Joyful Music Literacy & the Classical Christian School Music Teacher

By Jarrod Richey

There is a saying, “those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.” The music educator might be tempted to think that he/she is missing out on the “real” work of music. But we know in the classical movement that education is more about formation than simply imparting information.[1] The honorable place of power and influence is in teaching and mentoring students. Music educators are stepping into the arena where people are actually formed to be musical. It is not a place for the leftovers who couldn’t make it big. In fact, Christian educators in particular should adopt the opposite side of this cultural idea. The Christian educator who wants to live big must die to self and take up a cross.

Three things would help us reset our perspective on this. A starting point would be redefining what is truly the best work that musicians can be doing. I submit to you that it is helping bring the next generation to a greater musical awareness than the current generation. A second (and more humbling) adjustment would be to remind ourselves that music has a place in the world that is much, much bigger than our own preferences and experiences of it. Lastly, because excellent instruction is central to the formation of excellent students, there is great value in constantly assessing the goals, principles, and methods of that teaching, especially when the subject is as formative of our affections as music.

All People That On Earth Do Dwell

In 1561, William Kethe penned the lyrics to that great hymn on Psalm 100, “All People that on Earth Do Dwell,” which admonishes all people to “sing to the Lord with cheerful voice.” All you music teachers in the fields planting seeds and watering little sprouts, there is the goal—cheerful music literacy for all God’s people. By that I don’t mean that all people must be given the same exact training with rigid expectations of identical results. Nor do I mean that vast numbers of our students need to become professional musicians. Instead, they should simply be saturated in singing and music-making from their earliest years to enable them to be a people who sing to God. This should be baseline thinking in how our schools handle the subject of music. If each generation can build a little more than the previous, think of how quickly God’s people could become fully literate in music, capable of worshipping God with skillful voices.

“Where were you, oh Man?”[2]

It’s easy to drift into the idea that the importance and meaning of music are tied to one’s own thoughts and preferences. As a culture, we tend to think of music as something that serves us and our purposes rather than as something we must submit ourselves to. But both biblically and historically, music is viewed as a cosmic reality, not a personal reference point. If this sounds unfamiliar, think of Tolkien’s and Lewis’ epic worlds and the creational role that music plays in those worlds[3]. These men did not birth parallel musically created worlds by chance. Both authors were steeped in the writings and philosophies of the past. Instead of music revolving around the individual person, they would have understood music as being a part of the great song that God has been singing since the beginning of time. This view affects how we posture ourselves regarding the subject of music. If God’s world has an ongoing theme that we are to join, then re-echoing or imitating that great song is a high calling indeed.

Music is Meat, Not Parsley

What is the place of music in education? Is it simply meant to be a garnish, an extracurricular? We’ve lost sight of the big picture and how music is actually central to the flourishing of man as he seeks to be whole. Additionally, many of our schools are blind to the galvanizing effects that music making can have on our culture and growth of the school as a whole.

If a school is only doing music as an elective for a small number of their students, then the first step to reversing that is to become a community that does music together. Sing a school hymn, anthem, alma mater, etc. Practically, the halls and walls of the school should be filled with singing and music-making. Music does not have to replace something, and it can glorify most of our subjects. Jingles, chants, and the like are often used in the training of our children. The next level comes in the form of more organized instruction in music literacy.

Conclusion

There are so many ways to understand music. There are so many opportunities and gimmicks to put music in front of our students. Music teachers do not have to be uniform in the various methods of teaching students in our schools, but they must be unified in the idea that music literacy is the goal. Give thanks for where you are teaching. Evaluate and reevaluate your methods to see if they are effectively training the young people in your care to be lifelong, joyful musicians or merely button-pushers who can recite the five lines of the treble staff and name the families in the orchestra. To echo an idea from the New Testament in the current discussion, be more about training students as doers of music, not just hearers (or appreciators) of it. Christian educators must stop treating music as parsley and more like the meat and protein that it is for this life now and the life to come.[4]

 

[1] See James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), pg. 18.

[2] See Job 38:7ff

[3] See C.S. Lewis’ Magician’s Nephew (Chapters 7-9) and J.R.R. Tolkien’s creation of the world in his Silmarillion.

[4] Hymn writers through the ages have exhorted us of the importance of singing in the life of the world to come. There is likely no less famous line than John Newton’s line in Amazing Grace stating, “we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we first begun” to remind us of singing now and hereafter.

 

JARROD RICHEY has been teaching K4 through 12th grade general music and choir classes at Geneva Academy in West Monroe, LA since 2008. Mr. Richey previously taught voice, choir, and music appreciation classes at the University of Louisiana Monroe. He received his bachelor’s degree at Louisiana Tech University before completing his Masters of Music at the University of Louisiana Monroe. He also completed his national Kodály music teacher certification from Wichita State University. He is visiting music faculty for the Chenaniah Summer Music Institute at New Saint Andrews College in northern Idaho each July-August where he teaches solfege musicianship, folk-dancing, and folk song research and analysis courses for their Kodály music teacher training program. He is the author of “BACH to the Future: Fostering Music Literacy Today” (2016) and general editor and contributing author to “Raise the Song: A Classical Christian Guide to Music Education” (2019). Jarrod and his lovely wife, Sarah, have six choristers in training ranging from ages three to thirteen.

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