Category Archives: Probationer Training

Give Yourself a Boost in the New Choral Year

By I stroke of good fortune last Sunday I only had to play the organ for our early morning and late morning Masses, leaving a large amount of free time in between (my wife and children were at her parents for the weekend so there was no reason to go home). After taking some time in our Adoration Chapel, I spent the next hour-and-a-half at a local coffee shop re-reading through John Bertalot’s articles and books on choir training and sight-singing. If ever I received a musical shot in the arm that was it, and I have entered every rehearsal so far this week with a passion and resolve to teach the choristers how to sing the Church’s music, undoubtedly the greatest body of music every composed, on their own. If you haven’t read his online articles, do so now (an re-read them over and over again) and put your choral year off to a great start. Just this afternoon the grandmother of 5 choristers informed me one of her granddaughters told her that rehearsal wasn’t long enough, and that it seemed to be over just as it was starting! Thank you John Bertalot.

On another note, just yesterday I ran across this recording of Westminster Cathedral singing for High Mass in 1954 (Salve sancta parens). It always amazes me that children can do so much musically and how we too often settle for mediocre. Lead your choristers to greatness! Have fun listening and see if you catch the very odd pronunciation of Latin (veddy English) during the spoken blessing at the end.

Once Again the Choral Year is Off to the Races

Today is always a day of great joy and excitement for me as chorister rehearsals begin for the new choral year. If you aren’t used to working with children, it can be a bit daunting on your first day, so I thought I would share with you some ideas of things I use and even things that I would like to do sometime in the future. I am starting this post assuming that you already have music chosen and schedules set in stone, so with that in mind, let’s dive in.

Before rehearsals begin, I sit down and map out which pieces I plan to rehearse in each session for the entire semester. I find that I set much more realistic goals in terms of how much music I endeavor to tackle each time the choir meets. Funnily enough, I get through more music this way, as opposed to trying to schedule rehearsals on a daily basis, which ends badly as I rush the choir through twice as much music (never spending time on details) because I am only focused on the next Mass and forget about spreading concert music out throughout the semester and thus, have to force it in last minute.

On the first day of rehearsals I spend a large amount of time going through rehearsal procedures with choristers. How should they enter the room? Where do their backpacks go? What should each chorister have at his place? How do we pass out music efficiently? How do choristers get tissues and go to the bathroom without wasting time? When should one sit, stand or relax? Etc.

Much of this I have learned from my wife who “teaches” Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. For those who are unfamiliar with this wonderful way of “teaching” the Faith, it is based on the educational philosophies of Marie Montessori (many don’t know she was a devout Catholic) and Sofia Cavalletti. When a child first enters the atrium (the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd classroom), the catechist spends a large amount of time showing the child how the classroom works, including how to walk, talk, carry something, etc. in the atrium. This training removes many behavioral problems because the child knows what is expected of him. Once a stable environment has been established, learning is much easier (and more fun). Another good book on the subject was recommended to me by our principal and is entitled The First Days of School by Wong and Wong.

The last thing I would like to share is an idea I recently had and am trying to figure out how to do it in future years, namely creating the environment of a team among the choristers. Sports teams do this all the time and residential choir schools do it by default, but I don’t know that many choirs do it intentionally. In the modern era when children are pulled in all directions to join this and that, I find that the students who remain in the Schola Cantorum are those who connect to the choir in such a way that they feel they are a necessary part of the whole. The Madeleine Choir Schools takes students on a week long summer camp each year before school begins to help create such an atmosphere and to get a head start on rehearsing concert literature. I am not in a place to do that yet, but I am sure there are other ways to “skin the cat” so to say. If readers have any suggestions (either ideas or books), please let me know.

Whether you conduct a choir of children, adults or both, I wish you the best at the beginning of your choral year!

Strive for Excellence

The casual Reader might perhaps mistake me as a died-in-the-wool anglophile in the realm of sacred music, especially since I hold the English Choir School in such high regard, but let us face facts-the English cathedral system of forming church musicians works. I was reminded of this yesterday as I listened to an old BBC interview of Sir George Thalben-Ball describing how he landed the his position of 60 years as the organist and choirmaster at the Temple Church (named because of its original link to the Knights Templar) in London.

While studying at the Royal College of Music, Thalben-Ball was called upon to fill-in for the afternoon service. He arrived at the Temple Church to find an orchestral score of Bach’s Mass in B Minor at the organ with a note that 10 movements would be sung that afternoon and that Thalben-Ball would need to transpose them all down a “semitone” because the organ was tuned almost half a step sharp. Thalben-Ball chuckled in the interview saying he must have decently well, since no one accosted him after the service, although he admitted to playing (transposed down a half-step) from the choral score instead of the orchestral score.

If any parish were to call and ask me to fill in that afternoon for a Sunday concert featuring 10 movements of the B Minor Mass and as an aside mention that I would need to transpose the entire thing down a half-step, I would quickly dismiss the call as a prank or feign illness. I simply wouldn’t be able to do it. Had I been a choir boy and sung the Mass first as a chorister and then later as a choral scholar and had been playing and accompanying choirs to a high degree since I was in junior high I might have a chance, but that wasn’t the case. In that sense, I feel like a complete joke telling people that I am a competent church musician, much less one with a DMA. When it comes down to it, what do I really know?! Let’s face it, the English cathedrals know what they are doing and even on their worst days hit a mark of excellence that is simply beyond the reach of all but our best cathedral choirs in the US.

Let us imagine for a moment a different situation. What if each of the 193 Catholic cathedrals (Roman Rite) in the United States were to model the English Cathedrals with a choir of men and boys and a separate choir of men and girls (and remember that most of them also have an excellent mixed choir to boot), where the boys and girls constantly rehearsed and sang the greatest music to the highest standards, especially the music native to the Roman Rite (Gregorian chant), took voice and piano lessons and sang daily for Mass and Vespers for the 5 to 6 years they were in the choir. In high school the girls would continue doing the same, while the boys would settle into their new roles as tenors and basses while singing the same music, only as a tenor or bass. A child who showed talent would begin studying the organ and playing and accompanying for services. When he went off to the university, each organist would receive a scholarship for playing for services for his separate college within the university, under the direction of a phenomenal choirmaster. After graduation, he would then be hired by a cathedral as an assistant organist and begin training the new singers as well (and he could, since he had been through the system himself and would be overseen by the director of music). He wouldn’t have to get a Masters Degree or a Doctorate in either organ or choral directing because he would have been singing in a professional choir and accompanying the same choir long before he even thought about shaving! It is nothing but the old apprentice system at work. Now imagine that happened at all 193 Catholic Cathedrals as well as our Catholic colleges, too. That is roughly 25 boy choristers and 25 girl choristers at each institution in one year. At the cathedrals alone that would be almost 10,000 children annually at least learning what good sacred music should sound like and having his/her moral imagination formed at the same time. Obviously only a small majority of those would go on to work in the field of sacred music, but even if it were 1%, that would mean 100 future professional church musicians, organists and singers, would be in formation each year (we aren’t even counting Catholic colleges). The other 99% percent would probably be open to financially supporting such a system because of the benefits they had received. So far the Cathedral of the Madeleine and St. Paul’s, Harvard Square are the only two who have joined the cause.

I challenge every church musician today to begin forming our future musicians. It will change the face of church music in the US and will transform the lives and Faith of uncountable numbers of faithful. As Fr. Z says, just take the training wheels off and ride the damn bike!

Teaching the Very Young

It seems to be the common experience of a number of musicians today who are very dedicated to realizing the Church’s high ideals for sacred music that they find themselves in the employ of a young (or young at heart) pastor who is only able to offer full time work if said musician is willing to play the organ at Mass, direct the choir, start a children’s choir and teach music in the school to grades pre-k through 8. First of all I want to thank those same pastors who are willing to go the extra mile to bring the greatest of arts to their young parishioners. Secondly I want to thank those musicians who are willing to embrace such a position simply because they love what they do.

It seems that I have received a number of emails of late from such musicians with questions regarding the musical training of the very young, especially pre-school aged children, kindergarten and lower level grade school. Today I would like to share with you a few  resources for those who might find themselves in front of a group of young children unsure of how to best proceed.  Hopefully this post helps.

The first resource I would look into if I had to teach pre-k and kindergarten is Kindermusik. Kindermusik is based on a number of teaching philosophies, two of which are favorites of mine, those of Zoltan Kodaly and Maria Montessori. I do not profess to know everything about Kindermusik, but I have heard nothing but positive comments from those involved in the program. It engages the entire child vocally, intellectually, physically (and spiritually if done correctly, especially withing the context of a Catholic school). Music should primarily be enjoyable for children this age and Kindermusik makes that possible.

For those working with children in kindergarten through grade school (before junior high), I would heartily recommend the Kodaly Method of teaching music. It is primarily a vocal model for teaching music (although one could easily incorporate the use of instruments) and music literacy. Children sing lots of folk songs, which the teacher uses to carefully prepare, present and reinforce musical concepts. Be aware that this method requires a lot of preparation time on the part of the teacher, especially the first year, because the teacher has to make a number of manipulatives for use by each student and then make enough for each child in the class. If you go this route, purchase An American Methodology and its companion book of yearly lessons plans for grades k through 6 here. Be sure to include a lot of sailing songs and drinking songs (yes, I know) for the boys-they really like these.

To be honest, the hardest part about teaching is often how to teach, and the great thing about Kindermusic and the Kodaly Method, especially if you attend summer training sessions in them, is that you learn the art of teaching. I would also seek out the best teachers in your school and plaster them with questions continually. As long as you let them get home to supper each night, they usually enjoying passing on their knowledge. Anyway, I hope this helps.

How Do We Get the Boys to Sing?

Several years ago a friend from Wales (UK) asked me why too many men in the United States simply refuse to sing. According to him, men on the rugby field in Wales sang to intimidate their opponents. As I write this article I have to chuckle, wondering what it would look like if in the last Superbowl Tom Brady had lead his fellow Patriots in a chorus of their favorite war hymn in order to intimidate Manning and the rest of the Broncos. In my admittedly bizarre mind I see Brady signaling to the Patriot pep band, who begin the opening strains of Haydn’s Missa in tempori belli (the Lord Nelson Mass). The football players chant “Kyrie,” joined by the lead soprano of the chearleading squad, crying out to God for mercy in the glorious Greek tongue. It would make a great skit for Saturday Night Live! Still, the question remains. How do we get boys to sing? Why won’t they sing?

The second question is rather easier to answer than the first. The boys don’t sing because their fathers won’t sing and the fathers won’t sing because our current culture doesn’t value it. Why should they engage in an activity they perceive to have no value. I have heard it said that our culture no longer sings because electronic entertainment has made the need for it obsolete, but I don’t buy that. I think it comes down to what a person or culture values. This becomes apparent if one were to compare communal singing to sports.

In many ways, singing and sports are similar. We form singers into a choir, each singer performing a different role, or singing a different part. We arrange sportsmen into a team, each player taking a different position. A chorister learns to sing his part well, yet blend that part in a harmonious manner with others in the choir, always mindful of the conductor’s directions. The child playing sports learns to play his position to the best of his abilities, yet work with the others as a team, under the direction of a coach. Choristers have to practice fundamentals such as breathing, sight-singing, listening and intonation and apply those skills within a certain musical work. Sportsmen have to practice fundamentals like batting, catching, and throwing and put those skills to use within certain plays and innings. Sports and music both can build character such as hard work, determination, focus and passion. Music and sports both cost parents money, sometimes a lot, while concert halls and sports arenas are built at considerable cost to the citizenry to hold the myriads of people who come to watch and listen.

Why, then, is sports so popular (and I am specifically asking this in relation to fathers and sons and boys in general-sorry ladies) and communal singing so undervalued? I have no evidence to support my conclusion other than gut instinct, but I imagine it has something to do with the fact that sports (and the Catholic priesthood) are the last place in American society where boys and men can share a common passion and camaraderie on and off the field with other boys and men, and where boys and men are expected to strive for greatness.

What if the Church were to run (at the very least) some of Her choirs this way, choirs where boys and men sang strictly with other boys and men, and all strove for greatness? St. Paul’s Choir School in Boston is able to fill an entire school strictly with boys who want to sing with other boys. The Madeleine Choir School, while open to both boys and girls, separates them into boy and girl choirs, and each year fill the school with plenty of boys who want to sing. Both of these choirs strive for, and achieve, greatness.

Recently I attended Mass for the first time at a certain parish. As usual, I had prepared myself to hear poor music sung poorly (this was not me making any kind of moral judgment—I was simply operating on experience). True, the music was of an inferior quality, all played on the piano, but the the pianist (male), and the four middle aged men who sang and harmonized were all excellent. To see other men stepping up and taking a lead made me want to sing along in spite of any aversion the music itself. I wonder how many music directors are willing to be a little “sexist” and do such a thing. For the sake of our men and boys, perhaps it is worth more than a thought!

They Lied to Me in Grad School

Alright, so perhaps it was a sin of omission instead of commission, but no one in graduate school ever told me that building (and I haven’t even gotten to maintaining) a world class choral program required advanced degrees in music, organ, voice, choir, conducting, child psychology, adult psychology, theology, liturgy, Latin, phonetics, economics and budgeting, fundraising (oh, I could write a book on that subject alone), event planning, computer science, PR and HR, conflict management as well as a host of other subjects. Sometimes it makes we want to chuck it all and pursue my other passion (farming), but the Holy Spirit keeps me here, and to be honest, I wouldn’t be happy any other way. So… I thought today I might share with you some things that I do on a daily basis to stay energized and keep returning to my job that really isn’t a job-it’s my passion.

1) Start your day ahead of the rest and put God first. I get up at 5 a.m. Yikes, that seems early, but I have learned it is better to let the day come to me rather than waking up to the day. One of the first things I do every morning is make my daily meditation and examen. Please don’t think I am anywhere near sainthood or even within sight of it, but I know that I have to keep priorities straight. To be honest, I can only get to daily Mass two or three times each week, but I really try never to miss my 30 minutes each morning with the Lord.

2) Family must come next. If our relationship with God comes first, our relationship with our family has to come next, even if that means we can’t provide music for every single function at church. I have gotten in heated arguments with co-workers (yes, in the Catholic Church) before who believe that sometimes it is necessary to let family life suffer a bit in order to take care of what needs to be done at church. I WILL NOT compromise on this issue and have let others know I will take the pink slip first. I don’t believe this will ever be necessary, but it is amazing how much your family appreciates you just knowing that you think this way. The second thinh I do with my family is make sure that each day I have meaningful time with my wife and each child. It is too easy to come home tired and mentally check out. Don’t do it! There will be time to sleep when you are dead.

3) You must have vision. You will never build a world class program, much less a solid one, if you don’t have a vision of what it is you want your choral program to ultimately be (and this needs to be thoroughly informed by the mind and heart of the Church). I don’t care if you feel like you are a great musician or not, decide to have the absolute best music program at your parish, then make a list of what you need to do to make that happen and by (the grace of) God-DO IT! It is better to aim high and miss than aim low and hit. Besides, you will draw more people to your vision if you yourself believe in greatness. If all you can do is complain that you don’t have enough singers, that your pastor doesn’t appreciate good music and that nobody appreciates your hard work, guess what, no one will join you and you will have put the nail in your own coffin.

4) Always keep learning. One of the reasons I get up so early is because that is the only way I can get lots of reading in on a daily basis. I usually am reading several books all at the same time (one always has to do with the practice of music). It is all too true that when most people begin a new job, they learn everything they need to know within their first year and then they coast until they get their next job. That would bore me to no end.

5) Make a list of what needs to be done (and I don’t mean things like answering email and cleaning your office) and do those things first. A long time ago I realized that I could sit in my office answering email all day long. Yes, I would have been busy, but with the wrong things. Every morning I make a list and put the things first that will help me build a better music program, things like taking time to learn music thoroughly, spending extra time with choristers who need help, or even recruiting new choristers and avenues of funding.

6) Strive for greatness. St. Irenaeus wrote that “the glory of God is man fully alive” and he was right. However, as a friend of mine who directs the music at the cathedral in Sioux Falls, SD, once told me, most people in the church do not appreciate greatness. The attitude of “do your best” has been used as the greatest excuse for bad music, and don’t think this hasn’t affected the New Evangelization. So… no matter what anyone else thinks (even if it is your pastor) strive for greatness and never look back!

Learning Music and the Classical Trivium

Last week I had the pleasure of rereading Dorothy Sayer’s The Lost Tools of Learning, which is one of the most lucid and well written overviews of the Classical Trivium (part of the larger liberal, or free, arts) I have ever come across. For readers unfamiliar with it, the Classical Trivium consists of three stages of study (which happen to align with the natural learning stages of children), namely the grammar, logic (or dialectic) and rhetoric stages, which are necessary to be thoroughly grounded in before one is able to move to the study of “subjects,” especially the Classical Quadrivium. Sayer’s argument is that while young people today learn all kinds of subjects (and can therefore fill cogs in society’s wheels), they never arrive at Truth. Perhaps this only goes to show my ignorance, but after reading the essay, it finally hit me that the stages of music learning dovetail nicely with the Classical Trivium. By way of explanation I will give a brief description of each “tool,” or stage, of the Classical Trivium.

In the first stage, Classical Grammar (up to somewhere around the 4th grade), the child engages the mechanics of language, specifically learning an inflected language such as Latin or Greek. Only by learning the structure of language in general can one ever hope to understand and communicate effectively in any language. Children in the Grammar stage also excel in the use of their faculties of observation and memory.

In the second stage, Classical Logic, or Dialectic (somewhere around the grades of 5 and 6), the child learns the “logical construction of speech,” focusing especially on “the beauty and economy of a fine demonstration or a well turned argument.”

During the final stage, Classical Rhetoric (beginning around the 7th or 8th grade), the student learns how to communicate effectively himself. Only when he is able to do this should he be allowed to dive into the specialized learning of subjects, by which time he will have learned that all knowledge and Truth are one (or perhaps we could write One).

Now to the question of how this relates to the learning of music. I have found that at a young age, which we will term the Grammar Stage of Music, children love to sing all kinds of simple, but well constructed folk songs, hymns, chants, etc. Most of them can easily be trained to sing in the head voice and they find joy in learning about notes, rhythms, solfege and even singing simple two and three part rounds. The Kodaly method of teaching music works extremely well during this stage. Around the 4th grade children transition to what I will call the Dialectic Stage of Music, at which time they are ready to begin singing simple motets and anthems and have no difficulty analyzing this music, or even the works of the great composers. Children should also begin improvising their own short melodies and rhythms at this time. By the end of this stage they are capable of singing much of the intermediate four part repertoire (where children sing the upper two parts) of the Common Practice Period. When they enter junior high, which I will term the Rhetorical Stage of Music, they should be tackling the more difficult four to eight part music (again, where the children sing the upper parts) and delving into serious music composition. If you don’t believe this can be done, just look to the choir schools. I witnessed it myself at the Madeleine Choir School. Of course it is true that not every student, or even the majority of students, will be composing serious music by the age of 14 or even deciding to go into the field of church music. On the other hand, we will never inspire a new generation of great Catholic musicians, so sorely needed at this time, if we don’t open their eyes to the “Lost Tools of Learning Music” and point them to the One to Whose praises we hope to sing for ever in the Heavenly Jerusalem.

Probationer Lesson Plans

In case you are interested, I thought I would post my entire set of lesson plans (here) I use for training our Probationers, who are generally children in the 3rd and 4th grade with very little (if any) musical training. I am leaving the lessons exactly as they are simply because I don’t have enough time to go through and clean them up right now. Also know that I always plan for more than I have time for, so I don’t always get to everything set for one lesson. I work with the Probationers for an entire year, so I have plenty of time to extend a lesson over two weeks, focus on music for the Christmas program or make allowance for any number of interruptions that might befall us. For the most part, you should be able to follow them, but if you have questions, please feel free to email me.

The Art of Breathing

In my previous post, I wrote about the three main goals I have for new choristers during their first month of rehearsals:”1) to ingrain a healthy vocal technique in the students (while getting rid of any unhealthy singing habits they have picked up), 2) to teach proficiency in solfege (only the diatonic notes of the scale) and finally, 3) to teach a proficiency in reading basic rhythms (eighth note through whole note, no dot) and their corresponding rests.” Today I would like to talk about the first goal.

I find it interesting to watch each new student standing in the choir room immediately before we begin the first rehearsal. Each one is breathing from his diaphragm in the most normal and healthy way possible, but as soon as we begin to sing, the weirdest things begin to happen. Shoulders raise and tighten, the mouth opens and tightens, the jaw juts forward and the neck muscles begin to bulge, and all I asked of them was to take a breath. Nothing is ever easy! I imitate the children so they can see how silly they look. After the giggles have died down, I have them lie on the floor with one hand on top of their stomachs and ask them to breath normally. No deep breaths or shallow breaths, just breathe. Most of them are able to breathe normally in the prone position and feel the rise and fall of their stomachs. The key is getting each child to become aware of what happens during relaxed breathing. I ask them to feel what is happening to their stomachs? What is happening to the shoulders (their shoulders should simply be relaxed)? Ultimately, the only thing necessary is for the stomach to fill up with air like a balloon and then to exhale. Finally, I ask for them to stand up and replicate good breathing in a standing position. This does not happen automatically, but must be worked on for 5-10 minutes at the beginning of every rehearsal. I use a number of techniques employed by Frauke Hausemann, who was a legendary vocal coach at Westminster Choir College. I would recommend her book (co-authored with Wilhelm Ehmann) entitled Voice Building for Choirs. I have also found the RSCM Voice for Life to contain useful information regarding vocal training. If there are only two concepts you are able to instill in a child in the early stages regarding breathing, they would be 1) fill and empty the stomach with air just like a balloon (don’t use the chest) and 2) keep the shoulders down and relaxed.

Teaching New Singers

Chorister rehearsals are currently underway and the children are working on some exciting repertoire. At the same time, I am in the middle of auditions for new choristers (probationers) and looking over plans for their weekly rehearsals. As I have posted before, we are in the process of integrating the Schola Cantorum into our parish school, so the new students will be receiving a solid music education in the school as well. Still, I like to cover (or re-cover) all of the basics with the boys and girls. I thought I would share my goals for the lessons and some general lesson plans in hopes that they might be of benefit.

Because of current time restraints, I meet with the probationers only once a week, for two hours immediately after school (yes, a number of shorter rehearsals would be better, but this is how it is). I first take them to the gym for 10 minutes to run out pent up energy from being in a seat most of the day. During the rehearsal, I make sure that no one exercise lasts more than 8-10 minutes, otherwise I loose them quickly. I also give them a 10 minute break in the middle of the rehearsal when they can eat their snacks and talk. This is the basic overall outline of each class.

In the first month of rehearsals (4), I have only three main goals: 1) to ingrain a healthy vocal technique in the students (while getting rid of any unhealthy singing habits they have picked up), 2) to teach proficiency in solfege (only the diatonic notes of the scale) and finally, 3) to teach a proficiency in reading basic rhythms (eighth note through whole note, no dot) and their corresponding rests. There are other musical items the students learn in the first month, but those are only secondary to these three goals.

Next week I will give a basic outline of how I approach the teaching of the three main goals.