Why Is A Public School Choir Singing Church Music?

When my choir teacher first introduced our new song, nobody in my class wanted to sing it. It’s an old song from sometime in the late 1600s/early 1700s, and compared to the hip-hop, rap, and pop music listened to by teens like us, it seemed dull. However, when we all sang together, we sounded like a real choir, and not a group of 12- and 13-year-old middle school music students. I was actually getting excited about singing it until my teacher told us about the history of the piece. The song, which is called “Gloria” was composed by Johann Sebastian Bach. It was originally sung by Catholic church choirs, in both Latin and English. My teacher said we were singing it so we could “experience music from other cultures.”

This puzzled my whole class. Already in our concert repertoire was a song from the African culture sung in an African tribal language, a song written by an African-American slave during the Civil War, a song about springtime (fitting for our spring concert), and an “undisclosed pop song.” So why did we need to sing this stuffy church song?

What puzzled me, however, was why we were singing a religious song in the first place. I go to a public middle school, where students aren’t discriminated against based on their race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. No religion is ever known as the superior. Teachers have always made accommodations for when I miss school for the high holidays. And more recently, when I missed quite a bit of school in the week leading up to my Bat Mitzvah. So why were we singing a Catholic song?

When I told my mom and we looked up the translation of the lyrics (we were singing the Latin version), I saw that it was not a “cultural” song as my teacher put it. It was a religious piece about the lord, and it is also known as “The Hymn of the Angels.” I was suddenly very uncomfortable with singing this song and being in choir in general.

I always support freedom of religion. I never think that one religion is superior to all others. I have always been eager to learn about other religions. And I’ve never felt self-conscious about my religion. But after I learned about this song, and it’s meaning, I was not comfortable with my religion. As a Jewish student, I’m used to being part of the minority in my schools. But this was completely different than anything I’d ever experienced.

My mom e-mailed my teacher, who said that singing religious and cultural songs is allowed in our district. I wasn’t happy with this answer, and I met with my teacher to discuss my concerns with this song. After school that day, I talked to my mom about my situation. We agreed that I had to go to the concert. After all, it’s worth half my choir grade. I struggled with what to do about this song. Finally, after a lot of deliberation and getting advice from my parents and my Hebrew school teachers, I’m choosing to sing the song. I love choir, and I love singing. My mom pointed out that just because I sing about a faith I don’t practice, doesn’t mean I believe in what I’m singing, and it doesn’t make me a bad Jew.

So now, it’s a question of where to go from here. I’m going to participate in choir during my 8th-grade year. The real thing to figure out is in a few years when I’m in high school. High school choirs typically sing primarily religious songs. I don’t know if that will still be the case in 2019 when I start high school. But I know that I will do anything I can to help change policy in my district.

I know it may sound like I’m being a bit dramatic about this whole situation. But in reality, it goes beyond just me. It’s about future Jewish choir students. This situation made me seriously question how much I wanted to be in choir, something I’ve never questioned. It made me uncomfortable with my religion, and I don’t want other kids to experience this. I may be only thirteen years old, but I’m not too old to speak out for what I believe. And who knows? Maybe one day we will see high school students singing songs that aren’t religious. Maybe choirs will change. And hopefully, the next generation of Jewish singers won’t be having this experience.