Category Archives: Probationer Training

Tone Quality and Your Singers

Some weeks ago I addressed the challenge of teaching your singers to breath well and today I hope to continue the conversation, focusing on your choir’s  tone quality. I remember well the numerous school and church choirs I sang in throughout my youth and to the best of my knowledge, not one of those choirs’ directors ever mentioned tone quality, much less worked with us to achieve a certain choral sound. The vast majority of our time was spent learning notes and paying attention to the odd, but occasional triple forte encountered on Easter morning. However, if you hope to lead your singers to greener pastures, working on the quality of your choir’s tone produces great dividends.

Warm-ups

I continue to be amazed by the number of choir directors who believe the entire purpose of warm-ups is simply to warm-up their singers’ voices. Perhaps the name warm-up is misleading, because there are so many other things the choir director can accomplish at the same time time. Use this time to build your choir vocally, especially focusing on problems they will encounter during rehearsal in the music.

Listening

The greatest skill you can teach your singers is to listen, both to themselves and to each other. They should sing everything as softly as necessary in order to learn to listen and to become aware of what comes out of their own mouths and the mouths of their fellow singers. When they prove adept at listening, THEN you may allow them to sing louder (just beware that you will need to constantly reinforce listening). All of my experience, though, has taught me that soft singing cures a great number of vocal faults.

Resonance

Resonance is extremely important! Ask your singers if any play the violin or guitar and inquire what would happen if they were to remove the instrument’s strings, stretch them as tightly as possible and then bow or pluck them. The strings would vibrate and make noise, albeit very softly. The sound box, because it vibrates in tandem with the strings, acts as a resonator and amplifies the sound of the strings. The same phenomenon happens to the human voice. As the vocal folds or chords begin to vibrate, they cause cavities in areas around the nose and mouth to resonate and amplify the sound. In this way, the voice is given life.

Help your singers to become aware of the natural resonance already taking place as they sing. Ask them to buzz like bees or to sing a very nasally ee and place their fingers to their noses and cheeks and feel the vibrations. Utilize warm-ups that build resonance and you will find your choir much improved in a few short weeks.

I also find it helpful to avoid overly technical language with most choir members, especially children. For the youngest ones, I simply sing the line of a hymn without resonance and then sing it with resonance and ask them if they hear the difference. They can always hear the difference and are often able to mimic both ways of singing.

Head Voice and Chest Voice

In the beginning stages of your work, strive for a greater use of the head voice, especially by singing everything softly. Often untrained singers have picked up a number of bad vocal habits, most of which result in undue tension place on the voice and singing softly reduces and eliminates this tension. This also encourages singers to listen louder than they sing and will help the overall blend of your choir.

Begin the warm-up with descending scales. The high notes encourage your singers to start in the head voice, and if you make sure they continue to sing quietly, they will bring the head voice down into the lower registers. What you don’t want is for them to start in a lower register in the chest voice and force the chest voice into the higher registers of their range, resulting in unhealthy tension.

Eventually, you will want to introduce the chest voice into warm-ups and into the repertoire, making sure that singers don’t introduce undue tension as they do. The addition of the chest voice adds color to music that would otherwise sound very emotionally restrained.

Vowels

Lastly, I would like to mentioned the manner in which choristers sing vowels and how it affects the tone quality of your choir’s sound. Just as Bostonians sound different from Mid westerners and Iowans speak differently from Georgians, the members of your choir will surely sing vowels differently one from another. Your job is to unify their pronunciation on beautiful vowel sounds. If your choir sings primarily in Latin, you will have a much easier time. I personally follow the Liber usualis for Latin pronunciation and Madeleine Marshall’s English Diction for Singers for English.

Conclusion

The ultimate goal of the choral director is to communicate through the music. In the end it doesn’t matter if your choir resonates well and sings beautiful vowels but can’t communicate. However, it would be pretty hard to communicate without these things.

Vocally Building Your Choir

If more choirmasters were honest with themselves, they would probably acknowledge that no more than 25 to 40 percent of their singers are actually leaders within their choirs. This is not meant to disparage the many fine choristers who dutifully rehearse and sing weekly, but to find ways to help each one become a leader in his own right, or at the very least, to become a little better this week than he was the last. Not only would this raise a choir’s general capabilities, but it would also build confidence and willingness in each singer. They will WANT to accomplish what you ask.

Over the next few weeks I want look at ways you can help your choir grow vocally, starting with breathing, but before I go any farther I would encourage you to take private voice lessons if you haven’t before. This is the best thing you can do vocally for your choir.

James Jordan, the well know choral clinician, is adamant that the best way to help your choir members grow vocally is to get them to be aware of what it is they are doing. This means the difference between each individual singer riding as a passenger in a school bus and being at the wheel of a racing car. You want your choir to be filled with drivers, not passengers, and this starts with singers being aware of the way their instrument works. The voice is a wind instrument, which makes breathing of paramount importance, but don’t fool yourself into thinking this is an overly technical process.

The incomparable William Finn, in his Art of the Choral Conductor (24-25), finds ridiculous the “innumerable monographs and dissertations [that] have been written on the alleged ‘art of breathing.'” Rather, the “average child and adult generally breathe correctly, otherwise the human race would long since have become extinct. But under the stress of self-consciousness, both children and adults are likely to show two faults: first, they raise the shoulders while inhaling; second, nervously or through inadvertence, they permit the breath to be exhaled too suddenly.” Your goal as a choir master is to teach your singers to breath as deeply as possible while the shoulders are down and relaxed. Ask each singer to lie flat on the floor and simply breathe (it is almost impossible to breath incorrectly in this position). As soon as each singer becomes aware of this natural state of breathing he can arise and apply the knowledge to singing while standing. You will need to practice this with your choir members for a number of weeks before it becomes second nature. Then you will have to hold them to it.

Another way singers experience proper breathing (especially if they would rather not lie on the floor) is to slowly breathe out until all air is spent and then relax the body. As the diaphragm returns to its normal position it will draw the breath deeply into the body, almost as if it were filling the stomach.

Once your singers become aware of breathing naturally, your task will be to connect that knowledge to the act of drawing breath and then releasing it slowly as they sing. Ask your singers to breath in deeply over the course of 4 counts and then slowly release the air for 8, 12, 16 or even 20 counts. Eventually they should release the air by humming and singing on neutral syllables, such as oo. Most singers will be able to sustain a note for 8 or 12 counts, but it will take practice before they can work up to 16 and 20 counts. The idea is to slowly release the air as opposed to allowing it to “fall” out.

Supposedly old Italian singing masters asked their students to sing in front of a mirror in a cold room. If the mirror fogged over, it meant the student was using too much air. Likewise, they would ask their pupils to sing in front of a lit candle. If the flame flickered during the aria, it meant the singer was releasing too much air. I have often asked singers to hold a finger in front of their mouths and pretend it was a candle and to imagine not allowing the flame to flicker as they sang. This has had a profound affect on their singing. It is important to note that pushing more air through the vocal apparatus does not mean louder singing, but husky singing, which is never pleasant in church music (or anywhere else).

I should also make a general note about singing posture. Ask your choir members to sing with an athletic posture; neither stiff like a soldier nor drooping like the slouch. Keep the feet slightly apart and under the shoulders with knees slightly bent and the head tall above the shoulders. Remember that good singing is 90 percent mental and encourage them to expand their awareness to other aspects of their singing. They will notice the difference in their sound and so will the congregation.

Music in Catholic Schools

Last week Catholics across the fruited plain celebrated Catholic Schools Week, so I find it apropos to share some musings about music education in our parochial Schools–the good, the bad and the ugly, and offer a plan forward.

First, the Good. There are almost 2 million students served by Catholic schools across the US, making the Catholic school system the second largest educator of American students after public schools. The Church, therefore, exerts a large influence on a sizeable minority of US children and quite frankly usually educates them better than public schools. This means the Church possess a tool of immense value. From my own experience, I can say that Catholic education in our present day is far more Catholic in every way possible compared to when I attended (through the 90s and early 2000s). Schools possess a far superior Catholic identity with a greater focus on evangelizing than in my day (I know some of you are shaking your heads at this point in disbelief and I promise to address your concerns in a moment) due in no small part to a much healthier crop of bishops, priests, parents and young teachers who want the Faith to be taught in its fullness. I wish I could say the same for music education in our schools, but for a few exceptional pastors and teachers, it is rather abysmal. I must say that I find a greater number of parishes that believe in the power of music to evangelize young people, but I can’t say that they always act on this belief in a healthy way.

Second, the bad. Just because the situation one encounters in Catholic Schools today is much healthier now than it was 25 years ago, that doesn’t mean that it is anywhere near where it should be. The educational vineyard has suffered tremendously and it is going to take a very long time and even greater effort to repair the damage of the last 60 years. Throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s pastors and teachers tried to all but destroy the Faith of average Catholics in the west, and now that they have largely succeeded, a much healthier crop of clergy and teachers find it daunting to overcome. More than half the families with children in Catholic Schools can’t even be bothered to take their children to Mass on Sunday, much less give witness to the Faith to their children. This means that even good Catholic schools struggle to fulfill their mission. As I mentioned above, Catholics are realizing how important music is to evangelization, but in general they view it as a manipulative tool used to get young people through the door (I realize they don’t think about it in this way). Basically, give them what they like to get them through the door the first time. If you are familiar with books and programs such as Rebuilt or Amazing Parish, they lean in this direction, while most schools and youth group programs rely on this model exclusively.

Finally, the ugly. What I find so distressing in all of this is that we have sold our educational birthright as Catholics for a tepid bowl of Dewey inspired porridge. The greatest educator in the history of the world is the Catholic Church and over the centuries She developed a model of education based on the liberal (free) arts, the trivium and the quadrivium, crowned by Theology, whose aim was nothing less than to form children to love and seek after truth and to realize that ultimately Truth is a person, the person of Jesus Christ. In this paradigm students move from the here and now to ultimate things, while our modern system of Catholic education tends to be a good public school with religion class thrown in. This system compartmentalizes education into separate and unrelated fields relegating religion to be “just another class.” Some children like math, some like spelling and some like religion. In the end, the general populace wants their children to receive high paying jobs and music doesn’t usually fit into that scheme. Education becomes something we consume instead of something that frees us and music is another consumable product the school provides if enough students and parents want it. There is no belief that some music is good and some is bad and that within these categories there are levels of goodness and badness. There is no concept of offering both God and our students the best of what we have. There is no idea of opening young people up to this great thing we call western civilization. Rather we produce what students and families prefer to consume. We give young people the kind of music we think they want at Mass and wonder why they don’t stick around (admittedly music is by no means the only problem). The Church and Her music become like clothes, just another consumable commodity–young people like them when they are in style, and feel good about them at the time, but soon they wear thin and are tossed in the wastebasket with yesterday’s refuse.

The questions remains, though, how do we move forward. I would suggest that we:

  1. Rediscover the purpose of a Catholic education (and it isn’t to be a better public school with a religion class tacked on) and be able to articulate it over and over.
  2. Rediscover that music has the power to train the heart to love what is good, and that we make the decision to give our students the very best of our musical patrimony.
  3. Devote a large amount of our music education program a program to teaching the music of the Church, one of our greatest treasures.
  4. Slowly introduce a diet of good music while reducing the dubious sort. (Richard Terry told the story of a pastor who changed the music at school Masses over the course of a generation and after that time the problem of music at Sunday Masses had taken care of itself.)
  5. For smaller parishes with limited resources, hire a competent musician who has a knack for teaching to run the parish music program and teach in the school. I personally know of pastors who have been very successful doing this.

If you are trying to move away from Praise and Worship, be sure to read Adam Barlett’s FOCUS on Beauty: The Liturgical Heart of Missionary Zeal. FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) is doing incredible work bringing young people to/back to the Faith and over the last 7-8 years they have made a seismic shift in the way they prepare music for Holy Mass.

Another invaluable tool is the National Catholic Education Association/Pueri Cantores list of Music for Catholic School Masses. Implementing this list of hymns and a beautiful setting of the Mass Ordinary in English would be a vast musical improvement for most parochial school Masses. If you school is ready to sing the Propers (you are blessed indeed!) Corpus Christi Watershed is more than happy to point you in the right direction.

Finally, I would encourage you to never let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Lay people especially need to pray for and encourage their pastors and music teachers, but realize they may be constrained in what they can do because of either outside limitations or by internal ones such as limited funds or extreme pressure from small, but vocal minorities in the parish. If they are working toward the good, do everything you can to assist them. In short, keep up the good fight and keep moving forward!

Forming the Next Generation of Church Musicians

Recently I stumbled across a fantastic read, a DMA document entitled The Choir School in the American Church: a study of the choir school and other current chorister training models in Episcopal and Anglican parishes, by Daniel McGrath (2005). I share it with readers today because McGrath is the first author I have found who systematically and succinctly describes the the nature of, as well as the various models of, the Anglican choral system (both in England and in the United States), a model I feel passionately about and one that I believe has the power to inaugurate a true renewal of sacred music.

There isn’t a church musician I know of who isn’t concerned about the state of church music in the western world, but rarely do I find one who knows what to do about it. Obviously our university system with its decline number of organ departments as well as choral conducting departments hasn’t provided the answer. Consider the current situation in music schools where students learn about Renaissance music for one semester and are assumed to have the skills necessary to tackle the repertoire. On the other hand, choristers in the English choral system begin singing large portions of the best of Renaissance music around the age of 9 or 10 and do it repeatedly for four and five years as sopranos. If they are boys they go through the same repertoire again as countertenors, tenors and basses during their time in the Oxbridge colleges. Which program do you think is more successful?

A number of these same students are already accompanying services on a regular basis at a young age. How many young organists in America are accompanying world class choirs and helping to train younger choristers in junior high. Which program do you think is more successful?

One might object that the English choral system is tied too closely to England and the Anglican community to present a model for Catholic parishes, but I would argue otherwise. Firstly, the English choral system grew out of  the monastic, collegiate and cathedral music foundations in existence long before the English Protestant Revolt. Secondly, the system is extremely diversified even among the English Cathedrals–there is no “one size fits all” way of executing it, and this diversity makes it extremely adaptable to other places. At the heart of this system is the development of a beautiful and natural vocal tone, musical literacy, and singing high quality liturgical music on a regular basis within the church service. There is nothing here that couldn’t be adapted to the people of Russia, South Africa, Argentina or the United States.

I would encourage those interested in the English choral tradition to read McGrath’s document and familiarize themselves with what actually constitutes a choral foundation and determine if this wouldn’t work for your parish.

Then read and learn about the three main forms of the English choral foundation. In its highest form is the true choir school, a boarding institution that educates only choristers. In reality, there are only two such institutions left in the world today, Westminster Abbey and St. Thomas, NY, and I doubt this avenue would be useful for most. The second form of choral foundation is the parochial school, usually a preparatory school of some kind, that educates both choristers and non-choristers, but makes the necessary allowances for the musical education of the former. This model is perfect for many Catholic parishes sporting an attached school. Lastly is the after-school model, where choristers are drawn from the surrounding schools and educated either before or after school. This construct might easily serve the school-less parish or the parish with a school music program that has not yet been put under the vision of a pastor who wants to implement the Modern Roman Rite in continuity with the Older Form and the hopes of the Second Vatican Council. The author also gives advice for implementing each of these options.

One last point McGrath makes is how important it is that choral foundations are properly supported. In England the force of tradition as well as that of the monarchy and parliament (many of these institutions are enshrined in law and supported by taxpayer money) ensure their continuation, but such is not the case in America. Instead he suggests that it is the the pastor (and I dare say the bishop) who must support the formation and continuation of good choral foundations. I believe that the more the clergy realize that such schools are important centers for Christians formation, the more they will support them.

I also hear complaints (well founded) that these institutions are not cheap, but restructuring the budget in 50% of parishes would probably do the trick. Lastly, I realize that there aren’t the musicians around to found such choir schools, but the more choral institutions are founded in the US, the more great musicians will be fostered.

I want to paint a picture of what such places could accomplish in the Church. There are currently almost 200 cathedrals in the United States. If each of these cathedrals were to found a choral institution of some kind, each graduating approximately 10 children per annum, that would mean 2000 young people receiving such a formation each year. Within one generation (20 years) 40,000 young people would have been formed in the Church’s vision for the Sacred Liturgy and music. That would be an absolute game changer. Until we start forming our youth in the Church’s treasury of sacred music we will continue contracepting our musical future to death.

An Unpleasant Task

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chorister Recruiting and Auditioning

It is that time of year when once again I recruit and audition new choristers for the coming choral year. To be honest, I prefer the actual rehearsing and directing of the choir to its management (a necessary evil), but it must be done and there really is no secret formula I use. I find the more children you have in your parish the easier it is. It also helps if your parish has a school and/or an active home school community. I always start by sending a note home with parents of school children and emailing the home school community, and depending on how many responses I receive (or don’t receive), I sometimes call families and make the personal ask.

The audition itself is very straight forward and usually takes about 10 minutes, although I know within the first minute if I plan to accept the child into the choir. After engaging in a bit of small talk, I ask the child to sing Happy Birthday, which seems to be the only song left which American boys and girls still know by heart. Sometimes a child struggles with the octave leap in the middle so I work with him to sing it on pitch, which usually entails helping him to sing in the head voice. If the child sings the song mostly on key I accept him into the choir.

Next, I ask the child to read the first paragraph or two from Psalm 51(50), especially noting how he tackles words like iniquity and transgressions. You are going to have an easier time with the child who slows down and attempts to sound out the word than the one who substitutes it with another word beginning with the same first letter and then seems bored when you try to help him figure it out. I have found without exception that the better a child is at reading the easier time he will have learning to sight-sing.

The rest of the audition I spend testing the child’s ear and voice. I have each one sing a few scales up and down and note the child’s range and vocal quality. Then I test his ear by having him sing back to me random pitches on the piano, a descending half-step scale of 5 notes and a short 2 measure melody, which I make more or less difficult depending on how the child has performed so far. The last ear test I put a child through is to sing back the notes of an inverted chord I play on the piano. It is rare that a child sings all three notes correctly, but most can find the highest note, and quite a few the tonic of the chord. Finally, I clap several rhythms and ask the child to clap them back.

Of course, one might ask why I put a child through all of this when I already know if I plan to accept him into the choir. First, even an informal audition lets the child and his family know that the choir is an important part of the life of the parish and a commitment he should take seriously. Secondly, it allows me to make a better assessment of a child’s abilities and willingness because it isn’t just about finding the right singers for the choir, but also about making sure the choir is good for the child. Thirdly, it allows me to know where children are musically and how best to help them to progress, and finally, to discover which ones are best suited to become Senior Choristers because of the special cultivation each one will need. This might sound elitist, but when each child is pushed to reach his potential, the overall musicality of the choir always improves. Happy Recruiting!

Take 2 Vocal Lessons and Call Me in the Morning

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

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

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

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

Chorister Vocal Training at the Regensburg Cathedral Choir School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Music and the Imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chorister Training Pitfalls

I would like to point the reader to a helpful article that appears in the latest edition of The American Organist magazine (January 2017) by Sarah MacDonald, director of the Ely Cathedral Girls Choir (Ely, England). Mrs. MacDonald writes a monthly UK Report, sharing her extensive knowledge of the English Cathedral music tradition and the training of child choristers and chapel organists. She brings a professionalism to the discussion of training children in the art of sacred music that is often lacking due to a misguided belief that the quality of our liturgical music should be sacrificed on the altar of good intentions. In her current article she tackles 4 pitfalls she feels entrap choral directors working with grade school and junior high children: range, vocal sound, quality of literature (both musically and textually) and finally sight-singing. I would like to briefly touch on each of these.

Mrs. MacDonald believes the greatest concern when working with children is choosing music in the child’s range (Eb 4 to Ab 5 in terms of the piano keyboard) and tessitura (around D 5), which can be difficult when most of the church music in hymnals is pitched lower than it was in previous eras. This is also compounded by the natural desire of children to imitate the so called “pop-music” they hear on a daily basis. Children might resist singing in their head voices simply because they have never experienced the sensation before, but it is worth the effort, both for the health of their voices and for the increase of enjoyment of their singing.

The second problem MacDonald identifies is a lack of any quality in vocal sound and choral blend. I find such artistry is often sacrifice in the director’s drive to “get the notes correct.” If the director had chosen easier music, especially simple music in unison, this would have provided more time to pursue a beauty in presentation that possesses the power to move the heart of the listener (I accuse myself of this often).

Third, Mrs. MacDonald stresses the need to chose choral literature of high quality both musically and textually. She writes “Avoid platitudinous or patronizing poetry–children can (and should) be taught to read and understand sophisticated texts as well as any adults. Teach them to have good taste in well-crafted repertoire.” I think more than enough electronic ink has been spilled attacking the ongoing problem of bad music and bad lyrics in church (I think of my experience as a child singing Great things happen when God mixes with us from the Glory and Praise hymnal in my Catholic grade school) so I will say no more.

Finally, she makes a plea to choir directors to teach children how to read music. She reasons that teaching children to know only a few concepts by rote is unacceptable in any other school subject, so why should it be so in music. Why should children be shackled to the unfortunate circumstance of only being able to sing a few good pieces of music because that is all they ever learned by rote? The earlier music teachers and directors lay a good foundation in sight-singing, the easier it will be for children to learn.

If I might be permitted to add my two cents to end this discussion, I think we as Catholics have an incomparable advantage in the Roman Rite in the possession of Gregorian chant (not withstanding the challenges of actually using it in the Ordinary Form). The repertoire is large enough to encompass any vocal range (and can be pitched accordingly), is very moving when sung in a beautiful, free vocal tone, contains music and text of the highest artistry and the simpler hymns and antiphons can be read at sight after the child is proficient in the use of solfege. Thankfully, even if your parish is stuck at Ground Zero, musically speaking, the number of pastors who would squelch even the occasional Gregorian hymn sung beautifully by a children’s choir is fast diminishing.