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    What Hymns Look Like

    August 17, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    If you are just dropping in, we have begun a new series called What Ambleside Looks Like. {Yesterday, we discussed What Picture Study Looks Like.} If you wonder why I’m doing this, well…I find I benefit from reviewing the basics annually before we begin. This time around, I’m merely thinking “aloud” instead of privately. If any of you want to discuss these aspects of a Charlotte Mason education, please use the comments; that is what they are for!

    In regard to hymns, Charlotte doesn’t say a whole lot about them in her writings. In Volume Five, she does explain the state of education in England:

    Nowhere with us are two out of twelve, much less sixteen out of twenty-four, school hours devoted to religious instruction. Psalm, hymn, and catechism have departed; the Bible lesson is pared down to a shred; and, in our zeal, we do not see that we have deprived the people of the classics, the metaphysics, the ethics––as well as the religion––peculiarly their own. Instead, we have put into their hands––”Readers”––scraps of science, of history, of geography––saw-dust, that cannot take root downwards and bear fruit upwards in human soil.

    Here we see that psalm, hymn, catechism, and Bible lesson together comprise a healthy religious education.

    In the hymns section of the Ambleside curriculum, we learn that Charlotte’s students were taught three hymns per term, making for a total of twelve per year. On her Formidable List of Attainments for a Child of Six, she explains that a six-year-old ought to be able “to recite, beautifully, 6 easy poems and hymns.”

    In her third volume, Charlotte describes the singing of hymns as an aid to the habit of praise:

    Perhaps we do not attach enough importance to the habit of praise in our children’s devotion. Praise and thanksgiving come freely from the young heart; gladness is natural and holy, and music is a delight. The singing of hymns at home and of the hymns and canticles in church should be a special delight; and the habit of soft and reverent singing, of offering our very best in praise, should be carefully formed. Hymns with a story, such as: ‘A little ship was on the sea,’ ‘I think when I read that sweet story of old,’ ‘Hushed was the evening hymn,’ are perhaps the best for little children.

    In the Parent’s Review article The Religious Training of Children at Home, the habits of the Christian Sabbath are discussed. The author says, for instance, that

    I would have Sunday tasks as small as might well be. No child of mine, unless of its own free will, should learn a whole hymn on Sunday. It is a very common and delightful custom to repeat hymns on Sunday–every one of the family saying something–and you will say, “Hymns ought to be learnt.” Yes indeed, they ought; but must it be a whole hymn? Would not two verses carefully said be as acceptable, and the rest of the hymn could be read, and more of it learnt another Sunday.

    The idea behind this is that it ought to be a sweet, restful task rather than becoming a burden of work for the child. In my own opinion, it seems even better, then, to have learned the hymns throughout the week, that Sunday might simply involve the joyful singing of songs already known.

    I’d like to take a moment and connect all of this to our Poetic Knowledge study as well: At the beginning level, poetry, music, astronomy, Latin, etcetera, are done rather than studied. Music is experienced with the whole body; the students use their voices to sing, play an instrument if they know one, and dance.

    This is getting us close to the place where I can explain that we do not, at this age, do “hymn studies.” Again, as with picture study, there is such a thing as doing too much. In our zeal for children to “understand” we actually muddy the waters. I do not believe that a child needs to have all of the background of a hymn to sing a hymn; to love a hymn.

    Children love to sing, and they adore familiarity, including in their music. This is why, as much as I appreciate the hymn rotation on the Ambleside site, I have chosen to focus on hymns which are regularly sung in my church or by family members {of course, most of them are on the rotation, just not in that particular order}. Once the children have mastered those, we will branch out and follow the rotation, but one of our goals is for them to be able to fully participate in worship service, to the full extent that they are able, including singing the songs.

    Remember: part of the philosophy is that we can trust children to make their own connections. We do not have to spoon-feed anything to them, including their hymns. So let’s talk about what learning a new hymn looks like in my home, which might be quite different from what works for your home, but that’s part of the fun, no?

    Here are the steps I take:

    1. Prep for the hymn. This is the part I do in advance. Hymn learning is just one more part of our memory binder system, so the first thing I do is find the score of the hymn, either online or in our hymnal, and print it off, placing it in the “daily review” section of the binder.
    2. Brief introduction. When we begin the hymn, I tell them its name. If it is written by someone they know {like Martin Luther, for instance}, I tell them who is the author. If necessary, I explain a couple words and phrases that might trip them up.
    3. Teach the first verse. Sometimes I accompany with the piano, but usually I don’t. I sing the verse, and they listen. I sing it through phrase by phrase, with them repeating after me phrase by phrase. I sing it again a couple times, with them joining in more and more as they put the words together. One last time, they listen while I sing, and then we close with all trying to sing the verse together.
    4. Review. Beginning the next day, we sing the verse every day we have lessons.
    5. Teach the subsequent verses. Once per week, I add a new verse, until we have learned it all. This means that the “review” portion is reviewing all of the verses we learned.

    The average hymn takes about a month to learn. Once they seem to have the words down well, I move the song to my every-other-day review, to see if they can remember it even when skipping a day of practice. If they can, I prep for our next hymn. Some hymns take us an entire term because I wait until even the four-year-old knows it. We probably average two, rather than three, hymns per term.

    What if a hymn has a compelling story behind it?

    My parents gave us a children’s book about some of the major hymns of the faith, and it was quite moving to read the background information. It is sort of like in the book Future Grace, where John Piper explains that B. B. Warfield’s wife was struck by lightening and paralyzed on their honeymoon. She never recovered, and he stuck close to home, nursing her himself, for almost forty years. In the next paragraph, when Piper shares Warfield’s thoughts on Romans 8:28, it means a lot:

    The fundamental thought is the universal government of God. All that comes to you is under His controlling hand.

    Obviously, the stories behind hymns can make them feel even more powerful. With this said, I choose to save those stories for later. I think they can be distracting when our purpose is to connect the children to the song  and the church through memorization of the verses and melody. In reading the story later, when they have mastered the hymn, the story will turn the tables, and then they will be mastered by the hymn as well.

    Next: What Composer Study Looks Like

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  • Reply Bev June 13, 2015 at 7:34 am

    Hi Brandy,

    I realize this post is almost four years old but I’m new to your blog, new to CM, new to AO, and new to homeschooling since my oldest child just turned 6 and we’ll start year 1 soon. So, I’ve been reading and planning and discovered these wonderful “what ambleside looks like” posts. Your whole blog has been such a big help.

    What I’m wondering about is folk songs. I honestly don’t see them mentioned on most of the AO blogs I’ve been reading and I wonder if people are just skipping them or if they just don’t stress people out the way other aspects of CM do? My kids have always loved folk songs and I love that they’re part of AO, so I’ve been trying to figure out if I want to do them casually, more like you describe the way you do composer study, or more formally, the way you describe hymn study here. I feel like folk songs are a great counterpoint to the seriousness of hymns and orchestral music. A chance for kids to get more casual and have fun, so they relate to their musical training and cultural stories on a more informal level. Any thoughts?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 13, 2015 at 11:09 am

      Hi Bev! Welcome to Afterthoughts … and CM as well!

      If I remember correctly, I wrote that because I was noticing a trend where a lot of people were turning hymns into a study — as compared to just singing them. I haven’t noticed that with folk songs, so I didn’t mention them in the post.

      We *definitely* sing folk songs here and I totally agree with you that kids tend to naturally enjoy them. We sing them as part of our Circle Time in the mornings, along with the hymns, and both are still totally informal — we just enjoy them. No formal lessons requred. 🙂

      I think your thought that they aren’t written about because people don’t stress about them is spot on. Unfortunately, I think some people ignore them entirely, so maybe I should write about them soon just for that reason. 🙂

  • Reply Mystie August 18, 2011 at 5:15 am

    Learning and singing the hymns that one’s own church regularly sings just makes sense to me. The more one can help one’s children participate in worship, the better.

    We also do it very similarly, except that I can’t hold a tune, so having me solo, then copying me would be a Mistake. I’ve found accompaniment MP3s that we play and we just sing one hymn — all the verses — every day (4 days a week) for 6 weeks. By week 3 or so the three-year-old is joining in with many words. Our older two boys can read and follow along that way, and since it’s church hymns, the tunes aren’t unfamiliar either. So it goes pretty smoothly, though by the end of 6 weeks I am rather tired of the hymn. 🙂 We also sing a rotating review hymn, just cycling through the ones we’ve already learned.

    When I was growing up, my family sang hymns together (though our singing gave my mom headaches) several times a week off and on for many years, and because of that rather haphazard history, know many hymns by heart, and it is not infrequent to see myself or my siblings standing in church, singing without the hymnal. So, keep up the good work! Even if it doesn’t happen smoothly and perfectly, the fruit will be worth it in the end. 🙂

  • Reply dawn August 18, 2011 at 12:46 am

    Thanks for this. It isn’t exactly what we do, but very very close. I feel validated [grin]

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