Around this time of year, the Music Teachers Facebook Group is full of posts about Christmas concerts, religion and music education, sacred music in schools, and associated issues. The majority of the posts often position Christmas as the default holiday during wintertime and focus of concerts that occur this time of year. Some posts or comments even dismiss perspectives that question this focus or admonish students who are uncomfortable with foci on Christmas and related music. I’m left wondering how well music education is doing at addressing issues of understanding, cultural sensitivity, and meaning making in relation to these types of conversations. The title of this blog post speaks to the specific time of year that these Facebook posts appeared in 2015, but I’m interested in the broader issues and ideas around such conversations. ** You must be a member of the closed Facebook group in order to read the posts or comments.
The other evening I wrote the following on an ongoing Music Teachers Facebook Group Thread:
As music educators, we might want to consider how our choices and actions, regardless of intent, can perpetuate the idea that one group of people is more important, worthy, or valued than another. Music and our choices have power. I think there is value in understanding why we make the choices we do and what informs those choices. Isn’t dialogue an important aspect of our professional life as reflective practitioners? Are we as a field really that disinterested in cultural sensitivity and awareness?
That particular post was prompted by a number of comments on the thread. It is worth reading through all of the comments in the post centering around the choices music educators make when selecting music and a theme or name of public school concerts, in this case “Christmas concerts.” The thread extends beyond more typical conversations about whether we are allowed to include sacred music or NAfME’s policy statement on sacred music in schools. In this other thread you can read some perspectives on why people emphasize Christmas in their programs. In this case, the dialogue centers around why we make particular decisions and what informs those decisions when it comes to issues such as religion and culture in our programs. While some of the responses are a bit vitriolic, many of the comments in this post and other posts are working to develop better understanding among music educators of their perspectives.
A key theme throughout the thread is whether music educators might privilege one religion over others in music programs, such as with concerts, and if so, what the rationale is for favoring one religion over others. This gets particularly tricky when a community is or seems to be representative of mainly one particular religion or when external expectations pressure music teachers to make tough decisions that may not be in the best interest of all students. These types of conversation might help us consider the degree to which we are reflective about the choices we make, the values we hold, and our curricula. For instance, another thread explores the ways that young people experience and make meaning of songs differently in relation to religion and cultural contexts.
After reading through a number of similar conversations on the Music Teacher Facebook Group, I’m perplexed as to why many music educators find it difficult to understand perspectives that do not fit within the dominant narrative of wintertime or winter concerts as a time to celebrate Christmas.
Such conversations can often benefit from nuance and addressing the complexities involved in these types of issues. To add some nuance to related conversations, I highly recommend the MEJ article “Rethinking Religion in Music Education” by Adria Hoffman. Hoffman provides a nuanced discussion on religion and students and gets at issues that are often missing when the conversation focuses solely on sacred music and whether or not we are allowed to include it in programs. She focuses on people, highlighting “the ways in which music teachers relate to students who may not identify with the dominant Christian culture in the United States” and “the ways in which teachers may unintentionally place school and home values in direct conflict with one another, possibly leading students to disengage from school music programs.” As Hoffman notes, “Perhaps we do not directly tell students that they are not welcome, but our actions might convey that very message.”
Similarly, in his MEJ article “Singing Over the Wall: Legal and Ethical Considerations for Sacred Music in the Public Schools” Tim Drummond argues that “It is also obvious to non-Christian students that a concert program centered upon secularized Christmas songs still recognizes a Christian holiday and still casts them as outsiders. Instead of an isolated piece of music that may come off as trite to your religious minority, sometimes secular music unrelated to any holiday may be the best balance to sacred music.” As the title implies, the article discusses several legal and ethical considerations for addressing sacred music in public schools, but also tackles some cultural issues regarding how sacred music and holiday themes might play out in music programs.
In addition to the thoughtful questions and suggestions posed in the two aforementioned articles, questions surrounding these conversations linger on my mind:
- If we are including sacred music in schools, are we limiting that music to one or few religions?
- What informs our choices?
- To what extent are we considering the impact of our choices on our students, communities, and society at large?
- What messages are we sending to students, communities, and society by our choices?
- What long-term impact might our programs have on the ways that students make meaning of the world?
- Are we able to see beyond our own worldviews and experiences to better understand others’ perspectives?
As a proponent of project-based learning in music education, I can see a number of generative questions that could lead to rich fruitful dialogue and forms of musical engagement around related issues. For instance imagine how music programs could have students engage in questions and related projects (and even aspects of concerts) such as:
- What roles does music play in religion or spirituality across the world?
- How does music contribute to celebrations and ceremonies?
- When might music cause people to feel great or get upset?
- How might people experience or make meaning of the same music differently?
- Why do people associate certain music with particular events?
- What role has/does religion or spirituality played/play in people’s creation or performance of music?
Questions such as these and related projects need not occur during “winter.” In other words, situating the exploration of music in relation to religion, spirituality, or cultural events such as holidays thoughtfully and from diverse perspectives can possibly build deep understanding, awareness, and cultural sensitivity while respecting multiple cultures and traditions in ways that might not occur when focusing more specifically on songs to sing during the Winter concert that may or may not focus on Christmas or associated celebrations. These types of questions might also inform more basic or simplified questions around the selection of repertoire (a topic of the core arts music standards). Of course all of this is highly contextual!
With these issues in mind, consider reading through the comments on this post , this post , this post ,(or related posts) and adding your perspective. It is a chance to become more aware of music educators’ varied perspectives on these issues. At minimum, consider how the choices we make as music educators are often more complex than they seem on the surface.
By the way, people interested in larger issues of spirituality in music education might want to know about the Spirituality and Music Education Organization. Quite a bit of interesting research and perspectives being generated from members.