According to Martin Luther, “Next to the word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.” Though these words remain true, sadly the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in America have given birth to a modern form of industrialized education, where the goal is to “get a job” rather than to “nourish the soul.” To paraphrase musicologist Dr. Carol Reynolds, the digital “dulling” of children continues to be on the rise, as more people become consumers of artificial, electronic sound, and less are able to play an actual acoustic instrument and experience the full involvement of the senses and grand unity it provides. Most agree that studying music requires a considerable amount of discipline and diligence. Leaders in classical education would say it’s a core piece of the educational puzzle, while many others see it is a trivial luxury or a resume filler. The fact is that in order to be fully human as God intended us to be, music must remain an essential part of the curricula. People should study music for five main reasons outlined as follows: Music is powerful, music is therapeutic, music improves the mind, music communicates across cultural barriers, and music was created by God for His own glory.
1) Music is Powerful
Have you noticed that a musical backdrop is placed into almost every meaningful activity in which we engage ourselves? Think of restaurants, stores, and movies. It’s almost as if our very lives have their own soundtracks. This music is placed strategically because music is truly a powerful force. Entire cultures are even defined by their music. Beethoven proclaimed that “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.” As one of the seven liberal arts, music takes its rightful place in the upper division called the “quadrivium” with the other math-based sciences of astronomy, geometry, and arithmetic. As I have heard Martin Cothran of Memoria Press explain, music has mathematics at its base, and deals with relationships between quantities, so music is quantitative. However, it also deals with language and beauty and is therefore qualitative. This combination of the quantitative and the qualitative gives music the unique ability to reach straight to the soul of man. In the case of Odysseus, when he had to be strapped to a ship to avoid the song of the sirens, it was unfortunate. But for the Israelites, when they blew their trumpets and the walls of Jericho came down, it meant triumph. Think of how the wrong kind of music can affect a person’s behavior, and the immoral themes in some of the music of modern culture. On the other hand, consider the ethereal quality of Bach’s simple Prelude in B-flat minor, which lifts the soul. Aristotle believed that music had the power to form a person’s character. The power that music possesses makes it crucial to be a student of music with a discerning ear for truth.
2) Music is Therapeutic
In I Samuel 16:23 we read, “And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand; so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.” Music is therapeutic. God created human beings to be drawn to the beauty of it, and to be refreshed by it. When a person listens to or creates music they enjoy, dopamine is released into their bloodstream, rewarding them with feelings of happiness. Music therapists are employed to soothe terminal and other ailed patients with melody and harmony. A baby is lulled to sleep by the low, lilting lullaby of its mother. As Shakespeare once said, “If music be the food of love, sing on.” The master of music himself, JS Bach, stated that music is “for the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” I have to wonder if the rise in mental illness among children and teens could be somewhat thwarted by immersing our youth in an environment of making and listening to beautiful sounds. There have been countless times when I have played the piano to soothe my soul. Music equals therapy.
3) Music Improves the Mind
It has been known for decades that studying music correlates with higher academic performance. Music for All, a national organization which promotes music education on a national level has claimed that students participating in school music programs scored an average of 107 points higher on the SAT, and were at higher math levels in high school. Playing an instrument, reading a score, following a part in choir, and trying to do so while counting makes you think and use your brain. As a matter of fact, music is one of the rare activities that actually stimulates one’s entire brain. Studying music improves your memorization and thinking skills, sharpens mathematical abilities, and uses logic. Studying music teaches us to truly listen, to the point of recognizing that a note is a quarter of a step sharp or flat, or hearing the return of the A section in a sonata. Physically, fine motor skills are improved by playing an instrument. Also, learning to sing puts you in harmony with your own body, as you discover how to make your breath support the tone. Studying music improves your mental and aural capacities.
4) Music Crosses Cultural Barriers
A fourth reason to study music is that it breaks through cultural boundaries. Music, which utilizes the same staff and symbols worldwide, is considered to be a universal language. It can convey the same thoughts and emotions in Asia as it does for someone listening in North America, all without words. A large group of people participating in the same music together shares a sense of unity replicated nowhere else. Families are drawn together by singing and creating music together. I read a story by Carol Reynolds of a famous pianist named Panos Karan who took a break from touring because he felt that only the “elite” could experience his music in the concert hall. He wanted to see if the same response was evoked by randomly playing for people. He traveled through the Amazon jungle with an electric piano playing the music he normally reserved for the concert hall. The response to the centuries-old, Western Baroque music among the native people was one of sheer delight and captivation. It was all new to them, as if it had been the year 1700. Music, therefore, had the power to connect two very different cultures. Another experience we can almost all relate to is the one of being in a house of worship with our family and friends, and hearing the sound of our voices joined in unity, praising the Lord. Music has a unifying power and allows us to communicate, even without words.
5) Music Was Created by God for His Own Glory
One of the questions I ask my music class each week is "What is the chief purpose of music?" Their response is, "The chief purpose of music is to glorify God and worship Him forever." The fifth and most important reason people should study music is that music was created by God in order for us to glorify Him. David, the musician of the Bible, outlines in Psalm 150 the way in which we should praise God, and it instructs us to “Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs. Praise him upon the loud cymbals...Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord.” All humans, whether they believe in God or not, are worshippers. We will all worship someone or something. We were created for worship. We are also created in God’s image, and one aspect of that is the ability to imitate him by being creative. I am fortunate that music has been an avenue I could always use as a means of service to the Lord. Music unites talent with faith. Psalm 96 challenges us with “O sing unto the Lord a new song: sing unto the Lord, all the earth.” We do not have to be virtuosos like Bach to use music for the Lord. We meet Him with the ability He has given to us, and it is our responsibility as humans to do so.
In summary, music is proper for study because it is powerful, therapeutic, academic, communicative, and glorifying. The true question about our child’s education and even our own is whether we want to simply “pass the test” and “get the job”, or whether we want to be “fully human”, and “nourish our souls”? Are a sense of wonder, delight in beauty, discernment, search for truth, and appreciation of God’s creation important in your child’s education? Removing music from the curricula would be like chipping away at the development of a complete person made in God’s image.
*This article was adapted from an essay written by Melissa Surman in the summer of 2017.
In a classical education, music is not an "extra-curricular" activity or an embellishment on a transcript. Music is and should be at the very core of human learning and experience. I would go as far as to say that it is our human responsibility, as imitators of our Creator, to be musically inclined. Additionally, simply "doing" music is not the goal. Simply "doing" an essay is not the goal. Simply "doing" a math problem is not the goal. In a Classical Christian education, we want to not only "do" it, but do it well. We want to create something aesthetically pleasing. This is called mastery. Music lends itself to mastery, but to achieve mastery, you have to be equipped with the right tools to help you work toward that goal. In a classical education, those tools are imparted to the pupil in order to aid them in becoming masters in their studies.
Translating this concept to music, we’ve all heard the saying, "Practice makes perfect!" As musicians, practice is the mode through which we master our "craft". But practice isn't enough. There is a correct and effective methodology to practicing an instrument. Practice doesn't always make perfect. "Perfect practice makes perfect!" Allow me to give you 10 of my personal practical "tools" that will help you achieve "perfect piano practice".
1. Practice the evening of your lesson.
After your weekly lesson, the new material is "fresh" and "ripe" for further development. Go ahead and put your instructor's suggestions into practice the evening after your lesson. Even just a few minutes of going through the new skill or technique you learned that day is beneficial. After 24 hours, you will lose about 60% of what you gained in your lesson if you wait to put it into practice.
2. Go for many short practice sessions over a few long sessions.
Simply put, you will improve much more practicing for 20 minutes 6 times than you would sitting down for 120 minutes one or two times. This is called "distributed practice". I joke that I practice for hours a day "10 minutes at a time." I am the queen of practicing something every time I have 10 minutes to spare, whether it's during a transitional period in my day, waiting for a student to arrive, or even while waiting for a pot of water to boil on the stove (I seriously do this). Constantly have "short visits" with your piece at different times of the day to keep it fresh and gain skill and insight.
3. Vary your approach.
Mindless repetition gets you nowhere in music and only reinforces bad habits. Each practice session should focus on a particular skill, and the focus should vary from session to session. During one short visit with your music, you may work with the metronome, focusing on rhythm and finger control. Then next time the focus could be articulation and expression with dynamics. It might also serve you well to spend a session solely on memorizing the piece. You can practice just one hand at a time. The key is to mix it up, and to be cognizant of what skill or technique you are focusing on at that time.
4. Always start slow.
When learning a piece, it is important to play slowly at first so that you can master transitions, fingerings, rhythm, and technique. Playing slowly is not necessarily easier. It actually takes much more discipline. Even after working on a piece for quite some time, it is good to get in a good, thorough, slow practice session. Your technique will greatly improve by doing this.
5. Always start "dry".
Practice without the pedal. This is another disciplinary issue. The pedal is fun to use, and can really enhance the sound, but it covers up our mistakes, which reinforces bad habits and does not help us to perfect our technique. In the days of Bach and even Mozart, pedals did not exist, so keyboardists had to have impeccable technical skills. To this day, people often play Bach and Mozart completely "dry"(no pedal). This makes a pianist very vulnerable, and allows every flaw to be exposed. My rule is that if you can make the piece sound beautiful without pedal, then it will be exquisite when you finally add it in where it belongs.
6. Pick one piece to focus on.
For each short practice session, pick one piece on which to focus. Rather than mindlessly running through 5 pieces in one session, hone in on one piece, or even one section of a piece, for 20 minutes. Perhaps there's a difficult passage or transition that needs repetition. As a piano teacher, I will choose really focus on one particular piece with a pupil during an entire 30 minute lesson, especially as the student becomes more advanced. These concentrated sessions have been very beneficial to the student, teaching them how to practice properly and thoroughly.
7. Warm up.
Playing the piano is a physical activity. I think it is helpful to start with your slowest, gentlest piece, and end with your fastest piece. Your muscles need to warm up to be able to play a fast or loud piece. I play my slowest piece first, and save the more animated pieces for later in the day when my muscles are warmed up.
8. Listen to Good Recordings and to Yourself
People learn how to do things by modeling "masters". This is no different for music. Find a recording of your piece being played by a reputable performer. As you listen, follow along in your music and make note of where the artist slows down, speeds up, gets louder/ softer,etc. Then record or video yourself playing. What do you hear? Is the sound pleasing? Does it sound "dead"? Mushy? If so, what steps can you take to improve the sound? After working for a few weeks, record yourself again and compare.
9. Keep a pencil handy at all times.
This is self explanatory. Learn to make notes in your music. If you keep messing up in a certain spot, circle that spot, make a note, and work on it.
What is the point of learning music if you never share it? Always participate in performance opportunities. Use your musical abilities in church, and anywhere else you have the opportunity to do so. Psalm 150 commands us to praise God with music. You do not have to be a professional to perform. Performances help with goals, since they create deadlines. Recitals act as motivational tools in my studio, causing the students to find a reason to practice.
In a classical Christian education, our goal is to rediscover the “lost tools” that help us master what we are studying. Make good use of these 10 "Perfect Practice Tools" and you will be well on your way to mastering your piano craft.
"Zoltán Kodály, a Hungarian composer and ethnomusicologist, lived from 1882-1967. In addition to composing countless beautiful pieces of music, he made it his mission to improve the state of music education in Hungary. He believed strongly that musical concepts could be taught through the music of the native people: in other words, the key to musical literacy was folk songs. Only the "best" music would do. Kodály was convinced that the "best music" is 1) the folk songs of the people, and 2) art songs composed by the "masters". Therefore, in 1905, he began traversing the Hungarian countryside and villages recording the folk music of the people with a phonograph. Aided by his friend and fellow composer Béla Bartók, he compiled and notated a huge collection of folk music with which to teach musical concepts to children. The human voice is the essence of his methodology, and is the means by which children learn music. Zoltán Kodály believed all children could sing, and that tone deafness was a myth (barring a physical disability). He insisted, "If we ourselves sing often, this provides a deep experience of happiness in music. Through our own musical activities, we learn to know the pulsation, rhythm, and shape of melody. The enjoyment given encourages the study of instruments and the listening to other pieces of music as well."
Kodály's approach is a "mother tongue" approach. Linguistically, we immerse our children in our native tongue from the time they are in utero. Once someone is literate, they can "hear" the words of a book as they are reading silently. Musical literacy produces the same effect. A child who is musically literate can see the musical symbols on a page and hear those symbols in their head. Children brought up learning in the Kodály methodology will learn music concepts through nursery rhymes and folk songs, and will later transfer that knowledge to art songs and classical music. This is like a child who learns to read simple phonetic readers, and is later able to devour the Great Books independently. The final outcome of the Kodály method is the development of the independent musician.
The curricula based on this methodology consists of a carefully ordered sequence of musical concepts, which follows logically with the natural development of the child. These concepts are isolated and extracted from the "music of the people" or familiar folk songs. A child's first pitches and rhythms are those found in games and nursery rhymes (think of "nanny-nanny boo-boo"). A child's life is paced more like an 8th note, so shorter durations like "ti-ti" (two eighth notes) are taught early on. Most modern music pedagogy would start with the whole note. The Kodály method also uses a very limited pitch set at first: the pentatonic scale. These are the pitches children naturally sing in tune, along with the descending 3rd or "so-mi" (think of "rain, rain, go away..."). By contrast, other modern methodology starts with "do-re-mi" and the diatonic scale (all 7 tones). In the Kodály method, there is a very structured way of teaching the concepts through three distinct stages: preparation, presentation, and practice. These stages are referred to as "The 3 P's". All learning modalities (kinesthetic, aural, and visual) are addressed throughout these three stages and the concepts are continually reinforced with games and practice techniques. The children are learning though play and are led to "discover" the concepts, which have already been internalized through games. The folk song is the medium through which they learn and achieve the goal of music literacy, and functions like the Great Books in the classical tradition. Music teachers receive intensive specialized training to master this methodology so they can better educate their students. At New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho, for instance, music teachers in classical settings receive training at their annual Chenaniah Summer Institute. The Kodály method has become the standard for classical music educators around the country.
You might be asking how this fits in with the Trivium, which is the Classical model of educating. More importantly, how does this methodology align with Classical CHRISTIAN education? In a classical education a child goes through the three stages of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. I liken these to the stages of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, as outlined in Proverbs 24: 3, 4. Just as the Trivium follows the natural development of a human, the Kodály method follows the natural development of the child. God created us in His image, and He gifted us with the ability to sing and be musical. Not only is singing a gift from God, it's a Christian and human responsibility. There are countless imperatives in the Bible commanding us to sing. One example is Psalm 96:1: "O sing unto the Lord a new song: sing unto the Lord, all the earth." Notice it reads, "ALL the earth." We need to make singing and musical ability accessible to ALL. That is what the goal of the Kodály method is. God gave everyone a voice. It is something we can all use to praise Him and to proclaim His glory. And by following Kodaly's philosophy that "only the best will do" for a child, we are training our children to both discern and love what is good, true, and beautiful. We are equipping our children with the musical tools they need to worship, so they can make God known through the beauty of music. As a result, the truth of God can be effectively emanated.
I feel very fortunate to live in a city with the opportunity to experience world-class artistry in music. A trip to Music Hall to enjoy the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra or Cincinnati Opera, or to the Aronoff Center for the Arts to see a theater production is never a disappointment. Between the Cincinnati Childrens Theater, many art museums, Shakespeare productions, Playhouse in the Park, and more, the opportunities for the educating family to expose children to the arts are endless in the Queen City. In addition, Cincinnati, Ohio is also home to one of the finest music conservatories in the nation, the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of music. This year marks the 150th anniversary of CCM's founding.
At my daughter's recent Cincinnati Children's Choir concert I found a true source of inspiration in the program book: the story of Clara Baur. This talented young woman was born in Germany, but traveled to the U.S. in 1849 at age 13. After going back to her homeland and other portions of Europe to study voice and piano, she returned to the United States, determined to start a conservatory that would be on par with those in Europe. In 1867, 31-year old Baur, out of devotion and love for the arts, rented one room in a school for young ladies, and thereby established the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, one of the first in the United States. This was three years before the city of Cincinnati established UC.
Clara's standards of complete musical excellence and her community outreach led the school to grow, and she was granted a teaching position by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. She passed away in 1912, though her legacy pressed on through her niece. Eventually, in 1955 the conservatory expanded and merged with the College of Music of Cincinnati, creating the College-Conservatory of Music. In 1962, CCM became the 14th college added to the University of Cincinnati. Since then it has a history of turning out some of the best musicians in the nation.
Why does Clara's story inspire me? Maybe it is because I am also a woman in my 30's, a homeschool mom, a piano teacher, a voice teacher, and Classical Christian educator with a vision to see the Classical Christian education movement permeate Cincinnati. If she can start CCM in one room, what can others with vision and God's help accomplish? I see a little of myself in Clara Baur, and she makes me proud to be a Cincinnatian.
Isaiah 7:14" Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel."
As a follow-up to last week's post about the general differences between Advent and Christmas music, I wanted to share with you 7 Advent songs that significantly and spiritually touch my heart. I am listing them in no particular order since they are all worth learning and listening to. Some of these songs were originally composed in Latin, though they are mostly sung in English today.
1. "Creator Alme Siderum" (Creator of the Circling Stars)
Deriving from the 7th century, in the chant style of Ambrose, this reflective chant is often sung on the first Sunday of Advent. Today you are most likely to hear it in the English form "Creator of the Stars of Night".
2. Holy is Your Name by David Haas
Based upon the text of Luke 1:46-55, this is perhaps my favorite song relating to Mary, the mother of Jesus. It is a song of pure praise.
3. "Holy is His Name" by John Michael Talbot
Ok, this one is similar to #2 textually, but I could not leave it off the list because it's too pleasing to the ear. The soothing, singable melody, harmony, and Biblical text make this a most treasured song of Advent.
4. "People Look East" by Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965)
This bright and cheerful Advent carol has a traditional French melody, and was published in the "Oxford Book of Carols" in 1928.
5. "Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth" (original text by St. Ambrose, translated by John Mason Neale)
This enchanting hymn is set to the tune of the 15th century "Puer Nobis Nascitur" (Unto us is born a son), which is found in the German Moosburg Gradual. I discovered the hymn on the Amazon Prime album "Advent at Ephesus" and fell in love with its beauty.
6. "Ev'ry Valley" from G.F. Handel's Messiah
The Messiah, an English language oratorio composed in 1741 by Baroque master Handel, has a libretto structured in 3 parts, which follow the liturgical year. Part 1 deals with Advent and Christmas and includes this piece. "Every Valley" is taken from Isaiah, a book of the Bible prophesying the birth of Christ. The virtuosic melismas make this piece a breath-defying feat for any singer.
7."Veni, Veni Emmanuel" (O Come, O Come Emmanuel)
The earliest derivation of the Latin text is in the Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum from the year 1710 in Cologne. This is perhaps the most iconic Advent hymn of all. The season would not be complete without it.
And here is the English version, just because.
If your household is similar to mine, it's highly possible that you still have buckets of your children's unfinished Halloween candy lying around your kitchen! And here it is now the week following Thanksgiving. In a non-liturgical world, it seems to be the natural progression that we should go ahead and begin our rightful enjoyment of "Blue Christmas" and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" as we look for those Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals. After all, as of November 1st, the radio stations here in Cincinnati began their yearly proclamation of the Christmas season. The never-ending cycle of the same 30 Christmas songs played endlessly as a way to "celebrate the real reason for the season" fills our ears ad nauseum. Now to be fair, we all enjoy Christmas music to a certain degree, but one must be reminded that it is not yet Christmas. Advent is yet to be upon us, and musically speaking, Advent and Christmas are two very different seasons with contrasting musical tones.
"Advent" is a term that derives from the 4th declension Latin noun "adventus", which means "arrival" or "coming". It is the season beginning this Sunday, December 3, and ending Sunday, December 24th, during which we look forward to the celebration of the Nativity with a sense of expectation and hope. Advent points back to the time when the ancient Israelites were crying out to God for a Messiah. With that in mind, Advent hymns have a tendency to be more introspective, subdued, and minor in key. During the season of Advent, in the Catholic church for example, even the instruments play at a quieter dynamic level. Advent hymns are often harder to find, which is why most churches simply skip to Christmas music. They are also not as "peppy" and "fun" as Christmas hymns. Their subject matter deals with looking forward to a coming Messiah, expecting, and waiting. However, it's not just any waiting: it's waiting for our very salvation. A prime example of such a hymn is "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." Although it is sung in English today, it was traditionally written in Latin in the 12th century.
On the other hand, Christmas is a celebration of God's covenant being fulfilled. And it's this expression of jubilant fulfillment of God's promises that makes us want to listen to those Christmas carols as soon as possible and for as long as possible. A Savior was indeed sent to earth, so there is joyful celebration in songs like "Joy to the World" and "Angels We Have Heard on High". Singing these songs makes us happy and helps us feel fulfilled and unified.
However, this joyful celebration technically doesn't begin until Christmas Day. The time of Advent provides the believer with a time of preparation and a time to focus on the hope that Christ indeed brings. This is essential to the Christian experience. Just as we prepare our hearts to receive Communion, we must prepare our hearts to receive God's gift of Christ. Last night I sat in my office and began planning the music for December for the church where I am employed as music director. Though I needed to plan through December 31st, I had to stop at December 24th because I couldn't make the mental and emotional shift from Advent to Christmas in one sitting. I will have to return to my work with a fresh frame of mind. I do indulge in Christmas music before December 25th to a degree, and I don't think it's wrong, but I am careful not to overlook Advent and the reminders it provides of what God has done for us. Both Advent and Christmas hymns deserve a place in our holiday tradition. And just remember, Christmas doesn't fall on Black Friday.
Please look for a follow-up post on my absolute favorite songs for Advent!