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Music In Holiday Concerts Thorny Subject For Public Schools

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Public school music teachers are heroes. They coach tiny fourth graders to play violins. The get 60 restless middle schoolers to play the same music at the same time. But their trickiest task of the year might be making selections for the winter concert.

Dan Hays stepped into a hornet's nest his first year at a high school in Elkhorn, Neb. "It had been a long-standing tradition to perform the Hallelujah Chorus on what they called their Christmas concert. All of the alumni would come up on stage and everybody would sing it," he says. "I think it had been going on for 30 years. When I got there I was told that was forbidden, that we were not to do any Christmas music of any kind."

Hays says when he broke the news to the parents, they were furious. The students were distraught. "Several were crying in the halls," he says. "Some went home." But he was able to convince the administration to do another holiday tradition — "Carol of the Bells."

Mike Blakeslee is Chief Operation Officer of the National Association for Music Educators. He's heard this story before. "Music teachers sometimes get caught in a kind of crossfire," he says. "If they program music that can be taken as having religious content, some people are very unhappy with that. On the other hand, if they don't program music that is seen as having religious content, there are other people that get unhappy with that."

And a single complaint can make all the difference. In New Jersey in 2004, one parent filed a lawsuit about a ban on holiday music in school concerts. He said the South Orange and Maplewood district's policy was a "government sponsored message of disapproval and hostility toward religion." The courts upheld the ban and the policy remains, says Nicholas Santoro, the former supervisor of fine arts.

"I could do Messiah but not 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,'" he says. "The policy said we couldn't do holiday music. It didn't say we couldn't do music with a religious text."

So they could do the Messiah for its musical and historical value, says Santoro. But they couldn't do "Silent Night" because it's a holiday tune."We had a group of music teachers sitting around going through lyrics of songs," he says. "We were going through 'Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.' And that song is great until you get to the last line and it's 'Merry Christmas.' Bells went off and we said, 'No, you can't do that.'"

An elementary school in Washington, D.C., came up with a different solution. Jamal Brown says a couple of years ago a principal said he could do "Go Tell It on the Mountain" — but he had to change the words.

"The song says, 'When Jesus Christ was born,'" says Brown. "And the principal was, like, 'No, you can't say Jesus.' And I was like, 'Well, OK. It's a predominantly African-American school. I don't see where there would be that much of a problem, but OK, I understand.' So we changed 'Jesus' to 'child,' and we were able to use the song."

Now Brown's students at Burrville Elementary are rehearsing for this year's winter concert. The program includes Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" and "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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