Teaching Music in an Islamic School
by Fawzia Mai Tung
A. Should you offer a Music Program in your school?
Deciding on a definition of music that is Islamic; deciding on whether music itself is haram, discouraged, halal, or encouraged; deciding which instruments (including the human voice) are allowable; and deciding what lyrics are Islamic or not is really the realm of Islamic scholars. It is the decision of an Islamic school’s board of director/trustees to decide what its market (parents) wants for their children. And it is the educators’ role to provide for and satisfy that demand.
The school’s board, if concerned in the satisfaction of its market’s demands, should run a survey of its parents to find out what their attitude is regarding this issue. A generic survey is available (provide link here) for you to download, individualize with your school’s name and logo and run. Remember, some parents are very vocal and will insist that “All the parents” think this or that, their definition of “all parents” being their small group of friends. It is very important, therefore, to try to reach ALL parents at a given time if you wish to obtain real and accurate data regarding your market’s opinion. You may ask for the help of your PTA/PTO. After collecting all surveys, you will need to organize the data into a readable format. Power point has excellent tools for charting and graphing. There should be one slide or graph per question, though some in the same category can be combined. Now the administration, then the board needs to study the results of this survey, and then share them with the parents at the next PTA/PTO meeting. Your decision on what to offer in your music program will be determined by these results.
The business of a school is to provide education. Every school serves a specific market, and a successful school supplies what its market demands. In the case of Islamic schools, some founders start a school with a very specific idea of the type of education it will supply, market it as such, and only attracts parents who wish for such an education. In this case, there is no need for such a survey.
If the great majority of parents do wish for a music program, yet a small minority absolutely refuses to accept it, you can solve this dilemma several ways. One is to provide a waiver form that parents can sign, exempting their child from attending music class. The alternative could be to attend Study Hall, for example, under the supervision of a adult.
B. How to design your Music Program
The results of your survey are the best guide to what is to be included. A well-balanced program should include all of the following elements:
1. Music Theory
2. Music History
3. Music Appreciation
4. Practical Music Instruction
More details can be obtained from the published Music Standards from your state’s Department of Education website. You can download here an example from the Arizona State Standards for Music.
The easiest way to teach this is to assign one of these categories to each quarter. A recommended weight for music classes would be one hour per week in the elementary grades. Often, in high schools built on a US model, Music is a separate class given as a semester course, or two semester courses. Each course has a weight of 5 hours per week. It is recommended for the music teacher to coordinate with other teachers, in particular the Social Studies and the English teachers, and provide cross-curricular lesson plans or projects.
If you have a projector in the classroom, make use of the internet. Youtube has an amazing amount of resources. You can find several different performances of almost any piece of music. There are also great websites for teaching music theory (such as www.musictheory.net), while others even provide you with drills (such as www.emusictheory.com) that the students can use from home, and even scores their drills for you. You will just need to download the scores onto your own student records. You can also scout your local stores for a good software. I would recommend Music Ace, which is very child friendly, and is also used by the K12 Curriculum.
Here is a sample of what an annual curriculum plan may look like:
Voice (practical instrument)
Focus: sing along, correct tone, correct beat,
Repertoire: rhymes and children’s songs
Focus: memorization of tune
Repertoire: American folk songs
Focus: basic vocal skills: abdominal breathing, placement
Repertoire: International folk songs
Group and some solo singing
Focus: expression and further vocal skills
Repertoire: folk and some classical songs
Material: Music Ace (CD rom)
Treble clef notes, 4/4 beats
Material: Music Ace
Treble and bass clefs notes, all beats
Material: Music Ace
All notes, C, G and F keys, basic chords
Material: Music Ace
All notes, all clefs, all keys, secondary chords
Music Appreciation/ History
Applications of music: marches, dances, movies, etc
Movies and musicals theme songs
International music styles
Western music: Baroque, Classical, and Romantic composers
Creative Music (composition)
Composing answering phrases or sentences
Composing short songs/tunes based on a framework
Group composition and performance
Group or individual composition and performance
C. Staff selection and basic tips on singing
When hiring a teacher, make sure the teacher has some music knowledge and/or background, as well as preferably some basic voice training. The biggest mistake is to assign music to a teacher without any musical background.
If you cannot find anyone among your staff with a musical background, and only plan on training the children to sing, then your next best bet is a Qur’an teacher with a good tajweed voice. S/he will know about how to place the tone and use the maxillary or paranasal sinuses for a good resonance.
The key to good singing is to sing, not to shout. Without good vocal training, a child’s normal voice is not loud. The adults then try to remedy this by telling them to sing “louder! Louder!” Since no one has taught the children how to sing louder, they end up shouting. The key to a loud voice is a) good resonance and b) good support.
Resonance is what is called “ghunna” in tajweed. This is achieved by placing the tone in the sinuses (bone cavities) located in your cheek bones. Tajweed rarely requires very high notes, so this position is adequate. In singing, you will need also to place notes higher than just middle C to middle G. As the tone goes higher, you will need to place your tone in the ethmoid (between the eyes) and frontal sinuses, in the forehead. Finally, if you need to sing very high (above high C), you will need to place the tone in your sphenoid sinuses (in the middle of your head).
Good support means good abdominal breath control. The simplest way to achieve this is to take a breath before each phrase, and a good big breath before attacking a phrase that is loud.
D. Basic hints for better performances
I have seen time and again schools putting together a show of “nasheed” where one or more adults hustle a group of children onto the stage. They spend 5-10 minutes doing so, climbing onto the stage to group the children as best they can, looking like shepherd herding a flock. Finally, the adults get off, while the children fiddle, chat, turn around or still roam around. Then they try to tell the children to get be quiet and get started. The best ones say, “one, two, three!!!” And all children start screaming their heads off, each on a different note. Somehow they reach the end of the song together, and the audience of loving parents clap wildly. The show is deemed a success. On the other hand there are a few schools that do not think instruments are haram. I have seen a teacher play a piano introduction, and the children manage then to start on the same note, and then sing along the piano accompaniment, more or less decently. There is a very simple trick to get all children started on the same note if you do not wish to use a piano accompaniment or a recorded karaoke accompaniment. Either use a tuning pipe, or verbally give a starting note. With much practice, the teacher should be able to gauge where the starting note lies (low, middle, or high range). You can train the children to give you a hum on that note. For example, you are practicing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. You sing softly, “Twin…..kle” and the children respond by humming the same note, until you sign to them to stop. If some of them are humming the wrong tone, give the tone again. Only when all are humming back to you the correct tone, do you say, “one, two three” or any other starting signal.
Secondly, it is very important to keep the beat steady. If you are not using a drummer/s (on a daf/mazhar, for example) to keep your beat, then you must conduct. If you do not know how to conduct, then just clap or pretend to clap on the beat. Even better, you can train the children to clap along. Most songs are in 2/4 or 4/4 beats. You can easily work a pattern, for example, of clap, snap; clap, snap. If you do not keep the beat while the children are singing, there is a tendency for some of the singers to start going faster and faster, while the rest lag behind. Using movements help the students sing on beat, and make the performance livelier. You can even have them clap once on the right and once on the left: right, left, right, left, etc. The reason for a conductor is that someone MUST lead the way, otherwise you will end up with different sub-groups performing at different speeds or tones.
Thirdly, a performance does not only consist of the song itself. It also includes how to go on stage, how to stand and appear on stage, how to acknowledge applause, and how to leave the stage. As the date of the performance nears, including these in your rehearsals. The teacher must scout the performance venue beforehand to work out the following: a) size of stage; b) where the steps are; c) whether it is indoors or outdoors; d) size of hall /size of audience; e) need for sound system and type of sound system.
If you have for example, 20 students and wish to have them lined up straight in two rows, then you must make them practice to stand in this formation every time you rehearse. Then, once you figure out whether the steps are on the right or the left, assign the first child in the back row to lead the back row onto the stage, followed by the first child from the front row leading the rest of the front row. Make them walk around the rehearsal hall several times, onto and off the “stage” area. If they are going to hold papers or folders, practice which hand to use to hold the paper/folder while walking, so they will have a uniform look. Once on stage, make them practice smiling and keeping still and quiet. If holding the paper or folder, make them practice holding them in a uniform manner that will not hide their face. I prefer a two-hand hold at the bottom of the folder, at the level of the belly-button. Practice with a pretend applause or takbir, and then instruct one of the older and more responsible students standing around the middle to softly command, “One, two, three!” and have the students acknowledge the applause/takbir. Many Muslims do not like bowing, therefore I prefer to instruct the students to just bow their heads. So, “one, two, three!” and then bow the heads on an imagined “four!” and raise the heads on an imagined “five!” The teacher/conductor then also bows his/her head, then signs to the students to turn to the right/left (wherever the steps are) and the students leave in a single file, one row at a time.
Acoustics: unless you are singing indoors to a very small audience, and unless you have trained your children extensively in voice techniques –projection in particular, you will definitely need a sound system. There are two types of microphones: the uni-directional mike, used for one speaker/singer, such as the master of ceremony, the fundraiser, etc; and the multi-directional mike, also called a condenser microphone or a boom. They come either as a tiny button (usually wireless, and clipped on the lapel, but sometimes hung from the ceiling), or as a huge microphone covered with a muffler and hung from the ceiling. DO NOT USE A UNI-DIRECTIONAL MICROPHONE when a group of children is performing. It will catch sounds only when very close. Therefore, it will catch the voice of the closest child, usually the youngest one in the middle of the front row (therefore the worst singer), and no one else’s. As the students fail to hear their voices from the speakers, they will attempt to remedy this by screaming ever louder. Your performance will drive everyone out of the hall. If you are serious about developing your school choir then do invest in a good sound system with at least one or two condenser microphones. These can catch mixed sounds as far as 1-2 or more yards away (depending on the strength of the mike). They should be hung above the heads of the children, strategically placed to catch a uniform mixture of all the voices. (Again, you MUST have a live run-through rehearsal prior to the start of the event to make sure the children stand in the correct positions under the mikes, and the sound mixture is correct.) If invited to perform else where, bring your own sound system, especially if the performance is outdoors. Hosts never realize how important it is to know your venue beforehand. This can make your performance a success or a dismal failure. I was once told that a certain performance in a city 2 hours away was to be indoors to a few dozen people. I therefore managed to gather a small group of my most seasoned singers who had strong voices and traveled there without the equipment. When I arrived, I found it was to be outdoors, on a hillside (therefore all voices would be lost), to a couple hundred people dining and chatting. I sensed a disaster. I finally found a stone staircase and practiced having the children stand on the steps, facing sideways away from the open, and instructed my contact person to bring the guest of honor over towards us when it was time to sing. Most people did not hear us, but the guest of honor did and was extremely happy. Amazingly, three years later, we were asked again to perform there. Needless to say, I refused.
If you have to perform outdoors, and have no sound equipment, here is the best thing to do. Find a spot where you have a wall nearby, and position your singers facing that wall, so the sound will reverberate off the wall. Alternatively, you can use a ceiling, such as under a ramada or a patio, making sure the students are at least 2 feet well inside the edge of the ceiling.
You may decide to have them all wear your school uniform. Or you may wish for a special chorus/choir uniform. This could be as simple as a colorful sash around the waist or diagonally slung across the chest, or maybe a bandana tied boy scout style around the neck. Alternatively, you may ask all mothers to dress them in black pants/skirts and white shirts before adding on the colorful sash/bandana. These are very formal looking, and almost every home has these on hand. If the songs or the occasion is not so formal, you may ask for jeans and a specific colored T-shirt. Make sure to inform the parents well ahead of time, in writing, of these arrangements, so they will have time to purchase, wash, iron or whatever else is needed.