Sacred Music: How Expressive? Survey II

“Once, back in 1971, I had a problem with some parents about my students singing “Dona Nobis Pacem” – not because it might have been considered sacred, but rather because we were at war (Vietnam) and how dare I do a song about peace! How times have changed. I did this song last year, and it was one of everyone’s favorites.” — MENC member, 2007 MENC Question of the Month.

In 2006, MENC member Rebecca Warnock surveyed Minnesota MENC choral educators about their attitudes on religious music in the public schools, and how they explain the use of religious texts to their students. Warnock also asked the choral educators about expressiveness in singing religious music without promoting a religious experience.

From the 102 responses, Warnock summarized implications for educational practice in relation to expressive singing in sacred music.

Respondents gave these tips for ways to “avoid difficulty in the area of religious music”:

1. Use languages other than English to take the focus off the meaning, and avoid lyrics that refer to “Jesus” or “Christ,” in favor of pieces that use “God” and “Lord.”
2. Represent a variety of religions rather than just one, and promote deep thinking and “universal spirituality.” Suggest to students they don’t have to believe what they are singing; they can be like actors, portraying a character.
3. Send parents a letter at the beginning of the school year to set the stage for the inclusion of religious music in the curriculum. Welcome feedback or concerns. Develop a process of educating students, parents, and administration about singing religious text.
4. Empower students by allowing them to choose the repertoire.
5. Relate the text to something nonreligious, focusing on the historical perspective and/or the composer’s life.
6. Know the legal boundaries.
7. Focus on the music elements as described in this respondent’s words: “Although expressive singing can be based on text, often it is influenced just as much by the music line and phrases. I tell the kids they do not have to believe in the text, but they do have to believe in the music if they truly want to be in choir”

“We are in the process of addressing the whole issue of a December Concert. Currently each elementary school has 2 concerts a year – one in December (Winter Concert) and one in the spring (Fine Arts Festival). We are hoping to reduce the number of concerts to ONE (which would give us time to TEACH).” — MENC member Jori Walt, K-5 Music Teacher, Great Lakes Elementary, Superior Wisconsin.

Another respondent to Warnock’s survey sums up what Warnock herself believes: “We should be able to celebrate all types of music from all religions, not need to be void of all religion in schools…it is our responsibility to expose children to this information and these experiences. Discrimination is usually a result of ignorance. It is our job to prevent that.”

Rebecca Warnock’s master’s thesis is titled “Religious Music, Public Schools: A Look at the Implications” (University of Minnesota, 2006).

MENC’s Position Statement on the Use of Sacred Music in the Schools

–Sue Rarus, November 5, 2008, © National Association for Music Education