Some autobiographical reflections, from an American scholar shaped by research in Thailand
In my small hometown in northern California in the 1960s and 70s, children often sang music with Christian texts as part of the public school music curriculum, especially in annual Christmas concerts. The most familiar Christmas songs were Victorian or earlier in origin. My favorites, I now realize, were in minor keys. Secular tunes bespoke the mid-20th turn towards a more commercialized holiday. For my very few Jewish classmates? A perfunctory nod (“The Dreidel Song.”) Did my teachers—did our parents—think about diversity, hegemony, and civil liberties? About peer pressure amidst almost invisible norms? I think mine did, though not in so many words. My fuzzy childhood memory recalls a time of generalized holiday ritual in the context of education, the sacred and secular blurred.
I was in high school in the late 1970s when evangelical Protestantism emerged as a political force in the US, intensifying in the era of Ronald Reagan. Evangelicals claimed the term “Christian” and asserted their identities in newly public ways. From this point, when student musicians performed music with Christian texts or sacred associations, some did so as expressions of faith. The music teacher at my high school had long favored sacred music, especially Handel’s Messiah. When parents complained one year, he programmed an absurd comic work about barnyard animals that required a good deal of moo-ing and oink-ing. During my high school years, this skilled, widely admired teacher became an evangelical. He initiated a club for students, the Fellowship of Christian Musicians, probably based on the long-running national organization, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (https://www.fca.org/.) He took me aside and invited me to attend club meetings. While I attended a church with my family—though by this point was veering, as a young intellectual, towards skepticism—I did not want to attend prayer meetings at my public school, alongside fellow musicians or anyone else. Having to say no to this beloved teacher—whom I admired and respected, with whose family I socialized—put me in an awkward place that many in today’s U.S. would find unacceptable for youth. Yet perhaps this formative experience nudged me towards a fascination with the intersections between music, education, and religion.
When I was a university student, the sacred in music was reframed as part of music history. Performers aimed to recreate authentic performance practices and to imagine the goals and contexts of original performances. An existential identification with the value system undergirding the music was not expected. I encountered music from other parts of the world, wherein sound itself and nearly all teaching of music might be inseparable from something called “religion.”
My studies of music in Thailand have focused on the teaching of music in just such contexts.
Thai performing arts are supported by intertwining religious and musical knowledge, developed in the old days of master/disciple relationships and continuing in today’s Thai public schools. In diaspora, Thai Buddhist community centers support the arts as ways to build Thai identities around constructions of national heritage, especially among youth. Both at home and abroad, teachers of Thai music and dance lead students in rituals affirming learning and performance, for example by acknowledging Hindu deities associated with the arts, making offerings and receiving blessings, and paying respect to senior and deceased teachers.
While strict Theravada Buddhism is a foundation for the modern Thai state, many Thai pursue an eclectic, hybridized spirituality (see Pattana Kitiarsa’s book, Monks, Mediums, and Amulets: Thai Popular Buddhism Today, 2012.) The rituals and worldview of Thai performers are examples of such popular religion, poised for adaptation to new purposes and globalizing contexts.
I remain: critical of normative religion in U.S. public schools, including in repertory at holiday concerts; respectful of the diverse ways musicians and listeners create meaning through performance; mindful of the genuine differences shaping music pedagogy and its relation to religion in contexts outside the U.S.
Pamela A. Moro, Professor of Anthropology Willamette University USA