All posts by theart61_wp

St. Mary’s Cathedral Choir, Sydney Australia

I recently experienced the thrill of the hunt when I stumbled upon the Facebook page of St. Mary’s Cathedral Choir, Sydney, Australia, last Lent. To be fair to myself, I had known about and listened to recordings of this fine choir numerous times over the past and had always considered them to be an exceptional group of singers, but it was a a Facebook recording of the choir singing Bruckner’s Christus factus est as the Gradual on Good Friday that struck deeply into my soul.

I’ve heard and sung the piece on many occasions, but never at that precise moment, the proper moment, in the Good Friday Liturgy. Put there, immediately before the reading of the Passion, it beautifully encapsulated the emptying out of Christ on the Cross, yet because of this contained the seeds of glory that would be Christ’s Name, that Name above all other names. I must admit I watched the video a number of times and never tired of it. I even shared it with some of my choristers. It also led to a deeper search of the choir’s website where I discovered another gem–the choir’s podcast, Staved Off.

If you are interested in the great English Cathedral music tradition (I know, the choir is not from England, but I doubt if most listeners could tell that) and want to know more about its inner workings, please consider listening in. There are about a dozen podcasts in all and topics include things such as music for the holy seasons throughout the year and other events such as weddings, information about the choir’s 200 year history, choral festivals, Gregorian chant, English and Latin hymnody and much more. You will hear great recordings of great music sung by the choir and links are provided to numerous other related items. Thomas Wilson, the director of music, is one of the hosts, so you get the information straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak (no disrespect meant to Mr. Wilson). I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

 

Further Thoughts on the Westminster Cathedral Choir

Two weeks ago I shared with readers a letter I sent to the Head Master of the Westminster Cathedral Choir School (London) regarding the school’s recent decision to alter the boarding arrangements of its choristers. I felt (and continue to feel) that such an incredible religious and cultural institution as the Westminster Cathedral Choir must be preserved and promoted at all costs.

The Westminster Cathedral Choir was built, so to speak, by Cardinal Vaughan and Sir Richard Terry, the choir’s first director, in 1901 alongside the actual cathedral, owing to the Cardinal’s belief (and the Church’s) that nothing should be spared in the worship of almighty God and that all the arts, but especially music, should be employed toward that end. If a grand cathedral for London was to be built, then there must be a program of sacred music worthy of the Ancient Rites that would celebrated in it. Sir Richard, a convert to Catholicism and the undoubted leader of the revival of English Renaissance music, fulfilled the cardinal’s desires and made his dream a reality.

In the wider western world, Pope St. Pius X would shorty release his Motu Proprio Tra le solecitudini, calling for the restoration of Gregorian chant as the Church’s music par excellence and for the primacy of Renaissance polyphony above other choral music. At the same time, the early music scene was alive and well in England and much of the early music that Terry unearthed eventually found its was into the cathedral music lists. It was thanks to Terry that we now have the Byrd Masses for 3, 4 and 5 voices and many other gems of the English Renaissance. To this day, the influence of Pope St. Pius X and Sir Richard Terry are evident in the cathedral music lists, where Gregorian chant and polyphony, especially works from the English pen, form the bedrock of the cathedral’s music program.

Equally impressive as Sir Richard Terry are many of the men who took up the baton after him, names such as George Malcom, Colin Mawby, Stephen Cleobury, David Hill, James O’Donnell and now Martin Baker.

A number of years ago I had the privilege of hearing the choir live in concert and even the greatest of expectations I had were blown away. If I had had any misgivings about the $25 ticket I purchased (a large amount in graduate school), they were quickly done away with. I vividly remember being moved that evening by the simple chanting of the Veni Creator in alternatim with Durufle’s variations on the same melody. On my way out, I bought a CD of the choir singing Christmas Vespers and listened to it so much in the ensuing years that many of the tracts no longer played.

There are so many things I would like to share about the Westminster Cathedral Choir, but perhaps I will end with this. Each summer I spend two weeks at Benedictine College in Atchison, KS, teaching high school students in the college’s immersion programs. One of my favorite things to do is to share with these young people how music is able to convey Truth, Goodness and Beauty in a way that the spoken word never could. Listening to Sir James MacMillan’s setting of the famous passage from Matthew 16, Thou art Peter… (Tu es Petrus), we flesh out a greater understanding of the  Petrine ministry in the life of the Church in general and in the life of English Catholics in particular.

In this video we watch as Pope Benedict XVI enters Westminster Cathedral during his pastoral visit to England in 2010, the first visit from a reigning pontiff since the number of practicing Catholics surpassed the number of practicing Anglicans in 2007. The very term “pope,” from the Greek word for “father,” reminds us that our Holy Father is just that, a father, and that a father’s first duty is to provide for, to serve and to protect his children, even fighting for them when necessary. When we realize that Catholicism in England only recently emerged from four centuries of persecution and even now is under new forms of assault from modern culture, MacMillan’s setting, which conjures up images of a great battle, seems especially poignant. One might easily imagine it as a musical backdrop to the epic battles in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Pope Benedict, in this moment, prepares to enter into battle on behalf of his English children, but one is struck by the frailty of the man and realizes that this battle will not be of a physical nature, but of a spiritual one. By the grace of the Sacraments, particularly the Holy Mass, the devil will once again be put to flight. The music acknowledges this truth as it serenely comes to an end and the choir intones the Introit. Pope Benedict, papa, enters into the Holy of Holies, and in persona Christi is victorious over sin and death.

I am reminded of the care with which the Pieta was transported from the Vatican to New York City for the World’s Fair in 1964 and I hope and pray that the Westminster Cathedral Choir will be treated with as much veneration and respect.

To the Headmaster of Westminster Cathedral Choir School

As many of you are no doubt aware, Westminster Cathedral Choir School (London) recently made the decision to fundamentally alter the boarding status of its choristers, thus jeopardizing the choir’s sole reason for being, to sing the daily praises of God. What follows is a letter I am posting today to the school’s headmaster, Mr. Neil McLaughlan. I would encourage you to do the same, or to email him via office@choirschool.com.

May 7, 2019

Dear Mr. McLaughlan,

On the afternoon of April 15, Catholics the world over learned of the devastating news of a monstrous fire ravaging through the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, seemingly destroying everything in its path. We watched through flames and embers as the roof and spire crumbled, fearing that all (literally) would be lost. The stained glass, the organ, the Crown of Thorns, the bell towers, even the Blessed Sacrament, Himself—we wondered if the fire would take it all and all that it stood for. Only on the following morning did we learn that miraculously Our Lady’s cathedral still stood, her great rose windows still captured the morning sun, her Cavaillé-Coll organ would once again chant the unending praises of God, and that due to the bravering of so many firemen and their chaplain, and undoubtedly due to the prayers of so many offered around the world, the Crown of Thorns and most importantly, the Blessed Sacrament had been saved.

Imagine my sorrow then when I recently learned that Westminster Cathedral Choir School would fundamentally alter its choristers’ boarding arrangements and decrease the choir’s intimate connection to the Cathedral’s life of sacred worship. It seemed that a second tragedy, on par with the fire at Notre Dame, had struck the Church in Europe. No doubt the choir’s standard will remain high, but that is not the choir’s ultimate purpose. Just as Notre Dame was not built to be a tourist attraction, but as a worthy tabernacle for the Divine on earth, so Cardinal Vaughn and Sir Richard Terry founded the Westminster Cathedral Choir to sing the praises of God daily, not merely when convenient. Just as Parisians in the 12th century felt compelled to give the best they had to God, so should the folks of Westminster Cathedral in the 21st century.

As I am sure you are aware, the Westminster Cathedral Choir is every bit as important, beautiful and sublime a gift as Notre Dame Cathedral, only much more fragile. Fires and revolutions have not been able to sweep away such a great edifice. Even in the quiet of the night, she stands as a testament to the glory of God. The cathedral’s choir, on the other hand, must be renewed, rebuilt and restored through an unending round of rehearsals, lessons, Masses and Offices, which simply are not possible without the full boarding of its choristers.

Several years ago, in an email exchange with Colin Mawby, Westminster’s former Master of Music described to me the precarious circumstances of the choir school during the turbulent 1960s. He told me he never knew from day to day if the choir school would survive another year, and at one point even announced that its doors would close. Yet he fought and prayed, much like the firemen at Notre Dame, and by the grace of God saved the institution.

It is true that changing the boarding arrangements of your choristers is not nearly as drastic as closing the choir school entirely, but it would signal the death knell of the choir’s sole raison d’être, the daily singing of the Church’s Opus Dei. Like the great Cathedral of Notre Dame, this daily musical offering belongs not only to the Church in London and the British Isles, but to the universal Church. It is an inspiration to Catholics and many others around the world and it is THE standard of Sacred Music in an increasingly secular world, but most of all, it is an offering of love we owe to the Creator of All. Please be assured of my prayers in this difficult time.

In Jesus and Mary,

Dr. Lucas M. Tappan

Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum, founder and director

A Reason to Hope

On Friday last my family and I had the happy pleasure of attending the wedding of the eldest son of some close friends of ours who are part of our local Catholic home school community, and today I thought I would share with readers a few of the impressions I had throughout the evening. I do this simply to offer hope to those who struggle so valiantly each day in their own families and places of work to build up the Church, and who, as a result, are sometimes tempted to despair at a culture that seems hell-bent (I use that phrase purposely) on destroying itself and everyone in it. We need to remember how small the amount of yeast is that is needed to leaven the dough.

Besides the fact that the weather proved a beautiful and sunny 70-something degree day and the trees had just finished coming into leaf, the first thing I noticed was the vast number of children—there were children everywhere. Half the guests at this fairly large wedding had to have been children. I was struck by their numbers. There was a large meadow behind the reception hall and throughout the evening there was forever a group of at least 30 to 40 children running around playing games, and there were no parents hovering around telling them to be careful or to watch out. They were simply having fun and their vitality was palpable.

The second thing I noticed was that all of these children came from their original two parent homes and had fathers and mothers who were actively involved in their lives. They were beautiful (and often large) Catholic families. At the reception I noticed a number of mothers (with babies) talking, often with other high school daughters nearby. The same could be said of the fathers, with their high school sons close at hand. Best of all, I don’t really remember anyone sitting around hooked into technology or constantly checking their social media accounts.

I felt (and continue to feel) blessed to be part of such a group, a group that will undoubtedly provide our next generation of priests, religious and Catholic families, and possibly even spouses for my children.

Lest anyone think the evening was a walk through the daffodils, I should tell you that there was a “Smore’s Bar” complete with open flames and wooden roasting skewers, which any resourceful two-year-old could have gotten, and did get, hold of. Parents, you haven’t lived until you have tried to navigate a crowded room with young children in possession of what looked like wooden knitting needles (only much sharper), melting chocolate (which by this time was all over their hand and my clothes) and fiery marshmallows! It would be better to describe the evening as organized chaos.

The wedding itself was beautifully and reverently celebrated and I hope I can say the music added to the solemnity of the day.

From what I read and hear, this situation is currently being played out in many other small communities throughout our corner of the world—a new springtime of Faith. I don’t pretend that there won’t be difficulties or even persecutions (our Lord promised us both) but I do have reason to hope, and this hope leads to joy, which should be the mark of every Christian.

Strive for Greatness!

I offer the following as a healthy antidote to so much drivel we hear today in the Church coming from people who should know better. Stop trying to remove the cross from Christianity and from our every day lives. Stop trying to make everything easy, and therefore unimportant. Instead, help us and those around us to pick up our cross and follow Christ.

Consequently, if you are church musician, strive for greatness, both for yourself and for your music program. Don’t stoop to the lowest common denominator. Again I say strive for greatness!

  1. Strive for greatness yourself. Do you strive to become a better musician, singer, organist? Do you strive to better manage your tasks? (and I don’t mean trying to get more done).
  2. Ask those around you to strive for greatness. Do you expect greatness from those around you? Do you always push them to greater heights, without pushing them too far? Do you strive to understand them and what you can do to help them achieve greatness? Do you accept constructive criticism from those same people when they push you toward greatness?
  3. Give your musicians quality music to sing and play and ask them to sing and play it well. Each parish will have a different dynamic, but even if you find yourself in a less than ideal situation, insist upon quality in the music. You won’t find yourself striving for greatness if the best you can hope for is mediocre music done well.
  4. Communicate through the music. I assume you work to get the notes right, but do you work to communicate the text? Yes, what we do is ultimately for God and this should always be first and foremost in our minds. Nevertheless, there is nothing wrong with edifying our parishioners at the same time.
  5. Ask for feedback from sources you can trust. Not everything you do will be great. Make sure you have some trusted sources who think with the mind of the Church, but who nevertheless will tell you when things aren’t going well or could even be better.
  6. Work to build healthy friendships and to know your musicians outside of your music program. Holiness and love for good music is more caught than taught.
  7. Strive for holiness and real communion. This is the most important of all, but don’t think it is holiness versus excellence. Rather, excellence is part of your holiness. Above all else, spend time with our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and do all that you do with Him and for Him.

Regarding the last point, I am reminded of the following passage from the book In sinu Jesu: “This is what I want of you: time “wasted,” spend in My presence. Time given to Me for My sake…Do you think that I was always meeting with My disciples to plan events, to organize and strategize and plot our course of action? All of this is the world’s way of achieving what it sees as results. When I walked with My disciples, when I rested with them, our delight was in being together. They remained with Me for Me alone, and I remained with them out of My love for them, just as I remain in the Sacrament of the Altar out of the love I bear My whole Church…” (102)

 

 

The Cantor and Congregational Singing

The sight of the liturgical cantor is a familiar one… some man or woman, usually planted in the sanctuary with raised hand, beckoning us to song. In all fairness to these much maligned people, the vast majority do offer their gifts back to God and others in a spirit of generosity. They simply wish to serve and I am eternally grateful for that. At the same time, I wonder if we haven’t lost sight of the cantor’s original purpose of fostering congregational singing. Is it possible that the cantor is actually at odds with the goal of congregational singing? I wonder.

Regarding the Cantor, we find in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal the following: (104) It is fitting that there be a cantor or a choir director to lead and sustain the people’s singing. When in fact there is no choir, it is up to the cantor to lead the different chants, with the people taking part. Thus, the role of cantor is succinctly summed up in two words, leading and sustaining, but does the cantor succeed in these two roles?

It goes without saying that someone or something must establish the pitch and rhythm of the congregation’s sung prayer, otherwise cacophony would ensue, and the cantor is certainly capable. It is also true that someone or something needs to sustain the congregation’s sung prayer. Again, the cantor is suitable. But is the cantor the best candidate? Here we need to remember that this honor belongs first and foremost to the choir, and cultivating excellent choirs we must. The choir represents all of Heaven (and earth) present at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and a single cantor fails, at least symbolically, to convey this reality. You might well agree, but what about in the absence of a choir? Even in those rare parishes where the highest ideals of liturgical prayer are sought after and practiced, it is unlikely that the choirmaster possesses the ability to convince his choir to sing for multiple Masses 52 Sundays of the year, not to mention Holy Days and ferial days. Not even Westminster Cathedral, the London Oratory or St. John Cantius are capable of producing such a rara avis. There must be an alternative to the choir, and so we are given the cantor.

A well trained cantor is undoubtedly able to communicate pitch and rhythm, at least to a small group of parishioners, and should be able to sustain their singing, but this becomes extremely difficult in all but the smallest churches without the aid of the microphone and here is where I believe the role of the cantor fails. The cantor as we know it within the Ordinary Form wouldn’t be possible without the aid of amplified sound and I am convinced that electronic amplification kills congregational singing. First, it creates the impression that the church is filled with singing, which is rarely the case (if you doubt me, try turning off your sound system in the middle of any hymn and LISTEN). More often than not, the cantor masks the fact that many have stopped singing. Second, which is probably the reason for the first, cantors regularly lead music unsuitable for congregational use, music that is pitched too high, requires too wide a range and demands what is rhythmically impossible (this is apart from questions regarding theological soundness and principles of beauty). Third, even when suitable music has been chosen, the nature of amplified sound overpowers even the greatest amount of congregational participation. No matter how gustily the congregation sings, the cantor can and usually will sing louder. Lastly, amplification rids us of the necessity to build acoustically live and resonant churches.

This last point reminds me of a certain stairwell in my college’s library that amplified even the smallest whisper into a force of nature. One day at lunch it came out around the table that all of us seated there (I believe I was the only music student at the table) loved to sing in that space when we found ourselves alone in it because the sound seemed to come alive. Resonant churches provide that same impetus to many faithful who otherwise feel exposed and vulnerable singing in dry spaces where their individual voices and mistakes are readily noticed, especially by themselves. A live acoustic is somewhat like grace, it takes the earnest, but often modest, vocal offering of the Christian and transforms it into something beautiful.

Resonant acoustics aside, this leaves us with two main questions. 1) Does the cantor fulfill its role in the Ordinary Form? and 2) If not, then who, or what, can? For the moment, I want suspend judgment on the first question and tackle the second.

If not, then who, or what? First, we need to remember that congregational singing pre-dates the Second Vatican Council and even the advent of amplified sound. Congregational singing in the Germanic and Slavic nations runs deep and certainly wasn’t predicated on the presence of the cantor.

The pipe organ is the only other living thing that could possibly fill the void left in the absence of a choir. No other instrument on earth can sing as high or low, as loud or soft, or with as much gentleness, passion or majesty as the Sacred Liturgy demands (and all without amplification). If we look at the history of the pipe organ, long before it ever accompanied the congregation it was used to establish pitch and sometimes tempo for the singers. A good organist today can easily end his introduction in such a way that the congregation knows it has come to an end and that the hymn or chant will begin NOW, on THIS pitch, at THIS tempo. As a matter of fact, I have done it many times. The organist should be able to adjust his registration, timbre, tempo and key to fit the congregation’s needs without the unnatural aide of the microphone. To lead and sustain via the organ, coupled with good, singable music, is to place the responsibility for congregational singing in the hands of the congregation. As with anything else in life, if you want someone to succeed, you have to first give him the tools and then step back and let him do it.

Now I can tackle the question of the cantor’s necessity. If the organ/organist is able to lead and sustain congregational singing in a purely natural way (without amplification), is the cantor no longer necessary? In a perfect world every parish would have an organist capable of leading from the organ and all the music used would be known and loved, but that simply isn’t the case. Nevertheless, there are ways we can place the responsibility for congregation singing back in the hands of the congregation while making concessions for a cantor when necessary.

  1. Move your cantor out of the sanctuary and into the organ loft if possible. Before anyone objects that in the older form of the Roman Rite the liturgical cantor would have been both vested AND in the choir/sanctuary, we must remember that the cantor as envisioned by the GIRM is very different from the traditional cantor in the Roman Rite. It is simply too easy for the modern cantor to become the star of the show as opposed to the servant of the liturgy and liturgical song.
  2. Ask your cantor to begin well-known music and then step away from the microphone.
  3. Ask your cantor to lead all new music, but only until the congregation is capable of sustaining it themselves. If the congregation isn’t able to do so after a reasonable amount of time, perhaps the music you’ve chosen is simply not suitable.
  4. Ask your cantor to sing the proper antiphons. Since these change weekly, it can be difficult for your congregation to learn all but the simplest settings of them.
  5. Do NOT, I repeat do NOT!!! ask a cantor to sing at the same time as the choir.
  6. Find smaller groups of musicians, perhaps two strong singers, to lead the music, without microphones, in the absence of your choir.

We need to be honest and ask if what we are doing supports or hinders our sung prayer. Such honesty can be brutal, but ultimately life giving.

Millennials and Authenticity

Following the recent Synod on the Youth and the comical spectacle of some prelates trying to be relevant to young people by hosting a disco for them in the Piazza della Minerva, I would like to take up the topic of millennials and authenticity once again, especially as it regards sacred music.

If there is one mantra I continually hear regarding this enigmatic group, it is that they desire authenticity–but here we need to define terms. What do we mean by authenticity? What do they mean by authenticity? I think it is necessary to look at the lives most millennials have lived to this point and ask what unreal situations have they faced and experienced and what does this teach us about the reality, or authenticity, that they desire.

First, we start at home. Here we see a generation raised primarily in broken homes, where mother is divided against father and father against mother. Many of their fathers were never present, leaving their mothers to raise the children. Even if their mothers were present, many chose to drop off their children, their family’s greatest commodity if I might put it that way, at the local day care to be raised by surrogate, or unreal parents. Millennials  have had no experience of authentic family.

Second, we look at friendships. Friendships for millennials exist primarily in the virtual worlds of Facebook, Twitter and the many other forms of social media that allow them to be completely engaged with everyone and no one, all at the same time. Over and over we hear of the tragedy of a young person with 500 Facebook friends committing suicide because he didn’t have one real friend. Millennials have had no experience of authentic friendship.

Lastly, we look at religious affiliation. Millennials are leaving the Catholic Church at an alarming rate (around 85%). The Church, or I should say those in the Church, have bent over backwards to be relevant in every way, shape and form to this generation. We have given them everything they wanted, even liberation from God. Millennials have had no experience of authentic holiness.

All of this has left the millennial generation floundering in doubt, disbelief and depression. Is it any wonder they desire authenticity? I firmly believe that deep in the recesses of their souls they want someone to tell them that despite the best propaganda available today, they are not their own gods and don’t need to try to be. Yes, they are sinful (any millennial who takes even a brief look at his life can see that) and need a Savior, and no they cannot save themselves. Instead, there is something, rather Someone, who can. Jesus Christ! More than that, He loves them with an eternal love that seeks to burn away their imperfections and purify them until they are able to love in the way that He loves. This is true authenticity and the only way to bring millennials out of the self-imposed prisons in which they find themselves. At the heart of this transformation lies the turning away from worship of self to worship of the One, True God, as He is and not in the image we wish to make Him.

In this way, the Sacred Liturgy, our worship of the One, True God, and the music wedded to it are of supreme importance. Is the music we sing authentic? Does it speak to the reality of God as He has revealed Himself? Does it authentically present the Christians “story” in all its fullness: creation, the fall, the Incarnation, the Pascal Mysteries, the Second Coming and the Parousia? Does the music’s rhythm and melody work toward the glory of God or toward our own self fulfillment?

In the Roman Rite, this means that chant, especially where it concerns the texts of the Liturgy itself, is of paramount importance, whether in Latin or the vernacular. In addition to plainsong, polyphony should also have a role, but beyond this, there really is a large variety of musics and styles that could be considered authentic for the Sacred Liturgy. Unfortunately, there is also MUCH music that is inauthentic. Pope St. Pius X, in Tra le sollecitudini, gives three criteria for such authenticity: the music must possess 1) sanctity and goodness of form, 2) true art and 3) universality.

A number of years ago the CMAA published a pamphlet entitled Twenty-Four Questions on Sacred Music, and the very first question takes up a defense of these three criteria. I think it fitting to end with its explanation of these three criteria. We should spend time contemplating the music we make and ask ourselves whether it corresponds to these criteria. Is the music we make truly authentic sacred music? It really will have an impact on the millennials we hope to evangelize.*

“On the centenary of its promulgation, John Paul II urged us to revisit and learn from St. Pius X’s letter motu proprio on Sacred Music, Tra le sollecitudini(1903). Pope Pius distinguished three characteristics: “sacred music should consequently possess […] sanctity and goodness of form, which will spontaneously produce the final quality of universality” (§2).

“Concerning sanctity, for music to be sacred means it is not the ordinary, not the every-day. It is set aside for the purpose of glorifying God and edifying and sanctifying the faithful. It must therefore exclude all that is not suitable for the temple — all that is ordinary, every-day or profane, not only in itself, but also in the manner in which it is performed. The sacred words of the Liturgy call for a sonic vesture that is equally sacred. Sacredness, then, is more than individual piety; it is an objective reality.

“Concerning goodness of form, the Latin speaks of bonitate formarum, “goodness of forms”: this refers to the tendency of sacred music to synthesize diverse ritual elements into a unity, to draw together a succession of liturgical actions into a coherent whole, and to serve a range of sacred expressions. Excellence of forms also serves to differentiate those elements, to distinguish the various functions of liturgical chants by revealing their unique character. Each chant of the various Gregorian genres presents a masterly adaptation of the text to its specific liturgical purpose. No wonder the Church has consistently proposed chant as the paradigm of sacred music.

“Sacred music must be true art, says Pope Pius, “otherwise it will be impossible for it to exercise on the minds of those who listen to it that efficacy which the Church aims at obtaining in admitting into her liturgy the art of musical sounds.” Beauty is what holds truth and goodness to their task. To paraphrase Hans Urs von Balthasar, without beauty, the truth does not persuade, goodness does not compel (The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, I: 19). Beauty, as expressed in the Church’s liturgy, synthesizes diverse elements into a unified whole: truth, goodness, and the human impulse to worship.

“Concerning universality, sacred music is supra-national, equally accessible to people of diverse cultures. The Church does admit local indigenous forms into her worship, but these must be subordinated to the general characteristics of the received tradition. By insisting on the continuous use of her musical treasures, especially chant, the Church ensures her members grow up hearing this sacred musical language and receive it naturally as a part of the liturgy.

*While I consider the Sacred Liturgy and Sacred Music to be of paramount importance in the evangelization of all peoples, I also want to acknowledge that these are not the only things necessary. Unfortunately, progressives often set up a false dichotomy between discipleship and the worthy celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, as if one naturally excludes the other, and they use this to downplay the importance of the Liturgy. I refuse to accept this straw man argument. It is both possible and necessary to have both—one cannot exist without the other.

Incredible Advent/Christmas Resource for Families

My wife recently stumbled upon what I consider to be an incredible Advent/Christmas resource for families who wish to live the liturgical life more deeply within the home and who hope to incorporate music into their familial piety.

Catholic home schooling mother and blogger Jennifer Mackintosh has put together a daily calendar (download here) for the seasons of Advent and Christmas that contains not only the greatest Christian traditions surrounding the season and when they take place, but also a schedule of how to make preparations ahead of time so these wonderful customs don’t catch your family unawares. She also gives great musical resources, especially if you struggle to find Advent carols and hymns for your family. It also contains daily reading list and so much more (this is an understatement). Please take a look.

If you feel that Advent is already too busy, I hope you will re-read my post from last year (Your Family and Adventtide) challenging families to finish your shopping before Advent and to refocus the season on preparing for the birth of Christ.

Please know you and your families will be in my prayers and we enter into the blessed season of Advent.

Chorister Catechesis

Each year the Archdiocese of Kansas City (KS) hosts a vocation day for area 5th grade students and as part of the day, Archbishop Joseph Naumann celebrates Holy Mass for all of the students. Quite naturally, he speaks to them in his homily about vocations, both the universal call to holiness given to each person as well as the particular vocation God gives to each Christian in order to live out his call to holiness.

I wasn’t able to attend the Mass this year, but I heard afterward from the mother of one of my choristers (Matthias) that at one point in the homily, the archbishop asked the students what their purpose in live was. One student answered with Matthew Kelly’s to become the best version of yourself. The archbishop acknowledged that was true, but that he was looking for something else, so he asked the question again. Matthias shot his hand in the air and the archbishop called on him. With a volume that only a 5th grade boy can muster, he rattled off that his purpose in life was to know, love and serve God in this life, and to be happy with Him forever in the next. Archbishop Naumann acknowledged that this was what he wanted to hear, strait from the catechism. Matthias’ mother told she she beamed with prided thinking she had done her duty to make sure her son knew his purpose, but when she asked him about it afterward he told her that “part of the credit goes to Dr. Tappan, who makes us tell him at every choir practice what our purpose in life is.” I must confess that I felt a great amount of pride upon hearing that. It is true that I ask each one what his purpose in life is, both on that particular day and for all eternity. I often wonder if what I teach in choir has much of an eternal effect on the lives of my choristers—I hope it does.

In a similar vein, my wife’s aunt and uncle, cattle ranchers in the beautiful Kansas Flint Hills, have five children, four of whom are grown now, but the father told me once that every single day, when they awoke at 5:30 in the morning and put on the first pot of coffee, he asked his children to tell him what their purpose was in life, and they had to be able to answer as Matthias did. The father told me recently that he still asks that question daily of his two grown sons who work on the farm. He also asks his daughters whenever they visit.

About 10 years ago, the middle of their five children, a daughter of only 15 years, was diagnosed with cancer and the family watched as she succumbed to the agonizing disease over the course of more than a year. Still her father asked her that question. What is your purpose in this life?  He told me that he also had long conversations with her about the glory of Heaven and how she was truly blessed because she would arrive there before the others. He told her she would have to pray that the rest of the family made it.

As the cancer worsened, she refused morphine as much as possible, offering up the pain for the conversion of sinners and for the holy souls in purgatory. As her body became so emaciated she stopped having visitors for a time because she was embarrassed by how she looked. It wasn’t long, though, before she asked for visitors again and told her family it was just the devil working on her vanity. The night before she died her family gathered in her hospital room to pray the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross and afterward she told her family that that was the last time that they would pray together, that she was going to go home. She died peacefully the next day as her mom drove home from the hospital and her father was driving to it. It is the only time I can ever remember a parent being filled with joy that his child had made it “home.” I will never forget having had the privilege of chanting the In pardisum at the funeral.

As we remember all of the faithful departed during this month of November, be mindful of the immense power that you as a choir director having in orienting your choristers toward Heaven, so that they, too, might one day be counted among the faithful departed.

A Refresher on Chorister Training

It has been some time since last I wrote about chorister training, and now that the school year is fully underway, I thought it might be helpful to offer a refresher on the logistics of training our young people in the art of liturgical music.

I think the largest hurdle most choir directors face is actually working with children (if that is not one’s cup of tea). As always, there are both joys and drawback working with children as opposed to teenagers or even adults. Children bring an enthusiasm to choir rehearsal that is rarely topped and they have no preconceived bias toward learning to sight-sing. While your adult sopranos will begin to squirm as soon as you warm them up above a G or A below high C, that won’t be the case with children. On the other hand, if you have a great group of adults, they will move through music at an incredible rate of speed, which is the cause of deep satisfaction in the director AND the singers. Adults generally spare you discipline problems that spill out of children and there is the joy of adult interaction. Regardless, there are three areas that are especially helpful to be competent in when working with children.

First is the creation of routine. Routine helps children to grow. A proper routine can also steer children away from discipline problems. Every choir needs to have a healthy routine so the children know from the moment they walk through the door what is expected of them. I would highly recommend the book The First Days of School by Wong and Wong. It deals primarily with the classroom setting, but the routine of a choir is no different. If you set a certain tone in the first few rehearsals, you and your choristers will be off to a great start.

Second is the teaching of children. Knowing how different boys and girls are and how these differences help them learn differently is crucially important. Also important is knowing the difference between the way children and adults learn. Even within children, there are different learning styles depending upon the age and maturity of a child. If you are running a choral program from children in kindergarten through high school, I would suggest you acquaint yourself with the 3 main learning styles in the classical model: the grammar, logic and rhetorical stages. This is especially helpful when teaching younger children. As for working with junior high and high school children I would suggest reading Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov. All too often choir directors rely on a couple of key singers to support the entire choir as opposed to building everyone up into an effective choral unit. How do you help underachievers to work at the level of your best choristers? How do you help every child understand that he/she is absolutely crucial to the choir and that they need to work as if they, too, know that? Teach Like a Champion gives so many helps toward this goal that I can’t recommend it highly enough. I would warn you though, you must practice many of these concepts in front of a mirror before you use them in the class room.

Third, you will have to have a basic understanding of psychology. The same group of singers will one day make you think you have the best choir in the world and the next day make you wonder if they have ever sung two notes together. They will have a terrible pre-concert rehearsal and then dazzle you in the concert itself. On the flip side, they will also rehearse so well before Mass that you can’t understand why they sound awful 15 minutes later when Mass begins. Do you ride out the terrible music or is there a way to turn around a bad situation in the middle of it? Sports psychology is especially helpful here and there are so many of these books that you could probably choose one whose author and specific subject matter appeals to you personally and be fine.

Once you find yourself settling down to the actual teaching, the obvious question is how? For the traditional English way adapted to the Catholic setting (especially for the ancient form of the Mass) your first read should be Sir Richard Terry’s Catholic Church Music. His early time at Westminster Cathedral coincided with a flowering of liturgical and musical life within both the Catholic and Anglican spheres and many major English choir directors were writing books to explain to smaller parish choirs how the cathedrals did it. You can find many of these free and online at Google Books, but again, just start with Terry. You will find that while the cathedral music scene in England (Catholic or Anglican) has changed through the decades in regard to music choice, you will nevertheless find that the method is still rather the same. At the same time, I would say that the method has been broadened and deep by the addition of singing coaches and mandatory piano lessons (if not other lessons) for choristers. Every student you are able to coax into piano lessons will be nothing but a step forward for your choir. I can almost always tell the difference between choristers with similar abilities when one plays the piano and the other doesn’t.

If you find joy in creating a music curriculum for your students (and you should always try to deepen their musical knowledge), then all you need to do is decide what skills and to what level children need to learn them and then create a plan to systematically teach them. If this is not your forte, you might want to look at some of the current choral music training programs. Perhaps the Ward Method, Kodaly Method or Voices for Life (from the Royal School of Church Music) are right for you. I also highly recommend anything written by John Bertalot. I will caution that it takes an enormous amount of time to teach sight-singing, so many choral directors skip it. Please don’t. You are cheating your students and depriving them of a skill set that will provide one of life’s great experiences, being able to both create and perform music to a high level.

You will of course need repertoire for your choirs, and repertoire that is appropriate to where your choristers are musically. I have said it before and will say it many times again, I would rather hear children sing a hymn in unison or a piece of plainchant to a high degree that to hear them butcher even the simplest of 4 part motets. If you struggle finding repertoire don’t hesitate to ask online at places like the CMAA Forum. Look through the Corpus Christi Watershed website or Cantica Nova. Visit music lists of cathedrals or churches with a children’s choir at the same level as yours. I would even suggest simply teaching your choristers the liturgical music currently in use at your parish, but to a high degree. They will already have heard much of it, but your parishioners will notice it being sung well by a choir as opposed to being belted at various levels of competency through a microphone by one of your cantors. Do not be afraid to start with SIMPLE, as long as the text and music are of a high quality.

Lastly, try to get as much parental involvement as you can. You will need it to handle large groups of children and you will also widen your sphere of influence in the parish. If even a few influential parents in your parish think that you provide a program of high quality for their children, they will tell others and make your life (and recruiting) much easier. In the end, you will create life long friendship that will bring great joy to your good days and comfort to those difficult ones.