Category Archives: Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum

Chorister Catechesis

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Refresher on Chorister Training

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MPHM Chorister Abby Ferrell Singing in the National Catholic Youth Choir (Summer 2018)

Abby Ferrell, a Senior Chorister (alto) in the Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum spent a week last summer singing in the National Catholic Youth Choir under the direction of Andre Heywood. Below is a clip of the choir singing Palestrina’s beautiful Sicut cervus. Enjoy!

 

Click here for pictures and here for videos of the 2018 choir. Congratulations Abby!

MPHM Schola Cantorum Welcomes Largest Group of New Singers

The Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum welcomed its largest incoming class of new singers (Probationers) this year with 22 in all: 9 boys and 13 girls. It no doubt helped that the choir hosted a choir camp in early August for more than 40 children. All agreed it was a wonderful week of music, which culminated in a sung Mass for the Feast of St. Lawrence.

Activities ranged from learning about the kinds of notes and clapping rhythms to singing folk songs and Gregorian chant. Of course, it wouldn’t have been a proper choir camp without solfege (do, re, mi…) and needless to say all of the children can now sing the major scale (with hand signs) up and down and had fun performing various renditions of Do, A Dear from The Sound of Music.

My favorite comment came from a boy named Isaiah, who exclaimed somewhat surprised after the 1st day, “Dr. Tappan, this camp is actually fun!” The second day was only half over when he told me he was definitely going to join the choir. I related the story to his mother, who laughed and said she wasn’t going tell him that he never had a choice in the first place.

Summer Camp III
Summer Camp II
Summer Camp I

Photographs from First Mass of Deaconal Service

Thanks to a parishioner, Allan Goodman, I am able to share these beautiful photographs from Pentecost Sunday, 2018, when the Rev. Mr. Nicholas Ashmore served his first Mass as a Deacon. The MPHM Schola Cantorum was privileged to sing for the occasion.

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MPHM Schola Cantorum
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Singing the Sequence for Pentecost.
Chanting the Communion antiphon.
Chanting the Communion antiphon.
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Choristers receive Holy Communion.

 

Precious in the Eyes of the Lord is the Death of His Faithful Ones

Everyone experiences certain events throughout his life, ones which he remembers with incredible fondness and nostalgia, perhaps even with a bit of longing. Perhaps it is best that God created man to live in time, continually moving toward eternity, lest he become comfortable “here below” and fail to keep his eyes lifted heavenward. Nevertheless, certain moments in this valley of tears remind us to raise our eyes again to the Father Who loves us and to strive for Heaven with all of our being. These experiences provide strength for those who are persecuted—strength to remain faithful to their call. They also call the lost back to faithfulness. I am reminded of Christ’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, where He gave His apostles a glimpse of His heavenly glory to fortify them against His coming Passion and to both comfort and challenge them after His Resurrection.

One such personal experience of mine took place at the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains on 2 January, 2016. The Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum was on pilgrimage to Rome and in that capacity sang for Sunday Mass in the basilica. It was early in the morning, perhaps too early for most Italians, and the sun had just burst forth along the horizon of a beautiful and crisp winter morning. The choristers had vested and made the short walk from the bus to the church. As choir director I really had no idea what to expect as we arrived. The sacristan motioned for the singers to proceed to the ancient choir stalls surrounding the altar and confessio, shortly after which, Holy Mass began. The Missa cum iubilo rolled down the nave and back again as the Eternal Sacrifice resounded about us. We sang in view of the creche, not far from the chains that held St. Peter both in Jerusalem and in Rome, ever watched over by Michaelangelo’s Moses. There we were in the Eternal City where St. Peter stood as pontifex between the Old and New Testaments, announcing the Kingdom of God to what was then the greatest kingdom mankind had ever known. Two thousand years later the great Roman Empire had been consigned to history, while the Church, ruled by the Lord of history, stretched across the entire globe as a sign to all people that God, in His Son, has redeemed mankind and opened again the gates of Heaven to all below. In our parish back home, the inquisitive sojourner in our Perpetual Adoration Chapel might have noticed inscribed around the monstrance the Latin phrase Ecce panis angelorum factus cibus viatorum (Behold the Bread of angels, made the food of travelers). There in the creche in the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains was a small likeness the Infant-King, Who in that Mass became the Living Bread, the Holy Eucharist for each of us, food for us travelers. To this day everyone who traveled with the choir remembers this Mass as the crowning moment of the entire trip.

We have all encountered these moments that sustain us along our pilgrim way and I assume the same could be said of all the Holy Martyrs. I have often wondered what went through the heart and mind of the Maccabean mother, who, “being filled with wisdom: and joining a man’s heart to a woman’s thought” (2 Maccabees: 7:21) not only beheld, but counseled her seven sons to remain faithful to the God of their fathers and to the laws of Moses, even if when it meant torture and death at the hands of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Surely there were moments she remembered from her life that, along with her prayer and confidence in God, emboldened her to watch the deaths of her sons with every hope that their sacrifices would be rewarded in eternal life. I also imagine that her husband, who I assume was deceased by this point, inculcated a love for God and His Law in his family that helped sustain them as well. I am moved by this story every time I hear it and I pray that I might be given the grace to endure such a test if, God forbid, it should ever happen to me and my family.

Imagine my surprise this morning as I read through a portion of the Roman Martyrology to discover that in the old Roman Calendar both the Feast of St. Peter in Chains and the Feast of the Maccabean mother and her sons shared the same calendar day (tomorrow, 1 August) and that this family are traditionally thought to be buried in the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains. How fitting it is that St. Peter in Chains, by no means the most beautiful and opulent in Rome, houses Michaelangelo’s Moses, a symbol of the Law to which this family was so faithful. It is a poignant reminder to me to constantly pray for the gift of fortitude. May we pray for such witnesses to be raised again in the western world, and we pray for the intercession of those Christians who have been martyred in various parts of the globe this century. May their prayers and example bring us to the Gates of Heaven and may Mary, Queen of all Martyrs, give each of us such strength and courage.

 

The Sung Canon

Throughout my life I have been spared the ghastliest of liturgical abuses and aberrations within Mass and in most cases I can even write that these celebrations were both valid and licit, yet like most of my generation, such liturgies left me wondering if there was more to my Catholic Faith. Thanks to the wonderful teaching and example of my parents, this was never of question of doubt in God, or in His Goodness, Truth or Beauty, mind you, but rather a series of questions beginning with whyWhy is the God of the universe, Whom I know to be all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving presented to me as an effeminate man who willingly sacrifices all of his Goodness, Truth and Beauty and real charity in order to be niceWhy is holiness, intimate friendship with God, sacrificed for those greater “virtues” of tolerance and nicenessWhy is Heaven, our glorious patria, our eternal homeland, made present in a veiled manner at every Holy Mass, presented as a place of niceness (which to a boy of 13 and 14 is code for BORING)? I still remember the first time my family attended a Mass in the Extraordinary Form my freshman year in high school. The music was of no particular quality and I couldn’t relate a word of Father’s homily any more, but I do specifically remember it being awe-some in the deepest sense of the word—the very opposite of BORING. The fact that I asked the aforementioned questions was a particular grace of God. Unfortunately most of my schoolmates experienced BORING and simply left the Church. They never knew there was more—infinitely more.

If we hope to address this particular problem in the Ordinary Form, short of returning wholesale to the Extraordinary Form (which is another topic all together), we must work to restore a sense of mystery, transcendence and awe to the Sacred Liturgy. Otherwise we run the risk of lying to the faithful in the pew about Who God is and what He has done fore us.

I was fortunate enough to attend the Sacred Music Colloquium last month and experience the Ordinary Form celebrated in continuity with the Church’s great liturgical tradition, devoid of the mundane and banal, which so often paralyze the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the faithful. One particularly poignant moment I recall took place during the Canon of the Mass on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, when the priest, facing ad orientem and devoid of any amplification, chanted the Canon of the Mass. I was immediately struck by the awe-someness of the moment and my soul was filled with peace as its usual restlessness and fight against the BORING was banished. I have often attended Mass in the Ordinary Form celebrated ad orientem but have still struggled with the constant talking on the part of the priest at the most intimate moment of Mass, especially when a microphone is involved. Yet chanted, the words of the Canon take flight as prayer as opposed to mere talking, and when sung without the aid of a microphone, the words almost force the person in the pew to listen more intently. Prayer becomes natural as God is brought to the fore.

Since the Canon cannot be recited “silently” in the Ordinary Form, I wonder if chanting it might be one answer to the lack of transcendence we often encounter within Mass. Perhaps those priests who have personally tried this might offer advice based upon their experiences. Regardless, continue to turn toward the Lord in your heart and wait for Him in the silence of your interior room.

The Beauty of Dance

“So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obededom to the city of David with rejoicing… and David danced before the Lord with all his might.” II Samuel 6

I am amazed by the somewhat random and seemingly disconnected memories I tend to recall from childhood. For example, I could take you to the very spot, only blocks from Kansas’ only minor basilica, where I first realized at the age of 12 that one day I would die and that this life would pass by faster than I could possibly imagine. I can also vividly recall my parents playing polkas and waltzes on the piano and accordion after supper when we were very young, or dad and mom changing our vacation plans in Yellowstone National Park one year in order to make a 3 hour pilgrimage to attend the nearest Mass in next door Idaho for the Feast of the Assumption. I especially remember my father, who lacking any ego whatsoever was probably the man most comfortable in his own skin whom I have ever met. In particular, I recall one evening when he and my mother arrived home early from a presentation of of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker at St. Louis’ Fox Theatre. Dad’s workplace had provided the tickets as a Christmas gift and as those tickets provided my parents with a night away from us, they dutifully went. Being the eldest, I was put in charge in their absence, and somewhat surprised when they came home early. The house hadn’t burned and no one had died, so I asked mom what had happened. She smiled and said that dad had had enough of men in tights prancing around the stage for one evening. I couldn’t get that image out of my head years later when I attended The Nutcracker for the first time, although I enjoyed it as much as my father had disliked it.

I wonder what my father would have thought of liturgical dance, although I might hazard a guess, but thankfully he was spared the spectacle. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for myself since liturgical aberrations seem to find me wherever I am, but two instances in particular are worth mentioning here. The first took place at a talk given by a Dominican priest who was indistinguishable from the rest of us in his green pants and polo shirt, which were my first clues that the morning might prove interesting. Later, when a sexagenarian Benedictine sister in a floor length leotard, appropriately contrasted in color to her silvery hair, began dancing about the room sprinkling us (and the priest) with holy water, I judiciously held my laughter, as well as my contempt for the one who had forced my participation in the travesty.

My second memorable encounter with liturgical dance, albeit in secular surroundings, took place in graduate school, where a number of us were deemed unduly inexperienced in this particular liturgical art and made to overcome the deficiency. One of the young ladies in the class was organist at a local Latin Mass parish, and if Chesterton was correct to remark that “angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly,” she must have roared with laughter on the inside, because she made a glorious spectacle twirling her skirts into the air. Of course, harrowing trials are often the cause of deepened friendships among comrades, and she and I have remained good friend to this day. My wife and I were privileged when she and her husband asked us to be godparents for one of their daughters and I can write in all truth that we were not made to dance like harts in search of the proverbial water brooks as we made our way to the Font of Life on that happy day.

While I don’t pretend to love liturgical dance, I do love to pretend that I dance well and my wife and I go for the occasional twirl every now and again, for dance is a beautiful thing. President Washington considered himself to be little in the way of a musician, yet a master on the dance floor. He must have seen the beauty in it, too. A number of years ago a friend of mine married a young woman from Austria, whose family attended the wedding clad in the very best of their national costumes and readily took themselves to the dance floor. I will never forget the mother of the bride dancing the Viennese waltz. I stopped my own feeble attempts and stared at the sheer beauty of it, so simple and yet so elegant. There shall surely be dancing in Heaven.

I mention this because last Sunday most parishes in our nation celebrated the Feast of Corpus Christi, and I was struck again by the fact that Catholics, contrary to popular belief, really do have the most beautiful of what one might call sacred dance within the liturgy. Saturday morning I spent an hour and a half with eight altar boys rehearsing the steps of the procession and Benediction, whose intricate and graceful movements are but a shadow of the eternal dance we all hope to share in one day. At every moment, but I think especially on Corpus Christi, Christ issues His invitation to each soul to join Him, to take His hand to be lead by grace and to unite every step to Him Who is life itself. In order to follow His lead, we have to fasten our eyes and hearts upon Him, doing whatever He asks. This sacred dance is as far removed from “liturgical dance” as the waltz is from any form of what passes for dancing in most high schools and colleges today. Nevertheless, a dance it is. May we all accept the invitation of Christ to join Him, to be taken by Him, to love Him and be loved by Him in the Holy Eucharist, futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur. Alleluia.

Choosing Choral Repertoire

I find that one of the most difficult aspects of my position is choosing choral repertoire for the Sacred Liturgy. How does one remain faithful to the Church’s mandates for liturgical music and choose music the choir enjoys singing and the congregation (not to mention the pastor) enjoys listening to (or should that even be a concern?). What about my own preferences or the abilities of the choristers?

Every choir director probably knows of one or two pieces his choir loves to sing and does well, but his choir likely sings more than twice a year. Is it alright for him to program the same piece several Sundays in a row?

In order to answer these questions, it is good to remember the two classical “ends” of the Mass: 1) the Glory of God and 2) the sanctification of the faithful. We need to follow what the Church has discerned to be true liturgical music, what is worthy of the temple, but also be mindful of the laity who are spiritually nourished or starved to an extent by the music they hear.

Obviously, Gregorian chant should play a healthy role in every parish’s liturgical life, although by no means the only music one should hear. Of course, the Extraordinary Form parish will naturally be used to copious amounts of chant while the Ordinary Form parish might need copious amounts of coaxing. If your parish is new to chant, I would suggest learning a number of the superbly accessible Gregorian hymns in English, such as Godhead here in hiding (Adorote devote) or Hear Us, Almighty Lord (Attende, Domine).

The first place one should go in choosing choral literature is to the texts of the sacred liturgy themselves, especially the Propers. I personally look at those before I look at the readings since the Offertory or Communion motet is an extension of sorts of each respective antiphon.

One great resource for literature is Dennis Schrock’s Choral Repertoire.  I have learned so much simply by reading this book. It lists composers and works according time period, nationality, nature of the work (sacred, secular, Mass, motet, madrigal, etc.) and popularity (based on the frequency of performance). I have learned about a great amount of modern music this way. I also enjoy reading the choral lists posted by most of the great Cathedrals and choral foundations, both in the US and on foreign soil and I don’t hesitate to ask other choir directors for their suggestions. On occasion I have even commissioned works from our parochial school music teacher (what are friends for).

I will assume that our readers already know they need to choose liturgically, musically and theologically sound music for use in the Mass or Divine Office. Some other things to keep in mind are:

  1. Choose repertoire for the choral forces at your disposal. Don’t tackle that 8 part war horse when you only have 12 people in your choir (I am guilty of this). I would much rather hear the simple done well (even if your choir has to sing hymns as motets) than the complex done badly, or even mediocrely. (Mediocrity is often what kills chant!)
  2. Choose music that your choir sounds good singing or the acoustics of your church support. My choir has sung Messiaen’s O sacrum convivium on several occasions but the dryer acoustics of our parish church don’t do it justice. Messiaen’s music really needs the acoustics of a French cathedral to pull it off successfully.
  3. Don’t be afraid of modern music (or, don’t be afraid of older styles). Church musicians need to continually expand the treasury of Sacred Music and I firmly believe that we will never exhaust the music possibilities of the texts of the Sacred Liturgy.
  4. Work to expand and deepen your choir’s and your congregation’s musical abilities. At the same time, don’t kill them with relentless good taste. There is nothing wrong with throwing an appropriate bone on occasion.
  5. Sing music that not only glorifies God, but also brings your congregation to a greater love of God (His Truth, Mercy, Charity, Goodness, Beauty). The two are not exclusive.

Good luck!

Teaching Gregorian Chant to Boys with Changed Voices

I have heard it said that teaching chant to the masses for the Masses is quite an easy thing to accomplish, especially for children. Possibly, but if your goal is to teach youth the glories contained in the Graduale Romanum, I suggest you buckle your seat-belt and say your prayers. Nevertheless, such a worthy goal should be attempted so I thought I would share my choristers’ path to singing the Communion antiphon.

Seven or eight years ago I introduced a set of simplified vernacular propers (specifically the Communion antiphon) to my adult choir and to the parish. I can’t say I was overly taken by them, but they were better than most (I was not familiar with Fr. Weber’s settings at the time) and allowed me to travel the well promoted path of singing chant in English first. To my consternation, the choir didn’t like the either (why should they if I didn’t) and found them rather boring. Even our pastor at the time couldn’t stand them and told me so. I took the hint, but as a last ditch effort I proposed the choir sing the actual Communio chant from the Graduale Romanum. He acquiesced and we sang. I expected a healthy dose of negative feedback, but never received any (to be honest, there wasn’t any positive feedback either). Everything about the chant proved a challenge: the language, the music notation, even the sound of the modes. It took a couple of months before the small group of men could tackle one entire antiphon with any sense of confidence within a reasonable amount of rehearsal time. The second year through, was a revelation. The singers found the modes well established in their ears and the notation familiar to their eyes, and if the men could do it, then why not the boys.

At first I taught all of the boys with changed voices, but that was a mistake. It wasn’t worth the ill will caused by dragging unwilling participants across the Gregorian finish line. Instead I taught those who wished to learn in a separate, faster paced rehearsal. The boys encountered the same learning curves the adult men had previously, but their facility in solfege speed up the learning process, which I share with you now:

  1. (Melody) I asked the boys to sing through the chant first in solfege, without concern for rhythm, and reviewed tricky spots along the way (currently, the boys are capable of this after two times through the antiphon in solfege).
  2. (Rhythm) Then I lead them through the chant on a neutral syllable, such as nee or nah (the n only rearticulated at the beginning of an actual syllable in the Latin text). I focused on the chant’s rhythm and phrasing before adding the text.
  3. (Words) Next I focused on the text, both its literal meaning and liturgical meaning, and how to pronounce it. They knew certain words and phrases such as Deus and dixit or Cantate Domino canticum novum from other songs we had sung and were aware of numerous cognates. Between that and their knowledge of the texts in English they could usually make a decent guess at translating the antiphon before we spoke the text in a musical cadence.
  4. Finally, we put the various parts togethers and sang through the Communio twice before moving on. After two practices the boys could sing an antiphon to a high degree of accuracy, even if musicality came later.

Next year they will tackle the Introits, though I expect less of a learning curve. Regardless, I will let you know how it goes.