Category Archives: Discipline

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!

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.

Another Job For Your Children

Some things never change—the vicissitudes of toiling in the field of sacred music being no exception. I recently re-read Sir Richard Terry’s Catholic Church Music, first published in 1907, as a way to re-energize myself for the new choral year.  Toward the end, I hit a passage about congregational singing that I don’t remember reading before, but which is, nevertheless, apropos to our current situation.

One great difficulty in the way of making our hymn singing as popular as it is with Anglicans, and impressive as it is with German Catholics, is the tenacity with which the older members of our congregations cling to some half-dozen tunes of such a fatuous type as ” Daily, Daily,” ” O Mother, I,” and the rest of the terrible contents of “The Crown of Jesus music.” It is not difficult to understand how even the most fatuous tunes can be beloved if they are in any way connected with hallowed associations of a pious life, and who is he who would ruthlessly deprive these good souls of things which they hold dear ? But the difficulty is not insuperable ; the writer knows of one church where all these bad tunes were eliminated in the course of a single generation by a very simple process. At the public services for adults, no change was made in the old tunes, but the children in the schools were never allowed to sing them, and at the children’s Mass and on other occasions, good tunes were substituted for the popular ones sung by their elders. By the time the children had grown to youth, they had become as familiar with, and as fond of, the good tunes as their elders were of the bad ones, and so the new tradition was established. If our Hymnology is to be improved it must be by educating the taste of the younger generation, and not by doing violence to the prejudices of the elder, however mistaken we may think them to be.

All one need do is substitute almost anything from the Gather Hymnal or from the St. Louis Jesuits for Daily, Daily or O Mother, I and this passage could have been written last week. More importantly, look at the answer to the problem—I guarantee you it works. I have proposed this before to friends and the retort is always “but that’s too long.” Excuse me, but we have been in this desert for almost 50 years. Any parish could have been through this process three times. Simply dive in and do it. Remember how quickly your children grew up and left home? That is all the longer it takes.

Should Children Have to Audition?

When I first began a children’s choir, long before our parishes’s current Schola Cantorum was born, I took any child who came to me (quite frankly, I needed all the kids I could get). That year was such a nightmare (for a whole host of reasons) that I contemplated shutting down the whole enterprise. In the end I pushed forward and things SLOWLY got better, though I still took everyone who came, regardless of ability or desire.

Several years later I attended my first conference on the training of the child chorister at St. Thomas in New York. Someone in our group asked Dr. John Scott, the choirmaster, how recruiting was going for the choir for the following year, and Scott replied that he was a little concerned because only 8 boys had auditioned and he had only accepted 4 of them (boys who wish to join the Choir of St. Thomas have a pre-audition before they are even allowed to formally audition). It was then that I realized one of the reasons why their choir was so good. Not only did the boys have incredible and inspirational training, they also entered with a high natural aptitude and desire to learn and make music. Admittedly, most parishes have neither the musical nor financial resources to put together such a program, but I firmly believe there is a proper balance between this and the usual “any child can join” policy that exists in the typical parish children’s choir. If you only have time to run one children’s choir with one weekly practice, it is difficult to balance your time between bringing some of the singers up to speed while trying to challenge those who want it, all while dealing with behavior issues from children who don’t really want to be at rehearsal. I would propose the following: begin an “informal” audition to 1) look for a child’s ability to match pitch and determine his general musical aptitude, 2) determine his desire to sing in your choir and finally 3) make sure the child is free from any physical vocal deformities that would make singing of such music impossible.

Regarding pitch and musical aptitude, I only want to know if the child has the capacity to match pitch and to learn (I don’t care if he has never had a music lesson in his life). It is easy enough to present some simple music concept the child doesn’t know and see if he catches on. You will find that most children will have no problem matching pitch and learning simple music concepts.

The second thing to look for, the desire of the child to sing in a liturgical choir, is of the utmost importance. To be honest, this is more important than a child’s natural aptitude for learning music. If you have a chorister who loves to sing and will work his hardest, you have a keeper. I have several home schooled students in our choir who, without my knowledge, decided to sing Elgar’s Ave verum corpus as a communion motet for our city’s monthly Mass for the home schooled community. By pure chance I happened to attend the Mass, and was impressed and proud when they sang it a cappella (they didn’t have an accompanist) and in two parts (and did a great job!). Those kids bring the same pluck and desire to every rehearsal. It makes for a fun rehearsal.

Lastly, I listen for any physical vocal issues that might keep a child from singing, which, to be honest, are very rare. I have only encountered this with two children in my career. I once worked with a young grade school student who wasn’t able to sing a range of more that five notes (he also had difficulties speaking in general), while another child, who was able to sing a wide range at first, lost much of it over the course of a couple of years (he was no where near the age of voice change). His parents took him to the doctor, who discovered a nodule approaching the size of a tennis ball on his vocal chords. After this was removed the child could sing normally again.

It is sometimes difficult not to admit a child to the choir (again, this doesn’t happen often), but I explain to parents that not only am I looking for a child who is a good fit for the choir, I also want the choir to be a good fit for the child. The process is a two way street.

Ely Cathedral Choir

Today I would like to focus on the choir and school at Ely Cathedral. The history of music at Ely is an interesting read and well worth it for any church musician. We often think of the Anglican choral tradition as always having been at its current standard, but that is far from the case. I often wondered why the tradition of cathedral music never crossed the pond from England to America. A large part of that is because many of our early settlers were Puritans. However, I think an equally important reason is that the cathedral music tradition in England really wasn’t worth emulating until the Anglican choral revival, which took place as part of the Oxford Movement in the 19th century. Musical conditions at Ely were considered to be among the worst until that revival. Today, however, Ely has an incredible music tradition, very much alive. The choir comprises some 22 boy choristers, educated at King’s Ely, and 6 plus lay clerks.

Another exciting aspect of the Cathedral Choir is the Cathedral Girl’s Choir, directed by Sarah MacDonald. The girls’s choir began in 2006 and is already at a very high standard. The girls in the choir are of high school age, which lends an emotional depth to the choir’s sound not as easily reached with boys. I have been fortunate to have been in contact with Mrs. MacDonald regarding choristers and sight-singing. She told me that one important aspect of sight-singing is actually the number of times a choir sings each week. She felt that a choir should be singing at least three times each week in order to truly exercise the choristers’ sight-singing abilities. I have never forgotten that.

Finally, I would like to mention the scholarships that each chorister receives at Ely. The boy choristers receive scholarships around 50% of their school fees. For churches that can afford this (or fund raise for it), this is a great incentive for recruiting and retaining choristers, especially when sports have almost entirely taken over the lives of American youth.

Bertalot’s 12 Steps to Sight-Singing, Step 1

We have finally come to the first of Bertalot’s 12 Steps to Sight-Singing—to Sing One Note.  This sounds ridiculous in its simplicity, so let’s find out what he means.

When most singers receive a new motet, they focus on the words rather than the music. Bertalot once demonstrated this to a group of adults by giving some children the words (minus musical notes) of a hymn and then asked them to sing it.  He played a melody on the piano that he made up on the fly, yet the children seemed to sing it like they had heard it before.  Bertalot made the point that children are great imitators and what looks like sight-singing is often just imitating what they have heard on the piano only a millisecond previously.  If you work with children, try this some timeit is all too true.  How does one get around it?  The answer is to get them to read the music notation as well as the text.

In the first rehearsal you have with your new singers, you will need to teach them a couple of basics of music notation before they can sing one note, namely that music is written on the staff (five lines AND four spaces) and the staff has a clef (if you are working with children, this will be the treble clef).  Once you draw the staff and the treble clef, point out that the belly of the treble clef wraps around the line we call G.  Play G above middle C on the piano and ask them to hum what they hear.  Then draw a quarter note on the same line.  Explain that the quarter note tells each singer to sing G for one FULL beat, meaning that if you as the director begin counting at number one, the children must sing the G from the moment you say 1 until you say two.  Then point to the note and have the children sing what they see.  You have just taught them how to first see, and then sing one note (both pitch and rhythm) correctly.  It always amazes me how excited children get when they have learned to sight-sing their first note.

As an aside, if you have your choristers sing a G at the beginning of each rehearsal, most of them will memorize it within the first few rehearsals and will thus have a reference point for pitching other other notes without the help of a piano.

John Bertalot’s Website

I have spent several weeks already going through John Bertalot’s 5 Wheels to Successful Sight-Singing and there will be a number more.  I would also like to direct readers to his webpage containing 35 articles on various aspects of leading a choir.  Every one is an absolute gem.  Please, please read them!  You will not be disappointed.