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Classical Christian Movement

What is Your Telos?: Auditing a Classical Music Program

By April 1, 2015January 24th, 2023No Comments

For the past eighty years I have started each day in the same manner…I go to the piano, and I play two preludes and fugues of Bach…It is a sort of benediction on the house. But that is not the only meaning for me. It is a rediscovery of the world of which I have the joy of being part. It fills me with awareness of the wonder of life, with a feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being…Each day [the music] is something new, fantastic and unbelievable.

— Pablo Casals, cellist “What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we

know, but about what we love?”

— James K.A. Smith, philosopher and professor at Calvin College


Three years ago, James K.A. Smith drastically reoriented the heart of my music teaching. Up until then, my chief work was refining a time-tested music pedagogy aimed at knowledge and mastery. As at many growing clas- sical schools, my music colleagues and I poured ourselves into creatively teaching the core elements of music, expos- ing students to masterworks and great composers, and shepherding them to perform beautiful repertoire to God’s glory. Yet despite all the signature elements of a music pro- gram complementing a healthy classical school, I felt that something was lacking in our objective.

How I wept during your hymns and songs! I was deeply moved by the music of the sweet chants of your Church. The sounds flowed into my ears and the truth was distilled into my heart. This caused the feelings of devotion to overflow. Tears ran, and it was good for me to have that experience.

— St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (350-430) Confes- sions – 9.6.14

At the 2012 SCL Conference in Charleston, SC, James K.A. Smith’s fresh words and winsome delivery stirred up a long-lost memory: to be human is to be a lover—and spe- cifically, that humans are designed to be lovers of God and of his Kingdom. The implications for applying this ancient principle to an educational approach are astounding. In his subsequent writings and speeches, Dr. Smith has encour- aged educators to take a ‘formation audit’ – an inventory of our telos (Greek for ‘an ultimate object or aim’). This prac- tice has profoundly affected the way I relate to students, steer my school’s music curriculum, and design school concerts. My purpose in writing this article is to stimulate conversation among music teachers and administrators and challenge every classical school across the country to ask:

– What is the true telos of our work?
– Are we training the affections of our students (teaching them to be lovers) or merely delivering good content? How?
– How can we assess if we are hitting the mark?

“The most valuable thing a teacher can impart to children is not knowledge and understanding per se but a longing for knowledge and understanding, and an appreciation for intel- lectual values, whether they be artistic, scientific, or moral. It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.

-Albert Einstein, written for the National Council of Supervisors of Elementary Science, 1934


Many voices in the classical education movement have joined a growing chorus singing James K.A. Smith’s tune. One of the most eloquent exhortations to classical educa- tors is Jenny Rallens’ (Teacher at the Ambrose School, Boise, ID) eloquent 2013 Arete Conference speech on “The Li- turgical Classroom and Virtue Formation” (https://vimeo. com/83236278). Every K-12 teacher should hear how she clearly spells out principles by which classical education can effectively and elegantly teach truth in a way that shapes a person’s life and loves. The idea that classical Christian education should aim first for the formation of souls rather than function as a mode to communicate truths is exciting to me, especially since the discipline of music possesses a unique ability to tap into human emotion and experiences. We should desire our students to love music such that they hunger for it, not just for leisure, but for the purposes of glorifying God and enjoying Him through it.

The theory of music is a penetration of the very heart of providence’s ordering of things. It is not a matter of cheerful entertainment or superficial consolation for sad moods, but a central clue to the interpretation of the hidden harmony of God and nature in which the only discordant element is evil in the heart of man.

— Boethius (ca. 480-525) – Henry Chadwick, Boethius: The Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology, and Philosophy, 101

Despite the groundswell of support for heart formation in classical education, the discussion has largely been quiet about the practical translation to music instruction. I would like to offer a challenge to administrators and teachers:

can we be more intentional in defining and sharing the key pedagogical elements that encompass a truly classical approach to teaching music? While not exhaustive, I have outlined some assessment questions below to help schools audit their programs and thus more accurately identify their effectiveness in training students’ affections.

Challenge: the Tyranny of Time

In contrast to subjects based in the written word, visual art, and the quantitative nature of math and science, music is set apart due to its temporal qualities. Author and musician Jeremy Begbie expresses it this way:

Music, of course, takes time. To enjoy music is not to ex- perience something in a moment, nor to contemplate a still pattern. It is to be carried along, pulled into movement. The character of a piece of music is not given in an instant, or even a near-instant, but can be discovered only in and through time, and in some pieces only when it reaches a climactic gathering together, the end toward which it travels.

— Jeremy Begbie, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, 219

Before we can audit how we reach students’ hearts through music instruction, we must acknowledge the raging coun- ter-cultural issue at our classroom doors: the battle for time. This precious commodity in a harried, sound bite, texting world presents a formidable challenge to teaching music and its cultural impact in a heart-affecting way. Sadly, most American families (even those in classical schools) do not have the time, tools, or resources to encourage their stu- dents to enjoy music outside of the popular realm (where most songs average 2-3 minutes). There simply cannot be a renaissance in music instruction without contemplative time dedicated to a diet of good, beautiful and true works— both in and out of the classroom. Begbie lays a strong argu- ment for this in relation to the unique liturgical practices and services around Holy Week:

If we allow ourselves to play the events at their original speed—God’s speed, not ours—living in and through the events day by day: the grieving farewells, the betrayal and denial, the shuddering fear in the garden, the stretched-out day of torture and forsakenness, and the daybreak of wonder…By refusing to skip over these days, with all their dark shadows and turns, we allow ourselves to be led far more profoundly into the story’s sense and power. Music is remarkably instruc- tive here, because more than any other art form, it teaches us how not to rush over tension, how to find joy and fulfillment through a temporal movement that includes struggles, clashes and fractures.

— Begbie, Resounding Truth, 279

Audit your Listening

A recording of the first movement of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #5 was cranked up to almost full volume. “Heads up, students,” I alerted, “the mystery instrument is about to take us on a wild roller-coaster ride!” A moment later, an in- nocent sounding harpsichord stepped into the musical spot- light and then…the moment arrived. Bach’s famous flurry
of notes were unleashed, soaring up and down, frantically seeking a harmonic resting place until finally resolving into a satisfyingly full force baroque ‘tutti’ (musical term meaning, ‘all together’). Almost in unison, my 6th grade strings class exploded into an excited chorus of “Wow” and one student joyfully exclaimed, “I’ve never heard anything like that! Can I play that on the violin?”

— Lilli Benko, music teacher (Veritas School – Richmond, VA)

An emphasis on listening could be one of the most radical and invigorating cultural liturgies a school can practice. Think of listening to music as a substantial hiking journey through a scenic land. It is an active pursuit and requires active senses. If you have a good map, you can benefit by knowing where the trail leads and perhaps how long it will take. You can outfit your gear for the specific terrain. But until you experience the pounding of your own feet on the path, you will not know the complete sights, smells, and events (e.g. impromptu sunrise, sighting of a bald eagle, sounds of sudden thunderstorm). Listening requires skill and practice to interpret structure and form, musical ele- ments and narrative (the ‘maps’, if you will)…but without the first hand experience of aurally ‘gazing’ at a work of musical art, students will not have the opportunity to glean the harvest for themselves and internalize it in their souls.

All books on understanding music are agreed about one point: You can’t develop a better appreciation of the art merely by reading a book about it. If you want to understand music better, you can do nothing more important than listen to it. Everything that I have to say in this book is said about an experience that you can only get outside this book. Therefore, you will probably be wasting your time in reading it unless you make a firm resolve to hear a great deal more music than you have in the past.

— Aaron Copland, composer, What to Listen for in Music, 3

Questions to consider about your school’s classical music program:

  1. Does the general music curriculum allow for at least 10 minutes per class to listen to great works of music (representing Classical, Jazz, or World genres)?
  2. Do students in humanities classes regularly hear works of music (whether in class or via at-home listening as- signments) that correspond to the literature and histori- cal time frame they are studying and reading?
  3. Aside from seasonal school choral or ensemble con- certs, do students and teachers regularly perform on instruments (e.g. assemblies, lunches, classrooms)? Is there a culture of ‘sharing’ musical talents in your com- munity?
  4. How often does each grade see a live performance given by a professional music ensemble?
  5. Do your students have a familiarity with different genres of music? (For example can they identify a great Western composer and masterpiece from the Baroque, Classical, Romantic and 20th Century eras of music?)
  6. Does your school have a published listening curricu- lum or repertoire list (similar to a reading list)?
  7. Do ensemble classes (choir, strings, brass/woodwinds, etc.) hear recordings or see great performances of the works they are preparing?

A final observation about the importance of music listening skills: Professors Paul Munson and Joshua Farris Drake
of Grove City College have published a useful book which explores the meaning of beauty and the processes by which humans perceive art and music. In their chapter, “How Do We Judge Art and Music”, they identify (with the help of C.S. Lewis from An Experiment in Criticism) how we receive art or in their words, “discover what we cannot anticipate.”

Reception involves, first, “laying aside as completely as we can all our own preconceptions, interests, and associations”
to make room for the artist’s message…we must use our eyes. We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there.” The receiver is not passive. “His also is an imaginative activity…”

— Paul Munson and Joshua Farris Drake, Art and Music: A Student’s Guide, 50

Audit your Play

While listening, or music hearing, is an imaginative process, making music or ‘playing’ is a hands-on embodied experi- ence. Bodily practices play an important role in cultivat- ing heart change. In the same way that embodied worship liturgies (baptism, communion, congregational singing) are essential to the expression of our praise to God, they are also formative to shaping our telos. It is imperative then that students of music regularly engage in a frequent practice of the principles and techniques they learn through ‘play’.

1. Do your students and faculty sing (hymns, psalms, school song) together on a daily basis?

2. Does your general music curriculum include opportu- nities for students to clap, dance, play instruments and sing in every class?

3. Does your music faculty regularly follow a systematic pedagogy of ear-training and rhythm drills, especially in ensemble classes (choir, strings, brass/woodwinds, etc.)?

4. Are students regularly encouraged and equipped with tools to improvise and create new music?

5. Is there an opportunity for students to learn to play instruments skillfully and a trajectory for the develop- ment of ensembles from the grammar through rhetoric years?

6. Do your students express joy in performances or after experimenting with a new musical concept or idea?

Audit your Devotion

Pablo Casals’ heartfelt reflection at the beginning of this article reminds us that music can fill us with a refreshed wonder at life and our purpose. It seems fitting that classical schools should regularly engineer into their classrooms meaningful rituals that point to the glorious design of music and students’ roles as praise beings. Our musical instruction —driven by listening and play— should be anchored in practices of praise and devotion. A classical school aimed first at cultivating stu- dents’ affections will surely hit the mark when Jesus Christ is preeminent over and through all subjects, and most naturally expressed through music and the arts. In this spirit, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theologian and anti-Nazi dissident, gives us inspi- ration for our work. He brilliantly refers to Jesus as the cantus firmus, a musical term for the principal or central theme that finds its way through a piece of polyphony, giving coherence and enabling the other parts to flourish:

I wanted to tell you to have a good, clear, cantus firmus; that is the only way to a full and perfect sound, when the counterpoint has a firm support and can’t come adrift or get out of tune, while remaining a distinct whole in its own right. Only a polyphony of this kind can give life a wholeness and at the same time assure us that nothing calamitous can happen as long as the cantus firmus is kept going.

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 240. SDG