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The Cathedral and Diocese of Leeds Expands Its Musical Outreach Yet Again

Some five years ago I wrote an article describing the fantastic work in the vineyard of Sacred Music undertaken by the Leeds Cathedral Music Program, the Diocese of Leeds (England) and its Schools Singing Programme. At that time, the program weekly reached 3,500 students around the diocese through its music classes and choral tuition. Today, that number has surpassed 6,000 students, and from the original program has now developed the National Singing Programme, which encompasses all of the Catholic dioceses in England, Scotland and Wales.

Leeds Cathedral Choir and Music Program
This incredible program developed out of a simple initiative of the diocese’s bishop in the late 1980s. The following excerpt from the cathedral choir’s website reports:

“In the 1960’s, a narrow reading of the documents from the Second Vatican Council brought about a general devastation of Catholic church music, putting an end to many traditional boys’ choirs throughout Europe. In Leeds, the Cathedral Choir was disbanded in 1968. In the following two decades limited resources were devoted to music: the organ eventually fell into disrepair and only a small mixed voice adult choir sang at mass. In 1988, Bishop Konstant decided to reverse the tide of decay and lay new foundations with the appointment of a full-time Director of Music for the Diocese. The new Director of Music was to recruit from any school in the Diocese to meet Bishop Konstant’s requirement for a boys’ choir of 24 voices. Bishop Konstant’s backing and practical support laid the groundwork for the rapid development of the present choral programme under the direction of Benjamin Saunders since 2002.”

What began as a command to recruit and train 24 boy choristers from throughout the diocese has now grown into a cathedral music program consisting of a children’s choir for boys and girls ages 5-9, separate Junior Boys’ and Junior Girls’ Choirs for those ages 6-11 (there are more than 60 singers in these two groups), separate Senior Boys’ and Senior Girls’ Choirs ages 11-16, and a Scholar’s Choir for those ages 12-18, as well as choral scholars who are currently in university. Most of these young people receive free one-on-one vocal tuition from the choir’s vocal coach.

The cathedral also awards competitive scholarships to choral scholars, who receive professional vocal and conducting tuition and actively take part in the cathedral’s Schools Singing Program. Organ scholars in particular are given regular and ongoing tuition, mentoring, performance opportunities with the chance to make invaluable contacts in the organ world in order to launch them into the field of sacred music.

In 2009 the cathedral founded its very own Leeds Cathedral Choir School, housed within Holy Rosary and St. Anne’s Catholic Primary School, where music now forms part of the school’s core curriculum and provides students the opportunity to sing in the Cathedral Choir (read the cathedral’s current music list here), as well as singing for Masses and services at the two parishes of Holy Rosary and St. Anne’s.

Schools Singing Programme
The Schools Singing Programme grew from the cathedral’s desire to bring the gift of music to other schools and centers within the diocese, especially those more impoverished areas. Cathedral musicians would go out to various schools or parishes to teach music classes and form small choirs, and from these humble beginnings the program has grown to included 150 choral groups as well as numerous boys’ and girls’ choirs of very high standards. If the reader is interested to see what kind of tuition primary school children receive as part of this program, he can find quite a number of online rehearsal sessions that were filmed during England’s exceptionally long lockdown period as an effort to keep some music learning going, and to help children experience a bit of normalcy during this time. Here is a video of the very first recorded session for children (and their families), which shows the highly engaging teaching style utilized in the Schools Singing Program.

Keyboard Studies Programme
2016 saw the introduction of the Keyboard Studies Programme aimed at teaching keyboard skills at the organ and piano. As a means of introducing as many children as possible to these studies, the program also teaches classes using the melodica and accordion, both of which are easily portable, while the melodica is fairly inexpensive. The Keyboard Studies Programme was recently featured in the February edition of the American Organist (AGO) magazine in its UK Report.

David Pipe, who heads the program closes the article with the following, “To put this in perspective, at the time of writing we have 1,100 children playing the melodica each week, and 175 having individual lessons on either accordion, piano or organ. My dream would be that a child starting melodica at age nine could progress through out Keyboard Studies Programme by learning piano (or accordion), become a skillful enough organist to play regularly in church, and go on to win a university organ scholarship at age 18.”

The program has currently partnered with the Hamish Ogston Foundation to expand the program in the following four ways:

  1. “Establishing the largest and highest-quality teaching school in the UK for the classical accordion. This instrument is widely taught in Europe and Asia to give children the independence of a portable instrument and has been used successfully in the UK in many rural primary schools to learn the basics, as a transition to larger keyboard instruments and, ultimately, to inspire some young people to progress to learning to play the piano and even organ;
  2. “Establishing the largest and highest-quality teaching school in the UK for the melodica. This small air-powered keyboard instrument offers one of the most comprehensive introductions to keyboard studies, following the Japanese model where every primary school child is taught the basics of keyboard playing;
  3. “Developing three bespoke tutor books for melodica, accordion and organ, to support the teaching and learning of the young students; and
  4. “Capital contributions to facilitate the installation of 2 pipe organs; the purchase of 3 electronic practice organs; refurbishment of 4 upright pianos and the purchase of 16 classical accordions.

Expect to see great things from such a program with such a vision.

National Schools Singing Program
The Hamish Ogston Foundation has also partnered with the Leeds Cathedral Music Program to found the National Schools Singing Foundation, which either already does, or will soon, work in every Catholic diocese in England, Scotland and Wales. According to the foundation’s website, this program, which began in 2021, already works with more than 17,000 students. To put this in perspective, England, Scotland and Wales are roughly the size of the state of Oregon and one can only imagine the impact such a venture, already so established in such a relatively small geographical area, will have in the lives of those students and the church music profession twenty year down the road. Benjamin Saunders, the mover behind the Leed’s Cathedral and diocesan music program for the last twenty years is to be congratulated on his fine work.

The Catholic Academy of Sacred Music
I have long been following the work of Leeds Cathedral and over the years I have developed a strong desire to begin such an undertaking in my own diocese, and last summer The Catholic Academy of Sacred Music was incorporated for that very purpose. This year the academy works with approximately 120 students in two different groups, with the expectation of expanding to 4 groups next year. I hope to be able to share more information with readers next month, but in the meantime I would ask our readers to remember the academy in their prayers.

These are the types and kinds of institutions we need if we hope to have an impact on Sacred Music in the United States and I am grateful to know of so many different men and women throughout our country who work tirelessly in their own ways to make such institutions possible. We simply must needs keep pushing forward.

Teaching and Nurturing the Young Organist

fine organist is a sturdy shelter:

he that has found one has found a treasure.

It is no exaggeration to say that a fine organist is without price in the ecclesiastical world, second only to the holy and learned priest. The exceptional organist, one capable of elevating the Sacred Liturgy and the experience thereof unto a mystical plane,  is truly a rara avis. He provides the faithful sonically with what the great cathedrals and artists have provided in stone, glass, gold, silver and tempera throughout the ages. While the likes of an Olivier Latry don’t appear everyday, there is no reason why we can’t raise up a generation of very excellent and competent organists, much like the solid Norman churches that sit so beautifully across the planes and sweeps of Northern Europe, buildings which paved the way for the later magnificent medieval cathedrals and monasteries. What follows is an attempt to outline some process by which we might develop “solid” organists ready to take up their positions in our parishes and rebuild the foundations of a healthy and vibrant sacred music program, so much needed today.

The  Beginner
The first and best preparation for any future organist is to find himself in a home where music is both loved AND made, sitting alongside a parent who, perhaps, plays and sings at the piano. Are you, dear reader, one of these parents? It matters not how simple the songs may be, for such experiences form the cradle of musical love. As soon as the child shows interest, he should commence piano studies with a competent teacher, which shouldn’t be too hard to find, even in the smallest and least populated of areas. At the same time, those of us who are organists should ask ourselves if we are ready to encourage and even teach these same young students, for thereby we increase the ranks of our noble profession.

The Piano Studio
Setting up a piano/organ studio is quite simple. As a matter of fact, I would be quite surprised if the competent organist exists who has not been asked to teach. Indeed the more difficult aspect of one’s studio is to keep it from taking over one’s life, but the various piano guilds and online resources are thankfully numerous and generally quite helpful, and a simple Google search should put the reader in contact with any information he might require. I would, however, like to offer a few reflections from personal experience.

Firstly, make it an unbreakable rule to engrain the rudiments of music theory into the very bones of the beginning student, preferably before the age of nine or ten. The young student loves to memorize note names and values and to practice rhythms, and the teacher should take full advantage of this, lest it become a painful chore to the student later on. I have taken on a couple of older students (junior high and high school) who have managed to make it through five and more years of lessons and yet struggle to name any other note than middle C or to tackle dotted rhythms, having spent years learning music by nothing more than trial and error. This can easily be avoided and should be.

Secondly, encourage experimentation at the keyboard as much as possible, which can take any myriad of forms. Many students love to compose. Every student will, at some point in his lessons, latch on to a certain work to the detriment of all others. Instead of becoming frustrated, ask the child to take a couple of extra weeks with the piece and to learn to play it in as many keys as possible, and then to change it from the major to minor mode, or vise versa. The only people who will suffer are the parents, who will undoubtedly tire from hearing “She’ll be Comin’ Round the Mountain When She Comes,” fifty time a day, but such is the price of greatness? Yes?

Lastly, form players who realize that music, whether piano, organ or any other kind of music, must needs be expressive, able to communicate to the listener a message deeper and broader than mere notes on a page, something intangible that speaks both to the mind and heart of things sings and unseen. Nothing is more difficult and yet nothing is more rewarding.

The Organ Student
Eventually the diligent piano student will acquire a sure keyboard technique and find himself ready to commence his studies upon the king of instruments. There are a number of organ primers one can use, but I rely chiefly upon Organ Technique: Early and Modern and the well known Gleason Method of Organ Playing, both of which lead the student through graded exercises at the keyboard and pedal board, and provide copious amounts of beginning repertoire. The well rounded organ student should also gain a sure facility at chant accompaniment and improvisation. Again, I would, like to offer a reflection based on personal experience.

It behooves the teacher to teach his students the art of practicing well. The old adage “work smart, not hard,” or rather “work smart AND hard” should be our guide. I find very few young people self disciplined enough to do both from the beginning, yet the teacher should move his students in this direction. It will often require the teacher to run entire lessons as a structured practice in order to prove to the student what can be accomplished in as few as thirty minutes.

The American Guild of Organists and the Royal College of Organists
If the teacher, especially the new teacher, finds himself overwhelmed at the prospect of teaching the young organist, I would greatly encourage him to join the American Guild of Organists AND the Royal College of Organists. Both of these institutions provide invaluable resources for both teacher and student, including a fine series on making the transition from pianist to organist and another on the art of teaching organ. In addition, the AGO and RCO have now joined forces across the Atlantic and for the price of a few extra lattes, one can add an RCO membership onto his AGO membership.

Finally, the AGO and RCO provide extremely useful examinations and certifications at every level of organ and service playing (as well as choral conducting), including test in areas such as hymn playing, psalm accompaniment and improvisation. In some ways I find them a greater help to the church organist than a post BA degree because they force the organist to master skills other than simply playing organ literature. I have often observed that the standards of organ playing in most parishes, if organs even exists in many parishes any more, are so low that it is easy to rest on one’s musical laurels and, but this should never be the case.  These examinations and certifications offer the organist a chance to deepen and broaden his potential. The skills of the fine organist should be as wide and deep as the ocean.

I will end with the observation that the young organist should also play an integral role in his parish choral program as either a chorister or young member of the ATB sections. Every organist should have plenty of experience as a singer, if only to realize how important it is for the organist to be attuned the needs of both the choir and congregation alike. This also provides the best education of all, on-the-job training with professionals to a very high standard from an early age. I know of no other profession, with the exception of the the family farm, where this is possible. The organ profession is a noble profession indeed.

The Chorister Summer Camp

Every choirmaster should place a high priority on recruitment, otherwise in time he commits a form of choral contraception, which, coupled to that other form of contraception so prevalent these last 60 years in the Church, has done catastrophic harm to our choirs of boys and girls. There are a myriad of recruiting methods, but one every choirmaster should think strongly about implementing is the Chorister Summer Camp, both as a means to recruit new students as well as an opportunity to teach or review the choristers’ knowledge of the art of sacred music and all that it entails. From the child’s perspective, nothing at the camp can top the joy of spending time with old friends and making new ones. It also provides the ideal place for children, especially those who are unsure whether or not they want to commit to the choir, to give it a go before signing on the dotted line.

What follows are a number of points or ideas, in no particular order, that one might consider when planning the Chorister Summer Camp.

Goals of the Chorister Summer Camp
The choirmaster may have decided to host a Chorister Summer Camp, but it will only help him as a recruiting tool if he has broader and better defined goals for the camp. Besides providing a solid grounding in rhythm, solfege and music theory for new students (as well as a review for the seasoned singers), the general plan of the camp, especially if hosted toward the end of the summer break and the beginning of the choral year, should include an introduction to any demanding repertoire or perhaps getting a head start on concerts and the Christmas season. One year I took the time during camp to teach choristers how to read Gregorian chant and from that point they joined the Gentlemen of the Choir each Sunday to chant the Introit from the Graduale. This summer I will introduce choristers to the choral Divine Office, so that will figure largely in my planning.

Length of the Camp
There are a number of options to consider when determining the length of one’s summer camp, but in general, I would caution the “newbie” not to bite off more than he can chew. Some choirs host a half, or day long, camp, much like a “come and sing” day, where possible new recruits spend time singing alongside older choristers, learning simple but inspiring repertoire, eat and play with the choristers and then finish with Mass or Vespers, in which the new recruits take part and parents come to hear. I personally prefer a longer time, generally a Monday through Friday affair, but one could also opt for a Thursday, Friday and Saturday camp, and end singing Vespers on Saturday or Sunday for Holy Mass. There is no one-size-fits-all; just commit to something and go with it.

Recruiting for the Chorister Summer Camp
Children join the Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum in the 3rd grade because they have received their First Holy Communion by this time and also because their reading skills have reached the level that they can follow and pronounce 80 percent of the words in the hymnal. As a result I heavily target this age group, sending invitations to all of the students in our parish school entering the 3rd and 4th grades and the same to students in our vibrant and growing homeschool community. Before I began teaching music in our parish school I would speak with our music teacher and ask about any especially talented students and call their parents personally. Now that I work in the school I know very well who those students are and I don’t hesitate to hound both students and parents.

At times I have offered our Summer Chorister Camp free of charge and at other times I have asked for a nominal fee to cover any special materials such as new music or music theory workbooks I plan to use. Each choirmaster will have to determine his financial needs and plan accordingly. It is very simple to add up all expenses of the camp and divide the sum by the number of students and voilà, one has the cost per child.

Time for Learning and Time for Play
Because I want both returning singers and new recruits to really enjoy their time at camp, I plan for an equal mount of play and rehearsal time. Remember that it is still summer, their summer! It is also possible to mix music learning and play time.

Camp Schedule and Splitting Up Age Groups
I take the new singers and my Junior Choristers simultaneously for three hours each morning because I have found that the new recruits do better vocally modeling themselves after singers who have had a year under their belts. Likewise, the Junior Choristers benefit from acting as teachers, and as a result everyone learns faster.

In the afternoon I work with the Senior Choristers for two hours (accompanied by a generous break in the middle because even the older singers want to “have some fun”) primarily learning new repertoire (or as I plan to do this summer, learning to chant the Divine Office). Many of my Senior Choristers also spend the morning helping with crowd control and playing at being big brother or sisters to the new singers. It also affords them a lot of free time with friends when I am working directly with the younger children.

As I previously mentioned, my Senior Choristers tackle lots of new repertoire during the camp, especially our more difficult motets or Mass Ordinaries. The music I give to the new singers and Junior Choristers is much easier and consists mostly in a couple of new hymns (as well as a few old standards that they learn to sing really well), a piece of a chant Ordinary, such as a Kyrie or Agnus Dei, and finally one or two simple anthems containing melodic lines and rhythms no more difficult than the hymns they are learning. It is all new to first time campers, but the Junior Choristers appreciate seeing a few things they have sung before.

Some Final Thoughts
I am the worlds worst secretary, and because I can’t hire one, I tailor the camp to meet the deficiencies nature has endowed me with. I don’t do things like creating camp shirts because I can’t imagine the hassle of tracking down the sizes of each child and then ordering extras for those who register at the last moment (not to mention the clutter of extra shirts that aren’t used) or leading actives that involve making note collages requiring scissors, glue, crayons and construction paper (now I would have a hassle AND a mess). I usually draw a quarter note on the board, tell the students what it is and how to clap it, and then we find examples in the hymnal and start clapping rhythms. It is simple and effective. Make sure not to set your singers up for failure, but nevertheless, push them beyond the point they have ever been pushed before. They can do it and they will want to do it.

Lastly, I will share that running a summer camp is not my favorite thing to do, nor is it even near the middle of my list, but it does help with recruitment and helps returning choristers to prepare for the new choral year, and therefore it always makes the list of my summer activities. If the reader has never provided a camp for his choristers, it isn’t too late to start this summer!

The Church and Patronage of the Arts

Several years ago Duncan Stoik penned an essay entitled “A New Renaissance: The Church as Patroness of the Arts” (Challenging the Secular Culture: A Call to Christians; Franciscan University Press: 2016), proposing a three-pronged initiative that the “Church as an institution, as well as individuals, can do to promote a culture of beauty, truth, and life.” I would have preferred his initiative to have been fleshed out in greater detail, but perhaps Stroik, ever the masterful architect, simply chose to lay a good foundation for others who might come after and wish to build upon it.

Stroik briefly traces the history of Church patronage of the arts and the meritorious effects that serious patronage has had on the lives of countless individuals, including hardened atheists and agnostics. As he rightly notes, even the most troubled soul is touched by the sight of the Sistine Chapel or Notre Dame Cathedral, as we witnessed just over a year ago when the historic icon of Christendom caught fire and nearly collapsed. He also discusses the difference between the Church as patroness of the arts and the Church as a mere purchaser of art, because, as he rightly notes, it isn’t enough just to spend money on “art” (Mohoney’s Cathedral in Las Angeles is a prime example), the Church must evangelize, baptize and catechize the artist in order that his art might become a participation in the divine act of creation.

Unfortunately these seem like mute talking points due to the serious lack of serious artists in the Church, even should She ever wish become patroness of the arts again, but this is the conundrum Stroik addresses in his essay and where I want to spend the majority of my efforts before applying his thoughts to the world of the church musician.

Foster the Work of Talented Artists. Mr. Stroik stresses the importance of the Church seeking out the greatest artists in the worlds of architecture, stone, glass, metal and music and putting them at the service of the Faith. He recounts Moses’ hiring of Bezalel to fashion the Tabernacle to house the Ark of the Covenant as well as the famous account of Abbot Suger rebuilding the Abbey of St. Denis north of Paris, the choir of which is considered to be the first full flowering of Gothic architecture and art. In seeking out the artist the Church enters into a relationship with the artist, learning about his art and his trade in order to appreciate it better, but also “deepen[ing] the artist’s theological knowledge and at the same time allow[ing] the artist to deepen [the Church’s] knowledge of art.” Stroik challenges the artist to remain close to the Church’s greatest artistic traditions while he is young so he has the opportunity to be fully formed in them. Then when he his older he will have the knowledge and wisdom necessary to build upon the tradition rather than knock it aside for the sake of his own solitary and paltry efforts.

Create a Market for Great Religious Art. Stroik acknowledges that for this to happen artists need to look upon the Church as a great client and that half of this battle is financial. All too often the Church expects to pay the lowest amount possible and then gets what it pays for. “This was explained to me many years ago by a famous structural engineer, who said that churches are such terrible clients that when church committees came knocking on his door he would give them money and recommend they hire his competitors.” The church needs to offer competitive rates to the best artists and artisans, who are paid handsomely for their work in the secular world.

(As an aside, I personally think the problem is not so much a lack of money or an unwillingness to spend it, but rather a lack of supernatural vision that leads one to place spending on comfort before all else. I have witnessed inordinate amounts of money spent on items of little value, or at least of lesser value than objects of transcendent beauty, and pastors not bat an eye at the figure on the check they write. As much as I love air conditioning and am extremely thankful for it in church every summer, I find it amusing when a pastor readily pays $100,000 for a new air conditioning unit (again, I’m really not complaining) but can’t find $12,000 for a part-time church musician in his budget. I think the question of finances has just as much to do with where we find value as it does with how much money we have.)

Stroik believes budgets should allow artists to work with the best materials available and that churches could easily offer competitions “in which the artist is straining to build the most majestic exterior, the tallest interior, the most spiritual iconography and the most beautiful building possible. Works of art should be out of the ordinary, of the highest artistic standard and with the largest budgets. They are like the expensive ointment the woman in the Gospels anoints Christ’s feet with, not just some cheap oil bought from the drugstore.”

Establish a Sacred Art Academy at a University. Simply put, Stroik outlines three goals for such an academy: “1) Train students who can produce Catholic art at the highest level; 2) Give artists a theological vision for ennobling our artistic culture; and 3) Give artists the ability to create classical art for the secular realm.” He rightly points out the effects of such a school on civilization and cites the examples of the “school” of artisans at the court of Lorenzo de Medici or France’s École des Beaux-Arts, originally founded by Cardinal Mazarin. Of course, Stroik, professor of architecture at Notre Dame University and probably American’s most nationally recognized proponent of classical sacred architecture, is having the same effect on many of his own students.

The reality is that if we want great artists we must have places to train them in the best of the tradition and be able to crown their studies with a deeply imbued Catholic ethos. In the area of architecture, for example, it is imperative that students spend time in places like Rome and Florence in order to move and breathe among the architecture—to live in these buildings and to pray in them, to think in them and to experience the effect they have on one’s spiritual and intellectual formation.

Unfortunately, the general attitude today toward great art and artists in the Church in one of apathy at best or disparagement at worse, where opponents level the charge that “that money could have been spent on the poor,” as if artists and those touched by beauty (and who isn’t) are somehow unsympathetic aesthetes who unmercifully trample the poor under foot in the rush to worship in beautiful churches. But we needn’t fall prey to the scourge of the modern charge of either/or—instead we need to embrace the Catholic notion of both/and, which allows the Church to offer God Her greatest musical fruits AND place the same fruits within earshot of all of her children so that Christians poor and rich alike might have their minds and hearts lifted on the wings of sung prayer.

I mentioned earlier that Stroik’s article merely lays a foundation for a possible flowering of the sacred arts and the return of Church patronage and here I wish to build on that foundation, especially as it concerns sacred music at the parish level and engaging those who might not otherwise experience not only the beauty, but spiritual depth and richness of the Church’s sacred music.

It would be old news, especially at Corpus Christi Watershed, to rehash all the ways in which past and current pontiffs, saints or Church councils have encourage, promoted and at times demanded truly sacred and holy music to be used within the Church’s liturgical rites, and as good as each of these exhortations are, they must be accompanied by a plan of action or else they fall on deaf ears. As musicians we must ask ourselves what our plan of action is to accomplish a renaissance in sacred music and as always, I want to offer the model of the schola cantorum (or choir school, choral foundation, song school, etc.) Wether in a great cathedral, humble parish or anything in between, the schola cantorum offers a model to reengage the best musical artists with the Church and to offer the fruits of those labors back to God and to all those present along the way.

Foster the Work of Talented Artists. I am amazed at the raw talent present in even the smallest of parishes. During one of my first “real” jobs I directed the music for two small country parishes with a combined school of just over 60 students, where I was able to cobble together a choir of 14 children. All I knew, and it wasn’t much more than the students themselves, was to get them to sing in their head voices and to start and stop together. Even now I can go back to the one recording I made and acknowledge that there were some great things going on in that little group even though its leader was highly inexperienced and wet behind the ears, and much of it was due to the copious amounts of talent right there in that average group of boys and girls no different from anywhere else. The goal is to engage that talent and connect it to the living tradition of the Church’s music.

The teaching sister of yore understood this. How many organists today in their 60s and 70s were volun-told by Sr. Cecilia or Sr. Mary Gregory that their piano proficiency merited them the honor of playing the organ for Holy Mass? This rarely happens today!

Create a Market for Great Religious Art. Great composers, or even really good ones, rarely write for Catholic Church choirs, especially children’s choirs, because there are so precious few worth writing for. More than anything a composer wants his music performed, which would reduce him to writing at the level of This Little Light of Mine in order to engage the musical proficiency of the average Catholic chorister. But if a composer has a really good choir to write for (especially if he can be paid to do so), he will pour his heart and soul into composing for the ensemble.

As always, money is part of the problem, but not because there isn’t enough. The heart of the issue is convincing a pastor or finance council that spending money on good music is worth the sacrifice. If a parish commits to a real program of formation in liturgical music (i.e. a schola cantorum) a generous number of the faithful will be more than willing to financially support it, and the better program becomes the more resources they will find to engage more great composers, instrumentalist, soloists, etc.

Establish a Sacred Art Academy at a University. This is naturally beyond the scope of the average parish, but by establishing a good schola cantorum, such a parish participates in forming the next generation of church musicians who will then enter high school and university better trained and more conversant in church music than any other undergraduate church music students. It would prepare young Catholics to take the best places in the best institutions and offer them opportunities that would have a lasting effect on the liturgical life in our parishes.

The schola cantorum, as a community of musicians, exists within a particular parish or cathedral for the work of fostering the Church’s musical arts and placing them at the service of that same community. With proper formation and liturgical catechesis, choristers are imbued with that Catholic ethos that is not only necessary for their work as our future church musicians, but for their own spiritual lives. This is the kind of community that will breath new life into our tired and sagging music programs and give the people in the pews hope that good sacred music consists in more than 1970s ditties played on the organ, spruced up with a few trumpets and timpani.

As I have mentioned in the past, if each diocese in the United States had even one schola cantorum/choir school, and each school or program graduated just 10 students every year, that would be 2,000 students in one year, or 40,000 students in one generation (20 years). Church musicians can talk until they are blue in the face about papal documents and council teachings, but until we create a groundswell of support from people who not only want good music but who know how to make it, we will continue spinning our wheels and hoping for a few scraps from the master’s table.

What’s the bottom line if you are a pastor? Nothing more than a fair salary for a great music director. The choice is yours.


When we speak of the Church’s great treasury of sacred music our minds naturally turn to Gregorian chant or the polyphonic works of Palestrina, Victoria, and Byrd. Perhaps we are reminded of the great Viennese Masses of Haydn and Mozart or the many incredible works of modern composers such as Sir James MacMillan or the Orthodox Arvo Pärt. Those are all incredible names and works of consummate art, but in all my life I don’t think I have ever heard it mentioned that the art of improvisation, done well, ranks alongside the greatest works of Palestrina or Mozart.

In a real sense, being in possession of the improvisatory arts means that the organist has arrived at the pinnacle of his craft, the apex of fluency in musical speech. Just as any great orator eventually had to give a speech of his own creation extemporaneously, so the great organist, to arrive at such a title, had to create music worthy of his instrument extemporaneously. The great organist is a great communicator.

One of the beautiful aspects about organ improvisation is that it fits the actions of the Sacred Liturgy in a way that pre-composed music can’t. It is one thing to play a Bach toccata and fugue following Mass when there is no time restriction, but it is another have to play to the exact time of the Offertory or Communion, or any of the other appropriate times in Mass or the Office. Not only is there a time constraint, but there is the constraint imposed by the Liturgy at that precise moment, for the music must not only “fill time” but needs be a beautiful and worthy offering to the Almighty, perhaps a meditation on the Proper of the day or simply an aid to the elevation of the mind and heart.

Just as there are schools and methods for the teaching of painting or sculpting or architecture, so too are there schools and methods for learning to improvise. These methods won’t ensure you’ll be the next Pierre Cochereau, but neither will schools and methods of painting ensure that you’ll be the next Caravaggio. However, every organist should be able to become tolerably adept at it. In the midst of Covidtide and the lack of choral and congregational singing I have had to rely almost entirely upon improvisation and quite frankly, it has been an absolute joy! If you would like to hone your improvisatory skills I would suggest approaching improvisation in the same way you would the art of oratory.

Oratory is first and foremost about communicating an idea or point that is worth communicating and doing it effectively and beautifully. So to begin with, you must have an idea worth communicating. Perhaps it is the joy of the Incarnation, the sorrow of our Blessed Mother at the Cross or the glory of the Resurrection. If you want to communicate the joy of the Incarnation you might even choose between the reverential joy encountered in the prologue of St. John’s Gospel or the simple joy of Mary as she looks upon her Son and Savior lying in the manger, but it must be something worth communicating.

The musical idea you choose to do so could be anything. It might be a snippet of chant, a melody from a carol or hymn or an impression created by notes or chords or chord progressions. Really the possibilities are infinite, but you as the artist must take that kernel and develop it effectively if you are going to be able to communicate, and this is where you must gain technical knowledge of the inner workings of music in order to expound on your musical idea.

I would begin by learning to harmonize the major scale in all 12 keys, followed by the minor scale (in its various forms) in all of its 12 keys (or simply start with one key). This sounds daunting, but once you have done it in one key you simply transfer the same chord progressions to the other 11 keys and you’ve got it. This gives you facility with the language of music.  You could also learn the Church Modes or the Whole Tone Scales, but once you’re able to speak the language then you’re a third of the way there.

The next step is to become familiar with the many formal structures of musical rhetoric. These could be as simple as a hymn prelude (or chorale prelude) or bicinia or something as complex as a formal four voice fugue. Or you could simply take a passage from scripture and create a musical impressions of it, in which there is no formal structure. These are large scale forms (among many others). There are also many smaller devices for use within these overarching forms, just as a formal speeches might contain any number of literary devices such as alliteration, parallelism, etc. for use in driving home their points. You can learn them one by one.

Lastly, you must communicate beautifully and this is difficult because I think it is part inspiration and part absorption from others who improvise well. Pray to the Holy Spirit (I am serious about this!), learn great organ repertoire (and learn from it) and listen to as much great improvisation as you are able. Thankfully YouTube is host to thousands of videos of stellar improvisers like Daniel Roth, Olivier Latry or Otto Maria Krämer, to name just a few.

The most famous improvisation method book is probably the Dupré Complete Course in Improvisation, but if you click here, there is a complete list of various improvisation books you might find helpful.

I would add as a post-script that at some point you just have to start improvising. You won’t sound like Messiaen your first time (and maybe you never want to sound like Messiaen) but that’s alright. Your improvisatory skills might never rival those of Daniel Roth, but even if you were to make it half way there, think of how good you would be. Start simple, but start. As Gerre Hancock, that great American improviser once noted, “Salvation is only a half-step away!”

Broadcasting Holy Mass During Covidtide

The faithful in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, similar to those in many other dioceses, recently returned to public worship along with all the restrictions and rubrics the situation entails. My own parish church, which seats almost one thousand, is limited to only 150 mask-sporting congregants, and Masses are limited to 45 minutes in order to curtail exposure between parishioners. Musical forces have also been limited to one cantor and one accompanist and the congregation has been asked not to sing. Unfortunately this could go on for quite a while.

Since the obligation to attend Mass is still abrogated in my archdiocese many parishes here continue to broadcast Sunday Masses, and even Masses throughout the week, as is the case in my own parish. Until recently my parish’s live streamed Masses were without music, but that changed with the return of public Masses, which brought not a few surprises. Imagine my shock when our first public Mass was uploaded to YouTube and the video was flagged for copyright infringement (yes, I know this can happen for all sorts of dubious reasons). I hadn’t given this a thought considering our live streamed Masses are seen primarily by parishioners and we currently hold an annual reprint license from for all the music we need and use (in addition to having a GIA hymnal in our pews). After searching the internet I discovered that yes, indeed, a special podcast/streaming license is required in order to broadcast copyrighted music. The cost of adding a podcast/streaming license onto an existing license is not prohibitive, but the purchase of the license by itself can be pricey.

I also discovered that OneLicense granted a grace period through Easter Sunday enabling parishes to broadcast free of charge, but since that time parishes are required to purchase the additional license. I should note that OCP has granted certain exceptions to parishes that currently use OCP materials. Depending upon which materials a parishes purchases and uses, it can broadcast those items if the copyrights of the songs they use from their previously purchased materials are owned exclusively by OCP. The grace period extends through the end of the current liturgical year (November). Parishes can ask for a specific lists of songs, based on their hymnals/missals used from OCP, that qualify for free broadcasting.

The easiest route open to parishes hoping to provide music during live streamed Masses is simply to use materials in the public domain or Creative Commons. Much of the traditional hymnody found in the major hymnals offered by publishers such as OCP and GIA is in the public domain and can be used anyway, although publishers sometimes change the words of traditional hymns slightly and copyright the new texts, but it would be easy enough to find the original words on the internet and use those instead. Even better would be to take advantage of the myriad of English settings of the Mass Propers, the subject of many blog posts at Corpus Christi Watershed.

The most problematic genre for use in broadcasting is the English setting of the Mass Ordinary since all of the major settings are currently under copyright. Not to mention, many of these settings extend their performance time by way of refrains (the Gloria, for example), repetition of texts, introductions and interludes, all of which might be frowned upon in your individual locale if Masses there are supposed to be kept within certain time constraints. Another concern, again depending upon locale, is congregational singing. If your diocese has requested that parishioners not sing during Mass, the use of familiar Mass settings is an open invitation to the congregation to sing. Instead, you might use this time to find many of the worthy settings currently in the public domain or Creative Commons. I personally began using Jeff Ostrowski’s Mass of the English Martyrs at my parish (where Jeff, incidentally, spent part of his childhood) last weekend and found it to blend perfectly into the sacred rites.

I would encourage all of our readers to take time and think about what is really important, musically speaking, to the execution of the Roman Rite, and to use this time to recalibrate the trajectory of your parish’s music program, if need be, toward the Church’s vision of singing the Mass instead of singing at the Mass. This could be a time of great grace for those who choose to use it.

Of Shepherds and Sheep

Pastoral. Perhaps no other word of the last fifty-five years better defines the Church’s western approach to proclaiming the Gospel, catechizing the faithful, dispensing the Sacred Mysteries or initiating Her missionary activities. Christ commanded his apostles to go “therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20), but today the Church demands that it be done pastorally.

The word pastoral is quite beautiful and evocative, coming from the Latin word pastor, meaning shepherd. We hear God speaking to the abandoned people of Israel through the prophet Jeremiah “et dabo vobis pastores iuxta cor meum et pascent vos scientia et doctrina” (3:15) (“and I will give you pastors according to my own heart, and they shall feed you with knowledge and doctrine”). Later in St. John’s Gospel (10) Christ presents Himself as the Good Shepherd, the Bonus Pastor,  who “lays down his life for his sheep (vs. 15). This image of Christ as the Good Shepherd constitutes the supreme model for all pastors, clerical or (in a broader and unordained sense) lay—anyone leading others into the Sheepfold of the Church. It is, therefore, crucial to understand the various nuances of pastor, or shepherd.

Shepherd. The word brings to mind the picture of a young man like that of the future King David, big and strong, a youth ruddy and beautiful to behold, and of a comely face (1 Samuel 16:12). No one ever captured the image quite like Michelangelo, whose David resembles a Greek god, not because he spent an inordinate amount of time at the gym but because he engaged in physically demanding work. The terminus and goal of his strength was not to incarnate the GQ model but to protect and defend his sheep, those for whom he was a pastor. He would fight to the death if necessary.

There is a softer, more playful side to the image of the shepherd. We think of the shepherd and his pipe, playing to his sheep, watching their joyful banter, laughing at their silly antics, wondering at their stupidity or simply enjoying time with the lambs.

Perhaps, too, the music and poetry of the Romantic period have shaped our view of the shepherd and his life. For example the strains of Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony evoke an Elysian paradise, an idillic place where any shepherd might hope to find himself whiling away his days in freedom listening to birdsong and eating rustic French baguettes and crumbly cheeses. This makes for a wonderful evening at the symphony, but lends itself less to fact than fiction, more to fancy than reality.

The truth is that shepherds occupied the lowest rung on the social ladder, carrying out a smelly, dirty job with little pay and no recognition… and no friends. Modern western man might yearn for the quiet, pastoral life, but Covidtide has taught him that isolation and fish stink after three days. Then there are the sheep—smelly, dirty and rather stupid little creatures that constantly have to be lead here and there and who offer no thanksgiving in return. They stray from the fold at every chance. So where, pray tell, is this subject going?

During a recent conversation, the mother of a few of my choristers, the redoubtable and Pickwickian Mrs. Werth, noted that throughout her entire life priests and religious, not to mention the vast majority of laity, have affirmed and reaffirmed that bringing the Church back to a place of orthodoxy must be done with great pastoral care, usually over the course of years or decades, if not a century. Regardless of the fact that souls are being lost because because they know nothing of Christ, His Church or His teachings, pastors (in both the clerical and non-clerical sense of the word) claimed that we must proceed slowly and pastorally so as not to drive souls away from the Church (i.e., don’t preach the Gospel for fear they won’t accept it). Then entered Covidtide and Mrs. Werth wryly observed that all our pastoral sensitivities flew the Barque of Peter as if it were on fire and capsizing. In reality shepherds finally got down to shepherding—at least as far as Covid19. The Church jettisoned any Romantic notion of shepherding and got back to David dispatching Goliath.

In the face of a possible public health crisis Masses were systematically closed down and the Sacred Liturgy expunged of its extraneous elements, regardless of whether people would leave the Church or stay, and everyone from top to bottom eagerly awaited the latest directives in an effort to keep people safe and healthy. In the face of Covid19, the Church has in fact become truly pastoral. Like the shepherds of yore, the Church’s shepherds have gone out of their way to ensure that every form of this possibly fatal contagion is kept as far away as possible from the faithful in order “that they might not perish, but have…life.”  The Church discovered both means and method to effectively spread Her message.

The point here is not to debate the Church’s response to Covid19,  but to juxtapose Her response over the last two months to possible physical death to that of Her response over the last five decades to certain spiritual death.

We felt compelled to spread the word on Covid19… even when some didn’t want to hear it.  We should do the same with the Gospel. We catechized the faithful on Covid19 via homilies, videos, articles, books, leaflets, etc. We should do the same with the teachings of Faith. We celebrated (and continue to celebrate) the Sacred Liturgy in such a way that everyone knew that we as a Church believed fully in the threat of Covid19 and its ill effects and we were ready to do whatever it took to save lives. We should treat sin the same way we have treated Covid19. In many places now the faithful are turned away from Holy Communion for publicly failing to live up to the Church’s teachings on Covid19 safety (i.e. not wearing masks). We should do the same when Catholics publicly live contrary to the teachings of Christ. Weddings have been stopped or postponed until couples are able to marry according to Church and societal doctrines for clean living. Perhaps we should take the same care to insure couples are ready to enter sacramentally into marriage. This is how we should shepherd the flock, the People of God.

I pray that those of us who are shepherds in some way, weather as bishops, priests or human fathers, are willing to examine our lives and ask if we haven’t been guided in the past by a romanticized pastoralism, which has resulted in some sort of ecclesiastical version of the self-help movement. I fear that the Four Last Things (death, judgement, Heaven or Hell) haven’t been at the forefront of our minds and hearts in a very long time and that in practice we have ceased to believe that Christ called each of us to glory, to His Glory, with the Father and the Son, with Mary and all the angels and saints, our real family—the Mystical Body of Christ—the true Sheepfold. The wolves have broken down the fence and found their way in to the Church and it is high time we leave the French baguettes and cheese behind and take up the rock and sling shot and feed the people once again on the solid food of “knowledge and doctrine.”

How Do the Greats Approach the Science of Choral Conducting?

I recently wrote on the subjects of beauty and wonder and their integral relationship to the art of great conducting. At the same time, I stressed how important the mechanics of conducting were, albeit in the role of the humble servant, because even the greatest of artists is dependent to a large degree upon his tools and training. Michelangelo, without training and in wont of the best paints and plaster, would have struggled to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (although he most certainly would have succeeded to a greater degree than many others in possession of both). Of course this leaves the musician asking the question how much of the science of conducting do I need to possess, or is it helpful to possess, in order to grow and develop into a consummate choral artist/conductor? Where can I learn this science?

While searching the internet I discovered a DMA document that I believe many of you will find helpful because it follows the work of six great choral conductors, focusing on the techniques each one uses in their choirs to build a lasting foundation upon which a beautiful and moving musical edifice might be constructed. Christopher Smith’s A Comparative Study of Select Choral Conductors’ Approaches to Unification of Choral Sound, Rehearsal, Conducting, and Leadership follows the methods and tactics of Frieder Bernius (Germany), Tõnu Kaljuste (Estonia), Stephen Cleobury, John Eliot Gardiner (United Kingdom), Weston Noble, and Robert Shaw (United States) in order to discover how they approach the science (and sometimes even the art) of choral conducting, giving special consideration to the musical groundwork each one believes necessary to lay in his choir before the choral arts can flourish. We properly call this choir training, and while choir training in itself will never assure a beautiful and moving performance, the lack thereof will most certainly hinder it. Don’t be hampered by the lack of knowledge of the science of conducting, so that when the time is ripe and the wonder and beauty of great music wound your soul, such seed will fall upon good ground.

What Makes a Great Conductor?

What makes a great conductor? Is he born with his gift or does he acquire it through assiduous effort? Is there hope for the amateur (in the best sense of the word) or is it a heavenly gift sparingly bestowed? In a certain sense anyone willing can become a good conductor, but the great conductor possesses something more, something so intangible I believe it can’t be taught. This gift is somewhat like the Faith, it is a gift that others can prepare one to receive, but in the end can’t actually give it, but it is this gift that makes the great conductor, and here I speak of wonder.

At the heart of the great conductor is one who is born in wonder, one who stands in awe and amazement of heaven’s divine gift–music. It might begin with hearing a Chopin piano concerto, the Veni Creator Spiritus, Bach’s B Minor Mass, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony or the Durufle Requiem, but a part of the conductor’s soul is touched in such a way that he knows he will never be the same again, and like all great lovers, seeks to share with everyone the object of his passion. This isn’t to say that knowledge of certain conducting patterns in unnecessary, or that one shouldn’t have to practice technique, but it is to say that these things are stiff and lifeless until the musician has been wounded by the beauty of music.

Working with children helps to bring our view of the matter into better focus because their enthusiasm is spontaneous and their reaction unstudied. If they don’t like something they will say it and even before they say it their faces will betray it. How, then, does the great choir master get so much out of his choristers? No matter how good of musicians these boys and girls are, they are still just that, boys and girls, and they won’t give what they haven’t first been given. They can’t give a sublime performance if they haven’t first fallen in love with the music. The great conductor has to be able to prepare them to receive the gift of being born in wonder.

I vividly remember some years ago trying to teach my early choristers to sing in parts and it wasn’t working. I was discouraged at the prospect of unison singing for the rest of my life and filled with dread that we would never get beyond hymns and simple motets. I needed something more so I decided to teach the choristers the soprano line of Palestrina’s Missa Brevis and ask the adult choir to sing alto, tenor and bass. It really wasn’t difficult–mostly simple rhythms and melodic intervals. It was so simple, in fact, that the children were bored with it, but I plowed forward. Finally the day of the full choir rehearsal arrived and we began with the Gloria. I thought it best to have the entire choir sing the big F major chord before moving on and it was then that I saw wonder in the faces of the children. Something so simple as singing a major chord perfectly in tune in a resonant space changed their attitude completely and a number of them told me later that that was the moment their love for choral music truly began. Those students made all the difference to the choir.

Unfortunately there is no magic formula for striking that first spark in the life of a child, or any adult musician for that matter, but therein lies the heart of the truly great conductor–the ability awaken his fellow musicians, that they may be born in wonder.


Audiation and the Chorister

“Audiation is the process of both mentally hearing and understanding music, even when no music is present. In essence, audiation is thinking in music or thinking about music in a way the brain is able to give meaning to the sounds.” Darren Wicks

Audiation is a term coined by the American music educator Edwin Gordon and constitutes, in a sense, the primary goal of probationer training. Audiation encompasses what we loosely refer to as sight-singing and ear-training, or the ability to hear in one’s own mind, without aural assistance of any kind, the music notated by the symbols on the printed page, as well as its reverse, the ability to transcribe into symbols the music one hears in real time. This process is incredibly important for the members of a liturgical choir for many reasons, but perhaps the simplest is that it allows the singers to tackle large amounts of repertoire quickly so that the bulk of a choir’s rehearsal can be spent working toward a musical performance as opposed to a merely note-perfect, but lifeless, one.

The reality in any great liturgical choir is that there is simply too much music to learn by rote. The mediocre liturgical choir, on the other hand, spends all of its time learning notes and never arrives at the shores of a beautifully moving performance. Teaching one’s probationers to audiate launches their ship into a world of learning and musical self-discovery.

At the same time, we must differentiate between audiation and teaching music theory. All the choir schools and choral foundations I am aware of teach music theory (the intellectual knowledge of how music works), but it is possible to intellectually understand the why behind rhythms and scales but not learn how to clap them or sing them in real time. Therefore these schools and foundations employ extra-curricular avenues for connecting the theoretical knowledge of music to the ear and mouth. Below are a number of methods used to help probationers navigate this ocean.

Piano Studies
The most widely used method for teaching audiation is private piano study, which teaches, or rather reinforces, the music theory a probationer learns in class. I find it interesting to note that while this method is an excellent way to reinforce music theory in a visual way (using the keyboard) as well as to teach the child to pay attention to more than one musical line at a time, it doesn’t actually engage the child’s eye ear in a manner that naturally teaches him to read an interval on the page and then interpret what that interval sounds like in his mind simply because the piano does the work for him. It is interesting to note, however, that in the world’s great cathedral choir schools the standards are so high that entering probationers must already posses incredible pitch memory and piano study works perfectly for these boys. For them, the process of audiation takes places naturally and quickly and it usually suffices to throw them in the deep end and make them swim, so to say. Regardless, piano study is still the best way to deepen the probationer’s audiatory skills. If I could find the funds, I would require all of my choristers to take piano lessons as part of their studies.

Many choir schools and choral foundations make solfege a fundamental part of their musical training because it teaches the probationer the sound of the major and various minor scales and teaches him to navigate these scales easily. A child instinctively learns to find DO from any other note in the scale and the same eventually goes for all the other pitches. By the time a child is able to navigate a diatonic hymn (with the occasional secondary dominant) or simple square note chant notation, it is generally just a matter of time and experience before he becomes comfortable tackling simpler polyphony and finally harder repertoire. Solfege also helps the child to think of the musical line in a linear fashion so that each note is tuned to the one before it as well as to the one after it, not just vertically with all of the other pitches sounding at the same time.

The one downside to solfege is that some children find it difficult to remember the actual solfege syllable names even after they are fluent in diatonic reading. One must remember that the goal of solfege is not that every chorister is able to sing his music to solfege syllables, but that every choristers can pitch the notes of the scale correctly.

Suzuki Violin Studies
A few programs teach classroom Suzuki violin in the early grades in order to develop the probationer’s sense of pitch. The nature of the violin and the way in which the child makes a note sound upon it means that the pitch can easily be played too high or too low (because there is no fret to guide him) and the child is taught to be aware of this slight fluctuation in pitch in order to correct it. This is very different from the piano, where the proper pitch, without any fluctuation in tuning, sounds as long as the right key is struck.

Another benefit to classroom violin study is that when the child has an exceptional teacher, he will learn just how beautiful and moving a musical line can sound, and hopefully when he sings he will imitate the violin’s timbre, its use of messe di voce and judicious vibrato to bring out the musical line as well as the violin’s incredible range of emotive possibilities.

Vocal Coaching
Most of the great choir schools and choral foundations today employ vocal coaches in order to provide each chorister with a weekly voice lesson. Obviously these lessons are geared toward teaching healthy vocal technique, but the added benefit is that the probationer can’t rely on another probationer next to him to give him his part. His sight-singing prowess is uniquely on display and he will try that much harder.

Other Instrumental Studies
Quite often choristers embark on further instrumental studies, in addition to piano, such as learning one of the many orchestral instruments. This again simply reinforces the theoretical knowledge learned in the classroom.

Lastly, as probationers progress into seasoned choristers, they often try their hand at serious composing, which brings them to the pinnacle of audiation. Here the child takes the grand sum of all his musical studies and experiences and weds them to his own ability to imagine, hear and create musical ideas, and thus a new composition is born. It will have taken quite some time, but the young boy will have become fluent in the divine language of music.