A Requiem for Education

Recently I had the opportunity to attend a performance of Brahms’ German Requiem (or Ein Deutches Requiem for all you musicians). This 70+ minute piece for chorus and orchestra is my favorite large choral piece of all time. I’m going to make a connection to education, but you’ll need to read through a few paragraphs to get a background so you’ll understand where I’m coming from and the connection I will make…

To truly appreciate this choral masterpiece I believe you have to have a basic understanding of both music history and church history. The German Requiem stands as a unique composition for a requiem. Historically, requiems were written by composers following the basic structure of the requiem mass, or mass for the dead, of the Catholic church. They had historically been very dark and, quiet honestly, depressing (the most famous is Mozart’s Requiem). The Latin texts were prayers for the deceased.

Brahms’ requiem, however, stands in marked contrast to this tradition. First, it was written not in Latin but the vernacular of his countrymen (German, in this case). It also has as its text selected verses from the Luther Bible. The text is not one of petition on the part of the deceased, but peace and comfort for those still alive, while at the same time offering hope for a life after the present. It is not necessarily a “Christian” text as much as it is a spiritual text, however, all the lyrics do come from Christian scripture, though the ideas espoused in them could be common among many religions.

There are a couple of key points mentioned in this previous paragraph that are important to note. First, the text was German and not Latin, and that from the Luther Bible. For those who are not familiar with Christian church history, Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation during the 15th century, and one of the key strands of the Reformation was translating the Bible into the language of the people. Luther himself spent countless hours translating the Bible into German, because he believed that lay people should be able to read and understand the Bible without having to trust in the priests of the Catholic church (which was required since very few read Latin). Obviously his work was greatly assisted by the invention of the printing press. Brahms offers a change from tradition by using a libretto written in German and not Latin, thereby widening the audience that would understand the text.

Second, the fact that the libretto itself is one of peace, comfort, and hope instead of despair, petition on behalf of the dead, or looking forward to the Day of Judgment as the Latin version of the mass prescribed. Whereas the traditional requiem was a prayer for rest for the deceased, Brahms’ focused on offering comfort to the survivors.

In addition to these historical features from church history, we also need to recognize that Brahms was a Romantic composer, writing at the height of the Romantic period. Beginning in the early 19th century (with music from the later part of Beethoven’s life) music began to shift in how it was composed and created. Music began to explore human emotion and story at a much deeper and profound level than it had ever had before. In fact, Brahms’ masterpiece was written after his mother’s death (though some scholars believe there were connections to the death of his good friend Robert Schumann about a decade earlier). The German Requiem is, in many ways, a musical attempt to work through the grieving process of Brahms’ loss. As you listen to the piece you can sense the various stages of grief in the music – anger, denial, and even acceptance by the end. This can be sensed both musically as well as in the text.

So what does all this have to do with education? If you have read this far – thank you! Here’s the point. Brahms offered a piece that, in some ways, serves as a turning point (a revolution perhaps?) for music. He is a composer writing during a very transitional time in music history (the Romantic period), and he composes a work that is unlike almost any other. Some scholars even measure the impact of The German Requiem down into the 20th century with other masses that were written that followed a similar theme. In short, Brahms, in his requiem, offered a change of perspective from looking down at the dead to up to the living.

Yet how often do we in education spend our time looking down at the dead (“We’ve always done it this way”)? How many students’ lives do we inevitably impact because we blame everyone and everything for the problems we face instead of taking both responsibility for mistakes and initiative for successes? I’m not suggesting that education is the savior of the world, but I am saying we often blame others for our own mistakes (“If their parents would…” or “If their previous teacher would have…” or “Why doesn’t the administration….”) Fill in your own blanks.

What we should be doing is looking forward to what we have to offer students and our world. We need to encourage our students and tell them the good things they do, not tear them down. Those of us in leadership (myself included – perhaps especially) – need to make a bigger deal of praising and acknowledging the positive work done by teachers and other personnel at our schools (after all, how could the school function without the custodians, secretaries, and cafeteria workers?). Instead of spending a life time focusing on the negative we need to shift our focus to the positive.

And I have to say there are several people in my district that constantly challenge me to do that – and for that I’m thankful. Let me offer some specifics for what we can do as leaders to help encourage a positive perspective instead of a negative:

1) First and foremost (and perhaps, most difficult), is to model a positive attitude and create a culture of success for our staff;

2) Praise those who need to be praised – both privately and publicly;

3) Hold accountable those who are not doing what needs to be done – and do it privately. I’ve sat through too many faculty meetings where general negative feedback is shared, and the people for whom it’s intended are the ones that are always absent or fail to understand it’s for them; let’s stop that and just start confronting them when they need to be confronted (this is actually what many of the really good teachers request!);

4) Encourage and empower creativity and extra effort – and get on teachers who tear others down for going above and beyond. Too often in education we allow teachers with “seniority” but a sour attitude to destroy initiative and kill excitement; too often in education I hear people put down those who go the extra mile because then it makes those who do less feel bad. Instead of encouraging those who give 150% we tear them down so they feel guilty for trying, and then we end up with a culture that accepts only 50%. This needs to stop – begin to encourage and praise those who deserve it!

As I listened to the concert this past week I was struck by how Brahms’ change in perspective could be applied to education so easily…. The hard part is actually doing it.


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