Catholic Parochial School Music

Author: Anne Shoup

SACRED MUSIC Volume 117, Number 1, Spring 1990


There is considerable evidence of concern among music educators and authorities on church music about a decline in the quality of Catholic church music, the failure to achieve good active participation in the liturgy by the youthful membership of a parish, and the probable decline in the quality of Catholic school music teaching and learning. All of these concerns are closely related and are of great interest to the music educator.

Some basic tenets of a well-rounded music education curriculum and practice can provide a foundation for study of the problem:

1) Every child must be given the opportunity to experience all kinds of music.

2) It is essential that the music used in school be always of the best quality. A poor quality of music is manifested, in one way, by its failure to require more than the most elementary (uneducated) expression, in the same way that an effective speech cannot result from inadequate content and an extremely limited vocabulary. For those who teach excellent sacred music, but only sacred, the students' needs for wider and more well-rounded kinds of expression have been overlooked.

3) Our society has come to place great emphasis on entertainment rather than exploring the deeper aesthetic values of music in school and in church. This encourages too many practitioners to limit the scope of music they use, rejecting the tried-and-true values of traditonal standards of excellence in the choice of music.

Since the Catholic Church requires attendance at Mass for students in its schools, this is an opportunity to study our problem in known situations and attempt to assign some responsibility for improvement. Is this requirement of church attendance an advantage to the school music program or is it a handicap? In many cases, students dislike music in school and therefore resist participating in the music of the liturgy in church. In some cases students dislike the church music and carry this attitude back into the school. It is believed generally that the school music program is at fault. Although a deficiency may be caused by other reasons, such as financial support for qualified music specialists and adequate materials, the fact remains that students do not participate in church music in large numbers or with desirable enthusiasm. This situation could be greatly improved if students experienced a wide variety of music in school, thereby gaining an appreciation for music of all kinds and purposes and incidentally gaining a tolerance for various kinds of musical expression. In short, a solid school program would make students' church music participaton immensely more rewarding than it is at present in most places.

Many educators (whether or not they are music specialists) are unaware of the outstanding quality and quantity of suitable music that is available to them. They are unaware that quality in the composition being studied is essential to the achievement of successful musical results. They are further unaware that unfortunate situations can be easily remedied by fairly simple means. But unfortunately, many remain oblivious of the great body of traditional literature that is peculiarly Catholic in its origins and use, constituting a "standard repertoire" for the best musical organizations both in church and in school. "Standard repertoire" for a first-rate music teacher can be defined as material which enables students to achieve the most desirable objectives of music education.

The practice of selecting certain music for certin occasions has a long history. Disregard for this procedure is a phenomenon confined to recent decades. The ancient Greeks, particularly Plato and Aristotle, expressed themselves specifically and at length concerning the powers of music. In Plato's "Republic" and in Aristotle's "Politics," regulations about music used for educating the young and the development of character are given. The constitutions of Athens and Sparta treated of musical usage. Early Christian writers have been concerned about the use of music and its place in the lives of converts and in the liturgy. Dictatorships, both fascist and communist, in the twentieth century have attempted to control the musical activities of their citizens. Much has been written recently on the effects of rock music on both body and spirit among the youth of today. Music therapy is a new but growing area in the professional use of music. There is little wonder then that the Church is interested in the use of music by its members and in liturgical worship, and music educators must face up to the results that the teaching of music to young people produce in them spiritually and culturally.

No one can tell another what he must accept as good music, good art or good literature. Rather, a teacher must lead the student to discover for himself what is best by experiencing a wide variety of materials over a period of time. How can students make choices (which means developing discrimination) when they have had no exposure to a variety of possibilities and results? It is one thing for a church or school to be financially unable to provide a full-time trained music specialist. But it is another thing to prevent students from gaining broad musical experience by limiting them to a few songs from one book. The example most commonly found in churches across the country is the songbook, "Glory and Praise" (1980), which, among many other glaring faults, does not include one example of any of the musical styles recommended and required by music educators' professional training programs and by accrediting agencies. The effect of this disregard for a well-rounded musical experience is that we have turned young people away from the most effective means of worship by denying them access to music of proved value.

Commenting on the participation of young people in the liturgy, Monsignor Schuler wrote ("Sacred Music," Vol. 115, No. 4 [Winter 1988], p. 5):

School Masses are singularly quiet;...the repertory of hymns has faded away; small groups or combos perform to a passive audience. The decrees of the Vatican Council and the post-conciliar documents go unfulfilled and ignored...(In the past) children sang Gregorian chant, hymns, patriotic songs, and a variety of folk songs from many countries...Today, hardly any music is taught in our parochial schools and what little is used in the liturgy is inferior material unworthy of the church and beneath serious study as music.

Churches and parochial schools, dedicated to giving children the best foundation for the best future (and presumably doing this better than the public schools) are overlooking a key factor in shaping character and behavior in the selection and use of carefully selected musical materials to enhance worship and improve personal character. But for at least the last twenty years, great numbers of our young people have been denied even a minimal exposure to varied examples of tried-and-true music that is "standard repertoire" in better schools and churches.

Education implies a continually broadening experience with ever-expanding materials. Equally important to mastering these experiences is the development of discrimination in the students' appreciation. Given the means for judgment and choice, the student is led toward good choices and thereby to discern that is good and what is less than good. But so often one hears teachers and song-leaders say "Give the children what they want." This is a direct refutation of the basic purpose of education; it implies that students can make intelligent choices with no experience except with what is immediately at hand (most often, this experience is limited to television). So often students are permitted and even encouraged to choose music for their school Mass. Their selections are, quite naturally, from the few songs they know. But even with their own choices, so often they claim to be bored and to wish for something else. That frequently turns out to be rock music, indicating that to be the only other music they know. Too often this is the only music the teachers know as well.

In a recent survey of some thirteen parochial elementary schools in the Dayton, Ohio, metropolitan area, students in the seventh and eighth grades were questioned concerning their attitudes toward church music and their experiences in music classes in school. Questions asked included: "I like music at Mass," "At Mass I would rather listen than sing," "I enjoy singing at Mass," "Music is important for worship at Mass," "There should be a different atmosphere in church than other places I go," and "Music at Mass is boring." Teachers were also questioned about their preparation and the materials used in their classroom instruction.

This study, a master's degree project in the School of Education of the University of Dayton, entitled "A Survey of Catholic Parochial School Music Related to Attitudes Toward Church Music," by Anne Marguerite Shoup, cannot be given in detail here, but some conclusions and recommendations should be noted.

The survey results substantiate the hypothesis that poor attitudes toward church music, and participation in it, are directly related to two major deficiencies. First, the lack of a solid school music curriculum with a qualified teacher; and second, the general lack of quality church music of respectable variety necessary to cultivate and establish discrimination. Expecting students to make educated choices is not possible when they do not have proper background for making such choices.

Disappointments in conducting the survey included finding places where there were excellent facilities and equipment but they were not being used. For example, some parishes had fine pipe organs but employed guitars and pianos to accompany the singing. Schools had fine music materials but were not using them; others could not even report if they had music materials or not. Some parishes had good hymnals in the church pews but the students did not use them.

Other disappointments included the presence in the school of a music specialist who was not permitted to have anything to do with the music for the students' Mass; teachers and administrators who were totally unconcerned about students' active participation in the liturgy; musicians who were not allowed to make their own selection of repertory. Music education is an on-going process, demanding year by year a building process. Unless the lower grades are systematically taught, one cannot expect much in the junior high grades even with a good teacher and proper repertory.

Certain recommendations quickly surface. The need for carefully planned workshops is obvious, especially for acquiring new materials and seeing demonstrations of good programs. This is true for the music specialist, but especially for the classroom teacher to whom instruction in music falls along with all the other subjects. Such in-service programs will give confidence to teachers and improve instruction as well as the attitude of the students toward participating in the liturgy through music.

Every school should have definite objectives for music, both for its use in church and in school. This must involve the administration of the school as well as the liturgist who serves the parish. Introduction of a standardized course of study such as those recommended by various music educators organizations can be a most effective means of beginning. The goal is always the students and their intellectual, emotional, aesthetic and spiritual growth.

With the Vatican Council demanding an active participation in the liturgy and its urging singing as an integral part of worship, the role of the music teacher in the parochial school has more importance and meaning than ever before. No parish will sing if its children are not instructed in music and encouraged to know and love what is the great treasure of church music that the council ordered to be preserved and fostered.