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Teaching Through Music

The basic joy of Christian faith makes music a learning ingredient even more important in Christian education than it is in secular education. The status of music as a universal language offers an outstanding vehicle for the communication of any message, and more particularly, for the message of the eternal Gospel. Lawrence Bixler says that this universal language appeals first to the emotions and then to the intellect. The emotions serve as a doorway to the throne room of the mind.

“Christian education must be concerned with the whole person, that is, emotions as well as intellect. Music is important to Christian education because of its appeal to the whole person. In its appeal it begins with the emotions or the moods and extends to the whole spirit of man” (How To Teach, Standard Publishing, Cincinnati, Ohio).

For too long the evangelical church has considered music only filler. The church has failed to take seriously its important responsibility in music education. Since Christian music is distinctly related to the church, the total task of church education includes confronting children, youth, and adults with the best of Christian music, and training those who possess talent to use it for Christ.

Of course this raises the question, “What is good church music?” Gunner Urang’s book Church Music for the Glory of God (Christian Service Foundation, Moline, Ill.) is most helpful in answering this question: “To conclude, then, church music is good not because it is of a certain time or nationality or by a certain composer or school of musicians; nor because it is contemporary and popular; nor because it measures up to secular standards; nor just because it happens to be soft, loud, slow and steady, or fast and rhythmic. Good church music is that which does its job reinforcing and emotionalizing the message of the words. TECHNICALLY such music will be singable and it will emphasize important words. PSYCHOLOGICALLY such music will reinforce the spirit of the words through right associations.”

Values in Teaching Through Music

Music is one of the most overt learning activities emphasizing the process of “learning by doing.” It is, in reality, a form of dialogue in which everyone can participate. Although some participate in greater depth in the specialization of playing instruments or singing solos, all can participate in congregational singing and the most elementary rhythmic exercises teaching simple notation and rhythmic movement in the preschool department of the Sunday School.

Most of the teaching methods discussed in this book have bad rather severe restrictions with respect to age group. Teaching through music, however, is a learning approach which knows no chronological boundaries. Wayne R. Rood suggests that one of the great achievements of music is its ability to break over the age barriers and chop through the alleged generation gap.

“Meeting across these barriers is a creative achievement , educating both participants in the dialogue. Music, especially group singing, provides a bridge. It has often served that function in the past. The Moravian movement, as reported by Zinzendorf, used choirs as one of its chief educational and communal functions. Everyone in the community from youngest to oldest was in a choir of his own age. The choir was more than a musical organization in which songs were rehearsed and learned; it was also a Bible study unit, which is interesting to modern churchmen, not so much for its blending biblical theme and song, which was often bizarre, as for its achievement of togetherness” (The Art of Teaching Christianity, mentioned earlier).

Problems in Effective Music Education

One of the most common problems we have in music education in the church is the failure of the teacher to realize that the nature of the learner’s activities, summed up in mental, intellectual, and emotional involvement, is the most important issue in method. Just as in creative art, the student should be given the opportunity to express himself through music even as the teacher is attempting to impress him with the essential message of the Gospel in song. Earl H. Gaulke suggests that we should “Listen to the rhythmic chants of childhood, and you have a key to the what and how of teaching songs. Children often express the way they feel through these half-spoken, half-sung chants which seem to come so naturally to them” (New Ways To Learn, see p. 65).

Another, common problem in church music education is the failure to employ and understand proper method. The teacher should stimulate and guide learning step-by-step into the opportunity for experiences not only in singing, but also listening, creating, rhythmic and instrumental participation, and music reading.

All of this may not be the responsibility of a single teacher, and it certainly does not take place in a given year of the Sunday School cycle. Nevertheless, the church needs to take a broad view of music education, recognizing that from the opening song in the nursery Sunday School worship time, to the sophisticated cantata presented by the chancel choir, it is teaching Christian music, good or bad.

A difficulty which many teachers face is that they seem to have no musical ability and yet are called upon to handle this phase of the teaching process because of the self-contained classroom. Today these teachers can draw from an arsenal of easily used helps such as record players with sing-a-long records, accompaniment tapes available in cassette or reel, and similar items to make music education possible even when there is no piano or pianist in the room. Of course it is good procedure for a Sunday School to assign a musically inclined teacher to every department so that accompaniment and music leadership needs can be taken care of properly.

Principles for Effective Music Education

Music should fit the child rather than the child fitting the music. Simple spontaneous “made-up” songs will be very appropriate and useful at the preschool level.

Utilize simplest instruments with the earliest ages to encourage participation and build interest in music. These would include sand blocks, rhythm sticks, jingle sticks, bells, triangles, tonette or flutaphone, song bells, and tambourines.

Teach the unknown by appealing to the known. Based on the child’s past experience, begin with familiar songs and connect the new songs to them. This is simply an application of the old principle of apperception.

Spend time in listening activities. Let the children sit quietly while the song is sung or played, and use effective recordings in the classroom.

Be positive, encouraging, and create a joyful atmosphere at all times. There is no reason why the music time should be a forced situation to which the student looks forward with hesitation or fear.

Use effective groupings. Try to place experienced singers beside less experienced singers so that they may offer help. Teach children the harmonic structures and part singing as soon as possible.

Stress variety in your approaches to music education. Do not use a 15 minute “chorustime” in which you rehash “Everybody Ought To Know” and “God Can Do Anything” week after week. Introduce new songs in the folk style, use songbooks at times, visualize the song with printed materials or chalk drawings, and introduce hymn stories to teach the context out of which the song has arisen.

The joyful task of church music education is much more the process of listening to learn rather than learning to listen. There is an old saying expressing the virtues of song: “If music be the food of love, play on.” Well, music can be the food of love—God’s love in Christ. Along with our verbal teaching we can communicate the Gospel and theology in depth through the medium of music. Christian music is always music with a message.

Related Topics: Teaching the Bible