5 Essentials to a Christian and Classical Music Program
God’s first written revelation to us tells us that we have been created in His image. Zephaniah 3:17 informs us that our God is a singer: “He will rejoice over you with singing.” Throughout the Bible we are called to sing, God gave us a song book with 150 Psalms, and we see God’s people singing in times of joy and sorrow throughout the scriptures. Singing is the primary corporate activity which we actively do together in most of our primary functions: we sing at worship, weddings, funerals, birthdays, baseball games, etc. Singing and making music is not an activity for some interested or “gifted” people; rather it is part of our DNA. What follows is an attempt to provide some guidelines which I believe are necessary for and will be evident in an excellent music program.
- A Biblical Understanding of and vision for music is foundational.
God commands us to do something pleasant to our souls which in turn blesses us. As we sing His praises and hide His word in our hearts, we are blessed with comfort, courage, and wisdom. This is why we are commanded to speak to one another in Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs. When we do, the word of Christ dwells in us richly. The riches are God’s grace to us. To keep this vision of music, it must therefore be a sine qua non for the board, administration, and music faculty. They must then communicate it to the faculty, staff, and families. It must ultimately be fleshed out and executed by skillfully trained music teachers. For example, the Bible teaches:
- Sing to the Lord all the earth. (Ps.96:1)
- Play skillfully…Sing praises with understanding. (Ps.33:3, Ps.47:7)
- The Lord is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation. (Ps.118:14)
- Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. (Col. 3:16)
- Skillful Teachers must be sought out to train up future generations. If a student will be like his teacher (Luke 6:40), then we must seek out music teachers with thorough training. As John Milton Gregory says, the first law of teaching is that a teacher know the subject. Zoltán Kodály noted that: “It is more important who the singing master at Kisvárda is than who the director of the Opera House is, because a poor director will fail. [Often even a good one.] But a bad teacher may kill the love of music for thirty years in thirty classes of pupils.” (Houlahan and Tacka, Kodály Today, p.20.) This presupposes a:
- Vocationally trained musician.
- Theologically wise Christian.
- Pedagogically grounded educator.
- Lover of learning AND teaching.
- Music Literacy is the focus of the curriculum. Music literacy will give students keys to the treasure trove of music gifted to us by our forefathers. We want to provide the student with the tools of learning so that they can read, write, and think music just as with any other language. We want to create independent musicians so they are not dependent on a teacher to rote-teach them all of the music. Some components of such a curriculum would include:
- Providing daily, systematic, separate K-12 training. Ensembles aside, why is it common to have K-6 music classes together when we never have K-6 english, math, history or even PE together?
- Structuring the training according to the Trivium (Grammar-Logic-Rhetoric); not allowing concerts/entertainment to become the tail that wags the dog.
- Teaching music linguistically (sound before symbol) vs. a subject-logic approach (symbol before sound).
- Using a sequential and systematic methodology (i.e. Kodaly).
- Great Literature must be the backbone and the telos of the curriculum being studied and performed. Beauty is at the forefront of the cultural battle. It is the first thing to be attacked and the first bastion to be ceded by many Christians and Christians institutions. However, it is also the most self evident attribute to those who have been carefully cultivated in a culture of beauty. Exposure to good literature will nurture fat souls and will help produce students who are ruined for the world. They will learn to insist on Beauty and will be less likely to consider that goodness and truth could be situated or relative. From well crafted folk songs with beginning students to masterful motets, anthems, etc. for the older students, good to great compositions from Western culture should be the daily bread of a music program just as it is for our literature, bible classes, etc. Some food for thought:
- Truth, Goodness, AND beauty are all categories to which objective standards can and should be applied.
- While the music must be suitable to the age and skill level of the student, this shouldn’t lead us to employing “dumbed down compositions or arrangements.” Note that most of the greatest choral music written in western civilization was meant to be sung by pre-pubescent boys.
- The goal is to perform music by the masters, not learn about them or just listen to their compositions. This is true in everything else that we teach. We want our students to read books, to solve equations, to play the sport – not just watch, listen, or learn to “appreciate” them.
- Knowing and performing music by the masters is a part of being a literate and liberally educated person both musically and generally.
- Classical Teaching on Music has viewed music as central to the training of youth even to being foundational to the formation of their soul from Plato to Luther. Consider the following:
- Plato: “Education in music is most sovereign, because more than anything else rhythm and harmony find their way to the inmost soul and take strongest hold upon it, bringing with them and imparting grace, if one is rightly trained, and otherwise the contrary.” (Strunk, Source Readings in Music History: Antiquity and the Middle Ages, p. 8.)
- Quintillian: “If there were anything novel in my insistence on the study of music, I should have to treat the matter at greater length. But in view of the fact that the study of music has, from those remote times when Chiron taught Achilles down to our own day, continued to be studied by all except those who have a hatred for any regular course of study, it would be a mistake to seem to cast any doubt upon its value by showing an excessive zeal in its defense. (Weiss & Taruskin, Music in the Western World, p.11.)
- Aristotle: “It is plain that music has the power of producing a certain effect on the moral character of the soul, and if it has the power to do this, it is clear that the young must be directed to music and must be educated in it.
(Weiss & Taruskin, Music in the Western World, p.19.)
- Luther: “Necessity demands that music be kept in the schools. A schoolmaster must know how to sing; otherwise I do not look at him. And before a youth is ordained into the ministry, he should practice music in school.”
(Schalk, Luther on Music: Paradigms of Praise, p.30.)
Psalm 149:5-6 says:
Let the saints be joyful in glory;
Let them sing aloud on their beds.
Let the high praises of God be in their mouth,
And a two-edged sword in their hand.
Why? To what end? The concluding three verses tell us.
To execute vengeance on the nations,
And punishment on the peoples;
To bind their kings with chains,
And their nobles with fetters of iron;
To execute on them the written judgment –This honor have all his saints.
Praise the Lord!
If all of the above is true, then it seems incumbent upon Christian and Classical educators to train up the students in their care to skillfully wield the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God which is to dwell in us richly and proceed from our lips musically. I pray that our day schools and home schools will grow in its vision and understanding of music from a biblical perspective and act accordingly; I pray that God would raise up skillful music teachers to lead and train future generations; I pray that such work would bear much fruit and that God would prosper it that we may be conformed more and more into the image of Christ; I pray that God would be glorified and magnified through our skillful singing and playing of the best music we have to offer. May God bring it to pass in our times and for all times until we find ourselves singing with the many choirs before the throne of the Lamb in heaven.
by: David R. Erb
Fellow of Music
New Saint Andrews College