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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!

Tips for the Organist

I recently had the good fortune to attend several Masses at parishes other than my own, and each time was pleasantly surprised to hear at least an organ and cantor leading congregational hymns mostly worthy of the name. If I had to guess, I would assume that none of these organists was a full-time church musician, yet each had a very solid technique. It made me think about what I might suggest to each in order to take what was already good organ playing and make it better. What follows are a few practical suggestions for the parish organist.

  1. Practice: It should go without saying that hymns (and any other bits of music used on a regular basis within the liturgy) should be practiced each week, but I have found this is not always the case. When I was in graduate school, I confessed to my organ teacher that I had to practice hymns each week or else I made stupid little mistakes. I was embarrassed by this, having thought that everyone else was good enough to sight-read them. I felt better after he told me that he, too, practiced the hymns he had to play each week and felt that the playing of anyone who didn’t would suffer.
  2. Tempo: Singing a hymn quickly does not necessarily give it life. Once during my high school years my pastor actually stopped me in the middle of the opening hymn and told me to speed it up, so I dutifully played as quickly as I could. He liked everything fast and had a general abhorrence of rests, which he would routinely skip, even when it meant cutting beats out of a measure. Thankfully he and I always got along, but I have struggled with taking music too fast ever since. In reality, a hymn’s life comes from the organist playing it with a deep awareness of the underlying beat (and its division) and passing that feeling on to the congregation. Of course, one must take into account the size and acoustic of the building, etc. but those are of secondary consideration. I would heartily recommend the book Note Grouping by James Thurmond for anyone desiring to gain a greater understanding of how rhythm gives life to music.
  3. Playing the text: Make a concentrated effort to read and understand the text and how it works within the hymn tune. Just because a hymn follows traditional four bar phrasing doesn’t mean the text will. Do you put the tune to the text or the text to the tune? There is a vast difference.
  4. Breathing with the congregation: Stravinsky once quipped that the organ was “the monster that never breathes” and he had a point. At one parish I attended the organist played with incredible speed and vigor. If the final chord of a measure was marked for four beats, she dutifully held it four beats before moving at the speed of light into the next verse. I was holding two squirming children and a hymnal at the time and tried like made to suck in enough air to even start the next verse of the hymn with her. She always won. As a choir master I routinely ask my choristers to take a full beat of breath at the end of a textual phrase. The organ do the same. What about at a textual cadence within a verse? I don’t add an extra beat, but I definitely “stretch” the beat a bit.
  5. Hymn introductions: I almost always play the first line of a hymn for the introduction simply to give the congregation a preview of the coming attraction, and I play it at the SAME tempo as I will play it once they begin singing. Again, take out the guess work for the congregation. If the hymn is exceptionally well know and has a great refrain beginning in the tonic chord (e.g. To Jesus Christ Our Soveregin King) I might play the refrain, but that is more of an exception than the rule.
  6. Number of verses: This is where the problem of hymns within the Holy Mass rears its ugly head. In reality a hymn should be sung from beginning to end with all of the verses, whether Father has to wait or not. There is nothing worse than celebrating Trinity Sunday and the musicians stop the opening hymn following the required two verses to get Father to the altar, clearly leaving the Holy Spirit out of the hymn (and perhaps out of the liturgy!). If Father wants you to stop when the liturgical action is complete, then tell him you would be happy to do so with the Proper antiphons from the Graduale Romanum!
  7. Registration: Registration is not my strong suit, but it suffices to say that a little change within a hymn would be nice. Also, there is no reason to destroy the congregation’s hearing just because you like the reeds on a particular organ, but at the same time, if the congregation is keeping up with the registration, don’t be afraid to use them either, even when the little old lady with the hearing-aides has a fainting spell.

I hope this proves helpful and I also want to say “thank you” to all of you who play the organ during the sacred liturgy. We owe you a great song of gratitude!

Strive for Excellence

The casual Reader might perhaps mistake me as a died-in-the-wool anglophile in the realm of sacred music, especially since I hold the English Choir School in such high regard, but let us face facts-the English cathedral system of forming church musicians works. I was reminded of this yesterday as I listened to an old BBC interview of Sir George Thalben-Ball describing how he landed the his position of 60 years as the organist and choirmaster at the Temple Church (named because of its original link to the Knights Templar) in London.

While studying at the Royal College of Music, Thalben-Ball was called upon to fill-in for the afternoon service. He arrived at the Temple Church to find an orchestral score of Bach’s Mass in B Minor at the organ with a note that 10 movements would be sung that afternoon and that Thalben-Ball would need to transpose them all down a “semitone” because the organ was tuned almost half a step sharp. Thalben-Ball chuckled in the interview saying he must have decently well, since no one accosted him after the service, although he admitted to playing (transposed down a half-step) from the choral score instead of the orchestral score.

If any parish were to call and ask me to fill in that afternoon for a Sunday concert featuring 10 movements of the B Minor Mass and as an aside mention that I would need to transpose the entire thing down a half-step, I would quickly dismiss the call as a prank or feign illness. I simply wouldn’t be able to do it. Had I been a choir boy and sung the Mass first as a chorister and then later as a choral scholar and had been playing and accompanying choirs to a high degree since I was in junior high I might have a chance, but that wasn’t the case. In that sense, I feel like a complete joke telling people that I am a competent church musician, much less one with a DMA. When it comes down to it, what do I really know?! Let’s face it, the English cathedrals know what they are doing and even on their worst days hit a mark of excellence that is simply beyond the reach of all but our best cathedral choirs in the US.

Let us imagine for a moment a different situation. What if each of the 193 Catholic cathedrals (Roman Rite) in the United States were to model the English Cathedrals with a choir of men and boys and a separate choir of men and girls (and remember that most of them also have an excellent mixed choir to boot), where the boys and girls constantly rehearsed and sang the greatest music to the highest standards, especially the music native to the Roman Rite (Gregorian chant), took voice and piano lessons and sang daily for Mass and Vespers for the 5 to 6 years they were in the choir. In high school the girls would continue doing the same, while the boys would settle into their new roles as tenors and basses while singing the same music, only as a tenor or bass. A child who showed talent would begin studying the organ and playing and accompanying for services. When he went off to the university, each organist would receive a scholarship for playing for services for his separate college within the university, under the direction of a phenomenal choirmaster. After graduation, he would then be hired by a cathedral as an assistant organist and begin training the new singers as well (and he could, since he had been through the system himself and would be overseen by the director of music). He wouldn’t have to get a Masters Degree or a Doctorate in either organ or choral directing because he would have been singing in a professional choir and accompanying the same choir long before he even thought about shaving! It is nothing but the old apprentice system at work. Now imagine that happened at all 193 Catholic Cathedrals as well as our Catholic colleges, too. That is roughly 25 boy choristers and 25 girl choristers at each institution in one year. At the cathedrals alone that would be almost 10,000 children annually at least learning what good sacred music should sound like and having his/her moral imagination formed at the same time. Obviously only a small majority of those would go on to work in the field of sacred music, but even if it were 1%, that would mean 100 future professional church musicians, organists and singers, would be in formation each year (we aren’t even counting Catholic colleges). The other 99% percent would probably be open to financially supporting such a system because of the benefits they had received. So far the Cathedral of the Madeleine and St. Paul’s, Harvard Square are the only two who have joined the cause.

I challenge every church musician today to begin forming our future musicians. It will change the face of church music in the US and will transform the lives and Faith of uncountable numbers of faithful. As Fr. Z says, just take the training wheels off and ride the damn bike!

The Theology of the Organ

Recently a generous family donated their late mother’s house organ to our parish, and last Saturday, my assistant, who works for an organ building company, and one of my recently graduated choristers and I took the newly acquired 3 ranks of lead plus wind chests to the organ shop for repair and maintenance. We hope to install the organ in our parish’s office chapel by the end of next month. As I pounded dents out of several pipes, it occurred to me that it might be useful to post on what I call the theology of the organ.

Most readers of Views from the Choir Loft believe in the primacy of the organ among instruments in the Roman Rite, but if asked to give reasons for why the organ should have such a primacy, I fear many could do little more than quote documents or defer to tradition–and we know how well that works. Unfortunately, most Catholics in the US today believe that tradition is bad a bad thing (at least in the Church), and anyway, if the organ became a tradition in the the Roman Rite, why couldn’t the guitar follow the same process of inculturation, they ask? Recourse to quoting ecclessiastical documents falls on deaf ears of Catholics, who view obedience as something medieval. Like high school teenagers, too many of our congregations are only pleased with the latest fads. Fortunately, there are good theological reasons and arguments for why the organ should one again enjoy pride of place in our worship. I don’t pretend that these reasons will convert your died-in-the-wool, anti-treasury-of-sacred-music types, but I have found that they open a door for dialogue with fellow Catholics who bear genuine good. Thankfully, Dr. Kevin Vogt, the Director of Music at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Leawood, KS, has written beautifully on the matter.

Dr. Vogt is the primary man responsible for bringing to fruition the magnificent Pasi, dual-temperament organ at the Cathedral of St. Cecilia in Omaha, NE, and he is truly one of the great minds of the age. He wrote his doctoral thesis on the organ project at St. Cecilia’s, but the document also contains a section on what I would describe as the Theology of the Organ, found here (specifically see chapter 2, pages 150-172). Some of it might be a little dense for the faint of heart, but it is ENTIRELY worth the read. He presents his insights (peppered liberally with Ratzinger quotes) within the context of Msgr. Francis Mannion’s call for a “renewal of the sacramental, heavenly, cosmic, glorious, catholic, paschal and traditional dimensions of the Roman Catholic liturgy.” Dr. Vogt proposes “that the organ could play an important role in this renewal, and [he constructs] a symbolic theology of the organ in terms of:
(1) Cosmology, concerning music and the created universe,
(2) Christology, concerning the doctrine of Jesus Christ as the incarnate Logos,
(3) Pneumatology, concerning the agency of the Holy Spirit, and
(4) Eschatology, concerning the heavenly liturgy of the New Jerusalem.

It really is beautiful stuff and I encourage everyone to study it, take it to heart, memorize it and then begin to share it. Let’s put the organ back on the pedestal it rightfully deserves.

Choosing Choral Music

This year I attempted something different as I began the process of choosing music for our next choral season. I spent a week going through all kinds of choral music and came up with a list of about 50 different motets for various liturgical seasons, ranging in style from the Renaissance to the 21st century (yes, there is very good modern music being written, even if most Catholics don’t experience it on a weekly basis), then I sent it out to my choir members and asked for their feedback. I must admit that I have enjoyed reading the responses from various singers and it will be nice knowing that most of the choral literature we sing throughout the next year will be generally liked by everyone. Anyway, I thought I would share with you some of my findings. Please remember that our parish celebrates the liturgy according to the Ordinary Form, in English, but generally very reverently (we rarely sing choral settings of the Ordinary, with the occasional exception of the Kyrie, so my list contains motets only). I hope those of you in similar circumstances might find this post helpful.

Firstly, there is a general apathy to much of Palestrina, although the music of a number of his contemporaries, especially Tallis and Victoria, is much loved. Two exceptions to this attitude are Palestrina’s Hodie Christus natus est and Jubilate Deo. In general, many of my choir members think of his music as “vanilla” and would rather sing something with a little more flavor. Other works from this era that bear the stamp of approval are Parsons’ Ave Maria, Gesualdo’s Tenebrae factae sunt (everyone likes this piece), Tallis’ O nata lux, Gibbons’ O clap your hands and Victoria’s O magnum mysterium and Improperia. Peter Philips’ music also fared generally well.

The Baroque period did not do as well as the Renaissance, although to be honest, I didn’t include as much music from this era. While Bach (and numerous other Germans) is obviously beautiful, our choir doesn’t usually sing in German. A couple of notable and well loved pieces from this time period are A. Scarlatti’s Exultate Deo and H. Hassler’s Cantate Domino (if you consider it as early Baroque).

The Classical period did about as well as the baroque period. Unfortunately, our parish isn’t in a position to sing the great Viennese Masses and there is only so much of Mozart’s Ave verum corpus that one person can handle (sorry to several readers I personally know who love this piece). Mozart’s Regina Coeli in C is generally well liked.

The Romantic era provided a number of well loved composers and works, especially Rheinberger and Bruckner. Rheinberger’s Abendlied is beautiful and especially appropriate for the Easter season. I would love to sing more of this German-ish repertoire (yes, this will push our group, as I wrote earlier, we don’t usually sing in German). As I understand it, the German countries traditionally had permission to sing in the vernacular at High Mass and a number of beautiful works came about as a result. Holst’s Ave Maria, scored for SSSSAAAA is also popular.

The modern era, if one were to include the early 20th century to the present time, proved to be, besides the Renaissance, the other popular progenitor of sacred music. Casals O vos omnes is one of my personal favorites, as well as a favorite of many others. Other well liked works are Stanford’s Beati quorum via, Poulenc’s Exultate Deo, H. Howell’s Haec dies, Parry’s I was glad, Whitacre’s Lux aurumque, Kverno’s Ave Maris Stella and Ave verum corpus, Part’s The Beautitudes and Nystedt’s Peace I Leave with You. Much to my surprise, many choir members want to sing Messiaen’s O sacrum convivium, although one alto wrote to me a one word description of the piece–“scary.” Oh well, we are going to sing it anyway.

I plan to do more of this in the future and I would recommend it to all others who direct any kind of church choir. While I still have final say over what we sing, I have found in the past that if a motet is well loved, rehearsals and moods tend to remain positive. If we sing great liturgical music and everyone is joy-filled, then our singing during Holy Mass tends to be joy-filled.

Expect the Best-And You Will Get It

Can you imagine the following?

This fall Pusillanimous University (PU for short) is starting up a new football team, named the Mediocre Mavericks, so that everybody can play football and feel included. Whether you want to spend hours practicing before the game or just show up for the game itself, this is the team for you. The Mediocre Mavericks are all about openness and inclusivity—we want everyone to play. We are also excited to announce that everyone will get a trophy simply for being a part of the team. These will be given out at the beginning of the year to insure no one feels any pressure to stay through the whole season. Call and join today!

Sadly, this is how many parishes run their youth music programs (often adult programs as well, but I am sticking with children today), although they wouldn’t see it that way. The thinking is that since the Catholic Church is open to everyone (which I don’t disagree with in the slightest) a parish should start a music program for children and let everyone in so that all, regardless of talent or ability, are able to participate. Everyone brings his own voice or instrument and away they go. In this way, everyone feels welcome and wants to lift up his voice to praise God, and as the song goes, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” This sounds great on paper in the current cultural climate, so I want to take a serious look at how this might play out in real life. I think the best way to do this is to compare paradigm to a sports team.

Firstly, there are so many activities going on and competing for people’s time in America that one can no longer expect children to join a music program if it doesn’t offer something of value. There are many reasons a child might join a sports team, but I think it comes down to value. To start with, parents believe sports to be important for their children’s development because sports teach lessons on teamwork, discipline, friendship, winning and loosing, etc. Children focus on value, too, but in a different way. They see their friends on the team and want to join too. They like winning and want to join a winning team. On the opposite hand, if a parish offers a program open to every child, with no demands, where children are never pushed to be their best, then parents and children perceive the choir to be valueless. Only trash is cheap, or one might say, “you get what you pay for.”

Now I would like to share my own experience with the Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum. If a child wishes to join the choir, I give a somewhat involved audition in order to discover where the child is musically and what potential he/she possess. In the end, I invite each child to join as long as he/she can match pitch and is free of any severe vocal issues. Parents are aware in advance that there is a chance, albeit ever so slight, that their child might not be asked to join the choir. The fact that there is an audition lets parents and children know that I have expectations. Secondly, there is a probationary year during which children learn about their voices, good habits of singing and reading music, and I get to learn how serious they are about singing in the choir. Even though it has been rare, I have recommended to parents before at the end of this year that the Schola Cantorum is not a good fit for their child. I explain that it isn’t just about me getting the voices I need, it is also important that the child enjoy the choir. It shouldn’t be agony.

When children become choristers and start singing weekly at Mass, I expect them to put forth their best effort. Some adults have asked me before if I am pushing too hard, but I point out that the same children exert far more energy and just as much drive on the sports field because their coach wants them to be their best. I kid you not, a response I have gotten before is, “Yes, but this (the choir) is for church.” I should have said that God believes in each child’s potential far more than the coach because He made them and knows what each is capable of. Therefore, they should give more at church!

It is also interesting to note that the choir continues to grow (we are more than 50 strong, and next year we will break 60). Off the top of my head, the only two groups for children in our parish (sports included) that are larger than the choir are the parish school and the religious education program for children enrolled in public schools. It stands to reason that parents must see some value in the choir.

Next year we will have enough children to break the choir into two groups, one an advanced group and one a general choir open to all (please note the irony). The general choir will be better than most other children choirs because they know that I expect their best as well. I was reminded of this yesterday in our rehearsal when almost every one of our top singers had to be gone for some reason or other. We were rehearsing Vaughan Williams’ Let all the world in every corner sing for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. My first thought was one of skepticism, but then those kids pulled it off, singing in a way that I would have been proud to have heard within Mass. I was having so much fun I pulled out Bruckner’s Locus iste (which they had never seen before) in the last five minutes of practice and asked them to read through it on a neutral syllable. They basically had it by the second time around. I understand this piece isn’t anything difficult, but I was still proud of those boys and girls!

I guess what I am trying to say is please set the bar high for the children in your parish. They will thrive on it. If you truly love the children of your parish, believe that they are worth the effort—they will thank you for it many years later. If you truly love the children of your parish, fight the elitism that says young children can’t sing or just can’t appreciate good music. Be the true egalitarian and give them the best our Church has to offer! This doesn’t even touch on the spiritual gifts you will impart to these children.

The Devil Gets in the Details

Last Sunday the Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum presented its annual Spring Concert, consisting of Pergolesi’s Stabat mater and Schubert’s Mass No. 2 in G Major. It was a wonderful concert—I knew beforehand it would be because the morning couldn’t have been a greater comedy of errors.

My plan was to wake up early and make my meditation before going to the local coffee shop in order to mentally prepare for the day and spend some time with the concert music. I made sure that the only Mass I had to provide music for that morning was the usual choir Mass at 11:30 a.m., and I didn’t have to meet the choristers until 10:00 a.m. It couldn’t have been better planned. Now enter the devil.

All night long our children made sure my wife and I were on a continual adventure, which included my having to drive giant, boy eating spiders out of my oldest son’s bed as he screamed, “Daddy, don’t let them get me!” After hitting random spots on the bed and assuring him he was safe I went back to bed, but it wasn’t long before the next child woke up. I spent several hours lying uncomfortably in a twin bed with him wondering how I was ever going to get up on time. Shortly after 7:00 a.m., long after my wake up call, I dragged my body out of bed and thanked God that everyone was still asleep and that I would be able to get out of the house before the daily commotion began. Right then I heard, “Good morning Daddy!” There was our youngest son standing with a big grin on his face ready to start the day. I knew if I didn’t leave right then my morning would be shot, yet I knew that on judgment day I would wish that I had spent this time with him. So I put him in the stroller and we went for a 30 minute stroll. It was in the upper 60s and the light played through the giant trees of our older neighborhood as we passed numerous people out on their porches enjoying a cup of coffee. I tried my best to enjoy it, knowing full well that my plans were shot. I finally got out of the house, but not before everyone was awake and I had given out hugs and kisses and well wishes for the day. It was now almost 9 a.m.

I should have skipped the coffee and gone straight to church and spent some quiet time with God, but instead I rationalized that I really needed that  cup of coffee, and anyway, I would still have time to get everything done, right. Not so. When I got to church I made a short list of things I needed to do, but realized it wasn’t as short as I had thought, so I had to skip the time in the chapel and just dive in. I was so flustered I kept forgetting things and had to made several trips between buildings retrieving items. When I got back to the practice room at 10:00 I didn’t find a single chorister. Where were they? Well, there was a mix up and they didn’t realized I had already unlocked the door to the building, so they were all standing outside. As I traipsed into the building I was hit by the furnace blowing full heat everywhere, even thought it was going to be in the 80s that day (and already was inside the building).

We dove into rehearsal and things were somewhat back to normal when I grabbed for my coffee, actually a large “Death by Chocolate” cafe mocha, sitting on the piano (I know, I know, I shouldn’t have put the coffee on the piano). As I took the cup and lifted it to my mouth, the lid popped of and in my surprise I squeezed the cup and my “Death by Chocolate” attacked—everything and everywhere. It was all over my good suit, my white shirt, one of my favorite ties–the piano, piles of music, the conductor’s stand and the floor. We tried to clean it up, but all we could find were those typical brown paper towels found in public restrooms, which barely work at drying hands, much less mopping up 20 oz. of coffee (and why does 20 oz. of liquid on the floor seem more like 2 gallons?). At this point I could only laugh and thank God that I hadn’t been wearing my suit jacket, which strategically worn would cover large blotches of coffee during the concert that afternoon (you guessed it, no time to go home and change between Mass and call time).

In a similar vein, as our choir prepared for our Rome pilgrimage last fall, I struggled for a month as everything in my life seemed to go wrong and I made myself physically sick with worry. Shortly before we left I went to spiritual direction and discussed this with my director, who after some discernment told me it really sounded like the devil was attacking something he didn’t want to happen. After that moment, the attack seemed to stop and the choir had a wonderful time in Rome. The same thing happened Sunday–God was giving me a chance to simply trust Him, so I did the best I could. Happily enough, the day ended on a wonderful note and everyone was pleased with a job well done. I am sure that each of you have similar experiences all the time. Just remember to laugh, thank the Good Lord and keep your coffee off of the piano!