Holiday Reflections on Teaching Music

Happy New Year, everyone! I’ve been meaning to get out another blog post sooner, but really needed the down time to NOT be productive the past few weeks. So apologies for the lateness of some holiday-themed thoughts, but maybe they will come in handy for next year!

Teaching music occasionally becomes a struggle between respecting culture and respecting personal freedoms. Take holidays. I have students currently that are every variety of Christian, Jehovah’s Witness, Muslim, and Atheist. There are probably more religious traditions that I’m simply not aware of. Some of these students’ families do not want them singing songs about holidays or patriotism. Yet as humans, we evolved with the seasons, and have always celebrated their changes. Long before Jesus’ birth, the end of December was celebrated as the solstice, or shortest day of the year. While this was a dark and gloomy time, those who watched the sky could see that by December 25, the days were actually getting longer again, and Spring would surely come. In the Spring, we celebrate growing things, gardens, butterflies, etc. In the summer, it’s all about enjoying the great outdoors. The fall is full of leaves and signs of harvest.

These symbols I mention are fairly universal, and many would say they are not religious in character. Yet in the way our culture currently celebrates these seasons, religion and weather are intertwined. Fall is Hallowe’en and Thanksgiving. Winter is Christmas and New Years. Spring is Easter. These are the dominant holidays both in religious and in secular spaces (shopping). Regardless of whether you celebrate, you know who Santa is, what meat is served at Thanksgiving dinner, and that a creepy bunny leaves chocolate droppings around in the spring.

Students who cannot participate in religious music present a conundrum for me. Do I make the selection for the child (especially in the lower grades) and single them out by asking them to go read elsewhere? Do I let them sit quietly in the room but not participate? Do I let them make the decisions? Is it only religious songs (with Jesus or God, which I never use anyways) that are objectionable, or anything to do with a holiday (including Santa, Rudolph, jackolanterns). And do they understand where the line between season and holiday is drawn? How many of you have heard students and families (or even colleagues) refer to Jingle Bells as a Christmas song? If you’ve ever actually sung the lyrics, and thought them through, you’ll see it has nothing at all to do with Christmas, or Jesus, or Santa. They describe going for a ride in a sleigh (not Santa’s, just a wagon with skis). If THIS is not allowed, then surely by logical extension then there can be no songs at all about snow, or about leaves falling or trees growing or sun shining…at which point the student can no longer participate in vocal music for much of the school year.

A big part of the challenge is that many families with religious restrictions on music do not approach the music teacher until after the teacher begins a particular song or unit they find offensive. Often, my only clue is the child sitting quietly looking upset, not participating. Since participation is normally a requirement in my class, I first have to identify that the student is not off-task or being insubordinate for some other reason. Of course, if I know there is a religious objection, I’m happy to accommodate the child.

While I’m obviously still struggling with this issue, here are some suggestions that I’m planning to use as guiding principals moving forward.

  1. Continue to select only secular versions of holiday music, with no overt references to religious figures or gods.
  2. When a child is not participating that normally does, pull her aside after class and kindly discuss the issue. Find out if there is a religious reason for the lack of involvement.
  3. Once a student is identified as needing to be exempted from certain music, attempt to contact the parents and discuss the issue so as to fully understand their concerns.
  4. Make the accommodation that seems best for that child, whether it is taking a book to another room, sitting quietly, or doing an alternative activity.
  5. If students request a song that is more religious in nature, I will accommodate in respect for that child’s culture, an those who do not share that religious tradition can listen and learn respectfully.

What I will not do is compromise my teaching of celebration through music. Seasons are important, and will be recognized throughout the school in numerous ways. I will not cut all references to seasonal activities from my repertoire. We will sing Jingle Bells, and probably Frosty the Snowman. We may reference ghosts or witches in silly Hallowe’en songs. I will not remove traditional patriotic songs, such as the National Anthem, that should be learned as a historical part of growing up in America. Culture and religion are connected, and we must be careful to not eliminate the one in respect for the other.

4 thoughts on “Holiday Reflections on Teaching Music

  1. I too struggle with religious taboos in music. Isn’t music just that-music. It seems we can explore any other religion or cultural influence but those of the majority. Public school after all is public. If personal preferences are desired, that is what private schools are for, in my opinion. I do try to accommodate those students with specific beliefs, but I do feel it is unfortunate that we can’t highlight everyone’s beliefs and practices. Wish all groups could be open to new information and exploration of beliefs of others. We become empathetic and worldly by understanding the beliefs of others but choosing what is best for ourselves without censoring what others do.

    1. Hi Barb,

      That’s an excellent point. If I have a student come from a specific culture and want to share that, I definitely let them. But there is a hesitation to share if it is the dominant culture. I think this is what many Christians are referring to when they feel that they are under “attack” (war on Christmas, etc.). Being the dominant culture means finding a balance between openness to others and preserving one’s own culture. You can accomplish this by representation of many cultures/religions, rather than exclusion. I deal with this by letting students pick songs for a holiday singalong, and bring in culturally relevant materials.

      But regardless of whether we deal with diversity through openness or exclusion, shouldn’t Jingle Bells be exempt from any religious discussion?

    1. Ah, but I don’t. December is only the first month that I sing it in. Last year, my 4/5 kids were working on JB on recorder, and weren’t quite there with it in December. We performed it on the concert in February!

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