Singing the Sounds of the Season (Part 1)

“Christmas”, “Winter”, “Seasonal”, or “Holiday” concerts have been the subject of much discussion and debate in recent years. In many schools, the repertoire for these concerts has diversified considerably, while at others it remains more traditionally focused.

When asked what their school is calling the last concert of the calendar year:

Members in 2009 responded:
Holiday concert (21%)
Winter concert (43%)
Christmas concert (23%)
Seasonal concert (1%)

In 2010, they answered:
Holiday concert (20%)
Winter concert (48%)
Christmas concert (28%)
Seasonal concert (2%)

Selecting sacred music repertoire for school is tricky whether it’s holiday time or not. It requires caution and good judgment. Is your concert program or curriculum religion-neutral? Ask yourself these questions (courtesy of the MENC Position Statement on the Use of Sacred Music in the Schools):

1. Was the music selected on the basis of its musical and educational value rather than its religious context?
2. Does the teaching of music with sacred text focus on musical and artistic considerations?
3. Are the traditions of different people shared and respected?
4. Is the role of sacred music one of neutrality, neither promoting nor inhibiting religious views?
5. Are all local and school policies on religious holidays and the use of sacred music observed?
6. Is the use religious symbols or scenery avoided? Is performance in devotional settings avoided?
7. Is there sensitivity to the various religious beliefs represented by the students and parents?

In 2007, MENC asked members what they thought about singing “religious” music in schools. Here’s a smattering of the many reactions/responses:

“There is enough religious or sacred music being heard in churches, temples, and synagogues. I trust that any of my students interested in music beyond my classroom and after school programs will be exposed to it. There is so much interesting music that is not religious, that to tread, even lightly, in the selection of the music and then the discussion of language about G-d, would be VERY difficult and possibly inappropriate in the public school. I just don’t go there. In the History of Western Music elective I teach for the high school, we listen to lots of religious music—here the discussion is germane and appropriate.” 

“I do both winter fun music and some sacred, but I let my students know that we are learning the music portion of it and not instilling the religious portion of it. The students usually aren’t concerned about it until we start working on dynamics, expression, diction, and phrasing. At that point maybe one student will say, ‘Are we allowed to sing this?’ and my reply is we are not looking at the religious connotations of the song, but the musical elements of the song. In all my years of teaching (twenty-five), I have only had one student who transferred out of my class because she could not sing any religious or patriotic music. I have taught in Texas, Connecticut and North Carolina.”

“I teach with the understanding that all music is valuable. We do our students an injustice by not teaching them about where they come from; not only in a cultural context but also in a historical context. This is a multicultural world, but in order to provide students with a well-rounded education, they need to be exposed to many things. To exclude religious songs of any kind is to cut out a vast repertoire of music.” 

Sue Rarus, December 8, 2010 © National Association for Music Education