In this article, Burton Heatwole talks about why he sings with his family. This interview is part of a series of articles on how best to encourage music.
Lynn Martin: What’s your experience with music? Do you sing/play? Does your family?
Burton Heatwole: I grew up as a part of a singing family. My Grandpa was one of the original members of the men’s group The Eight Singing Men. My mother and father both sang in choruses and quartets and were both good singers. They got married and moved to Georgia, leaving those established things, but not too many years down the road, they started a chorus here locally.
I loved music from very young—I’ve always been a singer and also played a little guitar and took piano lessons. Now I’ve sung in a men’s quartet for seventeen years. We actually just gave two programs on Sunday. I’ve also sung in choruses, Bible school choirs, and a lot of weddings. I’ve never received any formal voice training, but I’ve worked at it on my own.
So I’ve always loved to sing, and since my wife enjoys singing, one of our goals, going into our marriage, was that we both felt very strongly that our children should learn to sing.
LM: Who teaches music in your home, or do your children just pick it up from singing?
BH: We’ve never formally taught music in our home, but we’ve always sung together. It was a question that we had as a young married couple: how in the world do you teach children to learn to sing—to learn to love good music, harmonize well, and develop an ear for music?
We asked John Henry Miller how to get a child to love music, and he said something that has proved to be very true—That you expose them to good music. Whatever it is that you want them to learn to love and to emulate, you feed it to them on a regular basis. So in our home, we’ve exposed our children to a wide variety of music, but we’ve never played CCM and similar music. The core of what we’ve listened to in our home through our children’s lives has been excellent quality choral music.
And sure enough, with a mix of listening as well as singing regularly as a family, we don’t have a child, out of ten, that doesn’t love to sing. They all sing well and can carry a tune, right down to the two-year-old. In fact, a number of our children have learned to sing before they could talk. One child really surprised us. On his older sister’s birthday, when he was fifteen months old, we caught him sitting on the couch humming “Happy Birthday” at pitch. We sang it again with him, and he hummed right along. He wasn’t even saying a lot of words by then, but his sister’s name is Abigail, and when he got to where you sing the person’s name, he would sing, “Abba.” He’d sing the song over and over.
What it is that you love and model to them tends to be what your children love. So while we haven’t done a lot of formal training, at least in the younger years, it’s been practical training, exposing them to music, that made the difference.
Our children have all striven, as they got older, to develop themselves musically, whether that is piano lessons, violin lessons, or voice lessons. My wife and I have sung at weddings our entire married life. We kind of retired for a few years, but as our children have grown older and their singing abilities have presented themselves, we’ve gotten back into singing at weddings again, now with our children. Now our oldest daughter teaches piano and has taught music at our school.
LM: One thing that stands out to me is that you decided you wanted your children to love singing, and it turns out that they all do. Was there ever a time when you wondered, “Is that one ever going to enjoy it?” or did they all just naturally love it?
BH: They all loved music pretty naturally. Now, out of ten, we had one that struggled more. He was maybe not as naturally gifted with pitch, but over time, with singing together, he came right through that and enjoys singing now.
We’re still fine-tuning our adolescent approach. Some of the boys, as they hit voice change, have kind of pulled back and become more unsure of themselves, not wanting so much to sing in front of people, but I consider that very normal for that age range. As we’ve sung more and more as a family unit, been asked to sing at church and other places—something about the discipline of doing it makes it feel more natural.
LM: What are some Bible passages that you employ in understanding the topic of the importance of music?
BH: You know, I love the Psalms, which is pretty broad in its understanding of music—the tenor of it being joyful and celebratory, but also worshipful. And obviously singing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” has always been a focus of mine.
I’m a fairly expressive person; now, I have some introverted children, but they still love the things I love, even if they aren’t as comfortable being up front singing it.
LM: Why do you care about music?
BH: Music is a passion of mine from the perspective of worship. Nothing moves me like a message through song—the opportunity to experience it and to be a part of presenting it. Listening to a sermon is wonderful, but it’s very meaningful in worship to be able to personally sing a message like God’s love.
My real focus is to promote music in the congregational setting, and here’s why. If your congregation’s skill level only permits them to sing what I call fluffy experiential songs, that’s putting a ceiling on congregational worship. If you can’t actually sing anything more demanding than four-verse songs with choruses, I see it as a real handicap. I’ve always wanted to be a part of a congregation that sings well and can sing more theologically strong music that may be much more vocally difficult than a fluffy song out of the Christian Hymnal.
For our congregation, I’m trying to develop song leaders who can teach new songs, because if you just stick to what you know, all of a sudden you’ve got a book with over a thousand songs and you’re only using about thirty of them. So part of my vision is to pull out and teach new songs, so that as our congregation feels more comfortable with them, then other leaders can be confident enough to lead them.
LM: Would you say that music helps you to grow personally? Any particular ways?
BH: Absolutely. Part of it would be the discipline of growing your own capacity through music; but also, singing is food for the soul. It’s very difficult to remain anxious, worried, or depressed, when you’re singing something that speaks directly to those things.
And one reason I still manage to carve out some time here or there to sing with the quartet is that God has blessed us so much. We’ve sung for some small churches that were both struggling and needed encouragement, and the gift of music can be so encouraging and uplifting, and to be able to sing about what Jesus has done and who God is, in a worship setting, knits hearts together and moves people toward relationship with the Father.
LM: How does music influence a culture? What effects have you seen?
BH: Seeing people go the secular route with music concerned me. There’s definitely some fear in conservative communities about higher education, because people can focus on it as an end to itself and move away from their value system. So I’ve hesitated to push my children forward in more formal education. But my oldest daughter is fairly gifted and feels pulled toward a career or ministry of music, so that’s something we’ve been working through with her.
Though this is changing, our communities have had very little outlet for someone well-trained in music, so my wife and I have been cautious about higher education. I don’t want any of my children to excel to the point that it becomes an end to itself; I’ve always wanted to encourage music in the context of the body of Christ, with the goal of congregational worship.
But on the positive side, since a congregation that doesn’t sing well is very limited in what they can use in worship, I see music as an incredible gift in congregational worship. It breaks down some barriers and presents opportunities collectively that a church may lack if it doesn’t embrace singing very well.
LM: What values do you look for in the music that you sing?
BH: I’m not saying that we won’t ever sing a song purely for the fun of it, but promoting worship is really number one—using music as a tool to draw people together and toward our heavenly Father. I really feel strongly about the ministry aspect of music, such as brightening an evening for those in a nursing home or housebound, and blessing those at a wedding or a funeral. I strongly, strongly encourage focusing on it as a ministry tool.
The difference between leading a congregation that isn’t paying attention and a congregation that’s locked into focus, the difference is phenomenal. When it’s done well, you can see the hearts being touched in the faces of the congregation. Not that people can’t sing well and still be detached, but singing well is much more conducive to worship. So that’s really where my heart is.
What’s one thing that you would like every family to know?
If any young couples and young families can learn something from our own journey and experience, I’m for it. It drives me crazy when I realize that there are couples who feed their young children a diet of Contemporary Christian Music. That is an incredible disservice to the body of Christ, because they’re developing in them a love of something that’s not helpful or conducive to congregational worship, a style that has no outlet in a congregational setting. CCM trains a child to lean on a crutch of instrumental music and to sing by themselves rather than with a group. I listened to some CCM as a teenager, but as we thought about having children and had our first child, we walked away from that, because that was not what we wanted to expose our children to.
Even in the womb, children are learning what you love and what’s normal, and what I want them to hear is their mother’s voice and their father and brothers and sisters singing. And having a family that can sing, a two- and four- and six-year-old who can carry their own part, that’s something that I think is worth sacrificing for.
If there’s one thing that I could help every young couple to understand, it would be what we learned—that what you expose your children to is what they’ll love. And is what you’re exposing them to at a young age something that will serve them and the body of Christ well for the rest of their lives?