St. Viator choir director brings faith to music

The choir director at St Viator High School in Arlington Heights, Illinois, is also a math teacher at the school. But more importantly, Daniel Walls has a great opportunity to unite this Catholic school community through song, reports Greta Zimmerman in the Viator Voice.


A page from a hymnal, showing Gregorian chant notation (iStock)

“A lot of the choral music in history was written for the church and was written to be sacred music, and it’s really great that we can delve into topics of what the music is about, the spirituality and theology behind it,” the student newspaper quoted him as saying, adding that he’s able, at a Catholic high school, not just to study the music for music’s sake, but “to present it as our beliefs and not just the beliefs of the Christian faith.”

Because so much choral literature, as Mr Walls said, is sacred music, a good vocal music curriculum, like St Viator’s, would be utterly incomplete without at least some religious music.

Even public school choirs sing music with religious words at their concerts, whether those words are from a spiritual or from Gregorian chant, which began in the ninth century.

Through the decades, however, people from different faith traditions—and those with no particular religious beliefs—have raised the issue that when public schools sing religious music, they’re effectively endorsing a specific religion. If all schools were doing is singing words about worshiping God, praising Jesus, and so on, that would indeed be unconstitutional.

But that’s not what the schools are doing. Not that it’s a problem at St Viator, but the lower courts have relied on other First-Amendment tests in guiding their rulings about sacred music. Although the Supreme Court has never taken a case about this, lower courts generally find that the educational mission of the schools, even the public ones, is well served by the study and performance of sacred music.

Unless a school district has a policy restricting choir directors from performing any sacred or religious music, which can be defined as music that recognizes the existence of a supreme being, deity, or a religious holiday, they’re usually free to incorporate seasonally appropriate and sacred religious music as part of a balanced repertoire that includes both secular and religious music in the total curriculum. For choir students, in other words, studying a Bach Mass is part of a total curriculum in music, much like studying a Renaissance cathedral is part of a total curriculum in the arts for architecture students.

For example, as Gov Jay Nixon of Missouri and his wife lit the state’s Christmas tree last month in Jefferson City, choirs from Boonville High School, Blair Oaks High School, Fulton High School, California High School, Helias Catholic High School, and Jefferson City High School all participated in the ceremony, according to a news release from the governor’s office.

So Catholic and public schools sang sacred music at the governor’s mansion.

The National Association for Music Education, or NAfME, has even issued an official position statement about the performance of sacred music by public high schools:

It is the position of [NAfME] that the study and performance of religious music within an educational context is a vital and appropriate part of a comprehensive music education. The omission of sacred music from the school curriculum would result in an incomplete educational experience.

Typically high school choir directors include program notes whenever their groups perform music with a religious text. Program notes can provide a historical context for the music for audience members who may not be a part of the faith tradition that comes across in the words. They often stress the literary, not liturgical, need to include the study and performance of sacred music in any school music program.

Studying and performing sacred music, then, adds value to a music program, including:

  • Students learn about the musical traditions of a historical period different from their own.
  • Students learn about different cultures and countries. The study of a different culture would be incomplete without learning how people who lived in that culture performed their music.
  • Students can access different musical styles and genres. It’s pretty hard, for example, to find an African-American spiritual that isn’t—how should I put this?—spiritual.

The student newspaper at St Viator quoted Mr Walls as saying the faculty at the school “is very friendly and helpful, and the student body is great, spirited and excited to learn.”

Eighth graders can take the entrance exam for St Viator on Saturday, and if they’re accepted, they’ll make themselves a part of the tradition at the school, including the uniting and educational choir program from Mr Walls, whose roots in the Catholic schools go back to his four years at Boylan Catholic High School in Rockford and whose love for music education goes back to his participation in the all-state choir his junior year.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.