Ten educational and spiritual benefits of music based on the experience of choirmistress and piano teacher Sr Vania Bonello ASGM who has been working in the choir ministry field with students at St Monica’s School in Malta since 2004.
1. Music resonates what’s deep within
“Whether one sings, plays an instrument, or simply appreciates music, it is a fact that music can be a very intimate experience for students. Music resonates with what lies deep within. The choice of music one listens to or/and plays, comes from the inside and reveals so much about oneself. As I see it, if the eyes are the windows of the soul, music is the window of the heart.”
2. Music is a way of loving
“If your child/nephew/niece says Look! Listen to what I’ve written!, the reaction that would boost her/him immensely would be a Wow with eyes wide open and a beaming smile, even if the child has sung or played a simple tune. To the student, it is a masterpiece, and expresses something of her/himself. This is all about empowerment. The seeds in those little brains blooming with potential will grow. Being there for the student, listening to her/his attempts, and attending her/his performances (I know it is not always easy to take leave), fuels creativity even if the parent/grand-parent/guardian is not competent in the field of music. Showing interest in our children’s music is of great encouragement to them. We all know that presence is extremely crucial in all aspects of loving, caring, parenting.”
3. Music can be an effective tool in class
Since her childhood years, Sr Vania expresses her deepest emotions in music. “Today I invite students to express their emotions through music in my PSCD (Personal, Social and Career Development) classes. I teach teenagers, to whom music is so important. Their face shines when I ask them about their favourite artists and genres, and about the lyrics they identify with! Lessons become bubbly a particular subject is associated with the music they like!” she says.
4. Music brings out God’s presence within us “to meet God within us”
“I believe that music resonates with God within us. God’s presence is already in the sanctuary within. I am not the one to hand over this Divine Presence to you. My mission is to enable the student in front of me to connect to God, to that divine presence who is already within. Music can lead us to meet God within ourself, and brings out of us the beauty which God has put within.
This is how I imagine God, the Creator… He walks along, smiling, and letting His gaze fall on each and every little human being at the moment of conception, transmitting talents as sparks of His Perfection and Beauty. Each spark is there to be set alight by the person receiving it, with the help of others, of course. As it develops, it is transmitted to light others up with the Perfection, the Beauty and the Creativity of God. In this way it leads others to an act of faith. Remember the story of the Emmaus disciples? We felt something burning within us; then when we realised, He had left! It is the same kind of realisation. Through these beautiful gifts, one realises that God had been there, and still is…”
5. “Analysing lyrics can help us recognise music that builds from music that destroys”
“Music can also be used ‘badly’, so to speak. It has literally made people sick and moved them to bad circles. There are songs which destroy persons rather than helping them grow. When I watched Hell’s Bells I was so impressed that I couldn’t watch Hell’s Bells 2. It is about a genre of music being used in a destructive way. Mind you, this is not about the genre in itself, as this same genre is also used in Christian music. Music can build you or break you. It’s pretty much like the way we use medicine and drugs.
One needs to ask: Is this music making me better? When I hear the students singing in the choir with so much joy, I realise that this is something much more than enjoyment! It speaks about something deep within. That is precisely the fertile ground where we can sow a good message, and tap at the Divine Presence within.”
6. Music can be an accessible gift for the weak, vulnerable or socially excluded
Sr Vania explained how usually young students approach her to join the choir and they are placed on a waiting list. Last year she decided to go for a bigger challenge. She sent an invitation to all students through the school’s online communication system to offer an opportunity to all. Whoever would wish to join from Year 3 till Year 10 (Form 4) would be given a chance for an audition.
“Auditions are important. Without them, we would put our children and young people at a disservice. Auditions reveal the capabilities of the potential artists, and guide them and their teachers towards the process of improvement. Students who are not chosen are invited to do some training, and it is amazing how often these children’s voices improve! One cannot label student’s voices as being off-tune at first hearing. Some of the students who had started off as being off-tune years ago have now become public figures as singers and artists. I have witnessed many voices improving along the years, through patience and practice, and more patience,” Sr Vania explains.
“To my surprise, almost 70 students applied. It was a challenge to me. As the choir performed in the school prize day, and in the following repeats, the audiences made me realise that it turned out to be one of the best blending of voices I ever had along these years. We sang different types of songs. As a choir, we keep in mind a holistic repertoire, choosing the spiritual, but interpreting also current, top-listed songs which transmit a positive message in tune with the message of the Gospel. The students themselves suggest the songs, and I am open to what they wish, as long as the lyrics are ‘clean’, the message is positive and powerful, and the song is not associated with an indecent video. I guide them along these criteria, and let them choose.
I was surprised when, as soon as the first performance of the scholastic year was over, I was surrounded by primary teachers who expressed their amazement at the fact that a good number of the students in choir were ones who are experiencing learning difficulties in class, or who have other conditions of which I was not aware. It was a moment of deep joy for me. I was convinced, more than ever, that this is all God’s doing. These teachers were flabbergasted to see these students perform so well in this context! Even if academically they might not achieve as well as others would, I was so glad that music was giving them the opportunity to do amazingly well. I wish to develop this aspect in working with those whose chances of achieving academically are low. According to the teachers and parents/guardians, this year saw the best of the school choir’s performances, with a good number of students who probably have low expectations of themselves. No wonder they sang with twinkling eyes and beaming smiles! No doubt about it, this is God’s work, from beginning to end.
7. Music builds a community “it creates a sense of belonging”
“Through music, you can create a strong sense of belonging and bring out the student’s gifts. It is surely not about the teacher imposing her taste of music onto her students. It is more about providing a safe space in which students can explore their creativity. Sometimes, one has to be directive to get things done, but preferably, the students are guided rather than ordered about where music comes into play.
A striking example keeps coming to mind in this regard. One of our students, who died in an accident on the 15th of August 2015, had been attending the school choir for 2 years. That scholastic year, we had chosen Hall of Fame (composed by The Script) as one of our songs, and she simply loved it. She managed to create harmonies to the song with her mother at home and was so proud of it! The following day she came to me, bouncing with joy, and with a shining face, to sing for me what she had managed to do. During rehearsals then, she would lead the section which had to sing her particular harmony. I can never forget the spark in her eyes, and her enthusiasm and pride, in leading her friends. That year we also chose I Was Here (sung by Beyonce) and I can still see her expression of awe when we discussed the meaning of the lyrics. It had struck her so much! Little did I know that a couple of months later, she herself would leave that message from Heaven. When the choir members met in October 2015 at school for our first rehearsal, the girls reminisced: Remember Hall of Fame? Remember her second voice? Remember how she was overwhelmed at the meaning of the lyrics of I Was Here? It is such a boost for a student to be given a chance! It is so empowering to the student when s/he knows a trusted adult genuinely believes in her/him!
I call these experiences as being divine. Students have something within that we adults lack, or might have lost. I believe that at their tender age, children are very close and sensitive to God, in their innocence and purity. When students are given opportunities to bring out the beauty within; when they are given tools that let their talents bloom, it is amazing. I feel I am treading on Holy Ground here. And by the way, tools are there to bring out our gifts and make them more beautiful, not to suffocate the spirit through rigidity.”
8. Music can be therapeutic/self-understanding – “What’s your song?”
“I believe that God gives us our talents not only as a gift for others, but also as a therapy for ourselves. As I mentioned before, God lavishes sparks of His beauty. Each spark is a talent, a gift. When this spark is shared, there is a ripple effect of the beauty of God. When this spark is set alight, it becomes a therapeutic experience for the person immersed in music and for those around her/him. It becomes a healing experience, and a journey towards the understanding of self, of self-awareness.
When a teenage student approaches me for guidance, I ask, at a point in time: What kind of music do you like? Can you find me your favourite songs? As we listen together, we are on the same roller-coaster ride along the student’s emotions. I guide her through this ride and the student herself becomes capable of analysing what is going on within. It is indeed a healing experience.
This is also done with the students during choir rehearsals. I encourage students to write music and lyrics. The very fact that they try to express themselves through music leads to healing in itself. Students are happy, as if in a trance, when they experience live music with someone else. It is an irreplaceable experience,” she says.
9. Music is a gift given to us gratuitously – “God kissed my vocal chords – Pavarotti”
“Music is a gift which God gives us. I am convinced that this is not my talent but a God-given gift, that it is His work, not mine. My role is to try to understand what God wants through this gift and to let Him make it happen through me. It is similar to what the great Pavarotti had meant when he said ‘God kissed my vocal chords’.
There were various instances in my life which showed me that I cannot take music for granted. A particular one was in 2008. Way back, in the mid-1980’s, I felt a drive to write music to the prayer of the Hail Mary in Maltese (Sliem Għalik Marija), but only the first 3 notes came to mind. Year after year, I would come across the paper on which I had scribbled those 3 notes. Then I would try to continue the melody, but to no avail. One day in 2008, I heard the news that Mons Paul Cremona OP had been appointed Archbishop. It came to mind immediately that this Archbishop had been very much versed into the mysterious ‘crying’ in tears of blood of the Madonna tal-Għar in Rabat. Suddenly, out of the blues, those 3 notes came to mind and the melody to the prayer flowed, harmonies and all. It just came out naturally, after all those years.” Sr Vania writes music and lyrics at one go: “They flow together”, she describes “I can’t write music and lyrics separately.”
After four years since I had written it, someone asked me to write down the music to the melody, as up till then, I had only played it from memory. To my amazement, I realised that all the notes in the melody where white keys. It was such a Divine moment! God, in His own way, confirmed to me that the music was His doing, and He had wanted it that way because it was all about His dear Mother’s purity. I would never have written it that way had I planned it, no matter how hard I would have tried. (There’s nothing wrong with the black notes, of course! But we all know that the symbol of purity is white. ) That is what I mean when I say that music is a gift from God. It is given from Above! We are only instruments in the Great Musician’s Hands.”
10. Music brings out other talents like leadership
“Through music, students can become leaders. Sometimes they take initiatives like contributing in their own Parishes. I have had older students in Years 7 to 10 (Forms 1 to 4) helping the little students in choir, often leading sections with different harmonies. Sometimes these students also help by producing choreography to our songs. I value them as real assistants whom I truly appreciate, and they know it. They really give added value to events.”
Sr Vania’s story
The early years…
Sr Vania learnt music since she was 4 years old at the Augustinian Sisters’ convent at Fleur-de-Lys first, and later at St Monica Mosta. “Today I’m grateful to my parents for having believed in me, even if I often resisted to having to study while my friends played outside! I feel grateful to the Sisters who taught me and I feel blessed, even though they were strict and sometimes I would feel bored, sitting for hours at the piano. I used to feel I was being forced to go. Thank God that my parents did not give up on me. I would have lost so much! My father and grandfather were both very much into music. I remember the sweet episode when my father would play different notes to me when I was 4, and I would merrily name the notes. He would gently make me aware that I had a musical gift and that it was important that I study and not give up. I remember getting bored so often, having to repeat the same line of a piece of music for an infinite number of times until I was supposed to play it to perfection. When the Sister would leave the tuition room temporarily, I would start inventing my own melodies and tunes, to express my moods and feelings. I would want to play a complete song. And so I did.”
Living In A Convent…
Sr Vania’s commitments in her consecrated life did not always permit her to dedicate enough time to the music she loves so much. “But isn’t this also the situation of mothers caring for their husbands and children, or of women dedicated to their career? I always try to make the most of the time God gives me. I leave it in His Hands and listen to what He wants. It is a question of priorities. Most often, music has to wait.”
“The way I experience God has changed along the years. I remember myself as a teenager feeling convinced of God’s love in my life even if there were times when I did not understand God. It was a kind of romantic relationship. I was very much aware that I was chosen by Him amongst others, even though there were so many people better and holier than myself.
“Eventually, the glittery feelings started falling apart, but foundations became deeper. I started experiencing a demanding God, yet a faithful Lover with His reassuring Presence. I knew God was my Rock. In the more recent years, as I became more in touch with people’s difficult and harsh problems in life, I found myself immersed in human fragility through my connection with others. This led me to experience God more concretely in my daily life, in His distressing disguise, as Michael Card puts it in one of his songs. My relationship with God has now become a walking-with-Him, and not only praying in Chapel. Evangelisation is to me a prayer-life on the go. It generates enthusiasm for the Kingdom.
“However, I am very much aware that a balance is essential here. Being on the go for the sake of the Kingdom does not make sense if there is no time set apart for a one-to-one encounter with God. I do my utmost not to become trapped in the post-modern life syndrome: working breathlessly for our loved ones without being present enough to them. I struggle hard to juggle with ‘working’ for God and being with Him. I also have to watch out for gadgets, as connectedness is a temptation. The digital world offers too great an opportunity to transmit the values of the Gospel! But not during time-alone with Him. So sorry: Aeroplane mode – Wi-Fi disabled‚ No reception.
Wishes for the future…
“My wishes are:
– to contribute more to the beauty of Liturgy and worship, by having the school choir sing occasionally in Parishes,
– to offer music as an empowering experience to the disadvantaged.”
Photos of Sr Vania: Christina Gatt
– Maria Teresa Spinelli – Her Life Story