Numinous Notes: University of Mary Offers Teacher-Focused Music Degree

The University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, has launched a master’s program in music that will help graduate students better understand the harmony between music and sacred Scripture.

Top, in the new program, teachers work on their conducting skills. Bottom, a student and faculty member practice a percussion piece together.
Top, in the new program, teachers work on their conducting skills. Bottom, a student and faculty member practice a percussion piece together. (photo: Courtesy of the University of Mary)

Sacred music is about much more than just hitting all the right notes. It includes reaching into history, even back to Old Testament times. Much of the books of Psalms, Song of Solomon and Lamentations were meant to be sung, as were other chants and hymns throughout the Bible. 

The University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, has launched a master’s program in music that will help graduate students better understand this harmony between music and sacred Scripture. 

In a sense, a new music program at a Catholic school of higher learning might not seem like news. Theology and history are usually studied to some extent in music departments at Catholic universities, but many Catholic schoolteachers and music directors with degrees from non-Catholic institutions never studied how Catholic theology, history and prayer intersect with music. UMary’s new program looks to settle the score. 

“Typically a person with a bachelor’s degree in music education would not receive training in Church teachings on the role of Catholic education or in the wealth of traditional and contemporary sacred music,” Tom Porter, professor and chair of the music department at the University of Mary (UMary) explained to the Register. 

“In fact, many programs at secular institutions avoid the topic of sacred choral music because of the backlash it causes in public-school programming.” 

Porter has several advanced degrees in music, worked as the director of the Office of Worship for the Bismarck Diocese for 10 years, and has published compositions in both church and choral music. 

He has helped create the Master of Arts in Music degree that was launched this year to help address the missing Catholic pieces for many teachers and directors. 

The program is designed to accommodate people already working in their careers. Students go at their own pace and tailor electives toward their particular interests. The bulk of the required 30 credits are taken on campus for two weeks in July and as much or as little as they desire online during the academic year. It is for professionals or graduating college seniors looking to advance their skills in teaching, performing, directing or composing church music, or in preparing for doctoral studies.  

“For me, the most exciting aspect of the program is the opportunity to serve a group of people — Catholic-school music teachers — who give so much of themselves to their students, their schools and their communities,” Porter said. “I want this program to be an experience of renewal and reinvigoration for them, filled with a deepening spiritual awareness and an abundance of practical applications to share with their students.”

David Tamisiea, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and an associate professor of theology at UMary, explained that the master’s degree in music is designed for working professionals who cannot leave their jobs but want the benefit of a Catholic music education. “The time on campus is where they really get the Catholic accent,” Tamisiea said. “It includes morning and evening prayer, daily Mass and the opportunity to form a network with other like-minded teachers at Catholic schools.” He pointed out that this is also a way for public-school teachers to connect with their Catholic faith and for all music teachers to widen their professional community across the country. “A lot of times they are isolated — the only one that has that unique role as the music teacher,” Tamisiea noted.

Rebecca Raber, the master’s in music program director, assistant professor of music, and conductor of Cappella, the University of Mary Chapel Choir, has been teaching music for 27 years, primarily at Catholic schools, beginning in K-12 classrooms in Fargo.  

“I vividly remember a homily that our bishop had given my high school to open our academic year,” she shared. “He said, ‘To teach is to touch eternity.’ He was right. We have that special opportunity any time we step into a classroom, but especially in a Catholic school.”

As a Catholic-school music teacher for 14 years, Raber felt the isolation that Tamisiea noted. She explained that there are only four Catholic high schools in the state, many miles apart, and there is no established “association” for workshops and community. “This leaves teachers feeling isolated and even ill-equipped to meet the challenges of teaching in a Catholic school,” she said. “Our courses are designed to intentionally intermix these students so that they benefit from the collegiality and community we are trying to provide. They are there to begin authentic friendships, and study and learn together, offering both support and inspiration from their own perspective.”

Mackenzie Hicks, currently in the UMary master’s music program, is a K-12 music teacher at Hettinger Public School in Hettinger, North Dakota. She will move to Bismarck this summer to work at a music store while teaching private lessons and performing, with the ultimate goal of teaching at a college and performing as a classical singer. “I liked the idea of three summer-heavy semesters while the fall and spring will be lighter coursework,” she said. 

“This works with a teacher’s schedule. It has been great to network with other teachers through this process and have others to connect with during this journey.”

Patrick McGuire is also enrolled. He is the director of choral activities at Shanley [Catholic] High School and Sullivan Middle School in Fargo. “I had been contemplating a master’s in either conducting or liturgical music for some time when Dr. Raber initially reached out,” he said. “What is great for me about UMary’s program is that I truly think I will be nurtured in both areas. It feels very personal, catered to meet me where I am and to take me where I want to go in my studies.”

McGuire student-taught under Raber and took over in her position when she moved on to UMary. “I admire and respect her as a musician, teacher and all-around human being,” he said. “When she told me they were finishing developing a master’s program at the University of Mary, I knew instantly that I would be calling myself a Marauder [their mascot] within a few years, and here I am, excited as could be!”