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Music and Evangelization

I feel blessed to belong to the Archdiocese of Kansas City (KS) where our shepherd, Archbishop Joseph Naumann takes his role with joyful seriousness. Over the past few years evangelization has been at the forefront of his activities, working to to cultivate in the faithful a love for proclaiming the Good News to a world desperately in need of that News. I have personally benefited from a number of these initiatives, especially the work of the Apostles of the Interior Life, who provide untold hours of spiritual direction, and the Little Brothers and Sisters of the Lamb, who provide for the materially poor not only with food, but with a beauty (Beauty) more satisfying than any earthly fare. As a matter of fact, His Excellency has more than once made the point that Beauty is an essential starting point for evangelization.

Nevertheless, I feel that the faithful in general (clergy or lay) have yet to discovere the deep connection between the Church’s Sacred worship and beauty and Her mission to evangelize–they don’t understand that the Sacred Liturgy provides the fuel for the Church’s evanglization efforts through the “right and just” worship of God, while at the same time forming the evangelizers themselves into the men and women God has called them to be. Too often there is a false dichotomy between those drawn to Beauty and those drawn to the outward efforts of evangelization (in much the same way that a false dichotomy has always existed between the contemplative and actives apostolates), which is why I was so excited to read Leah Sedlacek’s September 17th article for the Adoremus Bulletin entitled FOCUS on Beauty: the Liturgical Heart of Missionary Zeal.

Sedlacek’s article follows the story of how FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), arguably the largest and most effect group of Catholic missionaries on both secular and Catholic universities in the US today, has begun to bridge that gap through a renewed emphasis on beauty, especially within the Sacred Liturgy. FOCUS, with the help of Illuminare Publications and Adam Barlett, has been transitioning from a “singing at Mass” approach to a “singing THE Mass” approach to liturgical music and it is having a profound impact on the millennial students they work with (this doesn’t mean that they no longer use Praise and Worship, only that they don’t use it as a cheap substitute for what is authentic). The authoress, who heads FOCUS’s worship team, writes,

“We continue to take steps to follow more closely the vision and principles proposed by the Church. And we hope to equip our missionaries and staff with a deep liturgical formation and with resources to help them encounter the beauty of Jesus Christ in the liturgy, who is the source of all our efforts to evangelize on college campuses and in parishes.

It is an incredibly refreshing and dare I say beautiful movement within the Church today, one that I feel could be of invaluable help to those places making the transition to a more authentic celebration of the Church’s sacred worship.

The Problem of Acedia

For some time I have been engaged in the reading a truly great little work, one I would heartily recommend to every reader of this blog, The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of Our Times by Jean-Charles Nault, O.S.B. I don’t intend to lecture you with a digested version of the book (which deals neither with the Sacred Liturgy nor with music), but to discuss one section in particular that speak to me as one who strives to “labor in the Lord’s vineyard.”

Following an exposition of the thought of the Fathers of the Church on Acedia (often translated todaymerely as Sloth), the author tackles the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas on Acedia. According to St. Thomas there are two definitions of Acedia: 1) a sadness about spiritual good and 2) the disgust with activity.

St. Thomas makes note of many ways in which the vice of Acedia might manifest itself in the Christian, but one way in particular strikes me as particularly insidious for the Church in our time, that of Pusillanimity, or smallness of soul. St. Thomas refers to this vice as a daughter of Acedia and lists it as one of the vices opposite the virtue of Magnanimity, or greatness of soul. Magnanimity is the virtue that allows man to perceive the greatnes of the God’s calling and to respond to this call.

Magnanimity is that virtue that spured the saints to tackle enormous and seemingly insurmountable problems. Magnanimity is the virtue that brought to fruition the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages and inspired men like St. Francis de Sales or St. Martin de Pores to work for the conversion of thousands of souls. Think of St. John Paul II who worked to defeat Communism or Pope Benedict, a seemingly introverted professor/pope, who inspired a generation of church musicians and reinvigorated the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy. Think of Mother Teresa who worked with the poorest of the poor around the world or Mother Angelica, the cloistered nun who, probably more than any, brought the light of truth and the joy of the Gospel to generations ofspiritually suffocating Americans?

Pusillanimity, the vice opposed to Magnanimity, causes man to shrink back from the greatness of God’s call and to strive for what is merely comfortable and easily attainable. It is usually cloaked as false humility. Pusillanimity convinces the Christian that the Gospel is too hard. The Good News is meant more for cloistered convents and monasteries. Marriage is too hard, being a priest or religious is too hard. Being truthful, loyal, a good friend—these are too hard and therefore meant merely as ideals for the Christian to halfheartedly strive for.

We rarely speak of greatness in the Church anymore for fear of driving people away, yet look at all of the men who responded to the call of the priesthood because of the example of Pope St. John Paul II or how many women responded to work with the poorest of the poor with Mother Teresa because they saw in her the greatness to which they felt called.

Unfortunately, the Church, in Her humanness, is not overly welcoming of the those inspired by magnanimity at the moment. She seems stuck in the rut of minimalism, which Matthew Kelly describes as one of the three greatest problems afflicting the Church today. In this atmosphere, the professional musician is generally seen as an elitist or aesthete, the fop concerned with nothing more than producing refined music fit for the concert hall as opposed to one who is truly adept at his craft and who offers it in service back to Christ and His Church.

Of course, there is a remedy for this situation. The author of The Noonday Devil reminds us that according to St. Thomas and the Church Fathers the Incarnation is the ultimate remedy for Acedia and its many problems, including Pusillanimity. When man is tempted to despair in the face of his great calling, he should meditate upon the Incarnation and contemplate the fact that God “was willing to unite human nature to Himself personally” (St. Thomas, Summa contra Gentiles, quoted in The Noonday Devil) and will always be our “help and our shield.”

A Silver Jubilee

“Pleasure and action make the hours seem short.” William Shakespeare

Yesterday marked a milestone of sorts—the 25th anniversary of the first time I played the organ for Holy Mass—Friday, October 2, 1992. I remember because it was the Feast of the Guardian Angels and I played a hymn related to the day, although for the life of me I couldn’t now tell you what it was. Here I am 25 years later thanking God for the life of the church musician, along with its joys and vicissitudes. It is wonderful now to look back and realize with what love God prepared me for this avocation, from being born into a devout Catholic family with a deep musical heritage to beings surrounded by pastors, teachers and wonderful friends along the way who have guided and mentored. Of course none of this would now be possible without my wife Katie, who takes the helm and navigates the family ship every Sunday morning while I busy myself with any myriad of things musical and liturgical.

Many things have changed over the last quarter of a century in the field of church music and thankfully most of them have been for the better. I distinctly remember my 8th grade year in school when I found my mother’s missal from her youth, which happened to contain a short Kyriale at the end in modern notation. She and my aunt recorded the Agnus Dei from Mass XVIII on a cassette and I listened to it and memorized it, enraptured with its beauty and thinking it was the most sublime thing I had ever heard (it would be years before I discovered the Kyrie from Mass IX). None of the young people then seems to care about it or for it, but how different things are today. Young people, parents, priests, religious and the un-churched alike are touched by the beauty of the rich treasury of sacred music, one of the greatest gifts the Church has bequeathed to western civilization.

In many ways I feel blessed because I don’t have to work, I simply get paid to do what I love and the time has truly flown. Yesterday I went to Mass early in the morning at the local to give thanks for such a gift and I found myself repeating the words of Psalm 150… “O praise God in His holiness… Praise Him for His noble acts… Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord!”

The Importance of Education

Any reader of my posts has come to expect a certain maniacal preoccupation with the education of our children in the art of sacred music, however, I want to focus on another incredibly important area of education, that of our clergy and especially our seminarians. Perhaps this issue is of a more fundamental importance than the training of choristers because it places the horse before the cart and might finally allow the Church to heal in matters liturgical since the bishop, and the priest in his stead, really is the custodian of the sacred liturgy in his local area, and only he has the power to effect widespread and healthy change.

Perhaps this topic is on my mind because of a recent wedding I provided music for where the priest joked his way through the couple’s vows and even had both the bride and groom stand with him behind the altar throughout the entire consecration and then asked each to distribute the Precious Blood on either side of him as he distributed Holy Communion to the congregation. When he asked before Mass if I would sing Sabath Prayer from Fiddler on the Roof for the Responsorial Psalm I simply smiled and played dumb and said I didn’t have a copy of if. It was the most bizarre wedding I have ever attended (with certain parts cut here and others added there), so much so that I was unusually at peace knowing the likelihood of ever experiencing such a circus again would be minimal to say the least (most of these clerics are entering the twilight of their lives). A priest once commented to me that he made it through one of our nation’s prominent seminaries in the 90s without ever having had a class on the sacred liturgy, which might account in part for the travesty previously mentioned, but I think the problem runs much deeper. Most of the clergy I know truly love the Sacred Liturgy and say the Black and do the Red, but that isn’t enough.

I feel that as Americans we have always taken a very pragmatic approach to all of our problems and seek to solve them as quickly and as efficiently as possible without much “stopping to smell the Roses.” This worked well enough before the Second Vatican Council when the Church maintained a strong central moral authority and society nominally upheld traditional Christian mores. Priests could sacramentalize their parishioners and keep them on the strait and narrow efficiently enough and collections assured that lighting and heating bills and the sisters (in that order) got paid. Efficiency makes for a wonderful taskmaster but a terrible lover and under this Culture of Efficiency the beloved suffered. The Church ran efficiently, but in the post-war years the heart of the Church in the western world grew cold and the Sacred Liturgy, that incredible place where man truly met God and was embraced by Him, became nothing more than one’s weekly obligation to avoid mortal sin.

I liken the effects of such a relationship over time to that of spouses whose love has grown cold. In the beginning the husband is always cognizant of his wife’s emotional needs and shows appreciation for the great work she does for the family and often indulges in small acts of love for her—a vase of flowers here and an embrace and heartfelt words of thanks there—but after time tiredness sets in and the husband assumes that his wife no longer needs to be told “I love you” because she already knows, and besides, where is his appreciation? In this new state the husband feels his time and his and his wife’s money are more efficiently put to use securing a new roof for the house. Love grows cold.

Of course, the cultural revolution of the 1960s didn’t help, and thankfully we are past much of that and I am truly edified by so many of the priests I know. At the same time, I find the tentacles of efficiency still lurking in the shadows. We live in a time when there is so much work to be done to bring about the Kingdom of God that we are tempted to boil down our coarse of action to finding the perfect evangelization program that will fill our pews efficiently, turn on the lights again, and maybe even furnish the parish with sisters one day, too. I feel we run the temptation of turning the Mass into the means of confecting the Holy Eucharist and the Divine Office into the private mental prayer of the priest. While the Church is given the gift of the Holy Eucharist at Mass and while the Divine Office is an essential part of a priest’s prayer life, such a reduction of the work and power of the Sacred Liturgy turns God into nothing more than a Divine dispenser of spiritual medication as opposed to the all powerful and Triune God, the Father who created Heaven and Earth and Who sent His only-begotten Son with the Holy Spirit to redeem mankind and Who carries out this work within the Sacred Liturgy.

Perhaps I am just a Benedictine at heart but I feel the Opus Dei (Work of God) must truly be given pride of place in our personal lives and in the life of the Church so that God can accomplish His Will in us and in all of creation to the glory of His name. The Sacred Liturgy and the Sacraments have the power to do just that. Unfortunately this is neither efficient to teach nor simple to learn.

St. Mary’s Cathedral Choir, Sydney

It has been some time since last I posted about one of the great cathedral choirs in the world, so what better time than the present to write about about St. Mary’s Cathedral Choir and its accompanying Cathedral College (choir school), the only Catholic cathedral choir school in the southern hemisphere. The choir, founded in 1818, constitutes the oldest musical group still in existence in Australia.

Thomas Wilson is the current Director of Music and probably more than anyone has brought the choir to an incredibly high and enviable position in the Church music world. Wilson is originally from New Zealand and at the age of 18 was made the director of music at Wellington’s Metropolitan Cathedral. He eventually made his way to London and to the Royal College of Music and ended up as the assistant organist at Westminster Cathedral before returning to the bottom side of the world.

He noted that “One of the things about growing up in New Zealand was being given opportunities that I might not have had elsewhere. I was allowed to learn by making mistakes. Then when I was given the chance to go overseas to London I very quickly realized where the level was. I remember being absolutely driven to be part of that, to swim in the same current as these incredible musicians I encountered in the Royal Academy and at Westminster Cathedral.”

Early in his tenure at St. Mary’s he began the tradition of singing Vespers daily (the choir already sang Holy Mass each day) and hired professional men as lay clerks. This commitment to professionalism is sorely lacking in too many of our great Catholic churches today (although there are a number of shining lights here and there) and it is refreshing to see it coming from unlikely places.

I would like to leave you with a couple of videos of the choir singing. First the boys, then the changed voices (the choral scholars) and finally the professional men and boys singing Allegri’s Miserere mei, Deus. Enjoy!

Forming the Next Generation of Church Musicians

Recently I stumbled across a fantastic read, a DMA document entitled The Choir School in the American Church: a study of the choir school and other current chorister training models in Episcopal and Anglican parishes, by Daniel McGrath (2005). I share it with readers today because McGrath is the first author I have found who systematically and succinctly describes the the nature of, as well as the various models of, the Anglican choral system (both in England and in the United States), a model I feel passionately about and one that I believe has the power to inaugurate a true renewal of sacred music.

There isn’t a church musician I know of who isn’t concerned about the state of church music in the western world, but rarely do I find one who knows what to do about it. Obviously our university system with its decline number of organ departments as well as choral conducting departments hasn’t provided the answer. Consider the current situation in music schools where students learn about Renaissance music for one semester and are assumed to have the skills necessary to tackle the repertoire. On the other hand, choristers in the English choral system begin singing large portions of the best of Renaissance music around the age of 9 or 10 and do it repeatedly for four and five years as sopranos. If they are boys they go through the same repertoire again as countertenors, tenors and basses during their time in the Oxbridge colleges. Which program do you think is more successful?

A number of these same students are already accompanying services on a regular basis at a young age. How many young organists in America are accompanying world class choirs and helping to train younger choristers in junior high. Which program do you think is more successful?

One might object that the English choral system is tied too closely to England and the Anglican community to present a model for Catholic parishes, but I would argue otherwise. Firstly, the English choral system grew out of  the monastic, collegiate and cathedral music foundations in existence long before the English Protestant Revolt. Secondly, the system is extremely diversified even among the English Cathedrals–there is no “one size fits all” way of executing it, and this diversity makes it extremely adaptable to other places. At the heart of this system is the development of a beautiful and natural vocal tone, musical literacy, and singing high quality liturgical music on a regular basis within the church service. There is nothing here that couldn’t be adapted to the people of Russia, South Africa, Argentina or the United States.

I would encourage those interested in the English choral tradition to read McGrath’s document and familiarize themselves with what actually constitutes a choral foundation and determine if this wouldn’t work for your parish.

Then read and learn about the three main forms of the English choral foundation. In its highest form is the true choir school, a boarding institution that educates only choristers. In reality, there are only two such institutions left in the world today, Westminster Abbey and St. Thomas, NY, and I doubt this avenue would be useful for most. The second form of choral foundation is the parochial school, usually a preparatory school of some kind, that educates both choristers and non-choristers, but makes the necessary allowances for the musical education of the former. This model is perfect for many Catholic parishes sporting an attached school. Lastly is the after-school model, where choristers are drawn from the surrounding schools and educated either before or after school. This construct might easily serve the school-less parish or the parish with a school music program that has not yet been put under the vision of a pastor who wants to implement the Modern Roman Rite in continuity with the Older Form and the hopes of the Second Vatican Council. The author also gives advice for implementing each of these options.

One last point McGrath makes is how important it is that choral foundations are properly supported. In England the force of tradition as well as that of the monarchy and parliament (many of these institutions are enshrined in law and supported by taxpayer money) ensure their continuation, but such is not the case in America. Instead he suggests that it is the the pastor (and I dare say the bishop) who must support the formation and continuation of good choral foundations. I believe that the more the clergy realize that such schools are important centers for Christians formation, the more they will support them.

I also hear complaints (well founded) that these institutions are not cheap, but restructuring the budget in 50% of parishes would probably do the trick. Lastly, I realize that there aren’t the musicians around to found such choir schools, but the more choral institutions are founded in the US, the more great musicians will be fostered.

I want to paint a picture of what such places could accomplish in the Church. There are currently almost 200 cathedrals in the United States. If each of these cathedrals were to found a choral institution of some kind, each graduating approximately 10 children per annum, that would mean 2000 young people receiving such a formation each year. Within one generation (20 years) 40,000 young people would have been formed in the Church’s vision for the Sacred Liturgy and music. That would be an absolute game changer. Until we start forming our youth in the Church’s treasury of sacred music we will continue contracepting our musical future to death.

Latina est gaudium et utilis!

I don’t profess to have anything more than a rudimentary knowledge of Latin, but even I can apprehend something of its beauty and usefulness, whether from the religious perspective, the historical perspective or any other perspective for that matter. Therefore, I am at a lost to explain why the Latin language engenders such fits of rage and anger in mainstream Catholic “intellectual” circles, whether they include the clergy, educators or “enlightened” laymen.

The most comical expressions of anti-Latin thought emanate from the mouths of young children who inform me in rehearsal that Vatican II said we are supposed to worship in English (admittedly this happens less and less as the years go by). Am I to believe that these 9 year old children have read, discussed and prayed about Sacrosanctum concilium? How did I miss the line in SC that ordered the entire Church, for example the Church in Germany or Brazil, to worship in English?

Unfortunately my avocation of church musician doesn’t allow me to sidestep the Latin vs. vernacular issue any more than a house painter is able to avoid paint. To sing Roman Catholic music is to sing in the Latin tongue. To worship in the Roman Catholic Liturgy is to worship in a way formed by the Latin language (this is true even in the vernacular translation of the modern Roman Rite).

Leaving religion aside for the moment and turning to the more mundane task of education in general, Dorothy Sayers, in her exceptional essay The Lost Tools of Learning, admits that “the best grounding for education is the Latin grammar. I say this, not because Latin is traditional and medieval, but simply because even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least fifty percent. It is the key to the vocabulary and structure of all the Teutonic languages, as well as to the technical vocabulary of all the sciences and to the literature of the entire Mediterranean civilization, together with all its historical documents.” Anyone who has ever read Sayers would agree that the study of Latin didn’t stunt her intellectual prowess. So why is this tool, as Sayers described it, so despised?

I ask this question because of an article by Deacon Jim Russell that appeared recently at Crisis Magazine, which claimed that the the loss of Latin has had disastrous effects on Roman Catholic sacred music. To be honest, music isn’t the only thing the loss has affected (I think of theology especially), but let’s keep to the subject of music for the moment. Where do we see today the likes of Prudentius, Fortunatus, Ambrose or even Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman? Now that our society has severed itself from the great tradition of Western Civilization, which is intimately bound to the Latin language, the only lyrics we are left with are catchy little ditties foisted on us from the pen of every musician who feels the need to “express himself.” (I am reminded here of the lyrics from such a “hymn” from my Catholic school days-Great Things Happen when God Mixes with Us, from the Glory and Praise hymnal).

Funnily enough, I am not opposed to the use of vernacular in the Holy Mass or the Divine Office. Neither am I against the true inculturation of the Faith into various local communities. But I am mightily opposed to the ridiculous notion that having cut ourselves free from the moorings of Latin we are now in possession of a better understanding of God or our Faith than anyone before 1965.  Such a mentality cheapens the lives of countless men, women and children, ordained and lay, old and young, rich and poor, important and unimportant who lived and died over the last 1500 years to bring the light of Christ to a world in such need of His Love and Mercy. Remember that those same men and women were formed in a time when the Sacred Liturgy was entirely in Latin. Would they have given their lives to Christ if they hadn’t known Him or loved Him? I doubt it. And here we arrive at the crux of the issue. I find that those who are so opposed to the use of Latin in our worship (especially when coupled with ad orientem worship) are generally opposed to the traditional belief that worship is about God, and instead desire to circle their wagons (literally) and turn their thoughts in on themselves. Worship becomes group therapy and entertainment rather than an encounter with the living God.

It is time that we leave behind this “hermaneutic of discontinuity” and awake from our religious amnesia and embrace our Faith in its fullness. It is time that we break from the shackles that would have us believe that the Church began in the 1960s. It is time to remember that our heavenly family has a history encompassing 2000 years of the greatest saints, poets, lovers, fighters, evangelizers and men and women who had their eyes set on the heavenly city, the New and Eternal Jerusalem. Recovery of Latin alone won’t do this, but it would symbolically and intellectually open a breach in what seems to be an impregnable wall that keeps us from seeing the hand of God alive in His Church in every age.

An Unpleasant Task

Last week I wrote an article about the chorister audition process and this week I would like to follow it up with another that tackles the ensuing problem of how to deal with the child or adult who either lacks the necessary choral skills to thrive in the choir or whose temperament prevents him from being a fully committed team member. I realize that even suggesting such a termination runs counter to the modern philosophy that everyone should be able to follow his dreams and do as he pleases, but if I had followed every whim in my life I might currently be the worst heart surgeon in America, quite possibly jailed and on death row for have killed more patients than I helped. I thank God that I realized early on that music, and not science, was my avocation. The choirmaster, too, has to help those under his care to reach their potential.

First of all, I want to stress that the vast majority of children and even adults are capable of singing in some sort of choir, if only to fulfill the basic human need for community and joining in the joy of making music. But what does one do with the chorister (child or adult) whose presence in the choir poses a detriment to the group? I find the following categories generally encompass such singers:

  1. those who cannot match pitch,
  2. those who can match pitch but who don’t enjoy singing (adults in this category rarely join the choir, but children who find themselves in this camp are sometimes forced to by well meaning parents who desire that their children enjoy the fruits of the choral experience),
  3. those struggling with vocal issues that cannot be corrected by vocal coaching alone, and finally,
  4. those who possess a decent voice, or even a very good one, but who considers him or herself better than the rest of the team, or worse,  sow discord among his fellow singers.

Generally, adults who can’t match pitch aren’t running to join their local choir, although it has been known to happen. More often than not one finds the adult who struggles matching pitch in certain situation. The director must decide if he has the time to work individually with that person or not. Perhaps he or she is in the wrong section, has never sung in the head voice, sings next to someone whose voice does not blend with his or hers or needs to stand next to a strong voice.  Ultimately, singing in tune is more about listening than anything else. However, if such helpful attempts fail, you have a problem.

I do accept a child into our Junior Choir as long as he or she can match pitch at even the most elementary level (accepting such children into the Senior Choir is another matter entirely) and find that with continual training most children advance in time. I remember one chorister in particular who grasped music theory very quickly but couldn’t sing and match more than a few notes. Her mother and I agreed on a six week trial period for her in the choir, during which time she made slow but continual progress. After a year she became one of the leading choristers in her age group. At the same time, this isn’t always the case and it is possible and even likely that one will encounter the child who is unable match more than a couple of notes even after individual instruction. What is one to do?

What about the child whom God gifted with gold in his throat and a healthy dose of musical intelligence, but who simply doesn’t like to sing (why does God do this?). Sometimes spending a few extra minutes befriending him will change his attitude, especially if he enjoys being with the other children in the choir. On the other hand, I have encountered children who simply dislike the physical act of singing and nothing I do changes their attitudes. Often they excel playing instruments or singing in other types of choir and I encourage this.

As for those with physical vocal problems that cannot be corrected, I find this rare in children and more prevalent in adults, especially those who have abused their voices through years of misuse, such as constant yelling or singing improperly, which results in nodules on the vocal chords. Sometimes the director can correct or mitigate these problems with judicious vocal coaching and/or vocal rest, while at other times a doctor’s help is necessary.

Lastly, one encounters the prima dona attitude, or worse, the singer who sows discord amongst choir members. While the first is annoying, the second is unbearable. The first endangers choral moral, the second will destroy it. In general, a full choir of amateurs who work as a team is preferable to a choir with one or two leaders and sixteen followers. Your choir will advance much faster working as a team. As for the singer who sows discord, there is no other course of action save the termination of such a relationship. It simply won’t work.

Of course, these situations beg the question of how to deal with them effectively. First, charity is key. If each of your singers knows that he or she is appreciated as a person as opposed to a voice, he or she will bear constructive criticism better. Also remember that the director is not just looking out for the welfare of his choir, but also the welfare of each of his singers. Is it charitable to leave a person in a situation in which he has no hope of flourishing? If the above situations can’t be rectified, the choir director has no choice but to charitably ask the chorister (again, child or adult) to leave. Sometimes this conversation turns out well and sometimes it doesn’t, but it does need to take place. There is no way around it. Be sure to pray before you do it and perhaps inform you pastor who he isn’t blindsided by an angry email or phone call.

I readily admit that I am not confrontational by nature and have often allowed personnel problems to fester until they become emergencies, but this only results in good people leaving the choir before the proverbial “rotten apples.” I realize it is hard, but perhaps this is the balance we are called to live–truth in charity. Your program will be better for it.

Chorister Recruiting and Auditioning

It is that time of year when once again I recruit and audition new choristers for the coming choral year. To be honest, I prefer the actual rehearsing and directing of the choir to its management (a necessary evil), but it must be done and there really is no secret formula I use. I find the more children you have in your parish the easier it is. It also helps if your parish has a school and/or an active home school community. I always start by sending a note home with parents of school children and emailing the home school community, and depending on how many responses I receive (or don’t receive), I sometimes call families and make the personal ask.

The audition itself is very straight forward and usually takes about 10 minutes, although I know within the first minute if I plan to accept the child into the choir. After engaging in a bit of small talk, I ask the child to sing Happy Birthday, which seems to be the only song left which American boys and girls still know by heart. Sometimes a child struggles with the octave leap in the middle so I work with him to sing it on pitch, which usually entails helping him to sing in the head voice. If the child sings the song mostly on key I accept him into the choir.

Next, I ask the child to read the first paragraph or two from Psalm 51(50), especially noting how he tackles words like iniquity and transgressions. You are going to have an easier time with the child who slows down and attempts to sound out the word than the one who substitutes it with another word beginning with the same first letter and then seems bored when you try to help him figure it out. I have found without exception that the better a child is at reading the easier time he will have learning to sight-sing.

The rest of the audition I spend testing the child’s ear and voice. I have each one sing a few scales up and down and note the child’s range and vocal quality. Then I test his ear by having him sing back to me random pitches on the piano, a descending half-step scale of 5 notes and a short 2 measure melody, which I make more or less difficult depending on how the child has performed so far. The last ear test I put a child through is to sing back the notes of an inverted chord I play on the piano. It is rare that a child sings all three notes correctly, but most can find the highest note, and quite a few the tonic of the chord. Finally, I clap several rhythms and ask the child to clap them back.

Of course, one might ask why I put a child through all of this when I already know if I plan to accept him into the choir. First, even an informal audition lets the child and his family know that the choir is an important part of the life of the parish and a commitment he should take seriously. Secondly, it allows me to make a better assessment of a child’s abilities and willingness because it isn’t just about finding the right singers for the choir, but also about making sure the choir is good for the child. Thirdly, it allows me to know where children are musically and how best to help them to progress, and finally, to discover which ones are best suited to become Senior Choristers because of the special cultivation each one will need. This might sound elitist, but when each child is pushed to reach his potential, the overall musicality of the choir always improves. Happy Recruiting!

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

What is the Mass? Therein lies the answer to a whole host of titanic problems afflicting the Church today, yet many in the Barque of Peter refuse to ask that question, or they reject the answer. If the Holy Mass really is the unbloody sacrifice of the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ, then what we believe will be radically affected. How we pray will be radically affected. The music we use will be radically affected.

Rather than going through all the arguments for good sacred music today, I would simply like to share a short video with our readers because a picture is worth a thousand words.