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Forming the Next Generation of Church Musicians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Latina est gaudium et utilis!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take 2 Vocal Lessons and Call Me in the Morning

I fondly remember a warm, Sunday afternoon in May a number of years back talking with an old friend at her parish’s yearly picnic as a local men’s quartet entertained us with ballads from the fifties and sixties and other folk music. During a lull in the conversation I watched in fascination as one of the tenors strained to reach notes obviously out of his range. I had never heard the chest voice forced so high in the male register. The veins and muscles in the man’s neck tightened and popped. He strained harder and harder and jutted his chin higher and further in the air in an attempt to hit the notes. After each number he guzzled at least one full bottle of water, but nothing helped. If he had had someone to coach him even a few times it would have changed everything. When he sang in a comfortable register he actually had a pleasant voice.

I  wonder how many of us assume that the voices present at our rehearsal are the voices we are stuck with. I have heard directors comment that if they could hire professional voices like those at St. So-and-so’s, their choirs would sound better. While it is always nice to have a few strong leaders in each section, I wouldn’t give up on your choir members. Long ago I made the decision that I would use the  warm-up period to create the choral sound I desired with the singers I had and it made an incredible difference. What follows are a few points for reflection for those who want to achieve a better sound from their choirs but don’t know where to start.

First, you must have a clear idea in your own head of the sound you want. I would suggest a natural, resonant tone, free of any unnecessary vocal strain. It might be helpful to listen to recordings of choirs that sound the way you want your choristers to sing. Once you possess an ideal, all that is left is to break down your goal into manageable steps by which you can achieve it. Record your choir at regular intervals to mark their progress and to discover if what you think you hear is actually what is being heard. Even if you had the luxury of a fully professional ensemble, there would always be room for improvement, and choir members who know they are improving are generally excited about coming to rehearsals. Lastly, don’t give your singers music they can’t handle (I stand guilty as charged!).

Finally, if you have never had voice lessons, I would encourage you to do so for at least a semester, if not a year, and then apply what you have learned in small ways each week to your choral warm-up and to the music your choir sings. This alone will pay big dividends and you will be amazed at how you and your choir grow.

Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord!

Perhaps it is due to the artistic temperament endowed to me by God, but among Truth, Goodness and Beauty, it is without doubt Beauty that speaks to my soul. To be sure, I love Truth and Goodness, but I love them because they are beautiful. God has called me to walk the via pulchritudinis along my earthly pilgrimage and I praise God for that!

At the same time, I acknowledge that the pilgrim way is not always as beautiful as one might hope. On a daily basis I am forced to confront the ugliness of my own sins, the hatred of God by some, the disdain shown for His creatures by many and a great apathy quietly professed by most in the world for anything heavenly. Unfortunately, the last of these plagues seems to be the modus operendi in too many celebrations of Holy Mass in the western world. As a society we have become completely exhausted with living; we are tired with everything and Mass is just another event to be endured and gotten through, another obligation. We no longer care. It is an irony supreme that in the face of a renewed focus on evangelizing in the Church today, we have ceased, in practice if not in belief, to care about the Church’s Sacred Liturgy. We no longer find it beautiful.

The celebration of Holy Mass should be the daily event in the life of the Church where the Christian worships the Lord, spends time with Him, receives Him, is renewed and strengthened by Him, where his love for God and neighbor is given new breadth and where he begins to live the life of the blessed in Heaven. But alas, no longer. Now the Mass is merely a filling station where the Christian hops in for a short time, inserts his coin into the basket and in return receives the Eucharist from whichever of the 20 vending machines (Eucharistic Ministers) is closest in physical proximity. He might even spend five minutes afterward in personal prayer where he tells God exactly what He needs to do so the day’s plans will be successful, after which the Christian can move on to the really important tasks of the day, which usually take place in the office.

This is in stark contrast to the view of so many saints who saw the celebration of Holy Mass as a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet (I am reminded of the text of the Ave verum corpus) where Christians were taken up, and if they allowed God, were formed more fully into His image and likeness to become like living tabernacles, sent out into the world to be other Christs. By sharing the joy of living as such, the saints thereby converted the world.

The former view, which we struggle with today, is an extremely utilitarian one, which uses the Mass as a tool to produce what the Christian needs. The second view, a very classical one, acknowledges the Mass to be a partaking in the Heavenly Liturgy, one which calls all of creation, the entire world, to enter into the worship and rest of God. To be honest, who is not tired of the modern world’s utilitarian view, which asks how useful a thing is. What is useful in a child’s laughter, or Thanksgiving dinner or in the worthy celebration of the Heavenly Liturgy. None of these things are useful in the eyes of the world and therefore we are exterminating each one by one. We abort our children, we cut short Thanksgiving dinner in order to shop on Black Friday (which has been transferred by our secular liturgists to Thursday afternoon) and we have given up anything more than the most banal celebration of Holy Mass.

I recently read the EU Report in my latest edition of The American Organist (March 2017) and was both fascinated and frustrated by Paulo Bottini’s article entitled The Organ and Organist in Italy. He writes “You can count on the fingers of one hand the musicians who, when asked the question, ‘What do you do for a living?’ could rightfully answer, ‘I am a church organist. This is because in the Catholic Church, singing and instrumental music are not considered constituent parts of the rite, but ultimately are optional (my emphasis). For this reason many pastors… prefer to rely on anyone to make do—preferably for free—clumsily accompanying the same few botched songs.” Unfortunately this is believed believed by most in the western world, including our clergy, which is why I was happy to see the recent publication of Cantate Domino Canticum Novum: A Statement on the Current Situation of Sacred Music on the 50th anniversary of Musicam sacram.

The first point made in Canticum Domino concerning the regrettable state of church music today is this, “There has been a loss of understanding of the ‘musical shape of the liturgy,’ that is, that music is an inherent part of the very essence of liturgy as public, formal, solemn worship of God“(my emphasis). I agree with the document’s authors–we must recover the biblical belief that all of creation is called to be caught up in “one triumphant hymn of praise” to the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit, what has been called the cosmic liturgy. This true (and ultimately beautiful) belief is indispensable if we hope to pull modern man out of himself and into eternity. I appeal to our bishops, pastors and seminarians, please re-orient the Church toward Heaven, to God. Do it first by re-orienting our worship, where Heaven truly meets earth. Give us churches that point to the reality of Heaven. Give us music that reminds us of the eternal hymn of praise sung by the angels, Give us homilies that inflame our hearts to love God and neighbor more deeply. Point us once again to God Who is Beauty Itself!

Music and the Imagination

Over the weekend I attended the second annual Prairie Troubadour symposium in Fr. Scott, KS, on the topic of The Restoration of the Imagination. The conference included a great line-up of speakers including Christopher Check, Dale Alquist and Anthony Esolen (among others) and finished with an evening of cigars and whiskey with the speakers and a host of great old friends (and now some new ones). As Belloc once wrote, “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!” How delightfully true!

With the symposium fresh on my mind, I thought today I would take up the topic of the imagination again and its relation to sacred music, especially since most of our readers are engaged in the work of liturgical music, whether as a professional or as the true amateur.

In an article entitled The Importance of the Imagination, Laura Birquist notes that “[t]he old adage ‘You are what you eat’ could be changed truthfully to say, ‘You are what you see and hear’… If the soul has in it good, true, beautiful, noble, and heroic images, it will be disposed to become like those things. For as St. Thomas says, ‘The beautiful and the good are the same in subject because they are founded on the same thing, namely the form’ (Ia, q.5, a.4).”

Of course, the opposite could also be said. If the soul has in it evil, lies, ugly and base images, it will be disposed to become like those things, and therein lies the great problem of modern culture–we are inundated with people who find the good things repulsive, the true things nothing more than the demagogue’s opinion, the beautiful things mere tools for propaganda and noble and heroic ideals the notions of extremists. This could all be said equally of ugly music (I won’t call it ugly sacred music, for there is no such thing).

“Nay,” the church musician shouts. “Just give the congregation Gregorian chant and everyone will love it! They will recognize how beautiful it is.” Oh, if only that were true. When those in the congregation have weaned their imaginations at the breasts of pop culture and its cult of the material and sensual, they will have no inner receptivity to the beautiful and sublime treasury of sacred music, whether the ancient sound of chant or the modern sound of Part and Taverner. The question becomes how to form the imaginations of our young people in such a way as to attune their hearts to music that will ultimately lift them to heavenly realities. This process begins at home. The music a child hears and sings around the family hearth, surrounded by loved ones, will have a greater bearing on his receptivity to Palestrina and Messiaen than teaching him classes on sacred music (although this will be important later). In the same way, the music he sings in his Catholic school and in his school Masses will form his adult ideas about music and ultimately about God (be sure to read The Casualties of Bad Church Music). This is no unimportant topic.

If you want your children to know, love and serve God, it is up to you as parents to guide them along that path, and I would caution you to make good music an important part of the way. Do you yourself, especially you fathers, sing good music on a daily basis? Do you listen to good music? Make sure that true folk music forms the basis of what you sing and listen to. If your music comes primarily from the radio, just realize that such music is not “popular” or “folk” music in the classical sense. It does not come from the shared experiences of a people who have come together striving to live the good life, and therefore you will be shooting your efforts in the foot. There is plenty in the line of Anglo/Irish/Scotch/American folk music. If your ancestors come from other areas learn a few songs from that tradition. Include great hymns in the repertoire and consider ending your family night prayers by singing the proper Marian antiphon for the season. Your children will easily pick these up. Or, as one speaker at the symposium commented, teach your children how to dance and hold community dances. When you form your children in such a manner, exposing them to REAL music (nothing mass produced), they will naturally cross the bridge to an appreciate of the sublime beauty in the Church’s treasury of sacred music. Along the via pulchritudinis (the way of beauty) they will come to know Him Who is Beauty itself.

Beauty, Music and the Sacred Liturgy

Mr. Joe Heschmeyer, a seminarian in our archdiocese and a student at the North American College in Rome, maintains an excellent blog entitled Shameless Popery, where he recently authored a post entitled The Worship of Beauty, and the Beauty of Worship. As I read his post I remembered a homily I heard delivered to a group of young people by an excellent priest who impressed upon the youth in the congregation that Sunday Mass (and Holy Day Masses) must constitute a non-negotiable in the Christian’s spiritual life. In an attempt to combat various reasons young people gave for not going to Mass every Sunday (it’s boring, I don’t get anything out of it, the music is bad) he boldly stated that as nice as hearing beautiful music at Mass was, we didn’t go to church for the music. I happened to be sitting in the congregation at that Mass in the front row and when he spoke the aforementioned words, he looked at me as if to ask me to nod my approval to what he had just spoken. While I would ultimately agree that we don’t go to Mass because of the music, I couldn’t help feeling that he missed the heart of the matter,namely, Who is the music for? As Mr. Heschmeyer notes at the beginning of his post:

“A frequent source of in-fighting amongst Christians involves beauty. How beautiful should our churches be? How beautiful should our Liturgies be? And why? In these discussions, there are two points that often go overlooked:

  • We Worship Beauty.
  • Created Beauty Points towards Divine, Uncreated Beauty.
  • Obviously, we don’t worship created beauty, but we literally do worship uncreated Beauty.” At the same time, “Creation rightly serves as a sort of ‘road’ leading to its Creator: beauty below points to Beauty above.”

    Truth, Goodness and Beauty are the three so called transcendental properties of being. Unlike attributes, Truth, Goodness and Beauty are Who God is in His very essence. Therefore, we can’t say that God is truthful, we must say that He is Truth itself. We can’t refer to God as being good in the sense of good being a description of His divine Person. We must say that God is Goodness itself. Likewise, we can’t say that God is beautiful, we must say that He is Beauty itself. All three of these properties of being have a definitive bearing on the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy.

    First, the Sacred Liturgy must be true. The real and valid matter and form must be used. The Word of God is “living and true.” The Creed is a true true statement about God and His Church. In the same manner, the Sacred Liturgy must also bear witness to the Goodness of God, His loving Fatherhood, His Justice, His unfathomable mercy toward each of us, His plan for our life with Him and with each other. Finally, the Sacred Liturgy must be Beautiful. The word of God is beautiful. The act of consecration is beautiful. The Blessed Sacrament is Beauty Himself. However, since God the Father has hallowed all of creation in the Incarnation, all creation must therefore proclaim the Praise and Glory of God, which means that everything, the music, the architecture, and especially the soul of the priest and the souls of all the faithful present are called to be beautiful as well.

    Yes, the Mass would still be valid (presuming valid matter and form) and of infinite worth whether or not the priest were a heretic, the faithful were bored and disengaged to the last man, woman and child, the music were terrible, the building ugly, and if there were a hatred shown for the widow and the orphan. At the same time, I can’t think of a better way to show ingratitude to our Heavenly Father. Such a state of affairs merely shows our own spiritual poverty.

    Ultimately, the Sacred Liturgy must be True, Good AND Beautiful. As Mr. Heschmeyer writes, “If Augustine is right that God is Beauty, then a Church without beauty would be as absurd as a Church that rejected truth or goodness. A full-fledged rejection or disregard of Beauty would literally be rejecting and disregarding God. So it’s not an option, or a perk. We need to take beauty seriously. And created beauty helps us by pointing us towards the true Divine Beauty.”

    Of course, the lived poverty of Christ is often presented as the impetus for whitewashed churches, banal music, fuzzy homilies and any other number of travesties perpetrated in the name of Christ. But Mr. Heschmeyer rightly points the reader to three biblical realities regarding the right worship of God. First, we have the example of the Israelites in the desert and the very detailed instructions given by God Himself regarding how He is to be worshiped. Secondly, we have the example of the costly perfume poured out by Mary of Bethany onto the feet of Christ (and don’t forget our Lord’s rebuke to Judas when the latter bemoans the waste of so much money that could have been spent on the poor) in St. John’s Gospel. Lastly, we have St. John’s description of the New and Eternal Jerusalem and the Eternal Liturgy that takes place in Heaven. All three examples point us to the conclusion that God is very much concerned with Beauty because He is concerned with our well being and He knows we need Beauty.

    While It is true that we have to guard against worshiping created matter instead of the Creator (Israel’s constant problem), it is also true that without created beauty we will never enter into communion with out Lord (the Sacraments being prime examples). Perhaps beauty in the Sacred Liturgy makes us uncomfortable in the same way that a bad husband or father is uncomfortable around a good husband or father and feels the need to justify his bad behavior. Perhaps we are uncomfortable with beauty in the Sacred Liturgy because it makes us realize that our hearts have grown cold and no longer have the energy to spend so lavishly and exuberantly on Christ. Perhaps beauty will return to the Sacred Liturgy when we once again turn our hearts to the Lord.

    Chorister Training Pitfalls

    I would like to point the reader to a helpful article that appears in the latest edition of The American Organist magazine (January 2017) by Sarah MacDonald, director of the Ely Cathedral Girls Choir (Ely, England). Mrs. MacDonald writes a monthly UK Report, sharing her extensive knowledge of the English Cathedral music tradition and the training of child choristers and chapel organists. She brings a professionalism to the discussion of training children in the art of sacred music that is often lacking due to a misguided belief that the quality of our liturgical music should be sacrificed on the altar of good intentions. In her current article she tackles 4 pitfalls she feels entrap choral directors working with grade school and junior high children: range, vocal sound, quality of literature (both musically and textually) and finally sight-singing. I would like to briefly touch on each of these.

    Mrs. MacDonald believes the greatest concern when working with children is choosing music in the child’s range (Eb 4 to Ab 5 in terms of the piano keyboard) and tessitura (around D 5), which can be difficult when most of the church music in hymnals is pitched lower than it was in previous eras. This is also compounded by the natural desire of children to imitate the so called “pop-music” they hear on a daily basis. Children might resist singing in their head voices simply because they have never experienced the sensation before, but it is worth the effort, both for the health of their voices and for the increase of enjoyment of their singing.

    The second problem MacDonald identifies is a lack of any quality in vocal sound and choral blend. I find such artistry is often sacrifice in the director’s drive to “get the notes correct.” If the director had chosen easier music, especially simple music in unison, this would have provided more time to pursue a beauty in presentation that possesses the power to move the heart of the listener (I accuse myself of this often).

    Third, Mrs. MacDonald stresses the need to chose choral literature of high quality both musically and textually. She writes “Avoid platitudinous or patronizing poetry–children can (and should) be taught to read and understand sophisticated texts as well as any adults. Teach them to have good taste in well-crafted repertoire.” I think more than enough electronic ink has been spilled attacking the ongoing problem of bad music and bad lyrics in church (I think of my experience as a child singing Great things happen when God mixes with us from the Glory and Praise hymnal in my Catholic grade school) so I will say no more.

    Finally, she makes a plea to choir directors to teach children how to read music. She reasons that teaching children to know only a few concepts by rote is unacceptable in any other school subject, so why should it be so in music. Why should children be shackled to the unfortunate circumstance of only being able to sing a few good pieces of music because that is all they ever learned by rote? The earlier music teachers and directors lay a good foundation in sight-singing, the easier it will be for children to learn.

    If I might be permitted to add my two cents to end this discussion, I think we as Catholics have an incomparable advantage in the Roman Rite in the possession of Gregorian chant (not withstanding the challenges of actually using it in the Ordinary Form). The repertoire is large enough to encompass any vocal range (and can be pitched accordingly), is very moving when sung in a beautiful, free vocal tone, contains music and text of the highest artistry and the simpler hymns and antiphons can be read at sight after the child is proficient in the use of solfege. Thankfully, even if your parish is stuck at Ground Zero, musically speaking, the number of pastors who would squelch even the occasional Gregorian hymn sung beautifully by a children’s choir is fast diminishing.

     

     

     

    When to Teach Children to Sight-Read Gregorian Chant

    I have heard it stated several times by those who love chant that teaching children to read plainsong is easier than teaching them to read tonal music, however, experience has shown me that this position is dubious at best. Examples given of easy pieces to teach children have included the Kyrie from Mass XVI or the Salve Regina, which ARE easy if the goal is to teach children by rote (especially considering these works are built upon the major scale and include large amounts of repetition in their melodies). I do not doubt that children can and should be taught Gregorian chant by hearing and repeating (after all, one learns one’s native tongue in the same manner), but this binds them to singing only what they have already memorized. I want to find the best way and time to teach them to sight read chant as well, otherwise, the Propers will always be out of reach of my choristers.

    At the end of each rehearsal we close by singing either the Salve Regina, the Alma Redemptoris Mater or the Regina coeli (we will eventually add the Ave Regina Coelorum) depending on the season. The Senior Choristers also love singing the Missa cum Iubilo (who can blame them), but teaching them to sight read chant on a daily basis was a process. Beginning last fall the high school boys joined the men singing the Communion antiphon each Sunday, which has been more successful than not,  so I would like to share with you some of the insights I have gained along the way with the hope that they might prove useful.

    Firstly, I taught them the Gregorian antiphons as opposed to simplified English versions based upon an experience I had several years ago when I first introduced the Communion antiphons to our adult choir. After several months of singing mainstream English versions of the antiphons I had to confront an undercurrent of rebellion (and this is not a generalization). The few who could already read chant preferred singing the real ones (the Gregorian versions), while those who knew nothing about chant thought the English versions were boring (and I had to agree). After switching to the Gregorian antiphons there were still members who didn’t care to expend the energy learning them, but two or three mentioned to me that at least the Gregorian ones were beautiful to listen to.

    Secondly, I had to realize that even though there were only two clefs in chant and no key signatures to confront, the sounds of the scales were completely different. Even though there were no accidentals to speak of, with the exception of flatting the Ti, the boys frequently encountered intervals that they didn’t often sing. Even though there were only four lines instead of five and I didn’t have to teach quarters, halves and whole notes, the music looked different and was therefore a hurdle that had to be overcome for every singer. Thankfully, the boys had heard these antiphons sung every Sunday for the last several years, so they were familiar with the sound of the Communion antiphon. They had sung quite a bit of Latin motets so they at least had a general idea of how to pronounce the words and even recognized a few.  These might seem like little hurdles, but put together, they were a formidable wall to scale for those new to chant.

    I started with a simple explanation of the two clefs so the boys could find Do (they were already familiar with solfege) and then pitch the other intervals. Also, I explained that the notes were read left to right, bottom to top. I didn’t mention any exceptions until we faced them in the music. The first rehearsal I had them sight-read the chants on solfege very slowly, phrase by phrase, until they were comfortable with each one. This was often all we tackled  in the first rehearsal of each antiphon. The second rehearsal began the same way, after which I had them switch to the Latin text and gave them a brief explanation of its meaning, especially of the important words. They knew from their years in the choir that I was more concerned that they “sing the text” than “sing the notes,” so the fact that the melody didn’t move in a strict meter didn’t bother them. As they became familiar with the process of reading neumes and the sound of the modes, I explained more and more, both musically and liturgically. To be honest, about 2/3 of the boys are thrilled about the chants and the other 1/3 don’t like them at all, with no middle ground. I pray that time will soften a few hearts.

    Six months later, some of the boys have become contributing singers to our small chant choir, while the others continue to grow. I know that next year will be easier as we go through the same chants for the second time. If any of our readers have suggestions for improving the learning process, I would be happy to hear them. At the same time, I would caution the new choir master, or the choir master new to a parish that diving into the murky waters of teaching young people to read chant before they can read tonal music could prove to be a very taxing process that would be better left to the future. I say this because my goal of introducing all of the Propers back into at least one of our Sunday Masses is a process not unlike building a new home, and if I don’t lay a good foundation and build upon that foundation in a methodical way, the home might very easily collapse. I wish you the best as you build your programs of sacred music.

    A Christmas Carol

    “‘Tis the season to… strike the harp and join the chorus.” One of my favorite pastimes in Christmastide is caroling with friends and family, accompanied by fine libations and delectable treats. Like the real wax candles that bedeck our family Christmas tree, though, caroling seems to have become an anomaly in the modern world–a bizarre ritual of old that delights the anthropologist but is of little other use. Christians as much as anyone else simply turn on the radio and think little more of it. Ask the average person in your parish to sing the first verse of Silent Night from memory and I wager he hasn’t got the mental reserve to make it half way through. Don’t doubt me.

    In opposition to this decay, I thought today I might refresh our cultural memory of, and hopefully our desire for, the once ubiquitous Christmas carol. To be honest, how many even know what a carol really is, from whence these beautiful songs came and why they are so important–not only for creating a festive mood, but for forming the imagination of our young people (and not so young) and passing on the Faith.

    Carols originated as circle dances, accompanied by singing, during the Medieval period. This dance-like quality (Angelus ad Virginem), as well as refrains (Birjina gaztetto bat zegoen, or The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came) and texts in either Latin (Quem pastores), the vernacular (Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen) or both (Psalite, unigenito) were popular–traditions maintained in the modern era. Carol themes run the gamut of the liturgical year or might be secular in nature (Deck the Halls), although the Christmas carol seems to have taken the high ground. Their texts are beautiful examples of popular piety put into words, whether a carol narrates a well know Gospel text such as the Annunciation (The Salutation Carol) or speaks figuratively about the time Mary bore the Christchild in her womb (Maria durch ein Dornwald ging).

    Carols developed around the same time as the great mystery and miracle plays (c. 1350-1450) in the golden age of Christendom (although no age is ever perfect) when the Church’s celebration of her liturgical life possessed the vitality to shape and form popular culture. Some carols, such as the Coventry Carol, were a part of these  mystery plays.

     

    European countries had a wonderful tradition of carols to which America contributed in her turn (It Came Upon a Midnight Clear and the Negro spiritual Rise Up, Shepherds, and Follow), but in the last seventy-five years the carol has become nothing more than warm sentiments crooned on winter evenings by the latest pop stars emanating from every electronic device imaginable. I’ll gladly admit to listening to and enjoying Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra singing Adeste fidelis (in an era when even the great Hollywood stars knew a bit of Latin) or I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, backed by a large choir and orchestra, but this is an impoverishment of the original carol.

    As our culture turns away from God, or more than likely, simply forgets about Him, the popularity of the carol has waned with the winter sun. I sometimes wonder if it isn’t partly the loss of the carol and many other worthy religious customs that has aided the demise of our Faith in the western world (and a loss of the true meaning of Christmas). I have noticed that parents who understand the importance of culture in the formation of their children and therefore instill  in their children a healthy skepticism toward the benefits of “popular” culture are more successful in raising faithful children. Perhaps it would be wise for families to resist the urge to turn on the radio and tune in to the popular “winter holiday” songs and rather, rediscover the simple beauty of the Christmas carol, a true folk tune full of beautiful imagery, Christian meaning and wonderful melodies. Then learn them as a family and sing them together. Click here for a great printable (and free) Christmas caroling book or here to listen to five hours of wonderfully sung Christmas carols.

    Keep the flame of the true Christmas spirit burning brightly, continue to wish your family and friends a Merry Christmas! and get together with those same beloved (and not so beloved) kin during the Twelve Days of Christmas and carol to your heart’s content. It is a wonderful way to instill in your children in the real meaning of Christmas, to marvel at the beauty and awesomeness of the Incarnation and to create lasting memories. While you are at it, make a bowl of Smoking Bishop (be sure to have the spirits you put in it blessed today on the Feast of St. John) and toast our heavenly Father, Who in His infinite love sent His Son to become man so that we might become like God! Merry Christmas!

    Where does your heart lie?

    Two weeks ago I wrote concerning a comment Msgr. Marini made in a talk regarding the friction that often results between priest and musician clash over matters musical withing the sacred liturgy. Over the next few weeks I would like to look at some of the other comments he made during his talk, points which I think are always important for us to remember.

    Msgr. Marini spoke about the ongoing battle between the external work of the musician at Mass, making sure that the music is technically and artistically performed, and the interior work of allowing the Holy Spirit to transform us into saints. How many of us have fought this battle within our own hearts, pouring all of our energies into making the music at Easter or Christmas (or any Sunday, for that matter) perfect and then realizing afterward that while we were physically present for the Holy Sacrifice, we were spiritually far from it. How many of us arrived home after Holy Mass and had nothing left to give our families (and never forget they are our actual vocation).

    In spite of all my faults (and my wife would gladly tell you how numerous they are), I feel that this is one area of my life in which I have a leg up, so to speak. I grew up in a family where my father was ALWAYS present. He earned a master degree in education but decided against going into the field because he knew he would have no time for his family. Instead he took a blue collar job in the oil field. When his time was up at work, he left for home and left work at work. His work time was flexible enough that he was able to get away for an hour whenever we had school plays, parent teacher conferences, etc. He came to so much that my siblings and I joked that we wouldn’t mind if he stayed home every once in a while. More importantly, he had an uncanny knack for knowing and keeping priorities in order. God was always first, even when vacation plans had to be moved around so we could drive three hours to the closest Mass for Assumption while traveling in Montana and Wyoming. We have to learn to keep priorities as musicians–God and family.

    I think what we can learn from this is that if you arrive at Christmas day and you haven’t been to confession, if your daily prayer has suffered and you haven’t eaten supper with your family at least five nights a week during Advent, then you are in too far. As musicians, we tend to love our work more than others, but that is no excuse for overextending ourselves. God really is concerned with internals before He is concerned with externals. Please don’t misunderstand, I believe in excellence and I abhor bad music badly sung within the sacred liturgy, we need regular practice, but we still have to get our priorities straight. Make a pledge to put God and your family first this Advent and Christmastide. Simplify the music at Christmas Masses if you have to. Take your family to confession. Pray before you ever get to work. And practice resignation once Mass begins, letting the music fall where it wills. You will arrive at Christmas Day (or any other day) full of the joy of the feast!