#39 - Music Stirs the Soul

Today’s episode features Andrew Smith, Choral Director at ECS. The following is a complete transcript of this episode. Read on as he and Dr. Peterson discuss music and its value in both education and at home. If you would like to listen to this episode, click here.

DP- Welcome to the ECS Equip podcast, a weekly podcast for K - 12 Christian educators and parents. I’m so excited about our guest today. We’re talking about the arts, and specifically, choral arts. Our guest today is Mr. Andrew Smith, our upper and middle school Choral Director. He joined our team this past year. He is married to Callie and they have one son and two daughters. He is a veteran teacher holding a bachelor’s degree in music theory from Union University and a master of music in choral conducting from Austin Peay. I guess our bigger purpose statement is choral arts exist for the glory of God to instill in students excellence as it relates to worldview and the arts, and so as they study and perform music literature students will gain a proper understanding and appreciation of God’s beauty in music. That’s a mouthful. But we welcome you Mr. Smith.

AS- Thank you. Glad to be here.

DP- Personally I’m so glad you’re a part of our team. You have been very impressive as a young man and I’m just really excited that you’re a part of our group and you have a very natural presence with leading others in music. I think my first recognition of that was at our faculty in service in August. You just have just a comfortable tone and that sets a tone for helping others feel comfortable. And I know that plays out in the classroom as well, so I just want to say that.

Let me start with this quote. I just read this chapter this past week from a book called How Now Should We Live by Nancy Pearcy and Chuck Colson. One of the things I’m doing this year is I’m a Colson Fellows and I’ve been reading a lot and I just want to share a few sentences here. It says, “Art affects us at the deepest level of the soul. It can shape our thoughts, move our emotions, and enlarge our imaginations. The music we listen to, the images we plant in our minds, the stories we tell all have enormous power over the type of people we are. They both express and change our beliefs and value.” Music is very valuable I think it's valuable to think about ,to enjoy, to contribute. And thinking in a biblical worldview, it's a creative expression of the fact that we are created in the image of God and we share some of the creative qualities with God. I guess the fancy word is there are communicable attributes and incommunicable attributes. The incommunicable attributes are the things we don't share like omniscience and omnipotence. Those things that God has that we don't have. But there are things that we have in our lives that we share with God because we're made in his image. The fact that we can have logic. The fact that we can be merciful people. We can be creative individuals. To me music touches on so many different spheres of that creative expression of who we are.

From your perspective, what is the value of song and singing for a Christian to participate in?

AS- Like you said, it's such a holistic practice and it involves our voice. Really all of our bodies are involved in the act of singing. So it involves us physically, it involves us emotionally. I do think that so much is involved spiritually as well if we allow music to become part of our spirituality. And I think that music opens you up in a lot of ways to feel on an emotional and spiritual level. And so much of our lives, you talked about it earlier, about the impact music has on us and how influential it is. I think people don't realize how much music affects them. In fact many people probably don't think that music affects their lives in a great way. But if you were to strip all music from their lives, meaning they never hear music on a television show or on the radio or in a store. I mean if you took all music away then it would leave a huge gap in someone's life. I think almost any of us find ourselves singing or humming along to a tune from time to time or even just a song pops in your head. Somebody says something that's a lyric to a song you know and you start singing in your head. Music impacts us greatly, and so I feel since that is the case and that's an undeniable fact, music that we do we should train ourselves, be uplifting to our souls and be glorifying to God. I think that training your voice to sing and investing time in music is very well worthwhile. Music allows us to capture our emotions. Especially when we sing Christian lyrics, it allows us to make those lyrics apart of who we are in a way. I feel like many people don't like the idea of emotionalism. Especially a lot of guys think like it's unmasculine to open yourself up to be emotionally moved by a song or to try to be expressive in a way that kind of opens yourself up a little bit. But you know so much in life and our Christian life is dealing with the will and emotions. For instance, as Christian's we think of things as so calculated as far as how we live our lives, but in lots of ways we all know what to do as Christians. Maybe not everything, but we know a whole laundry list of things not to do and a whole list of things we are to do. And if it were just a matter of knowing what to do and not to do, we'd all just quit. But it's a matter of having the will to do it and being motivated to do it, to live the Christian life that is, and as part of that is opening yourself up to be motivated by God, to try to have a will that matches God’s will and to let your emotions be stirred by the things that stir God’s emotions. Otherwise just have a soft heart. And I feel like music goes a long way into doing that. There is a lot of technical training that goes into music as well, but just the ability to open your heart up to feel to feel the beauty of music and to try to express music in a way that kind of opens your heart. Anyways I just think that our ability as Christians to feel and to be moved and to have emotions and especially when you tie it to Christian liturgy is just really important.

DP- Yeah, and I think Music stirs our affections in ways that not many things can. I know from a personal standpoint, when I'm in church praising God there's something unique that happens in my heart and soul. Sometimes I really don't feel like singing but sometimes I anticipate going so I can praise God. So there's discipline aspect on one hand and there's also just excitement and pure joy of that.

For the Christian, how should we engage secular art and music. Do we just dismiss it outright? What does that look like for you and how you lead students?

AS- That's a great question because I get that a lot. I see choir directors that in my opinion maybe go off the deep end on both sides. Our my friends in secular public schools for instance, they try to do as much secular music and leave out Christian music. This doesn't really go with the question but I'd like to say, one of the things that really drew me to music was the fact that even in the most dark places that I've been in some colleges, you'll still find the flickering light of Christian music there in classic music. Because if you were to take out classic music out of all the Music liturgy, you know you'd have to take out Bach and half of Beethoven’s stuff and all of Handel’s stuff. I mean the list just goes on of Christian music. And we don't think of it so much as Christian music anymore. A lot of it's in Latin or German or whatever but it's Christian music and a lot of it's just plain scripture. If you think of Hallelujah Chorus, one of the most classic pieces of music literacy. It's just almost straight out of scripture. So one of the things that attracted me to music was the fact that it's a place where it's still accepted to have Christian music. God’s word said that his word will not return void. And so I feel like that when you’re teaching kids in college or in even in public schools or what not, this Christian music that they have to include at some level because it's part of the curriculum really. You know I just love that that line of scripture is still in music. But yeah there's tons of music out there and my kids here at ECS, we don't only sing Christian music. I think that there is like an old quote that all gold is God’s gold and this idea that all things, all truth is God’s truth. And all things that are good are from God. So I believe a lot of music falls in that category. Personally, I don't only listen to Christian music. I listen to other wholesome good music. And it would be like if we look at our sister art, let's say painting. Some people might disagree with me and say that we should only do Christian music and no secular music with the mindset that secular music is bad or evil in some way. But if you look at art, David butler is our art teacher. I don't think anyone will look and say, now David you can only paint crosses and angels with halos and this kind of thing. A beautiful landscape - I mean no one would look at that and call it evil. It's displaying the beauty God’s given us and so I feel like that music's the same way. One of our goals is to display the beauty God’s given us and to display the talent God’s given us. You know God’s given us our voices and so much music is set up in the order that God made, just like mathematics. I think mathematics and science you can easily argue that God set those up in a way that it makes sense. Well music in a way is the same way. So much of music is related to math and science in the way that frequencies work. And God created the order that we derive music from. Everything going down to the scale we use, major and minor scale. All that is really kind of scientific in a mathematical way. And God set up that order, so we're taking something good that God made and displaying that beauty for all to see. So even when we're doing secular songs, I feel like we're definitely achieving that goal. I don't do songs that have bad lyrics, that are evil, or have anything to do with sinful actions or anything like that. But we do fun songs that are good and wholesome. You know there are lots of love songs out there that talk about love and you know God is love. I don't feel like there is anything bad about doing a song that talks about love as long as it's done in a Christian context. Did I answer your question? I feel like I kind of was rambling.

DP- You did. I think there's a real sense in which I totally agree with you. Here at ECS we don't want to just study or perform or practice Christian music. We want to look at the true, good, and beautiful in all things. As you said all truth is God’s truth. There's a real sense in which I think that you as a teacher have a tremendous influence on creating appetites for your students. The creation of what is good musical taste. And there is so much in secular music that is amazing. For instance I love Coldplay. My wife and I went to a Coldplay concert and really enjoyed it. I love some of their lyrics. Tt's deep. They’re so talented in the way they perform and all those things. But on the other hand there's so much poor, just not aesthetically pleasing music out there. For instance we have young kids, you have young kids as well. A few years ago there was this song called What Does the Fox Say and it was just silly and it just exploded. (Mr. Smith sings lyrics to What Does the Fox Say) So I was like, man this is what is captivating everyone's attention. I just felt like the aesthetic quality wasn't the greatest. But speak to some of that. How do you create a healthy appetite for your students to persue the true, good, and beauty in music. And again, we’re not just talking about Christian music. What is good in the secular realm as well?

AS- Well you know so much is they have not been exposed to so much music out there. If all you listen to is what your friends listen to and what your parents listen to, that's pretty much what we listen to. Unless we're forced to listen to something different by someone like a teacher. To me new music is about like my little kids in trying to feed them dinner sometimes. You put something strange on their plate that they don't recognize. They go ahead and tell me, oh daddy I don't like that. And I'll say well you don't know, you haven't tried it. And so you know we do the whole things parents do, well you have to try at least two bites. Well sometimes I'm kind of like that with my kids. And even music we don't sing in choir we will often, with my middle school for instance, we have video Fridays. So almost every Friday I'll let them listen to a piece of music that I think would be interesting to them. Maybe something they haven't heard before. If you look back through the history of it, there is so much music, so many styles and variations of music that they've just not heard. So I often find it is really exciting to me to let kids listen to maybe a choral piece or an orchestra piece that they've never heard before that I consider very good, rich, high information music. You know, there's a lot to listen to. Like You said, you listen to What Does the Fox Say, you listen to it one time and you pretty much get everything. There's nothing else there to hear. You can listen to it five or six more times and you’re pretty much going to hear the same thing cause you pretty much got everything there is to get in the first listening. However, so much music I call high information music. Because there's so much information there that you’re listening to. And if you listen to it ten times, you'll hear something new every time. Because it's not possible to comprehend everything you’re hearing on one listen. So music like that I try to expose them to on some level whether we're singing it or whether we just listen to it and talk about it.

I love when we do listen to something or maybe sing something that, especially when we sing it, that they don't like it at first because it's very odd to them or sounds really weird. For instance my high choir right now was doing the Christmas song (sings "Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire") but it's a very odd arrangement that has a lot of dissonance in it. And they'll say, “Mr. Smith, this just doesn't sound good.” And I'll say, “Well it doesn't sound good because right now you’re just working on your part. Wait until we put it all together.” And even once we put it all together, all they’re hearing is sort of themselves and the people next to them and they'll say, man! It just clashes, it doesn't sound good. But then the other day I recorded them and I played it back to them and they finished and said, "Mr. Smith! It doesn't sound good." And I say, " Well listen to yourself." And I hit play and let it start playing and I saw their faces kind of go, "Ok, well ok, yeah maybe that's not so bad." You know it was just so different than any other arrangement they've heard of that. You know so it's fun exposing them to new things. At times I'll show them a video of a choir, for instance, singing some song and then I'll have them come back the next week saying, "Mr. Smith I just loved that song! I went back and I YouTubed that group and I listened to everything they sang." And I can get them into something. And I remember back in the day I didn't listen to the stuff I listen to now and people would expose me to it and I would learn to love it. There's just so much music out there, so I do think a fun part of my job is exposing them to stuff that they've never heard before.

DP- You have young children, I'm curious what your home looks like as far as how you're exposing them to music and what you're teaching them about music. That's your professio, but I'm sure it carries over into your home. Because you’re a talented man. So I'm curious, what does that look like inside your home?

AS- Are you talking about musically with my kids?

DP- Yeah, how do you put music in your home?

AS- Our home is full of music all the time. It's kind of fun because people come and stay with us for a while and say, “Your house just like a Broadway or something.” My wife is the main person who creates that atmosphere in the home. She is a musician. She has a degree in music. And this time of year especially there's a lot of music in our homes. She is the choreographer for The Singing Christmas Tree at Bellevue Baptist Church. And we both attend there and we're very involved there. So this time of year she's writing and teaching choreography and immersed in the music. And so it’s playing all the time in our house and our kids are singing. We actually don't listen to a lot of music in my class. It's just an odd thing about me. I can't really listen to music while I'm doing anything else. It distracts me. I can't not think about music if I'm listening to it so I never listen to it when I'm working. I can't really even clean dishes and listen to music at the same time very well because I'll just catch myself cleaning the same dish for like five minutes cause I'm just sitting there listening to the music. I really don't ever listen to music, so when I'm home there's not a whole lot of music in the house, but we're always singing. And we sing a song every time we pick up toys we sing "(singing) toys away, toys away, let’s all put our toys away." It's kind of tradition.

DP- We have a song too, but we're not as musical as your family. But to a point, you can teach. My daughter is in Mrs. Peggy Selph’s kindergarten class this year and they use songs so much to teach things. And she's always singing at night. She's always singing a song. In fact I was driving her to school this morning and I looked back and I was like, what is Annabelle doing? And she was looking out the window and she was practicing her song. And you can learn a lot through singing.

AS- Yeah there are certain songs that I have memorized that I can only think of in context of song. For instance, I've got the preamble memorized, but not by itself. I know a song that goes with it and I could almost hardly separate just the words from the song. And something my wife does that I love is the kids have a simple Bible verse each week that they learned in Sunday school and if the next week they can say that Bible verse they get a piece of candy or something like that. My wife creates a song out of every single one. I've got a three-year-old and a four-year-old so it may be something as simple as be kind to others. You know but even then my wife will just I don't remember what that one was but she just would sing, “(singing) Be kind to others,” and just all throughout the day we'll be singing "be kind to others".

DP- Ours was "(singing) Be kind to one another. It pleases our God."

AS - Exactly.

DP- So my kids can probably still do that.

AS- Yeah exactly! So stuff sticks with you that way when you attach it to music.

DP- Tell me about what y'all are doing this year and some of the things you're excited about. I know you started a group and you're just doing some really neat, dynamic things.

AS- I feel like the years been really off to a great start. I guess it's more than a start now,  we're nearing half way, but one thing that I'm really excited about is we've got two different high school choirs. I'll talk about high school for a second. In high school we've got two choirs. Last year, this is the way I understand it, they had audition groups in the past with them after school. And after school can be so hard and I tell you what, especially so many of the students that I have in choir are the best of the best students. I mean they are some of the students who are most involved, lots of athletes, just well-rounded. I mean some of the kids you might look at ECS and go that is the quintessential ECS kid, that's our banner kid. Lots of those kids are in my choir, so they're involved in so many different things. Trying to get them all together after school is so tough. So this year we have two different classes that meet. We have an auditioned choir that meets first period and there's 11 people in that choir, and there's another concert choir and that's the just kinda all come sing choir that happens second period. And there's a no audition to be in that group. There's no real expectation or any knowledge coming in, so when people come into that class I don't really assume that they known anything about music or have ever sung before. So we start from the ground up in that choir. But it's really fun having the two different choirs and the two are so different and both so fun in their own way. The first period choir is auditioned and all of those students do have some musical experience, so the level of music I'm able to do with them is just really outstanding. And I expect a lot of them and you know it's hard. And part of what I'm doing is training them to learn, not just to be taught, if you understand the difference. What I'm getting at is the difference there. Sometimes I'll say, “Hey guys, I need y'all to learn these measures. Go learn it and come back tomorrow with it known.” And they kind of freak out because they want me to spoonfeed them everything, but I'm trying to instill in them some self responsibility when it comes to music. And sometimes it is a struggle to do that, but I feel like in my own life some of the times I've grown most as a musician is when I was asked to struggle through something and to work really hard and have to do it over and over again to a point until I was even frustrated. So you know that choir is really fun. And that choir enjoys singing because they sound really good and they know that and they work hard to sound really great. The other choir is really fun to do and they surprise themselves how great they sound sometimes.They are coming and in a lot of them don't have music experience. We've got several in there that have had voice lessons and been in choir before, but a lot of them are like " I don't know anything about this!" Today we kind of finished a cord and we stopped and all kind of looked at each other like "Oh man that sounded really good!" So it's fun seeing those exciting moments in that choir as well so it's neat having both the choirs and both are working really hard right now we're working toward our Christmas concert can I go ahead and plug that?

DP- Absolutely.

AS-Our Christmas concert is December 1 and we're going to have all kinds of different music. The first period group that I was talking about, the auditioned choir, they’re an a cappella choir. So pretty much everything we do in that choir is a cappella which is really tough to not have a back up of a piano or whatever. But they're going to be doing some really fun music. We're doing some Pentatonix arrangements. So a lot of different types of Christmas music. We're going to incorporate the middle school into that as well so it's going to be really awesome. So that's at 6 o'clock on December 1, the week after Thanksgiving. It's $3 admission, $10 per family max.

DP- So, in closing, I'm just curious what is your end goal for any student that comes through your choir? I know you have different levels. What is the main take away that you would like for them to leave with when they come through your class?

AS - I would like to foster in them an enjoyment of music and the ability to continue in music even once they're done with me. And for some that means pushing them to a level where they're ready to go into college and be music majors. And they're ready for the rigors of college music. For others and for most if not all I hope that they are going to experience a lifetime of music. For some of them I’m the start of that and that's really exciting to me. But my hope is that they will sing if nothing else They will be the guy sitting next to you in the pew singing or the person on praise team or in the choir singing.  So I'd like to set them up for a lifetime of singing. These are kids in high school so they're old enough even now to be in adult choir's at their church and especially once they go onto college be in the college ensembles. Even if it's not music major ensembles but be in college ensembles or church groups. There's so much to do in music to experience you know, and 90% of the people who come in choir have no intention of doing it as a career. But people think if you're not going to do it as a career it means I'm not ever going to do it again. Well no, that's not the case. There's so much to do in music in the church and the community for the rest of your life. So I want to give them the enjoyment of it so they will want to pursue further but also the tools that they know how to further pursue music as a lifelong hobby, a lifelong thing that they get to enjoy and experience.

DP- Great, well said! We're so excited you're a part of our team. I'm just very excited to see how God is going to continue using you. I appreciate your love for the Lord and for your students. That emanates in everything that you do and you're just taking the stand to another level so I appreciate that. So thanks for joining us.

AS- It's my pleasure! I'm loving being here at ECS. I love the culture, and the students are just great and I think they understand where I'm trying to take them and I feel like they see themselves as part of what I'm doing. Not that I'm just doing it to them, but we are working towards our goals together and that's been really fun and exciting.

DP- Music is a very important thing to pursue as a Christian. It affects and it stirs affection in our souls. It helps us to sometimes understand our depravity and actually understand how we're made. There's so much good music out there. I just want to encourage our listeners, think about the appetites you're creating by the music you're listening to because that's a very important thing that you're doing. KO KO. Keep on keeping on. Soli Deo Gloria.