this issue and stand together. Let’s take heed of the tenets outlined by ACDA and NAfME and make sure that we are not unnecessarily, unjustly excluding an entire segment of music from our curricula. When need be, let’s have the difficult conversations in our communities and with supervisors, principals, and Board of Education mem- bers. We owe this to ourselves as musicians, and we owe it to our musical colleagues from this era and all preceding ones. Most important, we owe it to our students: to of- fer them a broad musical, cultural, histori- cal, and stylis tic perspective.

How To Offer Perspective To Students In Your Choir Room

1. Discuss the composer’s/lyricist’s perspec tive from a historical, factual standpoint (e.g., composers’ roles as church musicians are historically significant and led to music that was religious).


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