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OPINION - Revisiting the religious-music-in-school controversy

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU)   It’s time to revisit the holiday music controversy in the Wausau School District. Recall last November there was a big uproar over how much, or if, religious-themed music could be performed at holiday concerts. The Wausau-West Master Singers were disbanded after large swaths of their repertoire were deemed religious. There was talk of a formula of religious songs to secular songs, and a committee to review music selections.

All of this fit neatly into the ‘Christmas Under Attack’ template which has come around in the news cycle as reliably as St. Nick’s annual sleigh ride.

But now we’re three months removed from Christmas, and it’s time for spring concerts. I attended the Wausau-West performance last weekend. I have these observations:

The choirs performed 26 selections. 8 were overtly religious songs. Four other selections have God/spiritual references, although you probably wouldn’t hear them in church. (Does the folk song ‘The Water Is Wide’ qualify as religious? It sings of the beauty of nature and love. It would probably be classified as secular. What about ‘This Is My Song,’ which sings of God’s creation of the beautiful countryside. It’s properly considered a patriotic, not religious, song.) The idea that we have to categorize and split hairs over the meaning of lyrics shows how ridiculous an exercise this could become.

One thing became clear during the concert. The religious-themed music is better. These are the selections that have stood the test of time. That’s the realm that the great composers worked in. To exclude it is to study paintings, but to exclude nature-themed works. The religious music is also more difficult to and offers the biggest challenge for top-level students. The pop songs that the choirs sang – the songs that no one would possibly object to – simply aren’t as good. The Master Singers performed the 1950s doo-wop hit ‘The Boy From New York City’. It’s intended for a quartet, and it’s a muddle when delivered by 20 voices. The 90s pop song ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’ was well-sung, but the arrangement was unimaginative and poor.) That’s what the future holds for concert level music in the Wausau School District. Difficult selections – the classics – will be crowded out by modern-day schlock so no one will be offended.

And we learned last Christmas that this is an entirely manufactured controversy. The issue of religious-themed music in schools has already gone through the courts, and it’s considered settled law. Schools are free to use spiritual music so long as they are not proselytizing. Anyone who sued the Wausau School District over which songs were performed would lose. And a student who wants to pursue a fine arts degree in college and shows up for an audition without being versed in Beethoven, Brahms, Bach and Mozart has been ill-served by their high school.

If you’re on the side of “let them sing, without restrictions” – your side is losing. Just last week Wausau’s music committee held a meeting. They are, indeed, writing policy to “balance” the types of music that’s performed. The school board has tasked this group with proposing how to resolve disagreements over song selections. The policy is moving forward. This policy will eventually come to the Wausau Board of Education for a vote. They hope to quietly okay it now that the big Christmas controversy has died down. Anticipate more “Jolly Old Saint Nick” and “Frosty The Snowman” and less “Adeste Fideles” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” next year. Unless, of course, people in the school district make their voices heard again.

Chris Conley

Image: The Bentonville High School Chamber Choir via Wikicommons.com