Category Archives: Discipline

Music and the Imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Current Heresy

Following a meeting last week for parents of choristers, the father of one boy announced to me with a twinkle in his eye that I had spoken heresy during the meeting. He was right, I spoke an unforgivable heresy–I told parents that I would be training the boy Probationers separately from the girl Probationers because… (drum roll please) boys and girls were different, and, would you believe it, they learn differently, too.

To be honest, I have always known this, as have most of the readers here, but I had never been in a position to teach our new recruits separately, but that has changed this year. The girls (9 of them) are admittedly easier to teach, but the boys (8 in number) keep me mentally on my toes. I really have to stay several steps ahead of them and make sure that I turn most of what we do into a game (or at least introduce a healthy amount of competition into the learning) and keep the pace moving quickly.

If you work with boys and girls and want to understand  how each sex processes information and makes decisions, a great book to read is titled Why Gender Matters, by Leonard Sax, MD Phd. It is written from a secular viewpoint and a few sections could have benefited from the light of a little reflection on natural law, but otherwise it is a must read. Dr. Sax himself had been convinced that the difference between boys and girls was completely due to the way they were raised (nurture vs. nature), but overwhelming medical evidence, coupled with his experience as a psychologist, spoke otherwise. He finally had to admit that boys and girls were different. One might be tempted to ask what kind of person required two doctoral degrees, untold hours of research and 30 plus years of experience as a psychologist to come to a conclusion that any sane parent throughout the history of mankind took only 24 hours (after having both a boy and girl) to realize, but then we wouldn’t have gotten this great book.

What I enjoyed the most was that the author didn’t simply state that boys and girls were different, he went in depth regarding how those differences play out in thought processes and actions, especially in the classroom. In all, it has been incredibly helpful. Go out and get your copy today!

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.

Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum Video

As many of you know, our parish founded the Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum in 2011 to answer the Church’s call to establish schools of music to train young people the art of sacred music. Each year we have seen the program expand, and we look forward to working with more than 60 students next year from 6 local Catholic schools and home school programs.

Even though the Schola Cantorum is primarily attached to our parish, its work reaches far beyond. Several years ago one of our high school boys became one of our archdiocesan seminarians. While I don’t take credit for his vocation, he once told me that singing in the choir gave him a much better understanding of the Mass.

This year one of our high school girls is graduating and moving on to study organ at the university. Her plan is to finish her Master Degree and then apply for the Organ Scholar position at Westminster Cathedral in London. If anyone has the drive to make that happen, she is the one.

One of our 8th grade students, who plans to sing in the Schola Cantorum through high school, has fallen in love with sacred music and has told me many times before (as have her parents) that the Schola Cantorum has helped her grow much deeper in her not only in the knowledge of her Faith, but in her practice of It. These are not isolated events.

The Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum has obviously grown beyond any normal parish music program, and as part of our work to provide a solid financial basis for the program and to expand its outreach, we are asking individuals to consider making the Schola Cantorum part of their monthy giving, whatever that amount might be.

Please take a few minutes watch the short short video below about the Schola Cantorum (and share it with everyone you know!) and consider helping our choristers, who might one day be bringing great sacred music to your parish.

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.