My Teacher Could Sight-Sing

For my final interview of this type, Adolf Unger talks about how he became interested in music and the influence that music can have. This interview is part of a series of articles on how best to encourage music.

What’s your experience with music? Do you sing/play? Does your family?

As a family, we sing a few songs every day. Our boys are taking piano lessons—they’re not yet to the point where they can accompany our singing, but we hear a good bit of piano practice in our home.

We probably sing at least two songs before bedtime, and another two songs at the supper table, when we have family devotions.

That doesn’t happen every day, like when we go away to church, but when we are at home, we would normally do that.

Growing up, did you sing as a family?

Yes, we sang as a family. My parents both sang well. I don’t remember them singing a whole lot in the home, although there was always a little tune here, a little tune there. But we didn’t have a regular singing time in the house. But they always very much participated in any other singing—at church, or wherever we were, they sang a lot.

We would have family devotions, where dad would lead us in a devotional and he would pray with us, and so on. There we didn’t often sing. But we would sing a song together for birthdays, and at Easter and Christmas we would sing a few songs. Anybody would sing a song here and there quite often, because we sang in school and we sang at church. So there was singing, but not as much organized singing, where we’d actually sit down together to sing. It wasn’t absent from our home that we would sing, though, and I really was influenced by that.

How did you learn to sing? What got you interested?

That’s a good question. It’s hard to tell what influenced you when you’re small, but Mom sang to us. In the evenings, she would read us bible stories or bedtime stories, and she would have sung to put babies to sleep. I can’t obviously remember all of that, because I was little, but I had one younger brother.

Here is one thing that I remember very clearly. My dad was a minister, and the way things were when I grew up, ministers sat at the front of the church, facing the congregation. So I didn’t get to sit with my dad, but I sat with my mom at church when I was smaller. But Thursday nights were a singing and story time, and we always attended that. One highlight was that we got to sit on Dad’s lap, or next to Dad, and sing with him. And I know that has influenced me a lot. He sang melody very confidently, and though he wasn’t as confident with parts, he would sing bass on familiar songs. Mom always sang too, but she had a very quiet voice, so it wasn’t as impactful there.

For Mom, I would remember more of her singing as a small child and also later on when we traveled.

She knew many songs by memory, and sometimes we would sing by memory. I wonder if it was hours that we would sang by memory on a trip.

In later years, school influenced me as well. We always sang in school. But I remember specifically in Grade 7 and Grade 8, when my older brother was actually my teacher, he taught us how to beat time, to the point where one of us could stand in front of the class and beat time.

I grew up in Mexico, so we grew up with German. So we had German school up to grade 8. And then, grade 9, my parents sent three of us siblings to a Spanish school. That was away from home. We always left on Monday and came home on Friday. At Spanish school, my teacher could sight-sing. I’d never seen or heard of that so much before. We learned so many new songs, just because he wanted to. We practiced a program, and whoever of us wanted to could lead one song at the program. That was really a big deal for me.

The program that we practiced in the Spanish school, we presented in our home congregation. When the congregation saw that I could lead a song, that triggered some interest. Our youth leaders were very weak in their singing—they couldn’t really beat time, some of them couldn’t even sing on pitch. So when they saw what we had learned, they wanted to make use of that in our home congregation. So they would get me, at fifteen years old, to lead the youth group. That’s kind of how I got started out, because of that teacher in school.

Now, my ability was still very limited—at that time I couldn’t sight-sing any. I could just lead songs that I already knew the melody to, and I could beat time. I wouldn’t have known how to use a pitch pipe. So I led singings and youth choirs and so on, and learned as I went, without any official training. I guess coming to music camp was my first experience with that. And the lowest levels there were a real challenge to me even after these years.

In a typical hymn, I could sing bass and tenor, and I knew solfege and timing. But it was a struggle to sight-sing a piece of music that I had never seen before. And I still struggle with that, but I’ve learned some of it by now.

It sounds like you do more family singing with your wife and children than what you did growing up. Was there a reason you chose that?

In some ways, it’s probably because we homeschool; while, growing up, I went to school. If we wouldn’t sing with our boys, they wouldn’t sing. I feel we should sing anyways, whether they go to school or not, but would we sing whether we sent them to school or not? I hope we would. But we have always homeschooled.

That’s probably one big thing, although I have always liked singing. I do want the boys to learn to sing, definitely. And it’s very important to me that they hear a lot of melodies as they grow up.

What are some Bible principles that you employ in understanding the topic of the importance of music?

A lot of the Psalms encourage us to sing. Another thing that I often come back to is Revelation, chapters 4 and 5, which speak of the worship of heaven, with God on the throne and the elders falling down and worshiping. Then it speaks of the Lamb who is worthy to open the seals, and everybody bows down and the angels sing. So that to me is a picture of worship. It goes on in heaven and we join in with it. That, I think has influenced me in my view of music—going into the presence of God with worship.

Why do you care about music?

Because it ministers to me so much. Often I feel very much softened and spoken to by music. It moves me a lot. When I come to any place of worship, I can feel burdened or impatient or any of those feelings, but when I sing, it gives me an opportunity to repent of my feelings. It often leads me to that and turns my attention to God—and just changes completely how I feel.

I struggle with expressing how I feel towards God or about my spiritual life. But when I sing, my heart agrees with what the music says.

So now I can express what I wanted to say, even though I wouldn’t have had the words to say it. And not only the words, but also the music itself allows you to express your feelings. I might find it difficult or I might even be embarrassed sometimes to express myself so strongly over something in my own words. But in song, I can really do so. So it ministers to me so much that I would feel very empty without it.

What types of music are you interested in/do you think much about? 

I like choral music a lot. Obviously, our tastes get shaped, because, growing up, that was a different story. I was very much influenced by country music when I grew up; that was my menu, and I think that has somewhat shaped who I am. But for years now, that hasn’t been my menu.

When I took a shift away from the more generic contemporary worship music, I actually felt very empty. I knew that wasn’t right, and I didn’t want to have my former music any more, but what then? And I had nothing really to replace it—I didn’t have the contacts and availability that I have now. Over the last few years now, I have got my hands on way more choral music. I also really like just plain good four-part hymn singing. I can totally enjoy that. I don’t listen to a whole lot of recorded music—I don’t have a lot of time for that—but we do some as a family. I just really like to be involved in choir music. To be part of the choir myself or to listen to it as well.

Why did you leave the contemporary worship music?

I don’t remember entirely; this was before I was married. I was first introduced to contemporary music by other people, and when I ended up moving to Manitoba for a few months, I went to a church there that had that kind of band. I came to the point where, as long as there were some words in there that weren’t evil, then I was okay with that.

But I took a very sudden turn away from that—I believe I got convicted from hearing someone’s preaching. At the time, there was also a push for the charismatic movement, and I can remember that the preacher I was listening to was preaching on the weaknesses of that. I wondered if the music kind of went along with that. So I was convicted against it and stopped.

But what strengthened me a lot was when we did a weekend of choir music. We had practiced some songs throughout that time, and we had a weekend where we invited someone to lead us. He left me a recording of some messages he had preached on rock music, and so I listened to that. And that has confirmed a lot of things, but it was before that that I had turned away from contemporary music.

At first it was probably mostly that I became aware of the damage that the music itself can make. Over time, my conviction has been strengthened, and today I feel strongly about it.

How does music affect you? How does it grow you? Does it differ based on the type of music?

I believe that every type of music is associated with a way of life or a worldview. Country music, for example, involves rodeoing and western world. And I don’t know if I could name all the musical associations, but hip-hop and some of that goes along with drug dealership and such. It’s all associated with something.

I feel that the quality choral music and the rich content of hymns will shape us and help us be more godly.

And although the other genres might have some good words in them, somehow they shape who we become and what we associate with.

How does music influence a culture? What effects have you seen?

For me growing up and for most of the people I grew up with, the biggest influence in music, besides church and family and school music, was country music. It encourages a way of living where you put up a cold front. Country music in particular doesn’t really discourage church, but it very much separates it from everyday life. You’re one person when you’re with the church, but you’re someone else when you’re not there. I see that it has affected me and others around me in that way.

I believe that it’s the rock style of music that affects our young people and the people around us nowadays. Today, those who like to listen to music would be into rock more than country; and I think that, in many ways, that also affects them to become somewhat tolerant of everything, as well as to somewhat put up a cold front.

I have quite clearly seen the connection between music and church liberalism—the way people dress, and the way they behave, and whether or not they watch movies, or what kind of movies they watch when they do. All of that, it seems to me, is very closely connected to what we listen to, and I think it’s much more influenced by music than some people recognize.

Also, for young people, especially young men that come to me because they are struggling with immoral thinking, one of my first questions is “What are you feeding on? What are you listening to?” I have a conviction that if you continue to feed yourself with the rock music, and not just the rock music, but a lot of that music, you’re constantly feeding on what you are trying to overcome in another area. I totally believe that our immorality has largely been influenced by our music, whether the immorality is in your mind or whether it shows outwardly, or whether it’s just plain and open like the world will demonstrate it. It all has largely been influenced by what music we listen to.

What values should we look for in music?

In church, it has been our concern that we sing more of worship. Any kind of singing directed toward God can be worship, if our hearts are right, but we hope to have more content of just looking at who God is, not so much gospel music. We would definitely encourage that—going away from the light gospel music towards more richer content of worship toward God, and also discipleship and things like that.

In general, though, if young people want to listen to recorded music, I would encourage them to listen to choral music. I think it’s healthy for them. To listen to high quality, professional music, to train their ears for that—I think that’s healthy, rather than to listen to just anything that’s recorded very poorly. We naturally probably do that more anyways, but I would also encourage that. Besides how it affects us spiritually, I think it also trains us in how we present music, and it just is more valuable all round.

Image by Kurt Bouda from Pixabay

Lynn Martin

Lynn Martin serves as administrative assistant at SCMC. Because he loves to sing, he's often been a student at the VA camp and has sung in other choirs too. He writes poetry and edits the Curator (, a publication for Anabaptist poets and writers. He also enjoys such things as theology, playing oboe, and lame jokes.
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