Diocesan schools promote centrality of music education

Students at Sister Thea Bowman School practice violin, which is a standard part of every student’s curriculum. (Photo/Linda Behrens)

Contributing writer

Every student at Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School in East St. Louis learns how to play the violin.

Every student. Beginning in kindergarten.

Third graders at Blessed Sacrament Catholic School in Belleville learn to play the recorder as part of an arrangement with the St. Louis Symphony. In turn, they are invited to perform with the Symphony.

At Mater Dei High School in Breese, various band and vocal classes are offered, along with extracurricular activities, such as marching band.

These are just three examples of music education opportunities available at the schools in the Diocese of Belleville.

Recently Claire Hatch, principal at Blessed Sacrament shared her thoughts on music education on the school’s Facebook page.

“In some school districts, shrinking budgets have caused music education to be cut from the curriculum,” she says. “Blessed Sacrament continues to offer music education knowing the important benefit it has on a student’s academic success. It has been shown to help with language skills, promote creative thinking and improve test scores. It even is a source of stress relief.

“Overall,” she stresses, “music education makes a positive impact on a student’s academic performance.”

Sister Theo Bowman School
The school is named for Sister Thea Bowman, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration. She was an African American religious woman who was an educator, a poet, a dancer and a singer.

“At our school, we follow the vision of Sister Thea and promote the love of God and education through music and the arts in many ways,” says Tim Keefe, the first-year principal of the school.

He says that the violin program, for instance, is not just for the beauty of violin music.

“It’s a holistic approach to music education and education in general,” Keefe says. “When you are in the classroom, you see letters, numbers, timing. Learning an instrument works on fine motor skills. They are taught many things that expand across the curriculum. And it fosters the love of music. It’s a large part of who we are here.”

The violin classes began in 2004 when Sister Janet McCann was principal. She brought the Education Through Music Program with Juilliard School in New York to the school. She asked Philip Tinge to teach the classes, which he still does today.

“We have more than 140 violins of various sizes, from the smallest 1/16 size to 4/4 full size,” Tinge says. “We can fit each student to the size they need.”

Most of the violins have been purchased through grants and generous donations. Tinge stresses that learning the violin helps with abstract thinking and physics as in how things work, among other positive results.

“Learning something new like this helps with verbal sound reinforcement, visual reinforcement and tactic reinforcement,” he adds.

The students perform for the school’s Advent prayer service and the spring concert. They also are asked to perform for outside groups, such as at an October 23 reception for Cardinal Wilton Gregory during his upcoming visit to the diocese.

Blessed Sacrament School
Students at Blessed Sacrament have several opportunities to participate in and learn music.

Students learn note reading skills in the primary grades. Pre-band experience begins in third grade as students are taught to read traditional notation as they play the recorder. The recorder classes perform the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra each Spring at the Link Up Concert at Powell Hall with students from all the Metro St. Louis schools that participate in the program.

Upon entering fourth grade, students choose to play flute, clarinet, alto saxophone, trumpet, trombone baritone or percussion and perform in a Christmas and spring concert.

Students in fifth to eighth grade may continue playing in the concert band, which also performs at the Christmas and spring concerts, as well as participating in the Belleville Marathon, Althoff Music Festival, and the Catholic Music Association Solo and Ensemble Contest.

Students in third through sixth grades may participate in a church choir in partnership with Queen of Peace school. The students learn the music for the Mass during their regular music classes, and they gather a half hour before the Masses to rehearse together.

The Partner Parish Children’s Choir sings monthly, alternating between Blessed Sacrament and Queen of Peace churches. The students learn basic vocal production skills, ensemble skills, the structure of the Mass, and how to work with members of their partner parish.

“One of the highlights of eighth grade is the spring major musical, such as Moana, which was performed last spring,” says Hatch. “The eighth graders take the leadership role with the production, and everyone has a part. It helps them develop confidence and leadership skills.”

Students also may sing and play instruments at school Masses and Christmas Eve services and First Communion. The classes rotate responsibility to plan and be in charge of Mass.

“It provides a way of shining,” she says. “Their self-esteem goes up. Fine arts is just as important as athletic and academic teams.”

Mater Dei High School
In the fall, at halftime at Friday nights football games and four or five Saturdays at band competitions, the Mater Dei Marching Knights take the field to perform. This year’s show is called “The Forces of Nature.”

The 40-member marching band is lead by band director Alex Normansell, who is a Mater Dei alum. They begin practicing for the show at band camp in July. Of the 40 students, two are drum majors, four are battery (marching percussion), nine are front ensemble and five are color guard.

In September, the Marching Knights placed fourth at the O’Fallon Township competition and second and outstanding visual at the Edwardsville competition. They are performing at the Effingham and University of Illinois competitions in October.

The band curriculum includes concert band, wind ensemble, jazz band and chorus. Extracurricular activities include marching band, winter drumline, indoor percussion and pit orchestra.

“We couldn’t have a successful marching band program without our band parents,” Normansell says. “They are the life blood of the program. The unsung heroes of what makes us successful.”

Band parents volunteer in many ways, such as working the concession stand fundraiser, coordinating other fundraisers and moving equipment on and off the field.

Sacred Music
The importance of learning the fundamentals of music as part of a school’s curriculum can be summarized in this statement from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1156, as posted on the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as a combination of sacred music and words, it forms a necessary or integral part of solemn liturgy.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 112).

“The composition and singing of inspired psalms, often accompanied by musical instruments, were already closely linked to the liturgical celebrations of the Old Covenant. The Church continues and develops this tradition: ‘Address . . . one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.’ ‘He who sings prays twice.’ (Eph 5:19; St. Augustine, En. in Ps. 72,1:PL 36,914; cf. Col 3:16).”