Sunday, September 18, 2005

Los Alamos Homeschool Chorus

One of the hats I wear is as the director of the Los Alamos Homeschool Chorus. This group, begun by another homeschool family in town, has been part of my life for the past 10 years. It is a non-auditioned choral arts program for students grades K-12. The chorus is run by the director and a small board of parents who work to aid parents in the training of their children in the following ways:
  • To train voices and develop musical skills to aid in life-long worshipping of God, telling others about Him, and using and enjoying the gifts of music and creativity that God has given each of us.
  • To provide a variety of educational and performance experiences designed to broaden knowledge and experience with music, increase confidence, and spark interest.
  • To create an atmosphere where the biblkical ethic of the preciousness of others is maintained, modelled and reinforced in relationships and discipline.
Our goals, then, are:
  • To proclaim Christ and model godly behavior wherever we go
  • To represent the excellencies of home education in all we do
  • To minister to others in our community through outreach
  • To train our children for participation in ministry to others
At the start, the chorus had between 25 and 30 students. Currently, our registration generally runs anywhere between 75 and 110 students each semester. The children rehearse for an hour and a half once a week, and present programs twice a year. Some music is done by the younger children alone, some by the older students alone, and much of it all together. We sing four-parts as a group, so the younger children are given mostly the melody, wherever it occurs.

Along with the other homeschool moms that form our board, we began asking, "How would we approach this chorus from a classical perspective?" In answer to that question, we began organizing around the history, content and skill areas appropriate to address in a choral setting.

Our youngest group, who we call our "Junior Choir", spends about 20-30 minutes in the middle of our rehearsal with another teacher away from the older students. This time allows for some special focus with the younger children (grades K-3) as well as with the older group (grades 4-12).

The Junior choir needs some time to move around and work out their jitters, but we decided there was no reason for this to be time "lost" to play alone. Instead, we have three lesson sets, each taking a year to complete, that we work through with the children on a rotating basis. Each set of lessons includes games and movement to give them "wiggle" time. Our three focus areas are:
  • Vocal technique basics: We work here with tapes and visuals to discuss and practice the basic elements of good singing: posture, production, diction, following direction, tempo changes, etc.
  • Rhythm reading and note identification: We introduce the basics of rhythm reading and note reading. At the end of the year, all these students can identify the names of notes on the treble clef and can read the rhythm of their chorus peices.
  • Music History/Composers: Here we place music in its context by looking at great composers through time, and learning a little about their music. The composers we study are Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky.
Each of the students who enter our program in grade K, repeat that year's lesson in grade 3, and are well prepared to step up into our "Senior Choir".

Our Senior Choir, similarly, has a two-year rotation we cycle through:
  • Sight singing: We work on all the basic skills of solfege sight-singing, including rhythm and melody, unison and part-singing.
  • A cappella singing: Here, we put oursight reading ability to work and sing without accompaniment, working on our reading, intonation and balance.
When we began implementing these skill cycles we hypothesized that we might see a chorus better able to sing parts and more mature than what we had experienced. That has proven to be true! After about 3-4 years of this sort of emphasis, we saw great improvement in our student's abilities to sing more complex part music, and greater success in their performances. We began to see the need to continue to challenge some of our students. That was when we introduced an auditioned Ensemble for students in grades 9-12.

This small Ensemble (usually 4-12 singingers) performs a cappella music only, and music that is more difficult than the chorus at large could tackle. It also give that intimate ensemble experience to our students. The Ensemble has added more depth and joy to our choral programs.

If you are in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in mid-December or mid-May, come to one of our concerts. You will be treated to children in K-3 who can sing in unison and two parts, four-part singing from the whole group, and some lovely a cappella work. We usually present a 1 hour-plus performance of music, all from memory, and with a variety of styles and time periods represented.

If you are interested in the nuts and bolts of how this group works, leave me a comment or send me an e-mail. I love to share what we have learned!

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Current Input

I have recently listened to an excellent on-line lecture by Dr. John Mark Reynolds of Biola University, and I recommend it highly! He is speaking to a group of homeschool students and parents about Classical education. You can reach his lecture by clicking on the Torrey Honors Institute link on the right of this page.

Additionally, I am listening to a workshop given by Andrew Kerns of the Cirece Institute entitled, "The Lost Tools of Writing" which is very thought-provoking. You can look at Andrew's excellent resources at the Circe link to the right.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005


Welcome, friends!

On this page, I hope to share my thoughts and findings and meanderings in regards to classical education. I am an aspiring classical educator: an amateur (from the Latin "amare", which means to love) who pursues classical education for the love of it. I first began this journey as I educated my own two sons at home (they are now both gone off to college) and continue to pursue it as I teach other homeschooled children.

For this first post, I am reprinting an article I wrote for our state homeschool newsletter, which atempts to answer the question: why in the world would a Christian desire to use classical education with their children?

Classical Education: A Godly Foundation by Chris Finnegan

As homeschoolers, we live in a blessed time. The Lord has provided freedom, abundant curriculum choices, and many avenues of support for our endeavors: this is a far cry from the days many remember of fighting for basic rights. But even in a time of such blessing, homeschooling is an intense job, requiring parents to work hard and tirelessly in order to provide the best possible Christian education for their children. Why in the world would an already harried homeschool parent consider a teaching method as teacher-intensive as “classical education”? And, more importantly, why would a Christian, who understands our most important job is to equip our children to glorify God and enjoy Him forever[i], choose such a method?

First, let’s begin with a definition of “classical education”. Indeed, defining just what “classical education” is presents a challenge in itself. It is a methodology and movement that has grown, changed and altered over the centuries. It continues to be adapted today as many of us seek to reclaim the “lost tools of learning”[ii]. It is all too easy to caricature instead of accurately representing this educational method. Classical Christian education, according to Andrew Kern,[iii] is “the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty by means of the liberal arts so that, in Christ, the student is better able to know and enjoy God.” Classical education is that method of instruction which is the legacy of the Christian middle ages, Christian Europe, and early America. Its roots lie in both the Greco-Roman and Hebrew cultures. It is word-centered, rigorous, and has as its goal the practice of Christian virtue--not just the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.[iv] The mentoring of the pupil by the instruction and example of the teacher is its characteristic ingredient, and together, teacher and pupil move towards study of the “queen of the sciences”, theology.

Classical education is occasionally characterized as the emulation of pagan authors and philosophies. While study of all of history is important, “classical” education, in its broader historical sense does not necessarily imply that we admire and revere Roman or Greek or pagan theology. While classical education may include some careful study of the ancient period, it would be inaccurate to characterize it as focused on pagan beliefs.

Many compelling reasons exist to pursue a classical Christian education.

1. For Christians, the basis of all knowledge in life and godliness is the Word: either God’s general, creative word written in nature, His specific word written in Scripture, or His Incarnate Word written in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Classical education is also based upon the written word. The sciences and arts of language and logic are tools given by God to communicate Himself to His creation and to endow man with the dignity of communicating with his Creator. Therefore, a method of instruction that emphasizes the written word-- understanding it, analyzing it, and creating with it-- seems uniquely fitting for Christians. It gives man the capacity to think some of God’s thoughts after Him.

2. Classical education is about the pursuit of truth, not just the pursuit of knowledge. The idea of objective truth is a basic component of classical Christian education. As such, it is uniquely suited to help students understand that all truth is God’s truth, and to train students not only to identify what is true as measured by God’s plumb line, but to embrace truth wherever it is found and reject error. Classical education thus provides the perfect training ground for the defense of the Faith. The early Church Fathers were schooled in the classical tradition that, built on Paul’s example, met heresy with well thought out, logical and concise canons, creeds and arguments. These documents have helped the Church to navigate rough waters over many centuries as it seeks to defend the faith against the world. And such training will prove invaluable to our children as they navigate the waters of a lost and fallen world.

3. Classical education begins with the premise that there is such a thing as virtue against which vice can be seen clearly. Its goal is not only head-knowledge of such virtue, but practical, experiential virtue in action. As Christians, we know that Christ is the embodiment of godly virtue-- and that the end of all education ought to be greater knowledge of Christ, greater conformity to Christ, and greater appreciation of Him. This motivates us to work vigorously and thoroughly to attain these goals in increasing measure, both as individuals and as teachers who bear responsibility for our students. Classical education provides an avenue by which we can diligently add virtue to faith, and continue adding knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love.[v] This goal of virtue in classical education moves our learning from “head knowledge” to “heart action”.

4. Classical education is built on the model of imitation. It assumes there is a body of knowledge and wisdom that ought to be passed on from one generation to the next. Classical education assumes some are teachers and some are learners. In assuming that certain skills and certain persons are worth imitating, classical education provides the perfect vehicle for the discipleship of students by their teachers, and resonates with the models of imitation found in Scripture. [vi]

5. Classical education is grounded in the idea that the world is an orderly, logical place and that it can be understood. The laws of logic and principles of right reasoning are foundational to all instruction. Early Christians understood that the orderly nature of the universe and the rational nature of thought reflected the mind of the Maker. While God is certainly much more than a merely rational being, right reasoning and logical principles flow from His very nature. Thinking is not an option for Christian: it is simply a question of whether we will think rightly or wrongly.[vii] Logis is putting our thoughts in order, and thinking God’s thoughts after Him. Accordingly, understanding the rules of clear and correct reasoning is more than an academic exercise; it is a spiritual discipline whether we classically educate or not. It is also the legacy of the Christian West through the means of classical Christian education.

6. As Christians, we believe that all of history is, indeed, His Story; the details of God at work in time and space. Classical education, with its emphasis on the study of history, gives us a framework from which to study the Great Conversation of human history—both its man-to-man dialogue about the nature of God and man and its God-to-man component found in divine revelation. It prepares our students to enter this great conversation by giving them its context. A sweeping understanding of man’s quest for God, his lostness without God, God’s divine moving in time and space, and the ideas that have shaped the men and women and cultures around us, are all integral components necessary for Christians to impact their culture effectively for Christ. The pursuit of truth provides a “safe” way to view the world through the lenses of the Scriptures. If we can embrace what is true, wherever it is found, sifting it through the Scriptures, and placing it in historical context, we are prepared to meet a dark and broken world. It gives us the confidence to attack what is wrong and stand by what is right.

7. Historically, classical education is the legacy of the Christian West to the world. It was the Christians of the Middle Ages who viewed the Greco-Roman world as providentially brought into being at the right moment in time to cross paths with Christ. It was they who took the truth found around them as God’s truth, filtered it through the worldview of the Scriptures, and laid a firm foundation of how to educate in a way consistent with the Scriptures. In this sense, classical education is Christian education.

8. Pragmatically, classical education has produced the best and brightest minds of every age where it has existed. Even in its pre-Christian incarnation, its method of careful, logical thought and training produced the minds that led to Western Civilization, and paved the way for Christ (even though they were unaware of their divinely ordained role.) In the Middle Ages, it produced the great patriarchs of the early church, and preserved the Word even through Barbarian incursion and plague and disaster. In Europe it educated the men who would be led by God to search His Word and spark the fire that became the Reformation. In England and America, it produced the Founding Fathers of this nation. Any method of education used by God to accomplish so much should not be easily dismissed.

Classical education provides a methodology that is not only compatible with Christianity, but has been blessed by God in this capacity in the past. If this is so, why have Christians failed to embrace it in our time? The answer to this is the ignorance of our current age. For the last century, our nation has built with the lumber left over from our classical, Christian worldview and heritage. But it has been so undermined in the public education system that we have lost our foundation and our way. Since the classical model was in place through the entire history of Christianity (until the last 100-150 years), and succeeded in raising up the great saints of the Church in the past, the burden of proof that it is insufficient actually rests with those who make that claim.

However, home school educators are left in the uncomfortable position of trying to rediscover exactly what a classical educational method entails, without the training that we need to accomplish it. That means a lot of hard work for the instructor who has to learn before he can teach. But this is a familiar kind of territory for homeschoolers! The recovery of the ideals of classical education may well be the next step in our quest to regain a godly foundation for our children, our churches, our communities and our nation.

[i] Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 1, “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”

[ii] Wislon, Douglas. Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning: An Approach to Distinctively Christian Education. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1991.

[iii] Andrew Kerns is author of Classical Education: Towards a Revival of American Schooling and director of Circe Ministries.

[iv] “True learning is revealed in character; it is not a matter of courses or degrees or preparation for a job...True learning makes affirmation and acknowledges limitation; it begets honesty and humility, compassion towards man and reverence towards God... True learning knows what is good, serves it above self, reproduces it, and recognizes that in knowledge lies responsibility.” From Norms and Nobility: A treatise on Education” by Hicks, David. New York: University of America Press, 1999.

[v] II Peter 1:5-7

[vi] I Thessalonians 3:7-9, 1 Peter 2:21

[vii] For more on the place of logic in the life of the Christian, see Hawkins, Craig S. “The Nature and Necessity of Logic”, Apologetics Information Ministry,

A select bibliography on classical education

Bauer, Susan Wise and Jesse Wise. The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home. New York: Norton and Company, Inc., 1999.

Hicks, David. Norms and Nobility: A Treatise on Education. New York: University of Marica Press, 1999.

Veith, Gene Edward, Jr. and Andrew Kern. Classical Education: Towards a Revival of American Schooling. Capitol Research Center, 1997.

Wilson, Doug. Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning: An Approach to Distinctively Christian Education. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1991.

Websites on Classical Education: