The Winter Concert Dilemma
Thanks for the responses regarding repertoire choice at a Winter concert.
Since so many of you were curious about the kind of responses I would get to
my post, I am sending a compilation. Thanks again!
I teach grades 6 through 12 at Detroit Country Day School in Beverly Hills,
MI. I have a 6th grade choir (Treble), a 7-8 choir(Symphonic), a 16 voice
SAB ensemble from that, a 70 voice 9-12 choir (Concert Choir) and a 16-voice
ensemble from that. I have a very diverse student population (a lot of
Jewish, Hindu, African American) at my school (it's a private class C
school), and this can be an issue. What I've found that is rather slight,
but does make a difference is to simply call your concert a "Winter"
concert. I only do one "Christmas" song with each choir. If I do other
sacred works,they're NON-Christmas. Always find something Isreali or Jewish.
Just keep a good variey, but NEVER compromise quality. Especially for the
younger choirs(7-8 in your situation) I've found it's good to not
concentrate on the sacred classics, but do more other stuff. A BIG hit for
me last year was an incredible arrangement of the "Lullaby" from Humperdink'
"Hansel and Gretel." On the other side, and absolute FAVORITE of my choir
this year was Emily Crocker's "Jubilate Deo." The kids LOVED it. :)Not sure
if I'm helping here. If you'd like to see some of my repetoire, check out my
choral web site http://members.xoom.com/singatdcds Each choir has their
repertoire listed in it's own page.
Something Told the Wild Geese, Sherri Porterfield Turtle Dove, Von Williams, SATB
Beautiful Snow, SA Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow various voicings
Sleigh Ride, SAB
The Twelve Days After Christmas
As long as your program is balanced, I can't see them bothering you with the
sacred issue. In any event, start a file called "Sacred Music in the
Schools" and start collecting as much ammunition as you can. Good Luck:-)
I was a jr. high music teacher for nearly 20 years and now am a principal,
so I feel I can address your questions from "both sides of the fence". A lot
of what you can do depends on the community you live in and how likely you
are to encounter resistance. I always tried to do at least three pieces with
every group - one from the Christian repertoire, some kind of Hanukkah
number (or a number from another religious tradition) and a secular,
seasonal piece. In addition, I did several mass choir numbers that usually
were not sacred, so that the overall theme of the winter program was not
seen as religious. In addition, I often had an audience sing along which
might include a Christmas carol or two, but also some secular seasonal
songs. From the administrative point of view, you can do almost anything
unless someone complains! If you can show that you have attempted to balance
the program, and that you have thought about the issue ahead of time, you
are usually fine. That will also give you an opportunity to 'test the
waters' in terms of what the expectation really is. Good luck!
Both my wife and I have experienced this problem. I had a positive
experience, and my wife a negative one (her principal was over-the-top PC
and did not allow ANY religious music of any kind). You will be happy to
know that this will be a great opportunity for you. There is material out
there for all religions (I can't think of titles offhand), but you will find
them. I suggest you ask the other directors in your district for repertoire,
and you work closely with your kids on what exactly their religious
demographics may be. It's better to work with students and/or parents at the
beginning of the year than to let it ride until a month before the concert.
In order to ease this process, you could have a blank on a choir student
information sheet to be filled out at the beginning of the year by every
student asking about such things. To make a long story short, use this
opportunity to integrate history, literature, and other subjects into your
lessons and rehearsals. Both you and the students will garner more
experience from this than you can ever imagine.
I'm sure you'll receive many "legal" answers and there's a website somewhere
that explains the "religious issues in music" however I'm just a real person
who's taught 20 years or so public/private, suburban/barrio, elementary/high
school and have only had a couple of questions (usually having to do with
Halloween and Satanic influences and criticism of Earth Day for Pagan
1 A theme that usually works is "Holidays Around the World" -include
Hanukka, Diwalli (sp) the Hindu festival of lights/New Year,religious songs
sung in a non-English language, something for Kwanza, some seasonal stuff
and anything else you can throw in. (Il est né and Un flambeau areusually
fun to sing)
2 Go for quality literature and just not too overtly religious. Any "Dona
Nobis Pacem" usually works when you say it means "grant us peace", a setting
of The "Pie Jesu" from Weber's Requiem qualifies as "pop music", "Climbin'
up the Mountain" by Patsy Ford Simms is a spiritual with no overtly
religious overtones, you should probably include something in Spanish, There
are some simple settings of the Frost poem "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy
Evening", a setting of "Simple Gifts" is never questioned. Something in
Hebrew that is or isn't related to Hannukka ("Hinne Ma Tov"). There is
anarrangement of the "Alleluia" from Mozart's Jubilate Exultate, or you can
just do the theme as a round.
3 Stick to the Winter Theme- Winter wonderland, Irish Cabin, the Jill Galina
arrangement "Winter Fantasy" which is Jingle Bells with a counter melody.
Maybe some pop Christmas stuff (Reindeer, Santa, etc) I'd stay away from the
religious Christmas stuff especilly Baby Jesus things unless it's in limited
amounts or disguised in another language. Bad ideas would be "In the bleak
mid-winter", "Away in a Manger", "Little Town of Bethlehem", but doing
"Silent Night" in sign language, several other languages or with a counter
melody is usually tolerated as long as the program represents other
religions, winter, or if Silent N. is the only religious Christmas tune.
It's difficult the first few years especially if you have a lot of Jehovah
Witnesses then you have to dump the Santas and sometime Jingle Bells as
well. When I taught in an area that was 1/3 Jewish, I had 1/3 Hanukka and
other Songs in Hebrew. It's important to honor the cultures of your students
and languages and your job as a musician is to do good music, so "Pedro the
Reindeer" while cute doesn't really have a place in the Junior High program
(In my opinion). Anyway, good luck
I think you are on the right track. As long as you include secular,
wintersongs, sacred songs, channukah, and a variety of styles,languages,
etc. , you are not promoting a religion if you use some sacred music. I
think variety is the key to the religious thing. If your community is
especially sensitive to promoting religion, use songs with text about" the
babe of Bethlehem" as opposed to" Christ the Savior who came to forgive our
sins". I think audiences don't object to great sacred music at all, but they
do object to having doctrine promoted. I can't think of any particular
pieces to suggest, but some of my favorite composers when I taught middle
school are Emily Crocker, Linda spevacek, Mary Lightfoot, Shirley
Porterfield. Good luck your first year out!
A rule of thumb - stay away from the run of the mill "Christian Music"
anthems in your choral repertory. Spirituals and recognized classics set to
religious texts (Mozart's Ave Verum and the like) are OK, though I received
some criticism from some Jewish members of the audience at The Reston
Chorale's recent Dessert Concert, where The Reston Chorale Jazz Quartet
performed the Manhattan Transfer's classic gospel-style hit "Operator" (give
me Jesus on the line). They considered the piece "too Christian". I think of
it as a dynamite crowd pleasing arrangement of an up tempo classic - a
tribute to that style of music and singing. I had no intention of being
drawn in to in arguement over it and ignored the message. (We've also done
the Chichester Psalms and some pro-Israel choral music, along with the usual
token Hannukkah arrangements, with no adverse comments from the populace.You
never know.) Check with your co-middle school teachers.
I just started my first teaching position in January at a middle school
teaching chorus. I plan on doing many multi-cultural songs (people never get
offended by that!) and have a winter solstice theme. Of course a few
religious songs will be included, but try to have somewhat of a winter theme
I failed to mention in my last e-mail that if the administrators give it the
"OK", you are all set. Get an approval then if anyone has problems, just
tell them that the school approved it.
You might like to look at my piece 'Frozen Teardops Fall' published by
Alliance. The text, by one of my former 8th grade students, is about a
homeless family at Christmas who are befriended and 'saved' from the cold.
It is for SA and Piano only but seems to go down really well and would
'fit'into your winter theme. Two other pieces come to mind if you have a
four-part potential in your choir. They are 'A Carol in Winter' by Mark
Hayes and 'Give Me a Silent Night' by my friend Julie Gardner Bray. I can't
recall publishers offhand but they will be easy to find. Best wishes
You seem to be mixing race/ethnicity and religion, as you think of
repertoire. Race does NOT determine one's personal faith, as I'm sure you'll
agree. Music for "the church" is not always suitable "just" for Christians.
If you perform settings from the Old Testament (Psalms are great), you
include both the Judaic and Christian religions. Besides,texts of the O.T.
often include many fine human values (e.g., 10 commandments) that are found
in other religions. Nonetheless, by rehearsing such settings you are
carrying out a significant educational mission of developing (a) the
students' musicianship and "musical literacy," (b) their interpretive
skills, and(c) their aesthetic senses (knowledge of some great, beautiful
music andhow to perform it effectively). You are helping them create a
wonderful aesthetic experience. You are NOT advocating the messages in the
texts set to music. When Mozart set DON GIOVANNI, was he urging all men in
the audience to behave that way? When men see MISS SAIGON on Broadway, are
they all supposed to go out and treat women the way she is abused in that
show? No! AESTHETIC EXPERIENCE is just that! Nonetheless, if a student
cannot in good conscience participate in singing a particular text, you must
be sympathetic and understand that he/she will not sing that particular
number if they do appreciate the aesthetic experience at hand.
A couple of suggestions of secular quality winter music:"Blow, Blow Thou
Winter Wind" by John Rutter (I think it's published by Oxford, from a
collection called "When Icicles Hang") SATB/piano
"Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy evening" by Randall Thompson(from
Frostiana) SATB piano
There's a unison/piano piece called "Solstice" also by Randall Thompson-a
rather charming poem of a father and daughter enjoying a day together in the
winter. It's published by E.C. Schirmer Hope this helps!
Probably, if you include some Hanukkah and Kwanzaa music, you will be in
"safe" territory, and my experience has been that such "Christian"
selections as "Mary's Little Boy Child", a spiritual arranged by Jester
Hairston workswell, as it is from another culture. For Hanuukah, try
"Hanerot Halalu" arr.by Blanche Chass or "Beams of Gentle Light" by Robert
Evans Holmes (sorry, do not know publisher) or any version of "The Dreidle
Song." For Kwanzaa, there is music published but cannot tell you....some of
your students could probably steer you on this. In working at our school as
a volunteer conductor for the Sixth Grade Chorale, I found that Winter Songs
worked better than Jesus songs. Since you are just starting there, it might
be agood idea to run your plans by the Principal in order to establish a
good,supportive environment with him/her right from the start. I know most
conductors do not want to have to "clear" their concert programs with
anyone...and they shouldn't have to...but the reality is, that in this PC
world,good rapport with administration can make all the difference.
You are in the awful position imposed by squeamish school people who are
caught in the "cultural diversity" trap. It's not their fault, really, but
it does make life weird for you.
Are you getting into an established program? Has there been vocal and choral
leadership of high quality before you? Is there an elementary school feeder
(elem. choirs and classroom music) which will deliver high-quality singers
to you? If so, you are TREMENDOUSLY blessed. If any of the above are
lacking, then your FIRST task is to build a solid program of vocal/choral
training. At the JrHi level, voices are in transition, and they must be
cultivated with care. Boys, SHOULD sing, but they should not be pushed into
vocal/physical feats of which their tender voices are not capable yet.
You may find that your first year (or 2 or 3) are taken in building a
program. And THAT will dictate repertoire more than concerns of Christmas
Now, if you are in that remarkable position where everything is actually in
place, and concert repertoire programming is actually a priority, then,
given your situation, think this through:
Christmas, even the use of the word, DOES in one sense promote Christ.
Surely, 75% of all choral music is sacred to one tradition or other. The
African/American choral tradition is overwhelmingly Christian. Even
S.African rep like Siyahamba et.al. include such texts as "We are marching
in the light of God." And, finally, a choir, any choir, is by definition a
representative of the Western cultural tradition. Other world musics do not
have "choirs" in the sense in which you will be working. Thus, in a choral
situation, it is impossible not to "promote" the tradition of Western art
music, and that tradition is largely sacred at its best.
You may be in the position of singing more "general" repertoire, even in
December, and confining the obviously Christmas music to songs sung by and
with the audience, in audience/choral arrangements, such as the good old
David Willcocks/John Rutter style things -- and there's no reason you can't
cook up this sort of thing yourself! Think of winter or secular for this
purpose. If the audience joins in singing a choral/audience version of
JBells or WChristmas or I'll be home for Xmas or ....., then they will feel
satisfied that they have had a Xmas experience at the concert, and you can
have the CHOIR sing more general literature, carefully chosen for vocal
reasons rather than for PC reasons.
If your choir is at pretty basic level, there is nothing wrong in sining
unison or unison/descant repertoire, with some snappy accompaniments to
dress it up. The FIRST need is to create a fine choral sound, after all.
THEN, when the sound is good, AND MUSIC-READING SKILLS ARE DEVELOPED, you
move into part-singing, taking care of the tender condition of those young
If you have the option, look at accompanied simple polyphony. I have always
found that young singers take to it well, and much of it is secular or at
least not overtly sacred.
And on and on... Stay in touch. I will be interested to see how you get on.
Thanks for your posting.
First, congratualtions on your job! So exciting!
Second, RUFFLE FEATHERS, BABY! It helps build your program with personality.
I've had parents completely go over my head to the superintendant without
speaking to me. The super told them to talk to me about it. He backed me and
I was only a long term maternity sub. :)
As for rep...are your choirs SAB? SSA? TTB? CTB?
Just because you are singing christmas or chanukkah music in winter doesn't
mean you are promoting the religion. it means you are exposing your students
and your audience to music of the season. big whoop. I came into a very well
established high school program this year (last year taught middle school).
There was a lot of talk about doing XX% sacred music and XX% secular music.
By the grace of god these words flew out of my mouth: I don't look at music
as sacred or secular, but from the historical, political and cultural point
of view. SO MANY PARENTS felt relieved and I have had NO PROBLEMS or
discussions about sacred or secular music this year. As well, the kids could
see how their culture has developed out of these musical contributions
My winter themed concert was titled: songs of Channukah, Christmas, Hope and
Inspiration. I looked for Kwanzaa music, but it's all pretty schmackety
(kirby shaw, roger emerson, sally albright, jay althouse, attempts, but no
successes). There are some great Kwanzaa resources on the web. most of the
music is unison with drums,so if you have a great percussionist and can pull
some stuff from cds it'd be great! ANYWAY, the concert was a success.
Rep for the kids: Stopping by woods on a snowy evening (several different
Inscription of Hope--Randall Stroope (several arrangements all lovely)
ocho kandelikas--guitar and 2 part VERY fun!
Hanerot halalu-by Baruch Cohon
Good Night--Doreen Rao 2 part
Greensleeves--Earlene Rentz 2 part
Somagwaza-Pete Seeger-World Music - 3 part SAB
Metsa Telegramm- Uno Naissoo SSA
Check out earthsongs pub in Corvallis OR (I don't think they have a webpage)
for cool folksong arrangements
There's more, I just cant think about it all now.
Best of Luck to you.
I would like to give you some thoughts, but not repertoire. You will be
surprised, once you start looking, that there are many wonderful
songs/choral works that deal with the beauty of the seasons without
specifically promoting Christianity. I try to find old-testament
texts(Psalms, etc.) because they tend to be much more "neutral" in their
wording than new-testament, and acceptable by Christians, Jews,and Muslims.
You will also find that there is a growing body of vocal/choral literature
available in this country which uses texts from the Rig Veda and other
eastern sources of sacred scripture. Some Native American texts deal with
the beauties of winter, particularly those from Canada. There is a lot of
"Hannukah" literature out there. Choose those pieces which have meaningful
text and a limited amount of Hebrew to learn. Remember, Hannukah does not
hold the same importance in the Jewish calendar that Christmas holds in the
Christian calendar. If you include selections which celebrate a variety of
cultures, along with secular texts of celebration, nature, winter solstice,
love,etc. you will create a successful program. Perhaps the most successful
Christmas program I ever had when I taught elementary school ended with the
entire student body singing "Silent Night" (but you could use an Irish
Blessing, or all kinds of other blessings) while we projected, on the wall
adjacent to the so-called stage, slides that we had taken of the town during
the previous week--showing houses, churches, businesses decorated for the
holidays. It made the experience very personal and spiritual for the
parents and students without promoting anybody's religion. Everyone in the
place was touched in their own way. You really can't ask for more. Jessica,
choosing music is one of the most challenging and satisfying parts of our
profession. Enjoy the search--you will be amazed at what you find once you
start looking. Enjoy your first year, and many years to come.
If people are over sensitive enough, it is almost impossible not to offend
them. Just make sure you choose a variety of styles, cultures,and histories
to represent, but above all, make sure that the music is of good quality.
I've taught both junior and senior high choir programs, and inspite of the
fact that I always program sacred (meaning Judeo-Christian in origin)
music,I've never had any problems. One of my most successful concerts when
I taught 7th and 8th grade was called, "Holidays Around the World". It
included some wintersongs, a Qwanza piece, many Christmas works which would
be considered multicultural music, some Hanukah selections, etc. It was a
huge hit, and nobody felt slighted. Good luck.
I'm a church musician, too, and that's the repertoire I know best, but I'm
also a firm believer in the separation of church and state, and I don't
think that things that mention Jesus or God, or other religious figures,
belong in the public school. There's so much out there to sing about that
has to do with the season of winter, I really think it's easier to avoid any
religious music, and you won't have to worry about offending anyone.
You're opening a can of worms, but one which many teachers have dealt
with before. Arm yourself with legal information from MENC.
Performing sacred music is TOTALLY legal as long as it's not in the
context of a worship service and you've made sure the students
understand the difference. As you say, only the Christian church has
a tradition of choral music, so it's impractical to really include
other religions. Stick to your guns -- many teachers are standing
That said, it might be prudent to lie low your first year. There are
many "secular" Christmas songs, about Santa Claus or Rudolph or trees
that don't have anything to do with the birth of Christ. "Jingle
Bells," probably the most familiar "Christmas carol," doesn't mention
Christmas at all, it's just a winter song. Speaking of which, don't
forget to check for lists of Winter songs on the ChoralNet web site.
Randall Thompson's "Solstice" would be an excellent choice.
Finally, singing in Latin usually intimidates administrators.
Jessica - this is an age-old problem. However, singing religious music is
protected by many court battles, etc. In my concerts, I stick to the
suggested use of 50/50 at Christmas time - a 'secular' song for every song
that mentions Christ.
THREE SONGS FROM THE CHINESE (3-part SAB)
by Edwin T. Childs
pub. by Mark Foster Music
distributed by Shawnee Press
Just remember, you cannot please all of the people, all of the time! I just
finished my first year of teaching middle school chorus(grades 5-8)and was
given similar instructions in regards to planning my December program. I
talked to many teachers in the surrounding schools in my town, and they all
said pretty much the same thing-- either go completely non-religious, or
have a good variety of music for most cultures. I was told that if I did a
"Christmas" song, that I definitely had to make sure there was a Hannukah
song as well. The band director at my school did a completely non-holiday
oriented program last year (to avoid the politically correct programming
madness) and some of the parents complained. So, as you can see,there well
always be someone not satisfied. My suggestion to you would be to first find
out the capabilities of your choir(s). As much as we want to "wow" the
audience, be sure you choose music(at least for this year) that's on the
simpler side. Better for them to sing a less difficult arrangement very
well, than to try to sing a difficult piece and hack it to death! For each
group that I have, I try to do one secular piece and one holiday type piece.
So my program as a whole reflects as many cultures as possible, without
going off the deep end. Also, I had Jehovah's witnesses in some of my choirs
(three out of fifteen students in my eighth grade chorus) and that also
threw a monkey wrench in my program. At first I was going to change one of
the songs (It was "Were You There, Were You There on that Christmas Night"),
but then decided it was not fair to the other students that might appreciate
singing that song. So I kept it in, and the Jehovah's Witnesses just didn't
sing it. Not knowing how advanced your choirs are, I can't really suggest
any music. All that I can say is... stick to your guns! I'm sure it will go
fine! Good luck!
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