Category Archives: Probationer Training

Where do we go from here?

In his work The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis writes about the mediocrity of our race: “Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Such is the nature of man that he settles for that which is easy. WE settle for that which is easy—especially in the realm of our sacred music. One only has to attend Mass at the average American parish for ample proof. On the other hand, I recently had the chance to speak with a small group of church musicians from around the mid-west that, each in his or her own way, is having a profound effect on the musical environment in their parishes and cathedrals, both in the sacred liturgy and through their teaching and mentoring of others. Both the weeds and the wheat are growing in the Lord’s vineyard and so it will be until the end of time.

Over the course of the last two months I have written about various forms of the choir school and have encouraged those who are able to begin choral foundations of some sort for youth in their parishes and cathedrals. Today I ask each of you who directs music in one of these churches to make a commitment to form the next generation of musicians. We need to break out of our complacency and ease. We need to break away from simply providing music for the next Sunday’s Masses. We need to lift the minds of our young people out of the gutter of self-absorbtion and turn their hearts to the glories of Heaven! God has given us the task to do this through the glory of music. Music might not be the only way to do it, but it is certainly one of the most beautiful ways.

If you struggle to know where to begin or how to begin I want to help. Over the course of the next weeks I plan to go through the process of founding various choral institutions with all of the myriad of questions that can arise along the way, from discussing various models for funding your venture to the training and disciplining of choristers.  I will even discuss ways to help convince the powers that be.

The time has come for us to stop complaining and begin doing. We must bear the weight of Glory!

If You Want to Catch them All

The Cathedral of St. Anne in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Leeds, England, like many other cathedrals in the western world prior to the Second Vatican Council, was home to a renowned sacred music program steeped in the Church’s tradition of plainsong and polyphony. This fell apart when the axe fell during the turbulent 60s and according to the cathedral’s website, its music program sank lower and lower until the late 1980s, when the bishop at the time took the bold step of hiring a full time music director whose task it was to create a cathedral choir of 24 boys to be drawn from throughout the diocese. (This should serve as a constant reminder to our prelates and clergy of the impact they can have on sacred music in the Catholic Church.)

In 2003, the cathedral’s commitment to worthy sacred music led its music staff to create the ambitious Schools Singing Programme, a musical outreach ministry providing quality music instruction to children from all over the diocese. The program’s goal is first and foremost to form all the young people in the diocese. From these foundational programs, the cathedral then draws singers to its own choirs. I have followed the program for a number of years and remember thinking it incredible when the program worked with 2,500 students each year throughout the diocese. Now that number has has almost doubled. According to the program’s website, it currently serves 4,000 children each year, many from the most economically depressed areas in England, and it has provided choral instruction and singing opportunities to 25,000 young people over the last 16 years. This is the fruit of only 1 diocese!

There are 9 full-time and 9 part-time staff at the diocese who work in 53 schools and more than 40 after school choirs, not to mention the 6 cathedral choirs that rotate to sing Holy Mass and Vespers almost every day of the week. All the cathedral’s choristers receive private vocal tuition and there are 45 places for organ students currently available to musicians throughout the diocese, all of which are full.

Readers can browse a number of articles about the program here or listen to  the quality of the Cathedral Choir recorded at Midnight Mass in 2017 (the Mass Ordinary is Haydn’s Nicholas Mass).

In 2009 the Cathedral even partnered with a local Catholic School to found a Cathedral Choir School, now celebrating its 10 anniversary.

If there is a valuable piece of advice I would like readers to take away from this post, it is that Catholics HUNGER for great music in their churches (and quite frankly, the Sacred Liturgy demands it) and they are willing to financially support it if they are confronted with a great vision for sacred music being implemented and carried out. We need a vision this big and this bold! What a gift to the Church it would be if some of our cathedrals and growing number of truly Catholic colleges and universities in the United States would be willing to take on this work.

A Professional Choir in 6 Years!

Two weeks ago I wrote about the Westminster Cathedral Choir School (and choir) and the Guildford Cathedral Choir, two choral foundations of incredibly high standards founded in very short amounts of time to chant the services in their respective cathedrals. But what of the cathedral music director who needs first to prove the viability of a cathedral choir school before he founds one? I would venture to say this is where most choir masters find themselves and thankfully we have the wonderful example of the Madeleine Choir School at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, Utah. Mr. Gregory Glenn, the choir school’s founder and long time pastoral administrator, graciously accepted my request to spend 6 weeks at the school in the fall of 2012 in order to collect information about the school and choristers for my DMA document and it opened my eyes to what was musically possible with children. One question I continually asked myself during my time at the school (and ever since) was why no other cathedral had followed the Madeleine’s lead to found such an institution. It is such a gift to the Church!

Regarding the school’s history, Mr. Glenn related to me that he had had some desire to found an institution like the Madeleine Choir School, but it had always seemed more of a dream than a reality. Nevertheless, he visited all the Catholic schools within a 40 mile radius of the Cathedral and auditioned all students in grades four through eight. Roughly 70 choristers (half boys and half girls) accepted his invitation to join an after school choral program at the cathedral and rehearsals began in the Spring of 1990. The boys and girls practiced separately, each for 90 minutes every week, and only sang for Mass once per month. This went on for some time until the cathedral’s rector, Msgr. Francis Mannion, decided that Glenn should spend time at a real choir school if he hoped to start one in Salt Lake City. Glenn packed his bags and traveled to London for three months in residence at the Westminster Cathedral Choir School in the fall of 1992. Four years later the Madeleine Choir School opened her doors and has been growing ever since.

What We Can Learn
I think the first and greatest lesson we can learn is that Mr. Glenn had a love of and passion for the cathedral choir school model and had a vision for what such a thing could look like at the Madeleine Cathedral. He also worked with a rector who could share in his vision. Sometimes I talk with music directors and pastors who want the children in their music programs and schools to sing good sacred music, but they haven’t taken time to flesh out in their minds what such a program in their parishes would look like or how they might actually carry out such a plan. They are under the impression that all it takes is learning a couple of neat music hacks for their students to be able to tackle Palestrina Masses, and all for the price of only $10,000 a year for a part-time music director! But this simply isn’t realistic.

The second lesson we can learn is to persevere when the long route is necessary. Glenn began with a good number of students and a strong desire, but not much more. He and Msgr. Mannion didn’t know if Glenn could pull it off. He ran an after school choir program for six years before the school began. It was also A LOT of hard work and Glenn was honest in relating to me the problems he encountered along the way. In the beginning the choir, even with 35 students in each group, never strayed from unison singing. Moving on to part-singing was difficult and didn’t take place until he began a summer camp where choristers finally experienced daily rehearsals for the first time. Chorister parents found it difficult to understand the idea that the choir had an obligation to the cathedral to sing her daily services, even when that meant returning to the Cathedral on Christmas afternoon to chant Vespers, and all this after having sung Midnight Mass and Mass During the Day. When it came time to propose an actual school for the choir, he had to create model budgets and numbers to give to cathedral committees because such a thing had never been done. When the bishop finally gave permission to found a school, it was full the next day, but Glenn had no teachers. Teaching sight-singing has also been a challenge all the while keeping up with concerts and other obligations (thankfully he has the incomparable help of Mrs. Melanie Malinka, the school’s music director).

I write all of this because it shows how one man’s dogged determination brought a choir school into being. There were new challenges all the time, but Glenn kept finding solutions and eventually his plan took root and developed. As in the case of Sir Richard Terry having the friendship and backing of Cardinal Vaughn, Glenn had the support of Msgr. Mannion, the cathedral’s rector. This support was key, but once he had the necessary vision and support, the rest was a matter putting one foot in front of the other. The thing to remember, though, it that he did it, and you can too!

A Professional Choir in 6 Months

So it continues… the challenge I lay down to church musicians to found choir schools or choral foundations in their respective cathedrals and churches. To that end, I offer these brief histories of two choral foundations begun in the 20th century, namely Westminster Cathedral Choir School (Catholic; 1901) and the Guildford Cathedral Choir (Anglican; 1960-61). The incidents I relate in these histories come from a variety of sources, but I rely primarily on Andrew’s Westminster Retrospect (Westminster) and Carpenter’s The Beat is Irrelevant (Guildford).

My reason for offering these histories simultaneously is that both institutions were founded at the same time as their respective cathedrals and were considered as part of the fabric of each building. Cardinal Vaughn, the spiritual son of the great Cardinal Manning and builder of Westminster Cathedral, felt the choir to be as important to the solemn celebration of the Church’s sacred liturgy as the cathedral itself. His original agreement with Sir Richard Terry, Westminster’s first choirmaster, was that the choir would sing the daily High Mass, the little hours, Vespers and Compline (can one even imagine!). At Guildford the original plan had been for sung services only on the weekends, but Barry Rose, the choir’s first director, was adamant that there be daily choral services in the cathedral and his opinion held sway. In either case, it was unthinkable that the celebration of the liturgy could be separated from the best liturgical music. Of course, this view requires the creation of some sort of stable, first rate choral foundation, in order to make it a living reality.

The second reason I offer the histories of these two great cathedral choirs in the same post is that they had to be founded and their choristers trained to extremely high standards in relatively short periods of time. Terry had only six months to prepare his boys for Holy Mass on Ascension Day (1902), when the they, together with the men of the choir, offered Byrd’s Mass for 5 Voices in the  cathedral’s Chapter Hall. Rose had roughly the same amount of time before his choir’s first choral service in the new cathedral (1961), the televised enthronement of the new Anglican bishop of that see, followed by the cathedral’s consecration a month later.

Westminster Cathedral Choir School (originally a boarding school for choristers only) opened in 1901 with 11 choristers, then grew to include about 25 boys by the following June when daily choral services began in earnest. Terry was known for his unrelenting hard work, grueling standards and numerous rehearsals. During his tenure at Downside Abbey (before moving to Westminster) teachers complained that his rehearsals eclipsed all other school activities and one can only wonder what they were like when he began anew at Westminster. Rose didn’t have a dedicated choir school, but did form a partnership with the Lanesborough School, where he trained choristers four days a week in addition to rehearsals at the yet unfinished cathedral. I have sat in on rehearsals conducted by Rose and I can say they are truly thrilling and his quest for beauty in unrelenting. I can well imagine that neither he nor Terry ever settled for less than twice what the choristers thought was their best.

It must also be noted that Byrd’s Mass for 5 Voices not withstanding, both choir masters put the quality of performance before the difficulty of repertoire and always focused on the music of the liturgy before moving on to “filler” music. Rose would often spend most of a rehearsal before Choral Evensong on getting a few lines of one of the Psalms perfect, which necessitated scrapping the proposed anthem in favor of Tallis’ If Ye Love Me, supposedly sung more often in the early days of the choir than many singers cared to remember. Thankfully Mr. Rose recorded most of what his choir sang during his tenure at Guildford Cathedral (offered on YouTube by Archives of Sound). Terry noted in his 1907 book Catholic Church Music that it would be better to sing the psalms and antiphons at Mass and in the Office recto tono than to give them an unmusical rendering. I often wonder if some of the vitriol directed against the Church’s music is due to its less than stellar presentation.

Lessons to be Learned
The greatest lesson I feel we can learn from both of these is the connection between the sacred liturgy and liturgical music. The Second Vatican Council reminded us that the Church’s treasury of sacred music is Her greatest art because it doesn’t just adorn Her rites, but becomes part of them. If we want to renew the Church’s Sacred Liturgy, we must also renew its link with sacred music. It is a travesty of titanic proportions that the completely sung Sacred Liturgy is rarely offered in Cathedrals today, even for great feasts, much less on a daily basis. Our Cathedrals owe God nothing less than the solemnly sung Liturgy (which encompasses more than Mass!) on a daily basis. Please note that this is not a slight against Cathedral music directors. I know so many good ones who work tirelessly to make things as beautiful as they are allowed.

The second lesson we can learn is that the practice of making the Church’s music is only possible with constant rehearsal and dedication on a daily basis. It is wonderful that volunteer choirs exist at cathedrals and they most certainly add to the beauty of the Cathedral’s sacred worship, but they simply cannot bear the load of the Church’s daily liturgy. This is almost impossible without the aid of a choir school. Of course this begs the question of which kind of choir school should a cathedral have, but this can only be discerned by those at each cathedral. A cathedral in one of our great metropolitan areas almost necessitates a residential school of some kind simply because there often aren’t many children living in their geographical areas and grueling daily travel would be to much for children and parents. Most cathedrals in the United States could adequately work with a day school, while those in the more remote areas might have to content themselves with an after school choral foundation that sings on Sundays and major feasts only.

Because this article deals with cathedral choirs that were founded in a very short amount of time I want to address circumstances particular to their foundings. While I can’t speak from personal experience, I feel that this would be the most musically rewarding way to begin a cathedral choir school or choral foundation. In order to do this, a musician would need to have the complete trust and friendship of the bishop, rector and the cathedral’s master of ceremonies (or in the case of a larger parish, the pastor). The musician would need carte blanche to do whatever necessary (and within reason) to make such a foundation possible and would need to have every help from the cathedral and diocese as are regularly necessary to establish a new school, much less a residential one. If the cathedral or church already had a school, the music director would need the same cooperation from the principal, teacher and parents.

Another key ingredient to such an undertaking would the selection of the best choristers. In this kind of institution only the most ideal children could be accepted. Children, even those who had no previous training, would need to possess a beautiful singing voice, free of anything that might hamper the development of the choir’s tone, an incredible ear able to reproduce what it hears correctly the first time, a driving desire to be part of such a choir and the intellectual capabilities to deal with such intense learning on top of all his or her other school requirements. I once heard John Scott, while at St. Thomas Fifth Avenue, mention that as of May in that particular year, he had only accepted four candidates on probation for the choir the next year. His standards were that high (and yes, there were a number of other boys who inquired and even auditioned). Those selected had to be able to learn to read music in a very short time, create a quality choral sound and develop a decent repertoire to handle the demands of daily choral services. One would also have to be as exacting with the men of the choir.

If you are a bishop or cathedral music director and are reading this blog, I venture to guess you already understand the intimate relationship between good sacred music and the Church Liturgy. If you do, please consider moving forward with such a venture as a cathedral choir school. There are wonderful people of great faith and incredible talent who are more than willing to help. We need to be bold!

A WHAT School?!?

Last week I wrote about the affect that the founding of roughly 350 choir schools in the United States would have upon our general level of sacred music within a single generation and provided a number of resources for the novice and not-so-novice who would like to know more about choir schools, but who are currently unable to visit these great institutions.

Today I would like to continue this thread of thought in order to discover more about what makes a choir school tick. I also want to tie the choir school concept to several real models that I feel are every bit worth imitating in one way or another. Along the way I hope to provide more resources for our readers should they wish to dive further into the subject.

In order to begin our conversation, I believe it is necessary to keep in mind that the ultimate goal of the church musician is to provide the most beautiful music possible for the sacred liturgy and NOT (necessarily) to create a school. This is perhaps why in England cathedral choirs are often referred to as choral foundations. For example, there has been a choir at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London since 604 A.D., but it wasn’t until centuries later, in 1123 A.D. that a school was established by the bishop of London to educate boy choristers. The important thing is the choir that sings for the services. The cathedral does not announce each week that St. Paul’s Cathedral School (where the choristers are educated) sings for the cathedral’s services, but rather that St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir sings for the services. It is, therefore, possible to have a fine choral foundation without an actual school (Rippon Cathedral Choir). However, I firmly believe it is more difficult.

Another point to keep in mind is that there are very few “real” choir schools left in the world. What I mean by this is a school whose sole raison d’être is the education of a certain church’s choristers and no other students. Two such elite programs that readily come to mind are the choirs schools at Westminster Abbey (Anglican) and St. Thomas Fifth Avenue (Anglican). Both of these schools are residential and educate only the boys who sing in each church’s choir. As far as I am aware, the Schola Puerorum, the school for boys of the the Sistine Chapel Choir, also exists solely for the purpose of educating the choir’s choristers, but it is not a boarding school (are are Westminster and St. Thomas). The same is true for St. Paul’s Choir School (Boston). The obvious reason for such schools is that the musical education of the choristers becomes the guiding principle for all of the school’s education decisions and programs. The downside, however, is that educating such a small number of children is EXTREMELY expensive and strong in will and perseverance would have to be the rector of any church to attempt building such an institution.

Much more common today is the choir school that educates non-choristers as well as choristers (and often both boys and girls, even where the choir remains open to boys only). This list includes choir schools such as Westminster Cathedral Choir School (Catholic) and the Madeleine Choir School (Utah). The Madeleine Choir School has always educated non-choristers, whereas Westminster Cathedral Choir, like many other European choir schools, began educating non-choristers in order to keep the school financially viable. St. Paul’s Cathedral School (London) is another well known choir school that now educates both choristers and non-choristers (I would recommend readers watch the 1978 documentary Paul’s Children, the first part here, during the tenure of the legendary Barry Rose). Some, like Westminster Cathedral and St. Paul’s are boarding schools (at least for the choristers) and some, like the Madeleine Choir School, are simply day schools. In choir schools that educate both choristers and non-choristers, there can exist a tension between plotting an educational course that provides the best environment for choristers and one that favors non-choristers. The Madeleine Choir School implemented a creative approach to this issue, allowing the school principal to plot a course for the daily educational needs of all students, but retaining the cathedral choir director as the school’s pastoral administrator, a position above the principal, which allows him final say should there ever arise an conflict between chorister and non-chorister interests.

The mission of all of these choir schools remains the training of their choristers in the art of sacred music. The main difference, however, among all of the schools I have mentioned, is how much control each school is able to exert over a chorister’s formation. The greatest amount of control is exerted by the residential “real” choir school that can plan all of its educational and extra-curricular events around the needs of the choir. This lessens slightly as one descends to the non-residential “real” choir school, then to the residential choir school that educates both choristers and non-choristers, next to the non-residential choir school that educates choristers and non-choristers, penultimately to the regular school that partners with a cathedral or church choir and lastly to the choir that exists as an after (or before) school model.

As I just mentioned, there are regular schools (non-choir schools) that work in partnership with a church’s choir to provide an ideal setting for the musical education of that church’s choristers even though the school is not a choir school. This model is perhaps more common in England where there is no-separation between church and state. It is also somewhat easier to facilitate because English schools generally begin much later than American schools (around 9 a.m.), which allows for a choir rehearsal at school each morning at a reasonable hour before the school day officially starts. (I have personally tried this at my own American parish and a 7 a.m. choir rehearsal somehow sounds much more cruel to choristers and parents than an 8 a.m. choir rehearsal.) A wonderful example of such a choir is the London Oratory Schola Cantorum, directed by Charles Cole.

Take a moment to visit these choirs’ websites to find out about the history and structures of each one. Is the choir attached to a school? How often does each choir rehearse and when? How many Masses, parts of the Divine Office or services does each sing weekly? Where are the choristers educated? Do choristers received a reduction in school fees because of the time they give to the cathedral or parish in service to the liturgy? Do choristers receive a thorough grounding in music theory? How many services does each choir sing on a weekly basis? What kinds of music does each choir sing? Are choristers required to take lessons in piano or in other instruments? Are choristers given voice lessons as part of their musical education? Who sings the alto, tenor and bass parts in these choirs, professional singers, boys with changed voices or a combination of both? Are there other organists or helpers on the music staff (educating choristers is VERY time consuming)? Does the choir take part in musical events outside the liturgy, and if so, does this help them to sing at a higher level within the liturgy?

These are things a choir director needs to think about as he plans to build a successful choral foundation at his own cathedral or parish. And because I do think it is indispensable that liturgical musicians in American begin to build choir schools for the training of our own future musicians, next week I will begin taking readers through the histories of the founding of various types of choir schools. The schools I have selected were all founded in the 20th century and therefore have many more documented histories available to help the church musician of today create his own blueprint for such an incredible institution.

 

So… You Can’t Visit a Choir School

I have, of course, shared with readers many times in the past my abiding love for the choir school tradition and the conviction that it would be the fastest and surest path to restoring musical sanity in our cathedrals and parishes and of bringing the light of true, good and beautiful sacred music into the daily experiences of parishioners everywhere.

I continually ask readers to imagine a choral program for children where the same children are taught to use their voices well, where they learn to read music at a deeper level each year and where, in grades 5 through 8 they sing through vast amounts of the greatest sacred choral music that Western Civilization has bequeathed to the modern world (especially Gregorian chant and polyphony). All the while, these same students are receiving serious tuition in keyboard and voice.

There are roughly 175 dioceses and archdioceses in the United States. If at the very least the primary cathedral of each diocese or archdiocese plus just one parish in each of these same geographical regions committed themselves to creating such programs and graduating at least 10 students each year, that would mean 3,500 students annually. In one generation (roughly 20 years) that would mean approximately 70,000 students. While the vast majority of those students would not go into music professionally, they would at least help to fill our parishes with congregations and choir members who would expect real sacred music sung to a high degree and who would be willing to finance it.

Lastly, there would be those students who would go on to be professional church musicians and who would have experienced greater portions of sacred music (and performed it to a higher degree) by the end of their 8th grade year than most American graduate students in music can boast of experiencing by the end of their master degree. I was very privileged to spend six weeks at the Madeleine Choir School in Salt Lake City and I can honestly say that experience was worth a graduate degree in itself. Nevertheless, I realize that this experience simply isn’t possible for most so I want to offer readers a second way. What follows are links to books, articles, videos, etc. that provide valuable information about choir schools and/or choral foundations. These tools cannot replace spending personal time at these institutions, but they will certainly wet one’s appetite for a first hand experience.

Books:
The Art of the Choral Conductor (Finn)
The Beat is Irrelevant (Carpenter)
Catholic Church Music (Terry)
John Bertalot
Manual of Church Music
Ward Method
Westminster Retrospect (Andrews)

Training Programs and Music Theory Standards:
Voice for Life (RSCM)
ABRSM Music Theory Standards

Dissertations:
Catholic Choir School Models in the United States (Seighman)
The Choir School in the American (Anglican) Church (McGrath)
Lifelong Influences of Being a Chorister (Dong)
The Madeleine Choir School (Tappan)

USA Catholic Choir School Websites:
The Madeleine Choir School
Our Lady of the Atonement Catholic Church and Academy
St. Paul’s Choir School

European Catholic Choir School Websites:
Westminster Cathedral Choir
Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral Choir
Regensburger Domspatzen

Podcasts and Videos:
The Role of Sacred Music in Catholic Education (Cole)
Staved Off (St. Mary’s Cathedral Choir, Sydney)
Westminster Cathedral

I would recommend in general searching YouTube for videos about choir schools, auditioning to choir schools, life in choir schools, etc.

Let the Fun Begin

Today’s Feast of St. Gregory the Great appropriately marks the beginning of the 9th year of the Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum. It was decided last week that I should move the entire choir rehearsal area not only to a new room, but to a new building on our parish’s campus, so the week leading up to the august event proved to be quite a circus.

While most Americans enjoyed the fruits of the grill yesterday to celebrate Labor Day, my family and I were hard at work: my wife and sisters carried gobs of cassocks and surplices, my children carried music stands, my 72 year old mother carried wooden benches(!) and I drank a martini… To be honest, I was moving benches, music, the piano, cassocks and surplices and setting up the new room. We really had a fun time!

On top of everything else, I have also been searching for ways to bring more choristers into the choir (along with their families), to keep them on board, to provide better and more comprehensive choral and Faith formation to youth and to give my own work a new energy. Perhaps some of these might work for you and your choirs and I offer them in the spirit of mutual enrichment.

  1. Recruiting: I have written about this before, but things such as a summer camp, annual auditions for all the students in the parochial school, trips (especially international trips) and the opportunity for a quality musical education are all enticements for students and their parents. However, as Mark Rohwer explains in  an article entitled “If You Build It…” from Choral Director magazine, “a great musical experience is a better recruiting tool than a pizza party every time.”
  2. Retention: Delivering a quality choral experience for children and parents is essential, but other things are critical as well. I keep attendance for all of our rehearsals and Masses, but until recently I never did anything with the information. Now when students miss a rehearsal or Mass and I don’t know why, or if I hear of the reason second hand from others, I send a friendly email to parents to make sure everything is alright and this helps busy families to stay accountable and let’s them and their children know they are essential to the team.
  3. Choral Education: I need to  be learning constantly if I expect my choristers to do the same. In this regard, I find it essential to be learning from the best, whether in person or via other means. I try to keep in contact with other professional musicians and have no qualms calling for advice whenever I need it. For those who cannot get away (I often find myself in this boat) YouTube is an essential tool for one’s formation. I also peruse the websites of various choirs because they often provide videos of choral warm-ups, snippets of their latest CDs and videos of rehearsals and concerts. Did you know that the Indianapolis Children’s Choir provide several videos of choral warm-ups plus a video for children and parents that tells them how and what to expect when auditioning? There is a wonderful set of videos that track the entrance and training of choristers at the famous Cathedral of Regensburg. They are amazing!
  4. Faith Formation: Some of my choristers have an incredible knowledge of the Catholic Faith and very deep interior lives, while others not so much. I admit that I do not have a comprehensive program for teaching the Catholic Faith during rehearsals, but I do make sure that every child can recite from memory his or her purpose in life: to know, love and serve God in this life and to be happy with Him forever in Heaven. The music or the day’s feast often provides plenty of points for discussion and I try to make time for those discussions. The Imaginative Conservative recently published an article entitle Music and the Education of the Christian Soul. While the article doesn’t address specific ways to teach the Faith to choristers, it does address the importance of music in the formation of the moral imagination.

I hope and pray the new choral year proves to be fruitful year for each of you.

Mr. Pete Avendano and His Incredible Choir

A couple of years ago I gave several presentations on chorister training as part of the Sacred Music Symposium in Los Angeles. As I often do, I requested a small group of young people to work with so that those in attendance might better understand the process of working with children. My only stipulation was that each child must to be able to match pitch.

The day arrived and I stood in front of room full of musicians with half a dozen children  as guinea pigs (I make sure the first time I hear them is the first time the audience hears them). I asked them to sing a certain note on a neutral syllable and immediately I knew I wasn’t working with the average group of school children. They stood before me tall and confident, breathed deeply from their diaphragms and sang the most beautiful and moving “oo.” I stopped and joked to the audience that we had been had. These were well trained choristers with a wealth of musical knowledge readily at hand and I would be lying if I were to claim that working with children was that simple. After the presentation I met their choir director, Pete Avendano, a consummate gentleman and musician.

 

Mr. Avendano, originally from the Philippines, spent his formative years as a chorister/border in the Tiples de Santo Domingo, an all boys Catholic choir school run by the Dominicans and the oldest musical group in the country, founded in the 16th century. Later, he attended the Conservatory of Music at the University of Santo Tomas, a pontifical university,  and had the opportunity to sing in both the Coro Tomasino, the college of music’s official choir and the UST Singers. According to Avendano, “The Coro Tomasino is made up of students from the conservatory and focuses on Big Choral works and normally sings for the Opera Production of the Conservatory, while the UST Singers members are from the different colleges of the University.

“I toured with the UST Singers in Europe and America from 1998-2001. That choir gave me the opportunity to experience performing abroad. We competed in top Choral Competitions and festivals in Europe and won many top prizes. The tour would sometimes last for 6 months and we would be traveling in many places around Europe. I had to stop for 2 semesters during those years to be able to join the choir in the tour. This choir gave me all the experiences in college that now Im also sharing with my young students. The UST Singers is considered to be one of the best choirs in the Philippines.
Avendano now directs the music for Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Los Angeles and teaches music in the parish’s school as well as at nearby Precious Blood, and recently took 32 choristers on a week long choir tour to England to participate in the International Children’s Choir Festival at Canterbury Cathedral, directed by Dr. David Flood, organist and choirmaster at Canterbury, and Mr. Henry Leck, founder of the renowned Indianapolis Children’s Chorus. According to Avendano, each had a very different style of conducting, yet each possessed the ability to draw the best from the choristers.
When asked which of the many experiences he found to be the best, he answered that it was singing choral evensong in Canterbury Cathedral. While acknowledging with sadness the English revolt against the Catholic Church, he found it incredible that a place would dedicate itself and its resources to the daily praise of God for more than a millennia-and-a-half and to be a part of that tradition was an incredible experience. Dr. Flood even arranged for him to be able to visit the cathedral archives to see a 1400 century Missal.
Before singing for the festival concert, Mr. Avendano and his choristers took a moment to sing the Salve Regina by Miklos Kocsar in the former Cathedral Chapter House, captured below. They (and their parents) should all be proud of what they have accomplished.

Now back in Los Angeles, Avendano hopes to found a Catholic boys choir this year in the mold of the Tiples, dedicated solely to singing the Church’s music. Such a development would be an incredible gift for the Church in the Los Angeles area. If you are a music educator, Avendano is a man you will want to speak to. Not only does he possess incredible skills as a musician, but he will set your spirit on fire to do greater things with your own choir. As he told me “Never underestimate the children. Their minds are like sponges–they are amazing!”
We wish Mr. Avendano, his choristers and their families all the best!

Another Successful Summer Music Camp

Last week the Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum completed its second annual summer music camp. Forty-seven children in grades 3 through high school gathered through the week to experience the joy of music making with others their age and I would like to share with readers a few thoughts and insights gained from the experience.

  1. A choirmaster must always be recruiting and a summer camp is a great recruiting tool. At the end of each school year I give an informal audition to every child in the second grade, which I follow up with a call to parents inviting their children to the summer camp to “try the choir for a week” with no obligation to commit. This personal ask is essential for some parents and students.
  2. Undertake only what you are capable of handling. I have chosen to keep the summer camp on parish grounds with manageable camp hours. Other choirs take children away to youth camping grounds for an entire week. You must decide what you can effectively manage, although I would caution that smaller is better, especially in the beginning.
  3. Separate students into appropriate groups based on age and ability. I have a three hour long morning session for new and first year choristers and for any others who need extra reinforcement in the fundamentals, while more experienced choristers come in the afternoon for two hours. Younger singers are always excited to move into the more experienced group, although they often keep coming to the morning session as helpers. This year I had at least one older student helper for every 2 to 3 inexperienced students. Not only was this a great help to me and to the younger students, it also gave experienced singers the chance to learn by teaching younger children.
  4. Give students great music with an attainable goal. This year choristers gave a short concert for parents on the last day of the camp. I chose quality music I knew they would like and every piece was one the choristers would sing in the coming year. Although I didn’t tell the morning students, my goal for them was facility with solfege in the diatonic scale and an ability to clap simple rhythms composed of eighths, quarters, halves, dotted halves and whole notes.
  5. Make it an enjoyable experience. Three hours of uninterrupted choir rehearsals is a sure way to drive away possible choristers and make returning students think twice about repeating the experience. In order to make the choristers’ experience a positive one, the three hour long morning session was broken up into a number of smaller sessions with breaks in-between so that half of their time was spent learning and the other half outside playing games.  The afternoon session was less balanced, but nevertheless, students had plenty of time to run around outside or to re-connect with friends after the summer break.

If you should decide to host a summer camp I would strongly suggest you contact someone who has already done it. Find out what works instead of needlessly reinventing the wheel. Before my first camp I had a great conversation with David Hughes from St. Mary’s in Norwalk, CT. Mr. Hughes is a veteran chorister trainer and has run a summer camp for a number of years. Mary Anne Carr Wilson, who runs a summer chant camp for children, would be another great resource, or one might attend an RSCM course as a adult. Whichever route you decide to take, be sure to make the week a great experience for your choristers.

St. Rita Choral Academy

In the wake of my cri de coeur last week to American choir directors, asking them to push forward the musical and liturgical training of our children, it gives me great pleasure to highlight such a program opening this fall at St. Rita’s Catholic Church in Dallas, Texas. The parish’s new venture, the St. Rita Choral Academy, is the brainchild of Dr. Alfred Calabrese, one of Corpus Christi Watershed’s many great writers.

Calabrese, who holds a doctorate in choral conducting from Indiana University, took the reigns of the parish youth choir in 2014, which at that time had approximately 14 students in grades 4 through 8–a small number considering the church is the spiritual home to 3,500 families. By the end of last school year, the choir boasted an enrollment of 65 children, boys and girls, in kindergarten through the eighth grade.

As currently constituted, the choir consists of three groups, the first of which is the Cherub Choir. These children in kindergarten and first grade attend a 25 minute weekly session similar to kindermusik, where they move to music, play rhythm instruments and work on unison singing.

The second group, the Seraphim Choir, meet for an hour once per week and focus on unison repertoire, although they make the occasional foray into part-singing with wonderful little works like Praetorius’ Jubilate Deo. The Voice For Life workbooks from the Royal School of Church Music provide choristers with helpful instruction in music theory.

Beginning in the fifth grade, students graduate to the Jubilate Deo Choir. These children, all with unchanged voices, meet for an hour-and-a-half each week and focus  their efforts on more advanced repertoire in order to join the treble ranks of the church’s very fine adult choir. Two part treble repertoire as well as Adam Bartlett’s Simple English Propers are also familiar to the singers.

Each Advent the Cherub and Seraphim Choirs perform a simplified Lessons and Carols, while the Jubilate Deo and adult choirs sing the full version. Later in the month the Seraphim Choir is given the opportunity to sing alongside the Jubilate Deo and adult choirs for the Christmas Eve Mass. Dr. Calabrese was especially pleased last year when the the Jubilate Deo Choir lead the singing entirely on their own for Holy Mass on the Feast of Divine Mercy.

Enter the St. Rita Choral Academy.

Beginning in the fall, the St. Rita Choral Academy will expand the scope of Calabrese’s current work by offering students a chance to augment their training via weekly music history and theory classes and private or group piano and voice instruction, all focused on developing musicianship skills and deepening the child’s knowledge of the beauty of the Catholic Church’s sacred heritage. Calabrese is join by a talented faculty who will, no doubt, offer choristers a wide variety of musical experiences. 

It is my hope and prayer that more Catholic musicians take such bold steps, each of which will provide another brick toward the rebuilding of Christendom in a world more in need of it than every. Please keep Dr. Calabrese, his colleagues and their work in your prayers and be sure to watch for great things coming from the St. Rita Choral Academy in the coming years.