Category Archives: John Bertalot

An Unpleasant Task

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problems Encountered Teaching Rhythms

Every year I spend the first four or five weeks of Probationer rehearsals teaching basics: standing and breathing properly, developing a beautiful tone, singing the major scale up and down to a light accompaniment (which doesn’t include the melody), learning note names, learning simple staff nomenclature and proficiency in rhythms. Today I want to share with you a struggle I perpetually encounter teaching rhythms.

Since learning about Takadimi and using it with children in class, rhythm proficiency has greatly improved. In the past I taught the Takadimi syllables while calling the notes by their traditional names, such as quarter note, eighth note, etc., but students were always confused. Think about it from the point of view of a third grader. It must be terribly confusing that an eighth note receives only half a beat, while an actual half note gets two beats. Or what about a dotted quarter note that receives one-and-a-half beats, but when it is the first note in the measure, it is held until beat two-and-a-half because in music the singer starts counting the measure at one instead of zero.

The main reason I continued to teach these names was because everywhere else the child went, he encountered these names. Well, today I decided to buck the system (in spite of my general LOVE of tradition) and simply referred to the various notes by their Takadimi syllables. Lo and behold, the students made the change quickly and clapped their rhythms almost flawlessly. Perhaps it would be best to approach rhythms this way until students were so familiar with sight-reading rhythms that introducing the traditional note names wouldn’t present any difficulties. If any of our readers have stumbled upon better ways to teach rhythms I would be curious to know. In many ways I feel it is more important that a piece be sung rhythmically well than to be sung with 100 percent note accuracy. I find music with rhythmic vitality much more moving.

Finally, for any of our readers in Detroit, I will be presenting at the archdiocese’s music and liturgy workshop In Service of the Sacred. I will be discussing chorister training as well as working through some of these concepts with a group of school children from the city. If you happen to be at the conference, please say hello!

The Current Heresy

Following a meeting last week for parents of choristers, the father of one boy announced to me with a twinkle in his eye that I had spoken heresy during the meeting. He was right, I spoke an unforgivable heresy–I told parents that I would be training the boy Probationers separately from the girl Probationers because… (drum roll please) boys and girls were different, and, would you believe it, they learn differently, too.

To be honest, I have always known this, as have most of the readers here, but I had never been in a position to teach our new recruits separately, but that has changed this year. The girls (9 of them) are admittedly easier to teach, but the boys (8 in number) keep me mentally on my toes. I really have to stay several steps ahead of them and make sure that I turn most of what we do into a game (or at least introduce a healthy amount of competition into the learning) and keep the pace moving quickly.

If you work with boys and girls and want to understand  how each sex processes information and makes decisions, a great book to read is titled Why Gender Matters, by Leonard Sax, MD Phd. It is written from a secular viewpoint and a few sections could have benefited from the light of a little reflection on natural law, but otherwise it is a must read. Dr. Sax himself had been convinced that the difference between boys and girls was completely due to the way they were raised (nurture vs. nature), but overwhelming medical evidence, coupled with his experience as a psychologist, spoke otherwise. He finally had to admit that boys and girls were different. One might be tempted to ask what kind of person required two doctoral degrees, untold hours of research and 30 plus years of experience as a psychologist to come to a conclusion that any sane parent throughout the history of mankind took only 24 hours (after having both a boy and girl) to realize, but then we wouldn’t have gotten this great book.

What I enjoyed the most was that the author didn’t simply state that boys and girls were different, he went in depth regarding how those differences play out in thought processes and actions, especially in the classroom. In all, it has been incredibly helpful. Go out and get your copy today!

Give Yourself a Boost in the New Choral Year

By I stroke of good fortune last Sunday I only had to play the organ for our early morning and late morning Masses, leaving a large amount of free time in between (my wife and children were at her parents for the weekend so there was no reason to go home). After taking some time in our Adoration Chapel, I spent the next hour-and-a-half at a local coffee shop re-reading through John Bertalot’s articles and books on choir training and sight-singing. If ever I received a musical shot in the arm that was it, and I have entered every rehearsal so far this week with a passion and resolve to teach the choristers how to sing the Church’s music, undoubtedly the greatest body of music every composed, on their own. If you haven’t read his online articles, do so now (an re-read them over and over again) and put your choral year off to a great start. Just this afternoon the grandmother of 5 choristers informed me one of her granddaughters told her that rehearsal wasn’t long enough, and that it seemed to be over just as it was starting! Thank you John Bertalot.

On another note, just yesterday I ran across this recording of Westminster Cathedral singing for High Mass in 1954 (Salve sancta parens). It always amazes me that children can do so much musically and how we too often settle for mediocre. Lead your choristers to greatness! Have fun listening and see if you catch the very odd pronunciation of Latin (veddy English) during the spoken blessing at the end.

Once Again the Choral Year is Off to the Races

Today is always a day of great joy and excitement for me as chorister rehearsals begin for the new choral year. If you aren’t used to working with children, it can be a bit daunting on your first day, so I thought I would share with you some ideas of things I use and even things that I would like to do sometime in the future. I am starting this post assuming that you already have music chosen and schedules set in stone, so with that in mind, let’s dive in.

Before rehearsals begin, I sit down and map out which pieces I plan to rehearse in each session for the entire semester. I find that I set much more realistic goals in terms of how much music I endeavor to tackle each time the choir meets. Funnily enough, I get through more music this way, as opposed to trying to schedule rehearsals on a daily basis, which ends badly as I rush the choir through twice as much music (never spending time on details) because I am only focused on the next Mass and forget about spreading concert music out throughout the semester and thus, have to force it in last minute.

On the first day of rehearsals I spend a large amount of time going through rehearsal procedures with choristers. How should they enter the room? Where do their backpacks go? What should each chorister have at his place? How do we pass out music efficiently? How do choristers get tissues and go to the bathroom without wasting time? When should one sit, stand or relax? Etc.

Much of this I have learned from my wife who “teaches” Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. For those who are unfamiliar with this wonderful way of “teaching” the Faith, it is based on the educational philosophies of Marie Montessori (many don’t know she was a devout Catholic) and Sofia Cavalletti. When a child first enters the atrium (the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd classroom), the catechist spends a large amount of time showing the child how the classroom works, including how to walk, talk, carry something, etc. in the atrium. This training removes many behavioral problems because the child knows what is expected of him. Once a stable environment has been established, learning is much easier (and more fun). Another good book on the subject was recommended to me by our principal and is entitled The First Days of School by Wong and Wong.

The last thing I would like to share is an idea I recently had and am trying to figure out how to do it in future years, namely creating the environment of a team among the choristers. Sports teams do this all the time and residential choir schools do it by default, but I don’t know that many choirs do it intentionally. In the modern era when children are pulled in all directions to join this and that, I find that the students who remain in the Schola Cantorum are those who connect to the choir in such a way that they feel they are a necessary part of the whole. The Madeleine Choir Schools takes students on a week long summer camp each year before school begins to help create such an atmosphere and to get a head start on rehearsing concert literature. I am not in a place to do that yet, but I am sure there are other ways to “skin the cat” so to say. If readers have any suggestions (either ideas or books), please let me know.

Whether you conduct a choir of children, adults or both, I wish you the best at the beginning of your choral year!

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!

Bertalot’s 12 Steps to Sight-Singing, Step 1

We have finally come to the first of Bertalot’s 12 Steps to Sight-Singing—to Sing One Note.  This sounds ridiculous in its simplicity, so let’s find out what he means.

When most singers receive a new motet, they focus on the words rather than the music. Bertalot once demonstrated this to a group of adults by giving some children the words (minus musical notes) of a hymn and then asked them to sing it.  He played a melody on the piano that he made up on the fly, yet the children seemed to sing it like they had heard it before.  Bertalot made the point that children are great imitators and what looks like sight-singing is often just imitating what they have heard on the piano only a millisecond previously.  If you work with children, try this some timeit is all too true.  How does one get around it?  The answer is to get them to read the music notation as well as the text.

In the first rehearsal you have with your new singers, you will need to teach them a couple of basics of music notation before they can sing one note, namely that music is written on the staff (five lines AND four spaces) and the staff has a clef (if you are working with children, this will be the treble clef).  Once you draw the staff and the treble clef, point out that the belly of the treble clef wraps around the line we call G.  Play G above middle C on the piano and ask them to hum what they hear.  Then draw a quarter note on the same line.  Explain that the quarter note tells each singer to sing G for one FULL beat, meaning that if you as the director begin counting at number one, the children must sing the G from the moment you say 1 until you say two.  Then point to the note and have the children sing what they see.  You have just taught them how to first see, and then sing one note (both pitch and rhythm) correctly.  It always amazes me how excited children get when they have learned to sight-sing their first note.

As an aside, if you have your choristers sing a G at the beginning of each rehearsal, most of them will memorize it within the first few rehearsals and will thus have a reference point for pitching other other notes without the help of a piano.

John Bertalot’s Website

I have spent several weeks already going through John Bertalot’s 5 Wheels to Successful Sight-Singing and there will be a number more.  I would also like to direct readers to his webpage containing 35 articles on various aspects of leading a choir.  Every one is an absolute gem.  Please, please read them!  You will not be disappointed.

Bertalot’s 5 Wheels (Part 2 of 2)

In part 1 of 2 of this post, I covered the first 3 of Bertalot’s 5 Wheels to Successful Sight-Singing. In this post I cover the last 2 wheels.

Wheel Four-Theory and Practice Bertalot writes “Every theoretical point must be made practical and vice versa. Sing what that see, see what they sing.” In the very first rehearsal when you draw a staff and treble clef on the board to explain what they mean, you must then make it practical by putting music in front of the choristers and asking them to explain it. When you draw the first note on the board and teach them that it is a G, you must then have them sing it. Then put a piece of music in front of them and ask them how many Gs they can find. This must happen with every concept you teach them.

Wheel Five-Steer the Car As Bertalot points out, the most important wheel on a car is the steering wheel, and the choir director needs to have a firm grip on that wheel. A lot of this deals with discipline in the choir room. If you have good discipline in the classroom, teaching your choristers will be much easier. Bertalot says “The children must learn quickly to respond to what I say. They must realize that I mean everything I tell them. Children need boundaries within which they can work. If they learn that you don’t really mean what you say, they won’t know where they are, and they’ll call the shots. From the children’s very first practice on, they need to know that the boundaries are there to help them achieve the great things that I have in store for them.” Go out and Steer the car!