Category Archives: Probationer Training

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.

A Call to Educate Our Future Musicians

“My tastes are simple: I am easily satisfied with the best.” Winston Churchill

Many epithets can be applied to Winston Churchill, but mediocre isn’t one of them. When the going got rough, he got rougher. When the stakes were high, he upped the ante. When all seemed on the verge of collapse and surrender, he had already planned the victory. He never, never, never gave in.

Contrast this with Catholicism in the West, where the Church in Her human elements has not only surrendered to secularism, but seems eager to close the lid of Her own coffin. In the midst of such a fait accompli the cry of the church musician for better music is almost laughable. But… perhaps we need a better perspective.

We must remember that those who work for the Church’s destruction are not hacking away at Her trunk as they so often think, they are merely sit on what is already a dead branch in need of pruning. Quite comically, their spiritual, theological and historical eyes are so narrow and nearsighted that they can’t see they are pruning on the wrong side of where they sit. No doubt their rotten branch will crash with a resounding thud, with them on it, but only to the relief of the rest of the tree, which is already in new leaf.

The Sacred Liturgy, bruised and battered though she may be, is emerging from a long winter and the Face of Christ shines more brightly in it. Christ awaits the voice of His beloved to respond to His call once again and the Church needs the musician for this response.

If we expect church musicians worthy of the name to step forward, then we need to train them, which I am happy to say is taking place in more and more areas. We might not yet have reached critical mass, but the mass we have is critical and is growing. Now is the time to push forward rather than to despair.

Each summer I spend two separate weeks at Benedictine College in Atchison, KS, working with high school students who are interested in vocal music and I always spend some of our time together exploring the sublime world of sacred music. Most of these students, without ever having studied the Church’s documents on liturgical music, have an innate sense that our sacred mysteries require sacred music… and they WANT IT!

Within the last few weeks we saw the hiring of James Kennerley at St. Paul’s, Harvard Square, while our very own Richard Clark posted on other wonderful things going on for children in the archdiocese of Boston. Kevin Allen was recently named the music director of St. John Cantius in Chicago, which boasts thriving choirs for children, and Charles Cole and the Schola Cantorum of the London Oratory are currently on tour through a number of western states. This is just a smattering of the good things going on in the realm of sacred music in our larger cities and metropolitan areas, but what about smaller towns and the midwest?

Right here in Kansas, the geographical center of the contiguous states, I know of several parishes in my own archdiocese (here, here and here) where chorister programs are growing and great musicians are developing liturgical training programs for children. These things might seem slight to others, but even the greatest of forest fires begins very small and so will the advent of better music.

If it is true, as Chesterton put it, that “anything worth doing is worth doing badly,” then let’s roll up our sleeves and get started. If you are a music director and haven’t begun some sort of music training for the children in your parish for fear of it going badly, I tell you that whatever you do couldn’t be any worse than what children have been made to endure these last 55 years. Just begin!

Remember that Churchill was more often wrong than he was right, but when he was right, he was really right. Don’t be afraid of failure as long as you are willing to learn from the mistakes you make in front of your present or future choristers. If you model Christian discipleship alongside good musical leadership you will move your choristers and your program forward, just remember to keep your focus on real sacred music. Your choristers tastes are simple: [they are] easily satisfied with the best!

In Defense of the Choir School

Last week it was announced that James Kennerley would take over as the new Director of Music for St. Paul’s Catholic Church, Harvard Square, placing him at the head of the parish’s famous choir of men and boys, founded by Theodore Marier in 1963.

St. Paul’s Choir School, where the boy choristers are educated, is one of only three Catholic choir schools in the United States and provides a truly unique approach to the fostering of Catholic sacred music, an approach we might call the apprenticeship method. Following his audition and acceptance, a boy enters the school in the 3rd grade and embarks on a six year journey of professional music making that culminates in the graduation of a chorister consummate in the choral arts (as well as extremely proficient at the keyboard) who has sung through vast portions of the greatest repertoire of the western world, and therefore knows it as a friend, and for whom the Graduale Romanum is more than a footnote in a college music appreciation course. Mr. Kennerley is no stranger to such a choral education, as he himself is a product of Chelmsford Cathedral Choral Foundation.

It goes without saying that Mr. Kennerley possessed more than the average amount of latent musical talent as a child, nevertheless, his gifts and talents were honed in the professional atmosphere of the English choral tradition, after which he moved on to Harrow School. I can’t say for sure, but wouldn’t be surprised if he took part in the chapel choir program at Harrow, which, according to the school’s website, regularly sings works “by Poulenc, Chilcott, Saleeb, Piccolo, Byrd, Gombert, Faure, Berkeley, Howells, Faure, Haydn, Dyson, Bach, Jackson, Walton, Britten, Duruflé, Poulenc, Adelman, Mozart, Handel and Purcell.” From Harrow School he matriculated to Cambridge University and spent his time there as the organ scholar for Jesus College before being named the organ scholar for St. Paul’s in London–all before the age of 25.

Contrast this with the general experience of a Catholic child in the United States. The unfortunate child spends eight to twelve years in Catholic education shouting banal ditties at an beleaguered congregation, all the while being conditioned to believe in a boringly nice god who saves said child from nothing, and is therefore not worth his time, much less effort. Even Catholic schools with good music programs tend to give the Church’s treasury of sacred music a wide berth because of the undying canard that Vatican II got rid of it.

It might be forgiven students if they can’t improvise like Mr. Kennerley on the Victimae Paschali laudes. It is unforgivable, however, that they have never heard the Victimae.

The same applies to the sublime melody of the Veni Creator.

If we in the United States ever hope to produce liturgical musicians of the calibre of James Kennerley then the choir school is an absolutely essential ingredient toward that goal. I’m not saying we don’t have native musicians of his calibre, but we certainly aren’t producing them in the quantity that the English cathedral choir system is capable of.

Every Catholic cathedral in the United States should be committed to such an ideal. Our cathedrals should either run choir schools or run to establish them. Every parish with a parochial school should focus its music program toward the same goal, albeit to a smaller degree. It is the only way to rebuilt (or perhaps build for the first time ever) a culture of genuine sacred music in these United States.

It is amazing what has been accomplished at St. Paul’s over the last 50 years and what could be accomplished in so many other places in a much shorter time span.

We wish Mr. Kennerley and the boys and men of St. Paul’s Choir all the best!

In Search of the Deeper Meaning

Lay a garland on her hearse…Upon her buried body lie lightly, thou gentle earth.

Pearsall’s setting of these mournful lyrics came to a gentle close, but no one spoke… no one could speak. Never before had I experienced a work so beautifully sung and the experience will remain with me as long as my mind endures. Everyone that day knew he had taken part in something incredible, something otherworldly that might never be repeated. Such was and is the power of music.

I have heard it said that magic shows up at every concert but usually goes home disappointed and George Guest, the legendary conductor of the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, noted that those otherworldly moments in music were rare indeed. Nevertheless, in striving for those moments I believe we raise our choirs to an unbelievably high standard and create music  worthy for the temple (if ever we could do such a thing), music that possesses the power to move minds and hearts. Of course this begs the question, How does one do that?

Fr. William Finn, whom I wrote about last week, noted that most conductors who came to him for advice usually wanted nothing more than a few tricks they could take home to their choirs. They rarely desired to learn those things necessary to breathe life into the music. Yes, choirs need to sing on key, to come in together and to cut off together. They should blend their vowels and produce their consonants rhythmically, but a choir might do all of this and still never reach the outer bounds of beauty’s realm. In short, such a choir would utterly fail to communicate. It isn’t enough to merely understand the words, one must needs enter into the words and ultimately into THE WORD. Quite frankly, this is a herculean task that requires a lifetime of education. For those of you who have read David Clayton’s The Way of Beauty (which I highly recommend), you will understand when I say that it also requires the gift of grace. Regardless, I do believe it possible to point the budding musician into the Way of Beauty.

First of all, it must be said that the mechanics of beautiful music must be present. The right notes matter, as do a host of other things. Beyond the mechanics, however, especially if I were pressed to give one piece of advice, I would point to the text. The text is paramount. Unfortunately, though, we inhabit a very un-poetic world unable to cope with anything deeper than the merely technical in language, which has crippled our ability to understand and finally to communicate.

I would like to delve more into this topic next week, but I will leave the reader with this very simple example. Below is a video of the Regensburger Domspatzen singing two verses of Adeste fideles, the first verse in Latin and the second in German. Listen specifically to the way in which the words and phrases are shaped as well as the way in which the rhythm moves the text. Is there a deeper understanding we gain of the carol’s meaning through the way in which this choir sings it? How does the way in which it is sung convey that deeper meaning? This is where the true are of the choir master begins.