Our Festival of Music at Western Academy

“The most beautiful things are felt with our hearts,” said the Little Prince.

by Tim Keenley (WA Faculty)

jpieper_leisure_lgWe began mandatory band in all middle school grades this week. Seventy boys playing brass or reed horns: many for the first time and many of the others just getting started.

Amidst the cacophony of detonating trumpets and squealing clarinets, I remembered the warnings of a popular band director, “The primary goal for instruction in beginner band is to get the student to the second year. Most students are lost between the first and second year of instruction.” [1]

Simultaneously in the lower school, we launch a multi-year sequence of ear training and sight-singing. All this effort is worthwhile.

As we begin the fifth year of our school’s existence, let us reflect on the special gifts music brings to all of us; as we share it, create it, and open our hearts to receive it.

Josef Pieper, the great German philosopher (who we often read as a faculty), has this to say: “Music, the fine arts, and poetry all derive their life from a hidden root, and this root is a contemplation which is turned toward God and the world so as to affirm them.”[2]

Our boys sing from their first day they arrive on campus. In the years before the cambiata or male voice change (12-15 years of age), boys love to sing with their soft treble voices.[3] Every one of the boys, with a little coaching, can produce endearing, quiet sounds; and right on pitch. And boys carry on singing right through their voice changes in 7th or 8th grade too.

“Only as loud as you’re beautiful,” we remind the boys who have a tendency to shout. And it is beautiful. While directing and listening to them, we get a feeling of timelessness; that their soft voices really stretch up toward heaven. These same loud and bombastic young boys have really small voices, emanating from the tiny lungs that power them.

Their tiny singing voices correspond with the innocence of their young lives. The command of Our Lord comes to mind, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Mt 19:14).

When we select music for our classes and shows (though much of it is created original on campus), we choose from traditional Christian hymns, classical pieces, Gregorian chant and popular folk music: musical pieces that endure the passage of the time. This music, loved and sung by generations, brings us a connection with our past. These days in class and faculty choir, we also learn that the intervals between sounds and harmony of voices are founded in a scientific reality that is natural, describable and pleasing to the ear.

Pope John Paul II’s words in 1989: “As a manifestation of the human spirit, music performs a function which is noble, unique and irreplaceable. When it is truly beautiful and inspired, its speaks to us more than all the other arts of goodness, virtue, peace, of matters holy and divine.”

We also sing hymns at Mass in our chapel each day. It is now common to see 60-70 people packed into our little chapel for Mass, boys shoulder-to-shoulder with their male teachers. We join our hearts together like brothers in liturgical prayer and song.

And speaking of the liturgy, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI writes that “the fundamental question of the man who begins to understand himself correctly is: How must I encounter God? Thus learning the right way of worshipping is the gift par excellence that is given to us by the faith.”[4]

As men pray and sing together, we build character, transferring practical virtues from one generation to the next. Pieper says in his book on Prudence that virtue or character cannot be taught and learned in school. The ways of virtue must be assimilated through examples of real life. In the case of men, virtue is transferred by tradition from one generation to the next. Boys learn virtue from fathers, grandfathers and other senior males in their lives.

By singing good music in celebration of our feasts, we not only give praise to God, but we are fostering true culture. Culture, Pieper explains, comes from cult or worship. “Culture lives on religion through divine worship… where man regains his true worth and recovers his upright posture.”

Pieper says elsewhere,[5] that the power of leisure lies in its ability to create the conditions of the soul that fosters the capacity to receive the world as a created and redeemed reality. This is only possible through contemplation, silence and ultimately through communal worship (liturgy/Sabbath), the heart of a festival, “the most festive of festivals” — the cult. At the heart of any culture, then, is religion, where the cult, the worship is expressed.

In addition to the daily celebrations of manly worship at school, music will fill the air on campus as we prepare to mark the traditional festivals of our all-school Masses and seasonal shows at Christmas and at Easter-time. So many festival days dot our school calendar. Parents have mentioned to me how Western has more feasts than they knew ever existed! Our celebration of these feasts draws each of us up, engaging us to live them out in the course of our daily lives.

The beauty of music, in its many forms, touches our hearts and souls, and we feel it takes us to a different place. With the engagement of our minds and voices, we start speaking from our hearts.

“Goodbye,” said the fox. “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”[6]

[1] “Strategies for Teaching Our Youngest Students,” De Stefano, Skokie, Illinois, 2003.

[2] Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation, J. Pieper, Preface, 1953.

[3] For a neat description of changes in the male voice, see http://www.leedberg.com/voice/pages/male.html

[4] Collected Works, Theology of Liturgy, Ratzinger, J., 2014.

[5] Pieper, J., Leisure the Basis of Culture, 1952.

[6] Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince, 1943.

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