Category Archives: Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum

Take 2 Vocal Lessons and Call Me in the Morning

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

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

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

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

Chorister Vocal Training at the Regensburg Cathedral Choir School

If a picture is worth a thousand words a video is worth ten thousand. Some day I would love nothing better than to create a series of videos that systematically deals with training voices of children, both individually and within the choral setting. I feel this is a true need for many of our church musicians who want to train the youth of their parishes, but who feel utterly overwhelmed by the prospect. Unfortunately my ability to navigate technology is at about the same level as my ability to sing in 4 part harmony simultaneously, so the project will have to wait for more favorable times. However, I would like to share a video with our readers for the interim.

Here you will find a fine documentary (2009) produced about the Regensburger Domspatzen, the choir of men and boys at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Regensburg, Germany, which has filled the ancient city and cathedral with glorious music for more than a millennia. At the heart of the choir is its choir school, where boys have been formed year after year into one of the great choirs of the world. Pope Benedict’s brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, directed the choir for 30 years and marked the choir’s 1000th anniversary during his tenure.

The documentary is in German (unfortunately without subtitles), but the sections I have listed below provide a glimpse into how the choristers are trained and can generally be followed without any knowledge of the German language. I hope they provide a glimpse into the great tradition of training children our treasury of sacred music.

Video 1: (02:02) This section shows the choir’s vocal instructor giving group vocal lessons to new recruits. She leads them through vocal sirens, which place the voice in the head voice and develop resonance.

Video 2: (00:48-03:25) More of the above, but with added work on the chest voice. The German choir, in my opinion, place a greater stress on developing the chest voice than their counterparts in England.

Video 3: (00:01-01:05) This video continues to show the development of the head and chest voices with the addition of proper vowel formation. You will notice how each chorister learns to shape his mouth and lips to create a tall, open space for tone production. (06:29-end): Here the choristers sing parts of the round (that isn’t really a round) Das Orchester (here in English), in which each voice, or part, imitates one of the instruments in an orchestra. This song is great in that it can be used to teach many things, including singing in parts, legato and staccato, high and low, head voice and chest voice (as well as blending both together), etc.

Video 4: (04:27-06:23) This clip shows the voice trail to determine which choirs the new boys will be placed in. One item to note is that these boys are vetted vocally before they ever arrive at the school. If you are just beginning such a children’s choir, you will not have the luxury of being so choosy. (08:13-end) Here is the first rehearsal in choir for the new boys.

Video 5: (01:11-02:40) Here we see Sister measuring the new boys for cassocks and surplices. (02:45-04:15) This video provides a look at a full choir rehearsal. The Domspatzen (which literally means “cathedral sparrows”) relies upon the German tradition of using high school boys whose voices have changed to sing tenor and bass. Note the different sound they make as opposed to the English tradition, which relies upon professional male singers whose voices have fully matured. (08:10-09:20) This clip shows the full choir singing together in the cathedral. This is not the primary cathedral choir, but a training choir. You will notice the difference in quality between this and other parts of the documentary which show the main choir singing. Unfortunately the choir routinely sings for Mass standing in front of the original main altar.

Video 6: (01:18-02:00) Here we see students in individual instrument practice, especially piano practice. There is not a choir school I know if that doesn’t provide its choristers individual piano lessons, which are essential to a fuller understanding of theory and music in general, especially how individual lines of music work together. (04:37-05:36) Finally, we see in video 6 the importance of learning solfege.

Video 7: (04:37-05:32) Along with individual piano lessons, most choir schools now provide a weekly voice lesson for each chorister. It is not uncommon for the vocal coach to routinely visit choir rehearsals and even lead warm-ups from time to time in order to form healthy vocal habits in choristers.

Video 8: (00:00-01:52) This video shows auditions for the main choir cathedral choir. Notice that the vocal coach as well as another choir director sit in. This provides the director additional input and feed back and helps makes the decision much more impartial. (03:29-06:15) First we see a boy singing a the German Lieder. I have noticed that the German choir schools place a greater emphasis on the entire German vocal tradition rather than simply on sacred music. I feel this is one reason for the different sound produced by German choirs, which makes more use of vibrato and a healthy inclusion of the chest voice, what is commonly referred to as the continental sound. Lastly, we see Dr. Buchner (head of the cathedral choir) workng with the new boys to creating the choral sound he desires. This is critical. Such fundamentals must be practiced on a regular basis, which I find is one of the hardest things for choristers to do (they just want to sing!), but a great choir is not possible without this.

Video 10: (01:03-end) Here we see the result of so much hard work, the main choir singing in the cathedral.


The Fully Sung Mass

In the wake of the 50th anniversary of Musicam sacram earlier this month, sacred music seems to have enjoyed a small (and probably short lived) bit of interest on the international horizon, especially following Pope Francis’ words to mark the occasion. I find the Church is rather good at waxing eloquently on principals, writing a document here or there of encouragement, and then promptly moving on to the more important matter of forgetting about them. However, if St. Augustine was right and cantare amantis est (singing belongs to the one who loves), then it behooves us to once again learn to love and thereby take up the Church’s eternal hymn of praise.

Of course, this begs us answer the question, will the Church come alive in the West simply by singing Her Sacred Liturgy? I believe Augustine answered properly when he wrote that “singing belongs to the one who loves,” as opposed to “love belongs to the one who sings.” Nevertheless, loves seems to require the gift of music. If that is true, then Holy Mass would require it, too, in its fullest expression. This seems to have been the goal of the Second Vatican Council, the fully (and beautifully) sung Roman Liturgy. I would argue this has been the goal of CC Watershed as well and I am happy to be a part of that, and in this vein, I would like to offer a piece of practical advice to priests and musicians alike.

I find in general that priests and musicians focus the majority of their energy on Sunday Masses, which as a principle is sound and worthy (although it carries with it the assumption that the spoken Mass, used on a daily basis, is the base line standard for the celebration of Mass instead of being an impoverishment of the greatest act of worship man can offer to God). However, we find ourselves in an odd era where the majority of those attending Sunday Mass are no longer what we might call practicing disciples. Their goal is to be entertained while getting in and out as quickly as possible, which bodes ill for any worthy celebration of Mass.

On the other hand, the children in your Catholic school are still very impressionable and are actually being formed by what they experience at Mass, rather than reacting to it. Why not gradually implement the fully sung Mass with them? They will soon consider it normal (your battle will be with others) and you will have skipped the Sunday battle at least for a while. For priests who are afraid that chanting adds three extra minutes onto the Mass, just cut a few minutes off of your 10 minute daily homily in the spirit of Pope Francis.

In all honesty, you will never be able to avoid all liturgical conflict. At the same time, you do have parishioners who are longing for a fuller expression of the Sacred Liturgy and you might be starving their spiritual lives the longer you hold off. I would also like to offer a few websites you should know of that will be an enormous help in the process of establishing the Sung Mass.

Chants from the Roman Missal: This website is maintained by ICEL and contains the music (modern notation) for all of the chants in the Roman Missal. There are also a number of accompaniments for congregational chants. (I would, however, caution against using the Missal’s English Chant Ordinary. It is based upon the Missa Iubilate Deo, and is very confusing for those who already know the setting in Latin, a larger number than one might think.)

Free Settings of the Mass Ordinary: CC Watershed offers a number of free plainsong settings of the Mass Ordinary for immediate download and with accompanying practice videos.

If you are a pastor, you will ultimately need to hire a competent church musician (at a competent wage) to assist you in this work. While the above sites offer easy ways for you to begin the Sung Mass in your parish today today, they present only a base line standard. Strive for greatness!

Why do we need hymns at all, when we already have the Psalms?

The title of my current post comes from the first chapter of Anthony Esolen’s book on hymnody entitled Real Music (which can be purchased here). I was blessed to purchase the book as well as have a good conversation about it with the author himself last month and want to heartily recommend the, especially for the first chapter, which is devoted to the Psalter.

The Psalter, as Esolen notes, is the prayer book of the Church and the Psalms constitute the “foundational poems of Christian praise.” Not only are the Psalms truly beautiful in an aesthetic sense (which they undoubtedly are), but also because they speak to every moment of the Christian’s life on earth as well as the life to which he is called. They plumb the depths of joy, sorrow, praise, suffering, marriage, children, life, death, God and the fight between the family of God and it’s enemies. The Psalter was also the “hymnal” of Christ and Mary, the apostles and countless saints and sinners spanning the two millennia in the life of the Church. The only other hymnal that has come close to such longevity and vitality in the Roman Rite is the Graduale Romanum, another book of rare worth.

What I especially appreciate in his chapter on the Psalter is how Professor Esolen masterfully presents the reader with the beauty of the Hebrew Psalter and its idiosyncrasies, its structure and poetic styles, all without bogging the lay reader down with too many technical details of the Hebrew language. In a sense, he is able to bypass the trees and present the beauty of the forest. He also tackles the difficulty of not only translating the Psalter into English prose (he relies upon the beautiful King James version), but also the difficulty of creating metrical versions which live up to the majesty of the originals.

I do, however, want to caution the avid connoisseur of all things liturgical in the Roman Rite. This is not a work on the great hymns of the Divine Office or other liturgical chants that might be classified as hymns. Real Music deals with what one might classify as devotional hymns, which although not officially part of the Roman Liturgy, are nevertheless important to the flowering of true piety and love. Best of all, it comes with a CD containing a number of the hymns sung by the St. Cecilia Choir from St. John Cantius in Chicago. If you aren’t able to read music, just sing them with the CD until you know them by heart. I promise you, they will become a vibrant part of your spiritual life.

Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music and the Imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

Singing for Cardinal Burke’s Pontifical Low Mass

Last Thursday, the Feast of St. Cyril of Alexandria, the Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum was blessed to sing for a Pontifical Low Mass celebrated by H.E. Raymond Cardinal Burke at the Church of St. Anthony-St. Mary in Kansas City, KS. This was the first time the choir sang for Holy Mass celebrated according to the Ancient Latin Rite, and to be honest, I was a bit nervous about what all the children would think. In the end, the choristers gave the Lord some of the best singing they have ever produced and the Mass prompted one of the choristers to ask last Sunday if they could use the Communion Rail in our own parish from now on to receive Holy Communion (I took a poll, and all the choristers save one wanted to continue the practice). We shall see what the future brings.

For my own part, I have sung for and lead numerous choirs singing sung Masses in the Extraordinary Form, but never Low Masses (this Mass being the first). The Schola Cantorum sang Tallis’ If Ye Love Me before Mass, Grieg’s Ave Maris Stella during the Offertory, the traditional chant Adorote devote, Messiaen’s O sacrum convivium and Mawby’s Ave verum corpus during Holy Communion and Holy God, We Praise Thy Name for the Recessional, immediately followed by Scarlatti’s Exultate Deo. While the choir sang everything very well, I have to admit that I missed singing the Ordinary and Propers of the Mass. It made me realize how much more I prefer singing the Mass instead of singing at the Mass, whether or not the Ordinary or Extraordinary Form. Nevertheless, I told Cardinal Burke that is was a blessing for us to sing for the Mass and assured him of our prayers. He graciously joined us for a picture, which I would like to share with everyone.

Schola with Cardinal Burke

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!