Category Archives: Discipline

Chorister Catechesis

Each year the Archdiocese of Kansas City (KS) hosts a vocation day for area 5th grade students and as part of the day, Archbishop Joseph Naumann celebrates Holy Mass for all of the students. Quite naturally, he speaks to them in his homily about vocations, both the universal call to holiness given to each person as well as the particular vocation God gives to each Christian in order to live out his call to holiness.

I wasn’t able to attend the Mass this year, but I heard afterward from the mother of one of my choristers (Matthias) that at one point in the homily, the archbishop asked the students what their purpose in live was. One student answered with Matthew Kelly’s to become the best version of yourself. The archbishop acknowledged that was true, but that he was looking for something else, so he asked the question again. Matthias shot his hand in the air and the archbishop called on him. With a volume that only a 5th grade boy can muster, he rattled off that his purpose in life was to know, love and serve God in this life, and to be happy with Him forever in the next. Archbishop Naumann acknowledged that this was what he wanted to hear, strait from the catechism. Matthias’ mother told she she beamed with prided thinking she had done her duty to make sure her son knew his purpose, but when she asked him about it afterward he told her that “part of the credit goes to Dr. Tappan, who makes us tell him at every choir practice what our purpose in life is.” I must confess that I felt a great amount of pride upon hearing that. It is true that I ask each one what his purpose in life is, both on that particular day and for all eternity. I often wonder if what I teach in choir has much of an eternal effect on the lives of my choristers—I hope it does.

In a similar vein, my wife’s aunt and uncle, cattle ranchers in the beautiful Kansas Flint Hills, have five children, four of whom are grown now, but the father told me once that every single day, when they awoke at 5:30 in the morning and put on the first pot of coffee, he asked his children to tell him what their purpose was in life, and they had to be able to answer as Matthias did. The father told me recently that he still asks that question daily of his two grown sons who work on the farm. He also asks his daughters whenever they visit.

About 10 years ago, the middle of their five children, a daughter of only 15 years, was diagnosed with cancer and the family watched as she succumbed to the agonizing disease over the course of more than a year. Still her father asked her that question. What is your purpose in this life?  He told me that he also had long conversations with her about the glory of Heaven and how she was truly blessed because she would arrive there before the others. He told her she would have to pray that the rest of the family made it.

As the cancer worsened, she refused morphine as much as possible, offering up the pain for the conversion of sinners and for the holy souls in purgatory. As her body became so emaciated she stopped having visitors for a time because she was embarrassed by how she looked. It wasn’t long, though, before she asked for visitors again and told her family it was just the devil working on her vanity. The night before she died her family gathered in her hospital room to pray the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross and afterward she told her family that that was the last time that they would pray together, that she was going to go home. She died peacefully the next day as her mom drove home from the hospital and her father was driving to it. It is the only time I can ever remember a parent being filled with joy that his child had made it “home.” I will never forget having had the privilege of chanting the In pardisum at the funeral.

As we remember all of the faithful departed during this month of November, be mindful of the immense power that you as a choir director having in orienting your choristers toward Heaven, so that they, too, might one day be counted among the faithful departed.

A Refresher on Chorister Training

It has been some time since last I wrote about chorister training, and now that the school year is fully underway, I thought it might be helpful to offer a refresher on the logistics of training our young people in the art of liturgical music.

I think the largest hurdle most choir directors face is actually working with children (if that is not one’s cup of tea). As always, there are both joys and drawback working with children as opposed to teenagers or even adults. Children bring an enthusiasm to choir rehearsal that is rarely topped and they have no preconceived bias toward learning to sight-sing. While your adult sopranos will begin to squirm as soon as you warm them up above a G or A below high C, that won’t be the case with children. On the other hand, if you have a great group of adults, they will move through music at an incredible rate of speed, which is the cause of deep satisfaction in the director AND the singers. Adults generally spare you discipline problems that spill out of children and there is the joy of adult interaction. Regardless, there are three areas that are especially helpful to be competent in when working with children.

First is the creation of routine. Routine helps children to grow. A proper routine can also steer children away from discipline problems. Every choir needs to have a healthy routine so the children know from the moment they walk through the door what is expected of them. I would highly recommend the book The First Days of School by Wong and Wong. It deals primarily with the classroom setting, but the routine of a choir is no different. If you set a certain tone in the first few rehearsals, you and your choristers will be off to a great start.

Second is the teaching of children. Knowing how different boys and girls are and how these differences help them learn differently is crucially important. Also important is knowing the difference between the way children and adults learn. Even within children, there are different learning styles depending upon the age and maturity of a child. If you are running a choral program from children in kindergarten through high school, I would suggest you acquaint yourself with the 3 main learning styles in the classical model: the grammar, logic and rhetorical stages. This is especially helpful when teaching younger children. As for working with junior high and high school children I would suggest reading Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov. All too often choir directors rely on a couple of key singers to support the entire choir as opposed to building everyone up into an effective choral unit. How do you help underachievers to work at the level of your best choristers? How do you help every child understand that he/she is absolutely crucial to the choir and that they need to work as if they, too, know that? Teach Like a Champion gives so many helps toward this goal that I can’t recommend it highly enough. I would warn you though, you must practice many of these concepts in front of a mirror before you use them in the class room.

Third, you will have to have a basic understanding of psychology. The same group of singers will one day make you think you have the best choir in the world and the next day make you wonder if they have ever sung two notes together. They will have a terrible pre-concert rehearsal and then dazzle you in the concert itself. On the flip side, they will also rehearse so well before Mass that you can’t understand why they sound awful 15 minutes later when Mass begins. Do you ride out the terrible music or is there a way to turn around a bad situation in the middle of it? Sports psychology is especially helpful here and there are so many of these books that you could probably choose one whose author and specific subject matter appeals to you personally and be fine.

Once you find yourself settling down to the actual teaching, the obvious question is how? For the traditional English way adapted to the Catholic setting (especially for the ancient form of the Mass) your first read should be Sir Richard Terry’s Catholic Church Music. His early time at Westminster Cathedral coincided with a flowering of liturgical and musical life within both the Catholic and Anglican spheres and many major English choir directors were writing books to explain to smaller parish choirs how the cathedrals did it. You can find many of these free and online at Google Books, but again, just start with Terry. You will find that while the cathedral music scene in England (Catholic or Anglican) has changed through the decades in regard to music choice, you will nevertheless find that the method is still rather the same. At the same time, I would say that the method has been broadened and deep by the addition of singing coaches and mandatory piano lessons (if not other lessons) for choristers. Every student you are able to coax into piano lessons will be nothing but a step forward for your choir. I can almost always tell the difference between choristers with similar abilities when one plays the piano and the other doesn’t.

If you find joy in creating a music curriculum for your students (and you should always try to deepen their musical knowledge), then all you need to do is decide what skills and to what level children need to learn them and then create a plan to systematically teach them. If this is not your forte, you might want to look at some of the current choral music training programs. Perhaps the Ward Method, Kodaly Method or Voices for Life (from the Royal School of Church Music) are right for you. I also highly recommend anything written by John Bertalot. I will caution that it takes an enormous amount of time to teach sight-singing, so many choral directors skip it. Please don’t. You are cheating your students and depriving them of a skill set that will provide one of life’s great experiences, being able to both create and perform music to a high level.

You will of course need repertoire for your choirs, and repertoire that is appropriate to where your choristers are musically. I have said it before and will say it many times again, I would rather hear children sing a hymn in unison or a piece of plainchant to a high degree that to hear them butcher even the simplest of 4 part motets. If you struggle finding repertoire don’t hesitate to ask online at places like the CMAA Forum. Look through the Corpus Christi Watershed website or Cantica Nova. Visit music lists of cathedrals or churches with a children’s choir at the same level as yours. I would even suggest simply teaching your choristers the liturgical music currently in use at your parish, but to a high degree. They will already have heard much of it, but your parishioners will notice it being sung well by a choir as opposed to being belted at various levels of competency through a microphone by one of your cantors. Do not be afraid to start with SIMPLE, as long as the text and music are of a high quality.

Lastly, try to get as much parental involvement as you can. You will need it to handle large groups of children and you will also widen your sphere of influence in the parish. If even a few influential parents in your parish think that you provide a program of high quality for their children, they will tell others and make your life (and recruiting) much easier. In the end, you will create life long friendship that will bring great joy to your good days and comfort to those difficult ones.

Leeds Cathedral and the Schools Singing Program

Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6)

Today I would like to highlight the wonderful choral music program from the Diocese of Leeds, England, and the work they do on a weekly basis with more than 3,500 youth from around the diocese. According to Thomas Leech, the director of the schools singing program for the diocese, “this is the largest church music program in the country. It’s a diocesan program rather than a cathedral-centred approach. Although the cathedral choirs are of an extremely high standard, it’s always been important to us that the school-based work is most important—that then reaches out to the elite choirs, rather than the other way around.” (Music Teacher Magazine, September 2018, pg. 65) And reaching out they do, leading choirs in 53 schools, plus 6 professional boys’ choirs, six professional girls’ choirs, five mixed choirs, two youth choirs, and three university choirs. Needless to say, it takes a large staff to keep such an undertaking afloat: 6 full-time and 1 part-time musicians, a development administrator, 2 organ scholars, 1 choral conducting scholar, and 12 choral scholars.

One particular item of note is that the boys and girls are more often separated into different choirs than not, and the boys’ choirs have usually been founded before the girls’ choirs. This is very important if we ever hope to see boys and men singing in our church choirs in great numbers again. Unfortunately, militant feminism has driven males from many aspects of church life, but none probably more so than music.

I should also mention that many of these students come from impoverished areas, and if statistics in Leeds are similar to other urban areas in the western world, the majority probably come from broken homes as well. The schools singing program might well be one of the most stable forces in the lives of many of these children, which provides an incredible entry point for evangelization, and from what I have read, Mr. Leech and the diocese work to capitalize on this opportunity.

I have often felt that in addition to great choir schools at our cathedrals, the Church needs grass roots programs like this throughout our parishes. It is within the parish that most Catholics receive their sacraments and live the life of Faith. This model seems to be extremely well suited to providing high quality sacred programs within the reach of all young people, whether from rural or urban areas. I would personally love to hear from archdiocesan directors of music in these US of A and find out how feasible this might be. It seems that if it were to be successfully implemented even once in a few strategic geographical locations other dioceses would be willing to try it.

As a parting gift, I leave you with the following video of the massed cathedral choirs singing Ding! Dong! Merrily on High.

 

Teaching Gregorian Chant to Boys with Changed Voices

I have heard it said that teaching chant to the masses for the Masses is quite an easy thing to accomplish, especially for children. Possibly, but if your goal is to teach youth the glories contained in the Graduale Romanum, I suggest you buckle your seat-belt and say your prayers. Nevertheless, such a worthy goal should be attempted so I thought I would share my choristers’ path to singing the Communion antiphon.

Seven or eight years ago I introduced a set of simplified vernacular propers (specifically the Communion antiphon) to my adult choir and to the parish. I can’t say I was overly taken by them, but they were better than most (I was not familiar with Fr. Weber’s settings at the time) and allowed me to travel the well promoted path of singing chant in English first. To my consternation, the choir didn’t like the either (why should they if I didn’t) and found them rather boring. Even our pastor at the time couldn’t stand them and told me so. I took the hint, but as a last ditch effort I proposed the choir sing the actual Communio chant from the Graduale Romanum. He acquiesced and we sang. I expected a healthy dose of negative feedback, but never received any (to be honest, there wasn’t any positive feedback either). Everything about the chant proved a challenge: the language, the music notation, even the sound of the modes. It took a couple of months before the small group of men could tackle one entire antiphon with any sense of confidence within a reasonable amount of rehearsal time. The second year through, was a revelation. The singers found the modes well established in their ears and the notation familiar to their eyes, and if the men could do it, then why not the boys.

At first I taught all of the boys with changed voices, but that was a mistake. It wasn’t worth the ill will caused by dragging unwilling participants across the Gregorian finish line. Instead I taught those who wished to learn in a separate, faster paced rehearsal. The boys encountered the same learning curves the adult men had previously, but their facility in solfege speed up the learning process, which I share with you now:

  1. (Melody) I asked the boys to sing through the chant first in solfege, without concern for rhythm, and reviewed tricky spots along the way (currently, the boys are capable of this after two times through the antiphon in solfege).
  2. (Rhythm) Then I lead them through the chant on a neutral syllable, such as nee or nah (the n only rearticulated at the beginning of an actual syllable in the Latin text). I focused on the chant’s rhythm and phrasing before adding the text.
  3. (Words) Next I focused on the text, both its literal meaning and liturgical meaning, and how to pronounce it. They knew certain words and phrases such as Deus and dixit or Cantate Domino canticum novum from other songs we had sung and were aware of numerous cognates. Between that and their knowledge of the texts in English they could usually make a decent guess at translating the antiphon before we spoke the text in a musical cadence.
  4. Finally, we put the various parts togethers and sang through the Communio twice before moving on. After two practices the boys could sing an antiphon to a high degree of accuracy, even if musicality came later.

Next year they will tackle the Introits, though I expect less of a learning curve. Regardless, I will let you know how it goes.

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.

St. Mary’s Cathedral Choir, Sydney

It has been some time since last I posted about one of the great cathedral choirs in the world, so what better time than the present to write about about St. Mary’s Cathedral Choir and its accompanying Cathedral College (choir school), the only Catholic cathedral choir school in the southern hemisphere. The choir, founded in 1818, constitutes the oldest musical group still in existence in Australia.

Thomas Wilson is the current Director of Music and probably more than anyone has brought the choir to an incredibly high and enviable position in the Church music world. Wilson is originally from New Zealand and at the age of 18 was made the director of music at Wellington’s Metropolitan Cathedral. He eventually made his way to London and to the Royal College of Music and ended up as the assistant organist at Westminster Cathedral before returning to the bottom side of the world.

He noted that “One of the things about growing up in New Zealand was being given opportunities that I might not have had elsewhere. I was allowed to learn by making mistakes. Then when I was given the chance to go overseas to London I very quickly realized where the level was. I remember being absolutely driven to be part of that, to swim in the same current as these incredible musicians I encountered in the Royal Academy and at Westminster Cathedral.”

Early in his tenure at St. Mary’s he began the tradition of singing Vespers daily (the choir already sang Holy Mass each day) and hired professional men as lay clerks. This commitment to professionalism is sorely lacking in too many of our great Catholic churches today (although there are a number of shining lights here and there) and it is refreshing to see it coming from unlikely places.

I would like to leave you with a couple of videos of the choir singing. First the boys, then the changed voices (the choral scholars) and finally the professional men and boys singing Allegri’s Miserere mei, Deus. Enjoy!

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.

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.