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September 27, 2006

Parents sound off about choir flap

Livingston Daily (MI):

While Howell Public Schools’ top administrator said he did not ask a German choir group to cut back religious songs in a recent performance at Howell High School, he said Monday that the district has rules that have to be followed regarding sacred music in choral performances. Superintendent Charles Breiner said he spoke with organizers of the Sept. 13 Voices of Heaven concert last spring, cautioning them about the potential for over-representing sacred music, but added that he had not had contact with the organizers or the group since then.

Those policies, meanwhile, are getting a mixed response from the public in the wake of the news that the visiting singers had trimmed religious music from their performance. Regardless of how or why the concert program was trimmed, Mark Hoornstra, parent of a Howell choir student, said Voices of Heaven was owed an apology from the school district because the impression the group was left with was not to sing sacred music.

Breiner said the policy wasn’t made overnight. “For at least the past 11 years, this question has been debated because some members — parents, students, staff — in our community have expressed dissatisfaction about the dominance of sacred text at certain choral concerts,” Breiner said. “Indeed, some of these concerts have featured 80 percent or more of selections of sacred text. This places the district in the position of failing to be religiously neutral.”

An arts committee in the district began meeting more than 10 years ago to address the issue, coming up with a maximum standard that caps sacred music at 30 percent of a performance, he added. “I think there has been somewhat of a misrepresentation of the district’s stance,” Breiner said. At no time, he said, was the Voices of Heaven concert “reviewed, modified or discouraged” by district administrators. If it was changed, Breiner added, it was done so by someone involved with the program. Voices of Heaven director Achim Plagge could not be reached Monday. The 62-member choir of 13-year-olds to 20-year-olds was brought to the school through an international exchange program run through the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Twin Lake.

Parents of students in the choir at Howell High School became irate with the district when Voices of Heaven was asked to scale back its program, cutting sacred music, which they said was made at the request of district administrators. The members of Voices of Heaven stayed with Howell choir families during their four-day stint in the area, and the Howell choir performed with the visiting group in portions of the concert. Diane Schenkel, the parent of two Howell choir students who also hosted two members of Voices of Heaven at her home, said the members of the guest choir felt “prejudiced” against by being asked to trim their program.

At Monday’s meeting of the Howell Public Schools Board of Education, several board members said they wouldn’t stand to have sacred or religious music eliminated entirely. “I feel very strongly about our music program,” said board Vice President Jeanne Clum. “I have never heard of our district not allowing Christian music. It’s just part of our policy to find a balance.”

Also at Monday’s meeting, some parents and community members in the audience said they supported the 30 percent limit on sacred music outlined in the policy. Others said the policy should be revisited. “I fear that this is watering down our music program,” said former school board candidate Jim Pratt. Vicki Fyke, member of the Livingston Organization for Values in Education, was dissatisfied that no one could tell her who had the concert program cut. “It didn’t come out of thin air,” she said. “Where does the buck stop?”

Posted by acapnews at September 27, 2006 12:06 AM