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Music teachers have their work cut out for them year round. They coach tiny fourth graders to play violins. They get 60 restless middle schoolers to play the same music together, at the same time. Imagine that.

But as NPR's Elizabeth Blair tells us, their trickiest task of the year might be making selections for the winter concert.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Dan Hays stepped on a hornet's nest his first year at a high school in Elkhorn, Nebraska.

DAN HAYS: It had been a long-standing tradition to perform the hallelujah chorus on what they called their Christmas concert. And all of the alumni would come up on stage and everybody would sing it. It had been going on, I think, for over 30 years. When I got there, I was told that was forbidden, that we were not to do any Christmas music of any kind.

BLAIR: Hays says when he broke the news to the parents, they were furious. The students were distraught.

HAYS: Some students left. Several were in the hallway, crying. Some went home.

BLAIR: But Dan Hays was able to convince the administration to do another holiday tradition.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAROL OF THE BELLS")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: One seems to hear words of good cheer from everywhere, filling the air.

MIKE BLAKESLEE: Music teachers end up sometimes getting caught in kind of a crossfire.

BLAIR: Mike Blakeslee is chief operating officer of the National Association for Music Educators.

BLAKESLEE: If they program music that can be taken as having religious content, you know, some people are very unhappy with that. On the other hand, if they don't program music that is seen as maybe having religious content, there are other people who get unhappy with that.

BLAIR: And a single complaint can stir up controversy. In New Jersey in 2004, one parent filed a lawsuit about a ban on holiday music in school concerts. He said the South Orange and Maplewood district's policy was a government-sponsored message of disapproval and hostility toward religion. The courts upheld the ban and the policy remains, says Nicholas Santoro, the former supervisor of fine arts.

NICHOLAS SANTORO: I could do "Messiah." I couldn't do "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

BLAIR: What?

SANTORO: The policy said we couldn't do holiday music. It didn't say we couldn't do music with a religious text.

BLAIR: So they could do the "Messiah" for its musical and historical value, says Santoro, but they could not do "Silent Night" because it's a holiday tune.

SANTORO: You know, it got to be kind of humorous because we had a group of music teachers sitting around going through lyrics of songs, trying to - you know, we were going through chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and that song is great until you get to the last line, and it's merry - and then it was like, ehh, bells went off. We said, no, we can't do that.

BLAIR: There are different standards at public schools in Washington, D.C. Music teacher Jamal Brown says, a couple of years ago, a principal said he could do "Go Tell It on the Mountain," but he had to change the words.

JAMAL BROWN: The words of the song, it says, when Jesus Christ was born. And the principal was like, no, you can't say Jesus. And I was just like, well, OK, you know? I mean, it's a predominantly African-American school. I don't see where there would be that much of a problem, but, OK, I understand. So, you know, we changed Jesus to child, and we were able to use the song.

(Singing) Go tell it on the mountain, where Jesus Christ is born, and where a little child is born.

BLAIR: Now, Brown's students at Burrville Elementary are rehearsing for this year's winter concert. The program includes Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" and "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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