Oct 30, 2013

Should Sacred Music Be Allowed In Public School Choirs?

The inclusion of sacred music in public school choral programs is under heavy scrutiny, perhaps now more than ever.

Last October, a New Jersey district banned any religious songs from a holiday elementary music program.  Over in Wisconsin,  long time choral director Phil Buch was told by the school board that his choirs had three choices: perform one sacred song for every five secular songs performed; eliminate all Christmas music, or postpone December concerts.  He was also reportedly told that the district had to approve every musical selection.

Full disclosure before I opine-- I work at a private, Christian school.  However, I am approaching this sensitive topic from purely a music educator's perspective.

 For many years, my colleagues have dealt with students who say they can't sing a particular song for their own religious reasons.  Others say their parents won't allow them to sing any holiday-themed music.  While I understand the intent behind these decisions, I don't think they are made by fully-informed participants.  Anyone who has taken one music history class can tell you that a majority of vocal music before the classical period was sacred in nature.  While the acceptance of the historical church's social, cultural, and economic influence during that time may frustrate some, it remains the reality.  The very best composers and performers used those resources and venues to create and share.

While researching for this post, I came across a post by Scott Dorsey, the Director of Education for The American Choral Director's Association.  It was a statement drafted and approved by the ACDA Executive Board in 1983 regarding the use of sacred music in public schools.  Realizing that this is probably the most succinct, informed, and relevant explanation of the role of sacred music in education, I decided I would simply share it with you.

   Choral music educators recognize that choral music may fulfill diverse objectives. At one end of the spectrum is aesthetic education and artistic performance which can insure development of musicality and sensitivity. At the opposite end of the spectrum is pure entertainment. Between these two poles may be found opportunities to enhance knowledge and understanding through a growing awareness and perspective of history and art as reflected in great music. To achieve any selected educational objective, the quality of repertoire is of paramount importance.
      An assessment of the quality of repertoire which can fulfill the highest objectives of aesthetic education necessitates careful examination of the relationship of text and musical setting. The wealth of choral literature which represents and reflects peoples, cultures and traditions of all lands and compositional styles of all eras includes much music in which the composer has utilized a sacred text. The term "sacred" refers to all manner of religious belief and not only to the practices of Judeo-Christian teachings. It is important to recognize the fact that almost all of the significant choral music composed before the 17th century was associated with a sacred text.
     To study and perform music in which the musical setting of a text is artistically accomplished is a highly commendable objective. While public school teaching objectives and criteria for repertoire selection should not include religious indoctrination, the selection of quality repertoire will invariably include within its broad scope music with a sacred text. To exclude from a public school curriculum all choral music which has religious meaning associated with the text is to severely limit the possibilities of teaching for artistic understanding and responsiveness. Such an exclusion has as its parallel the study of art without any paintings related to the various religions of the world, the study of literature without mention of the Bible, or the study of architecture without reference to the great temples and cathedrals of the world.

      Since choral music with a sacred text comprises such a substantial portion of the artistic repertoire representative of the choral medium and the history of music, it should have an important place in music education. Its study and artistic performance have nothing to do with the First Amendment to the Constitution and the doctrine which advocates separation of Church and State.

This document, written the year I was born, impresses just how much the issues have not changed.  However, if those school boards, administrators, and parents making these decisions to exclude sacred music read this, they would have to come to one conclusion.

And if that conclusion were not clear enough, the Supreme Court weighed in on this as well in the ruling Lemon vs. Kurtzman in 1971, ruling that religious material may be used in public schools if the purpose is purely educational.


Does sacred music have an important place in public school music programs?  The answer is simple.  The answer is yes.

If you are trying to convince parents or administration to allow the use or singing of sacred music, feel free to use the ACDA or  NAfME Position Statements.

Do you agree? Disagree?  What are your favorite secular choral pieces? Share in the comments below.

Moving forward,
J.D. Frizzell, a composer, conductor, and educator, is the Director of Fine Arts and Director of Vocal Music at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis, TN. He earned the double Master's in Music Theory/Composition and Conducting from The University of Southern Mississippi, where he also earned the bachelor's degree in Music History and Literature. He is currently a candidate for the Doctorate of Musical Arts in Choral Conducting at the University of Kentucky. He has many published compositions available from www.cadenzaone.com and other sheet music retailers.

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