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Four Tips for Teachers on Holiday Performances

I embrace seasonal performances. Having organized and directed--at a minimum--hundreds of candlelit concerts, rowdy assemblies, Jingle Bell parades and cocoa-fueled trips to nursing homes, I'm down with whatever musical merriment happens in schools in December.

What I find disheartening is the gearing up of the Faux War on Christmas, using public schools as staging ground for stirring up unnecessary and phony conflict.  From where I stand, as a 30-year music educator who dealt with the Christmas Conundrum annually, there has never been a genuine, organized assault on the commercial spectacle that revs up in early November and dominates the media and public spaces for weeks. In fact, getting all huffy about greetings, menorahs and nativity scenes feels like uncivil, bullying behavior, something we shouldn't be gleefully modeling for students. 

The holiday season is so all-encompassing in America that you really have to be scraping to come up with something to be unhappy about. Most school policy on Christmas music--and performance of other traditional and ethnic holiday compositions--fall somewhere between muddled and nonexistent; a fair number of directives get added when someone complains at a school board meeting.

Several years ago, I was the assigned mentor for a first-year music teacher in my district. She was pretty wonderful--well-trained, personable and bursting with new ideas about putting on a December program. She was placed in a building where the principal--a pro-business non-educator who wore a cross pin on his lapel-- was actively disliked by the teachers on his staff. The principal directed her to sing Silent Night at the December program. Other teachers on her staff warned her that singing Silent Night was "illegal" and they would not attend the evening program if the children sang it. The ultimate squeeze.

My advice, as her mentor, was to have an honest conversation with the principal--shouldn't she be in charge of selecting the optimum music for her students' learning?--but not to defy him. He was wrong to put her in that position--but I was disappointed that her colleagues didn't rally, instead of withdrawing support from a newbie who was vulnerable to charges of insubordination. 

Four ideas for school music teachers who find themselves trying to figure out how to cope with school music in December:

#1. Know your community. The first thing any music teacher should ask, on taking a new job, is what musical traditions have been built over time, what sacred (deliberate word choice) cows exist. Ease into new programming ideas, even if the old ones are wrong-headed or even offensive. If the previous band director signed on for the local Santa Claus parade for 20 years, your first year on the job isn't the time to draw a hard line on multiculturalism or religious persecution. 

#2. Inform yourself. Be very clear on which music literature choices violate the spirit of the First Amendment. I recommend reading Charles Haynes, who's written extensively on the principle of separation of church and state, especially as it applies to public schools. 

Haynes says: 

The First Amendment solution is stunningly simple: Schools should plan holiday programs that are educational in purpose and balanced in content. Nothing in the First Amendment prohibits public schools from educating students about music, religious and secular, as part of a comprehensive music program that exposes students to a variety of traditions and cultures.

For many people on all sides, the argument isn't really about Christmas songs or Nativity pageants -- it's about who gets to decide what kind of society we are. Schools, after all, are where we define who we are as a nation. 

#3. Think culture--not religion. Many traditions and symbols associated with winter holidays have an interesting, even checkered, cultural history--from the Yule tree to Saint Nicholas. If we remove all sacred music from consideration, we're excising whole centuries' worth of folk and classical music--our Western cultural history. The trick is to find a balance.

I once had a family meet with me before the holiday season began to request that I not teach their first-grade daughter any "Santa Claus songs." The father was a Christian pastor, and the family had decided to tell their children, up front, that Santa was not real, but a dangerous myth spread by godless humanists. They suggested we sing only songs that mentioned the birth of Jesus--the "reason for the season." It was an interesting conversation, given that Santa songs and neutral winter songs are the default music of beleaguered teachers who are trying to avoid Jesus to stay out of what they interpret as First Amendment trouble. 

I talked about cultural norms. I assured the parents that even in first grade, we talked about how our families had different beliefs and customs--and family influence always came first. I stressed that songs were vehicles to teach other things, musically. I suggested their daughter not attend the concert, if they were uncomfortable with Santa--but thanked them for sharing their beliefs. It made a difference in how I taught the music. 

In the end, there are songs and traditions that don't align with particular family values but are worthy of inclusion in a good music program--just as there are radical ideas in the U.S. Constitution and scientific principles that clash with bible stories. Religious training belongs at home. 

#4. When in doubt, always err on the side of quality literature. Music teachers are a resource to the children they teach and the communities where they work. Every program is an opportunity to teach much more than eighth notes and intonation--and music teachers who focus exclusively on getting the music perfect are missing a huge chunk of cultural and social content. No thoughtful music teacher should select junky music--yep, Suzy Snowflake, I'm talking about you--simply because it isn't controversial.

There is not and never has never been a "War on Christmas" in public schools. Everyone in America gets Christmas, for weeks, whether they want it or not. The First Amendment lets us sort this out, school by school, keeping educational integrity uppermost. School leaders can serve as models of inclusive and respectful citizenship--a more admirable goal than majority domination.

All cultures celebrate the waxing and waning of light, the search for hope, peace and good will--and even miracles. This is the perfect time of year for studying the humanities. There's a lot to learn. And for those who insist that all school bands play Christmas--not seasonal--music, I propose a mandatory Christmas parade. A few years marching in sleet ought to make any "War on Christmas" zealot think twice.

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