Category Archives: Discipline

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.

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.