woody zimmermann 120(The present era seems like a good time to re-run this piece from an earlier column. It doesn’t look like things are improving.)


When I was a boy, vocal music was still taught in public schools at a meaningful level. (The instruction was more than singing “It’s a Small World After All,” off-key, 5,000 times, as my children did during the 1970s.) At various stages of elementary school, I and my peers actually learned the elements of musical notation. This included: the meaning of the key signature; the time-values of notes; the names of positions in the musical staff (A, B, C, etc.); and the meanings of rests and dynamics-notations (e.g., piano, forte, fortissimo, mezzo-piano, etc.)

We were expected to put this knowledge to actual use when we sang in class, as we frequently did. My fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Bothwell, would prowl along the aisles of our classroom, brandishing her ruler like a swagger-stick, as we sang from our class song-books. When she detected someone goofing off or wandering from the song’s rhythm, her ruler would crash down on the slacker’s desk – fearsomely beating the time (BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!), as the trembling student struggled to regain his place in the song and keep the time properly. (A method drawn from the A. Hitler Conservatory Method, I believe.)

Notwithstanding this Prussian approach to teaching music, I and my peers did reach junior high school with a certain competence in music-reading and singing. Not all of us became singers or instrumentalists, but we could read a song’s written music and have a good chance of being able to sing it – particularly if some instrumental accompaniment helped us along.

Our Junior High music teacher was a commanding lady who stood about 4’8” tall. (Even at age 12 we towered over her.) The venerable Miss Ruh’s teaching career stretched back to around 1915. The parents of many of my peers had been her students, which explained why she could command athletes and other unlikely males to join her school choirs. If her direct invitation didn’t succeed, she would simply call the student’s family to exert pressure indirectly. From her music classes she could tell who could sing and who couldn’t, and she had confidence that most students would possess the musical skills they needed to participate in group-singing.

I recall my very first time in Miss Ruh’s music class, in September 1954. We quickly saw how much she loved all kinds of music. Her rollicking piano-accompaniment to the World War I songs she loved – “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” etc. – spurred us to lusty singing. She thought the school Alma Mater important enough to teach it in class. (Try to imagine that today.) And she took time to explain the school motto – Personal Responsibility. (I’m writing from another century here. If that school has a motto today, surely it changed long ago to Personal Rights.)

I relate all this by way of contrast to modern times. Musical instruction, of the kind I experienced, is now all but unknown in public schools. While singing is not entirely gone, little effort is made to help students become competent in reading music. Some elementary schools have eliminated music teachers, for reasons of economy, leaving musical instruction in the hands of teachers who may or may not be musically trained. At the middle-school level, student choirs are a vanishing species. With very few exceptions, high school choirs attract mostly girls, but very few boys. Certainly, no self-respecting jock would let himself be seen anywhere near a choir.

An important cultural shift has taken place here. Increasingly, singing is regarded as something you listen to, not something you do. If you’ve been to a professional sports event, lately, you’ll know what I mean. When the National Anthem is sung, you’ll be doing a solo in your area of the stands. Around you, people will be mumbling or, more than likely, not singing at all. Behind the soloist leading the effort, a kind of muted, amorphous drone will be coming from the crowd. It’s pathetic, really. (Late-night comics have suggested that “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” should become the new national anthem because more people can sing it.)

The listening-but-not-singing paradigm has even invaded the last bastion of real singing in the country – i.e., Protestant churches. I grew up in churches that had a strong vocal music tradition. Because of an advantageous genetic heritage (Welsh, Jewish, Irish), I actually became a singer, but that was merely the luck of the genetic-draw. Even without that vocal inheritance, I still had the benefit of my public school musical instruction and the reinforcement of robust church singing during my formative years. I tell my grandchildren how we sang the Songs of Zion with joy and conviction. My peers shared these advantages, even if they didn’t become singers.

Contrasted with my own church-upbringing – when we eagerly read and sang hymns and gospel songs from an early age – many of today’s churches are a musical wasteland. Because many younger people are musically illiterate, young church leaders assume that no one reads music any more. Accordingly, printed music has gone the way of the dodo bird.

Large segments of the “congregational singing” portions of Sunday services now consist of “praise and worship songs.” These are led by a worship leader whose backup is a “worship team” – usually staffed with guitar-strummers and a bevy of nice-looking young ladies. I enjoy watching them move with the music, but I am left wondering what we are really trying to do. A young neighbor reinforced this, saying, “I like church to feel like church, not a night-club.”

In fact, the worship-team presentation is not congregational singing at all. It is a performance. The team does most of the real singing, since they get to see music copy. Mega-amplification creates an “acoustic illusion” of widespread singing. Words are typically projected on a big screen, or printed in bulletin-inserts – but there is no music-copy for the congregation.

The great hymns of the Christian Faith are fading away. Hymns like “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” – sometimes called the greatest hymn in the English Language – are all but unknown to many young worshippers. Instead, abbreviated ditties written in contemporary style – often having difficult meter and syncopated time – are the norm. Trained singers can have difficulty sight-reading them from the printed music. But for ordinary worshippers, struggling with unfamiliar, non-melodic tunes while looking at words only, the situation is hopeless. That same neighbor observed that church songs are no longer “singer-friendly.”

A family we know well here in Virginia decided to leave their church after leaders adopted an exclusively contemporary style of worship. This included a crash-bang-alakazam rock band, a jiving praise team, and removal of all hymnals and copies of the Bible from the sanctuary. Printed music was not furnished for the “praise songs” – a worship segment in which the congregation was not really expected to participate to any significant degree. Numerous congregations of our acquaintance are struggling similarly over music styles and congregational participation.

With respect to the printed music issue, church leaders typically cite modern worshippers’ music-illiteracy. They offer no surveys which measure whether the illiteracy story is true or how widespread it is. The axioms of the new worship paradigm are –

  • People can’t read music any more;
  • This is an irreversible condition;
  • Even if it were reversible, the church has no role in changing it;
  • Written music is passe;
  • Worshippers should “look up” when they sing, not down into hymnbooks;
  • Modern people are bored with the “old songs” anyway;
  • “7-11 music” (seven words sung eleven times) suits modern musical tastes perfectly.

I beg indulgence from my readers who are not church people for dwelling on a matter they may think has little to do with them. But permit me to suggest that it actually affects them and all 21st-century Americans. In an earlier column I argued that the disappearance of a lighthearted, humorous perspective was a danger-sign for our culture. Similarly, I argue here that the loss of singing signals a non-trivial degeneration of our society and our culture. Has the erosion of music teaching caused this problem? Certainly, it has contributed to it. As people obtain fewer and fewer musical skills, they are bound to sing less. Singing thus becomes less important.

On the other hand, has a lack of interest in singing in our culture caused the poor state of musical instruction and singing in our schools and our churches? Yes, that is also true. Like so many things, singing is a kind of chicken-and-egg situation. Poets say music comes out of the heart. It signals joy inside the person. When this is absent, there is no song. Singing then becomes an unimportant skill which is de-emphasized in society. Try to think of when you were last in a public gathering where the crowd sang together as though they really meant it.

At the open-air Baccalaureate Service for my public high school graduation in 1960, our entire class of over 700 rose and un-self-consciously sang, “God Be with you till we meet again” in a stirring benediction chorus. Classmates wept openly and embraced as the words “Till we meet at Jesus’ feet” rang out in the June evening. I shall never forget the sound. Emotion still sweeps over me whenever I recall it.

As a boy I watched and listened as my father sang with the radio at his workbench. He wasn’t a trained singer, but he had a fine natural Welsh voice. His workday was long. His house was full of noisy kids. He drove an old car and had very little money in his pocket. Our possessions were meager, compared to the bounty that young people have today. Yet music flowed out of him naturally because he was pleased with his life and his heart was filled with joy and love.

In the Lord’s Providence, Pop taught me both an optimism about life and the joy of singing. In turn, my children learned these things from me. Today I hear them singing in their homes and cars, during the ordinary events of their lives. Their children are doing the same. Singing is being passed on in a joyful heritage from generation to generation.

But outside is a culture that has forgotten this marvelous gift. We hear professional singing – even in our churches – but many ordinary people don’t think it is something they can do. It is a situation that simply must be changed. Singing has been a key part of the American character.

The road back is a long one – the more so because only a few fuddy-duddies like me even see a problem. Gradually, however, increasing numbers of people are recognizing that music and widespread singing were things that once made our culture unique and grand. They want it again.

In north Georgia, and later in North Carolina, our son and his family searched a long time until they found Evangelical churches that still sing the old hymns. “We wanted our children to know those songs,” they said. Their church is filled with young people who think similarly.

If we believe music is important, we need to start by restoring the musical building blocks in our schools and in our churches. If we insist, these institutions will “rediscover” singing. If not, people will go elsewhere. More than any time in the past, Americans can “vote with their feet” to leave situations they can’t correct. This now includes both schools and churches.

Without a song, the day would never end. Without a song, the road would never bend…” goes the old song. “When things go wrong, a man ain’t got a friend, without a song.”1

I believe that eventually we shall find our way back. Work and sing and pray for that time – even if you don’t usually sing or pray.

1. From the musical Great Day. Lyrics by William Rose and Edward Eliscu; 1929.