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Purposes of gospel choirs and ensembles in state supported colleges and universities.

The utilization of music for religious purposes continues to be one of its most significant principles. There are many genres of sacred music; Hymns, Motets, Spirituals, Masses, Southern Gospel, Christian Inspirational and Black Gospel are only a few. Gospel music came into existence during the late 19th century and was a customary part of church services. The name "gospel" or good news was derived from the New Testament (Courlander, 1963).

Southern black people brought their spirituals with them from the south during the great migration to northern cities. It was in these urban cities that black gospel took on the many characteristics of "urban blues", improvisatory piano, guitar and instrumental accompaniment. (Cleveland, 1981). Gospel music continued to thrive and evolve from the Historic gospel songs of Thomas Dorsey and Kenneth Morris to the Modern gospel songs of the Soul Stirrers featuring Sam Cooke, the Caravans featuring Shirley Caesar, the Dixie Humming Birds, and Mahailia Jackson. (Walker, 1979).

Contemporary Gospel music was born during the "black pride" movement of the 1970s and the release of Walter Hawkin's arrangement of the hymn "O Happy Day." The highly charged emotionalism inherent in this style of gospel music resulted in a new interest and popularity among younger generations, which continues today. Many predominately white and historically black colleges and universities have gospel choirs.

The context in which gospel music was created was one of acknowledgement and worship of a Divine being. Gospel music is a part of the black experience (Curtis, 1986), and thus a part of American history and culture. Can gospel music, however be studied and performed devoid of its original context?

The historic Supreme Court decisions of the early sixties concerning religion and public schools promoted a philosophy of neutrality. The first amendment seems to suggest that a government nonpartisan in religious matters better serves religious interests of all its citizenry. The purpose of the first amendment as defined by Justice Rutledge in the 1947 case of Everson vs. Board of Education was to "create a complete religious realm and government by prohibiting every form of public aid or support for religion" (Fisher, 1996; Mients, 1965; Scamm, 1967).

The official stance of the National Association for Music Education, formally the Music Educators' National Conference (MENC, 1996) concerning the performance of religious music in public schools states: "The study and performance of religious music within an educational context is a vital role and appropriate part of a comprehensive music education. Omitting sacred music from the school curriculum would result in an incomplete educational experience" (MENC, 1996 p.2).

Chief Justice Warren E. Burger affirmed that the following questions should be asked of groups and institutional activities that involve religious content. 1. What is the purpose of the activity? 2. What is the primary effect of the activity? 3. Does the activity involve entanglement with a religion or religious group, or between schools and religious organizations?

Although students join university Gospel Choirs for many reasons, a basic question concerns the purpose of schools of music or music departments in state supported colleges and universities, for the establishing and offering Gospel Choir as part of the curriculum. The intent of this study was to investigate the perceived purposes of gospel choir in predominately white and historically black, state supported schools.

Method

A survey instrument was created to determine the purpose of gospel choirs at colleges and universities. The survey instrument consisted of eight questions concerning the presence of a Gospel Choir, the number of members enrolled in gospel choir, whether or not the choir was affiliated with the school music department, the main purpose of the gospel choir, the percentage of music majors enrolled in gospel choir, the racial/ethnic make-up of the ensemble, and the style of music performed most (traditional, contemporary) by the choir.

The surveys were sent to music department chairpersons of colleges and universities, one predominately white institution and one historically black institution for each state in the union (some states did not have a state supported, historically black college, therefore the researcher included some black universities from states having more than one state supported black college). A total of 96 surveys were mailed. Fifty-eight surveys (60%) were returned.

Results

Fifty surveys were mailed to selected predominately white state supported universities. Thirty-eight of those fifty or 76% percent were returned. Twenty of these schools (53%) had gospel choirs and eighteen (47%) did not. Thirty percent of the schools with gospel choirs reported that their choirs were components of the music department or school of music.

Forty-six surveys were mailed to selected historically black state supported universities. Twenty or 43% of these schools responded to the survey. Fourteen of the schools (70%) reported that they had gospel choirs and 30% (6) responded that they did not have gospel choirs at their university. Fifteen percent of the schools with gospel choirs reported that their choirs were components of the school of music or music department. Eighty-five percent of schools with gospel choirs indicated that their choirs were not components of the music department. Answers provided on the survey revealed that most university gospel choirs had between 25 and 75 members, and less than 10% were music majors. The repertoire performed by the majority of university gospel choirs consisted of both traditional (historic and modern) gospel music. Twenty-percent performed contemporary gospel music exclusively.

The racial/ethnic distribution among college gospel choir members in historically black colleges and universities was 99% Black, 1% Native American and less than 1% White, Hispanic (Latino) and Asian ethnic members were represented in their ensembles (Table 1). The racial/ethnic percentage distribution among college gospel choir members in predominantly white universities was: 82.4% Black, 12.2% White, 2.8% Asian, 2% Hispanic (Latino), and 6% Native American (Table 1).

The primary purpose for gospel choir in historically black schools that offered gospel choir as a component of the school of music or music department was to study and perform music of the gospel genre. Those schools that had gospel choirs that were not components of the music department or school of music but were student organizations (85%) reported the main purposes for the gospel choir in their schools were to provide an outlet for Christian students; to study and perform music of the gospel genre; and to minister and bring students to Christ.

Predominately white universities that had gospel choirs that were considered part of the school of music or department of music affirmed that the main purposes for gospel choir in their schools were to study music of the gospel genre; to recruit minority students and to promote the artistic contributions of African Americans through musical performance and symposia. The major purposes for gospel choirs that were student organizations outside of the music department in predominately white institutions were to provide an outlet for Christian students; to study and perform music of the gospel genre; to minister and bring students to Christ and to recruit minority students. Table 2 displays the ranking of the purposes for gospel choirs in colleges and universities.

Discussion

Gospel choirs are popular in predominately white and historically black colleges and universities. The ratio between universities with gospel choirs and those without is greater in black colleges (70%: 30%) than in white colleges (53%: 47%). Legal education of African Americans in the United States began with the development of freedmen's schools. Many of these schools were held in black churches. The black church, then, was the center of learning, worship and culture. Music was a very puissant force in the black struggle for survival. The black community's determination to exist and succeed in spite of adversity was and continues to be felt in its music, particularly black sacred music. The occurrence of gospel choirs in any setting be it religious or educational, is a potent element in black cultural heritage (Cone, 1987). This may account for the commonality of gospel choirs in historically black colleges.

Although the percentage of black students in gospel choirs is large in predominately white and black universities (99% in black schools and 82.4% in white schools), the racial/ethnic representation of gospel choir members in predominately white universities is more diverse than historically black universities. Historically black colleges and universities were created to give "freedmen" access to higher education that was denied to them in major colleges. These schools, particularly in southern states, were the only schools African Americans were allowed to attend. The walls of segregation have crumbled, however, attending a historically black college or university remains a tradition for many African American families. The majority of students enrolled in black colleges are black, which could explain the lack of diversity within the gospel choirs in those schools.

The number of African American students attending major predominately white universities is much greater now than forty years ago. There are many reasons black students join or enroll in gospel choirs in white schools, one of which is to identify culturally with other students of African descent. Other ethnic groups join or enroll in gospel choirs for various reasons, and though these students are represented more in gospel choirs in white schools, their representation is quite low. The majority of gospel choirs in colleges and universities are not components of the music department or school of music. This is probably due to the essence of the gospel music genre. The religious context of the music and its emotional relationship to its context makes it difficult to perform devoid of its message, which can cause conflict between "church and state" in state supported institutions. Many gospel choirs on college campuses are student organizations without university backing or financial support. In other words, these organizations may carry the name of the university, but they are not segments of the university.

The purposes of choirs appeared to correlate with whether the choir was a component of the school's music department or an independent student organization. The main purpose for gospel choirs that were components of the music department was educational: "to study and perform music of the gospel genre; to promote the artistic contribution of African Americans through musical performance and symposia." The primary purpose for gospel choirs that were student organizations was religious; to provide an outlet for Christian students; to minister and bring students to Christ." If these organizations receive any university support, including the use of school facilities, they cause the school to be in violation of the first amendment.

Conclusion

Students join gospel choirs, whether those choirs are independent student organizations or courses offered by the university for a variety of reasons. These reasons may be religious, educational, or social. Students in gospel choirs that are components of music departments in state supported schools often are reminded that although they have the right to become a member of the choir for religious purposes, it is not the rationale or mission of the school to minister to, or convert anyone. A common purpose of the choir would be to advance the artistic contribution of African Americans to music through the careful examination and performance of gospel music. If this is done, the study and performance of gospel music in an educational context would constitute "an appropriate and significant element of a comprehensive music education."

References

Cleveland, J. (1981). A historical account of the black gospel song. In J. Cleveland and V. Nix. (Eds.), Songs of Zion. Nashville, TN: Abington Press.

Cone, J. H. (1987). The Spiritual and the Blues. Maryknoll, NY: Seabury Press.

Courlander .H. (1963). Negro Folk Music: USA. New York, NY: Dover Publications Inc.

Curtis, M.V. (October, 1986). Understanding the black aesthetic experience. Music Educator's Journal, 23-26.

Fisher, C. M ... (1966). The place of religion in the school curriculum. Music Educator's Journal, 53(3), 66-67.

Meints, D. (1965). Are we violating the constitution? Music Educator's Journal, 51(5), 62-67.

MENC (1996). Does Music with a sacred text have a place in the public schools? Music Educator's Journal, 83(2), 2-4.

Scamm, J. (1967). Religious music in public schools. Music Educators Journal, 39(9), 46-49.

Walker, W.T. (1997). Somebody's Calling My Name. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press.

SHARON YOUNG--UNIVERSITY OF ARKANSAS, LITTLE ROCK

Dr. Sharon Young received the B. S. degree in music education from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, her Masters of Music degree from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, and her Ph.D. from Ohio State University. She is currently teaches at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Her area of research is music and diversity.
Table 1
Racial/Ethnic Distribution of Gospel Choir Members in Colleges and
Universities

Black Universities

Black   White   Hispanic   Asian   Native
                                   American

99%     0%      0%         0%      1%

White Universities

Black   White   Hispanic   Asian   Native
                                   American

82.4%   12.2%   2%         2.8%    .6%

Table 2
Ranking of Purposes for gospel Choirs in Colleges and Universities

Historically Black Colleges    Predominately White
& Universities                 Universities

Music          Student                              Student
Department     Organization    Music Department     Organization

1. To study    To provide an   To study and         To provide an
and perform    outlet for      perform music of     outlet for
music of the   Christian       the gospel           Christian Students
gospel genre   Students        genre

2.             To study and    To recruit           To study and
               perform         minority students    perform music of
               music of the                         the gospel genre
               gospel genre

3.             To minister     To promote the       To minister and
               and bring       artistic contribu-   bring students
               students to     tion of African      to Christ
               Christ          Americans through
                                                    To recruit
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Author:Young, Sharon
Publication:The Western Journal of Black Studies
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2005
Words:2240
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