Category Archives: Choir Schools

The Church and Patronage of the Arts

Several years ago Duncan Stoik penned an essay entitled “A New Renaissance: The Church as Patroness of the Arts” (Challenging the Secular Culture: A Call to Christians; Franciscan University Press: 2016), proposing a three-pronged initiative that the “Church as an institution, as well as individuals, can do to promote a culture of beauty, truth, and life.” I would have preferred his initiative to have been fleshed out in greater detail, but perhaps Stroik, ever the masterful architect, simply chose to lay a good foundation for others who might come after and wish to build upon it.

Stroik briefly traces the history of Church patronage of the arts and the meritorious effects that serious patronage has had on the lives of countless individuals, including hardened atheists and agnostics. As he rightly notes, even the most troubled soul is touched by the sight of the Sistine Chapel or Notre Dame Cathedral, as we witnessed just over a year ago when the historic icon of Christendom caught fire and nearly collapsed. He also discusses the difference between the Church as patroness of the arts and the Church as a mere purchaser of art, because, as he rightly notes, it isn’t enough just to spend money on “art” (Mohoney’s Cathedral in Las Angeles is a prime example), the Church must evangelize, baptize and catechize the artist in order that his art might become a participation in the divine act of creation.

Unfortunately these seem like mute talking points due to the serious lack of serious artists in the Church, even should She ever wish become patroness of the arts again, but this is the conundrum Stroik addresses in his essay and where I want to spend the majority of my efforts before applying his thoughts to the world of the church musician.

Foster the Work of Talented Artists. Mr. Stroik stresses the importance of the Church seeking out the greatest artists in the worlds of architecture, stone, glass, metal and music and putting them at the service of the Faith. He recounts Moses’ hiring of Bezalel to fashion the Tabernacle to house the Ark of the Covenant as well as the famous account of Abbot Suger rebuilding the Abbey of St. Denis north of Paris, the choir of which is considered to be the first full flowering of Gothic architecture and art. In seeking out the artist the Church enters into a relationship with the artist, learning about his art and his trade in order to appreciate it better, but also “deepen[ing] the artist’s theological knowledge and at the same time allow[ing] the artist to deepen [the Church’s] knowledge of art.” Stroik challenges the artist to remain close to the Church’s greatest artistic traditions while he is young so he has the opportunity to be fully formed in them. Then when he his older he will have the knowledge and wisdom necessary to build upon the tradition rather than knock it aside for the sake of his own solitary and paltry efforts.

Create a Market for Great Religious Art. Stroik acknowledges that for this to happen artists need to look upon the Church as a great client and that half of this battle is financial. All too often the Church expects to pay the lowest amount possible and then gets what it pays for. “This was explained to me many years ago by a famous structural engineer, who said that churches are such terrible clients that when church committees came knocking on his door he would give them money and recommend they hire his competitors.” The church needs to offer competitive rates to the best artists and artisans, who are paid handsomely for their work in the secular world.

(As an aside, I personally think the problem is not so much a lack of money or an unwillingness to spend it, but rather a lack of supernatural vision that leads one to place spending on comfort before all else. I have witnessed inordinate amounts of money spent on items of little value, or at least of lesser value than objects of transcendent beauty, and pastors not bat an eye at the figure on the check they write. As much as I love air conditioning and am extremely thankful for it in church every summer, I find it amusing when a pastor readily pays $100,000 for a new air conditioning unit (again, I’m really not complaining) but can’t find $12,000 for a part-time church musician in his budget. I think the question of finances has just as much to do with where we find value as it does with how much money we have.)

Stroik believes budgets should allow artists to work with the best materials available and that churches could easily offer competitions “in which the artist is straining to build the most majestic exterior, the tallest interior, the most spiritual iconography and the most beautiful building possible. Works of art should be out of the ordinary, of the highest artistic standard and with the largest budgets. They are like the expensive ointment the woman in the Gospels anoints Christ’s feet with, not just some cheap oil bought from the drugstore.”

Establish a Sacred Art Academy at a University. Simply put, Stroik outlines three goals for such an academy: “1) Train students who can produce Catholic art at the highest level; 2) Give artists a theological vision for ennobling our artistic culture; and 3) Give artists the ability to create classical art for the secular realm.” He rightly points out the effects of such a school on civilization and cites the examples of the “school” of artisans at the court of Lorenzo de Medici or France’s École des Beaux-Arts, originally founded by Cardinal Mazarin. Of course, Stroik, professor of architecture at Notre Dame University and probably American’s most nationally recognized proponent of classical sacred architecture, is having the same effect on many of his own students.

The reality is that if we want great artists we must have places to train them in the best of the tradition and be able to crown their studies with a deeply imbued Catholic ethos. In the area of architecture, for example, it is imperative that students spend time in places like Rome and Florence in order to move and breathe among the architecture—to live in these buildings and to pray in them, to think in them and to experience the effect they have on one’s spiritual and intellectual formation.

Unfortunately, the general attitude today toward great art and artists in the Church in one of apathy at best or disparagement at worse, where opponents level the charge that “that money could have been spent on the poor,” as if artists and those touched by beauty (and who isn’t) are somehow unsympathetic aesthetes who unmercifully trample the poor under foot in the rush to worship in beautiful churches. But we needn’t fall prey to the scourge of the modern charge of either/or—instead we need to embrace the Catholic notion of both/and, which allows the Church to offer God Her greatest musical fruits AND place the same fruits within earshot of all of her children so that Christians poor and rich alike might have their minds and hearts lifted on the wings of sung prayer.

I mentioned earlier that Stroik’s article merely lays a foundation for a possible flowering of the sacred arts and the return of Church patronage and here I wish to build on that foundation, especially as it concerns sacred music at the parish level and engaging those who might not otherwise experience not only the beauty, but spiritual depth and richness of the Church’s sacred music.

It would be old news, especially at Corpus Christi Watershed, to rehash all the ways in which past and current pontiffs, saints or Church councils have encourage, promoted and at times demanded truly sacred and holy music to be used within the Church’s liturgical rites, and as good as each of these exhortations are, they must be accompanied by a plan of action or else they fall on deaf ears. As musicians we must ask ourselves what our plan of action is to accomplish a renaissance in sacred music and as always, I want to offer the model of the schola cantorum (or choir school, choral foundation, song school, etc.) Wether in a great cathedral, humble parish or anything in between, the schola cantorum offers a model to reengage the best musical artists with the Church and to offer the fruits of those labors back to God and to all those present along the way.

Foster the Work of Talented Artists. I am amazed at the raw talent present in even the smallest of parishes. During one of my first “real” jobs I directed the music for two small country parishes with a combined school of just over 60 students, where I was able to cobble together a choir of 14 children. All I knew, and it wasn’t much more than the students themselves, was to get them to sing in their head voices and to start and stop together. Even now I can go back to the one recording I made and acknowledge that there were some great things going on in that little group even though its leader was highly inexperienced and wet behind the ears, and much of it was due to the copious amounts of talent right there in that average group of boys and girls no different from anywhere else. The goal is to engage that talent and connect it to the living tradition of the Church’s music.

The teaching sister of yore understood this. How many organists today in their 60s and 70s were volun-told by Sr. Cecilia or Sr. Mary Gregory that their piano proficiency merited them the honor of playing the organ for Holy Mass? This rarely happens today!

Create a Market for Great Religious Art. Great composers, or even really good ones, rarely write for Catholic Church choirs, especially children’s choirs, because there are so precious few worth writing for. More than anything a composer wants his music performed, which would reduce him to writing at the level of This Little Light of Mine in order to engage the musical proficiency of the average Catholic chorister. But if a composer has a really good choir to write for (especially if he can be paid to do so), he will pour his heart and soul into composing for the ensemble.

As always, money is part of the problem, but not because there isn’t enough. The heart of the issue is convincing a pastor or finance council that spending money on good music is worth the sacrifice. If a parish commits to a real program of formation in liturgical music (i.e. a schola cantorum) a generous number of the faithful will be more than willing to financially support it, and the better program becomes the more resources they will find to engage more great composers, instrumentalist, soloists, etc.

Establish a Sacred Art Academy at a University. This is naturally beyond the scope of the average parish, but by establishing a good schola cantorum, such a parish participates in forming the next generation of church musicians who will then enter high school and university better trained and more conversant in church music than any other undergraduate church music students. It would prepare young Catholics to take the best places in the best institutions and offer them opportunities that would have a lasting effect on the liturgical life in our parishes.

The schola cantorum, as a community of musicians, exists within a particular parish or cathedral for the work of fostering the Church’s musical arts and placing them at the service of that same community. With proper formation and liturgical catechesis, choristers are imbued with that Catholic ethos that is not only necessary for their work as our future church musicians, but for their own spiritual lives. This is the kind of community that will breath new life into our tired and sagging music programs and give the people in the pews hope that good sacred music consists in more than 1970s ditties played on the organ, spruced up with a few trumpets and timpani.

As I have mentioned in the past, if each diocese in the United States had even one schola cantorum/choir school, and each school or program graduated just 10 students every year, that would be 2,000 students in one year, or 40,000 students in one generation (20 years). Church musicians can talk until they are blue in the face about papal documents and council teachings, but until we create a groundswell of support from people who not only want good music but who know how to make it, we will continue spinning our wheels and hoping for a few scraps from the master’s table.

What’s the bottom line if you are a pastor? Nothing more than a fair salary for a great music director. The choice is yours.

Improvisation

When we speak of the Church’s great treasury of sacred music our minds naturally turn to Gregorian chant or the polyphonic works of Palestrina, Victoria, and Byrd. Perhaps we are reminded of the great Viennese Masses of Haydn and Mozart or the many incredible works of modern composers such as Sir James MacMillan or the Orthodox Arvo Pärt. Those are all incredible names and works of consummate art, but in all my life I don’t think I have ever heard it mentioned that the art of improvisation, done well, ranks alongside the greatest works of Palestrina or Mozart.

In a real sense, being in possession of the improvisatory arts means that the organist has arrived at the pinnacle of his craft, the apex of fluency in musical speech. Just as any great orator eventually had to give a speech of his own creation extemporaneously, so the great organist, to arrive at such a title, had to create music worthy of his instrument extemporaneously. The great organist is a great communicator.

One of the beautiful aspects about organ improvisation is that it fits the actions of the Sacred Liturgy in a way that pre-composed music can’t. It is one thing to play a Bach toccata and fugue following Mass when there is no time restriction, but it is another have to play to the exact time of the Offertory or Communion, or any of the other appropriate times in Mass or the Office. Not only is there a time constraint, but there is the constraint imposed by the Liturgy at that precise moment, for the music must not only “fill time” but needs be a beautiful and worthy offering to the Almighty, perhaps a meditation on the Proper of the day or simply an aid to the elevation of the mind and heart.

Just as there are schools and methods for the teaching of painting or sculpting or architecture, so too are there schools and methods for learning to improvise. These methods won’t ensure you’ll be the next Pierre Cochereau, but neither will schools and methods of painting ensure that you’ll be the next Caravaggio. However, every organist should be able to become tolerably adept at it. In the midst of Covidtide and the lack of choral and congregational singing I have had to rely almost entirely upon improvisation and quite frankly, it has been an absolute joy! If you would like to hone your improvisatory skills I would suggest approaching improvisation in the same way you would the art of oratory.

Oratory is first and foremost about communicating an idea or point that is worth communicating and doing it effectively and beautifully. So to begin with, you must have an idea worth communicating. Perhaps it is the joy of the Incarnation, the sorrow of our Blessed Mother at the Cross or the glory of the Resurrection. If you want to communicate the joy of the Incarnation you might even choose between the reverential joy encountered in the prologue of St. John’s Gospel or the simple joy of Mary as she looks upon her Son and Savior lying in the manger, but it must be something worth communicating.

The musical idea you choose to do so could be anything. It might be a snippet of chant, a melody from a carol or hymn or an impression created by notes or chords or chord progressions. Really the possibilities are infinite, but you as the artist must take that kernel and develop it effectively if you are going to be able to communicate, and this is where you must gain technical knowledge of the inner workings of music in order to expound on your musical idea.

I would begin by learning to harmonize the major scale in all 12 keys, followed by the minor scale (in its various forms) in all of its 12 keys (or simply start with one key). This sounds daunting, but once you have done it in one key you simply transfer the same chord progressions to the other 11 keys and you’ve got it. This gives you facility with the language of music.  You could also learn the Church Modes or the Whole Tone Scales, but once you’re able to speak the language then you’re a third of the way there.

The next step is to become familiar with the many formal structures of musical rhetoric. These could be as simple as a hymn prelude (or chorale prelude) or bicinia or something as complex as a formal four voice fugue. Or you could simply take a passage from scripture and create a musical impressions of it, in which there is no formal structure. These are large scale forms (among many others). There are also many smaller devices for use within these overarching forms, just as a formal speeches might contain any number of literary devices such as alliteration, parallelism, etc. for use in driving home their points. You can learn them one by one.

Lastly, you must communicate beautifully and this is difficult because I think it is part inspiration and part absorption from others who improvise well. Pray to the Holy Spirit (I am serious about this!), learn great organ repertoire (and learn from it) and listen to as much great improvisation as you are able. Thankfully YouTube is host to thousands of videos of stellar improvisers like Daniel Roth, Olivier Latry or Otto Maria Krämer, to name just a few.

The most famous improvisation method book is probably the Dupré Complete Course in Improvisation, but if you click here, there is a complete list of various improvisation books you might find helpful.

I would add as a post-script that at some point you just have to start improvising. You won’t sound like Messiaen your first time (and maybe you never want to sound like Messiaen) but that’s alright. Your improvisatory skills might never rival those of Daniel Roth, but even if you were to make it half way there, think of how good you would be. Start simple, but start. As Gerre Hancock, that great American improviser once noted, “Salvation is only a half-step away!”

What Makes a Great Conductor?

What makes a great conductor? Is he born with his gift or does he acquire it through assiduous effort? Is there hope for the amateur (in the best sense of the word) or is it a heavenly gift sparingly bestowed? In a certain sense anyone willing can become a good conductor, but the great conductor possesses something more, something so intangible I believe it can’t be taught. This gift is somewhat like the Faith, it is a gift that others can prepare one to receive, but in the end can’t actually give it, but it is this gift that makes the great conductor, and here I speak of wonder.

At the heart of the great conductor is one who is born in wonder, one who stands in awe and amazement of heaven’s divine gift–music. It might begin with hearing a Chopin piano concerto, the Veni Creator Spiritus, Bach’s B Minor Mass, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony or the Durufle Requiem, but a part of the conductor’s soul is touched in such a way that he knows he will never be the same again, and like all great lovers, seeks to share with everyone the object of his passion. This isn’t to say that knowledge of certain conducting patterns in unnecessary, or that one shouldn’t have to practice technique, but it is to say that these things are stiff and lifeless until the musician has been wounded by the beauty of music.

Working with children helps to bring our view of the matter into better focus because their enthusiasm is spontaneous and their reaction unstudied. If they don’t like something they will say it and even before they say it their faces will betray it. How, then, does the great choir master get so much out of his choristers? No matter how good of musicians these boys and girls are, they are still just that, boys and girls, and they won’t give what they haven’t first been given. They can’t give a sublime performance if they haven’t first fallen in love with the music. The great conductor has to be able to prepare them to receive the gift of being born in wonder.

I vividly remember some years ago trying to teach my early choristers to sing in parts and it wasn’t working. I was discouraged at the prospect of unison singing for the rest of my life and filled with dread that we would never get beyond hymns and simple motets. I needed something more so I decided to teach the choristers the soprano line of Palestrina’s Missa Brevis and ask the adult choir to sing alto, tenor and bass. It really wasn’t difficult–mostly simple rhythms and melodic intervals. It was so simple, in fact, that the children were bored with it, but I plowed forward. Finally the day of the full choir rehearsal arrived and we began with the Gloria. I thought it best to have the entire choir sing the big F major chord before moving on and it was then that I saw wonder in the faces of the children. Something so simple as singing a major chord perfectly in tune in a resonant space changed their attitude completely and a number of them told me later that that was the moment their love for choral music truly began. Those students made all the difference to the choir.

Unfortunately there is no magic formula for striking that first spark in the life of a child, or any adult musician for that matter, but therein lies the heart of the truly great conductor–the ability awaken his fellow musicians, that they may be born in wonder.

 

Audiation and the Chorister

“Audiation is the process of both mentally hearing and understanding music, even when no music is present. In essence, audiation is thinking in music or thinking about music in a way the brain is able to give meaning to the sounds.” Darren Wicks

Audiation is a term coined by the American music educator Edwin Gordon and constitutes, in a sense, the primary goal of probationer training. Audiation encompasses what we loosely refer to as sight-singing and ear-training, or the ability to hear in one’s own mind, without aural assistance of any kind, the music notated by the symbols on the printed page, as well as its reverse, the ability to transcribe into symbols the music one hears in real time. This process is incredibly important for the members of a liturgical choir for many reasons, but perhaps the simplest is that it allows the singers to tackle large amounts of repertoire quickly so that the bulk of a choir’s rehearsal can be spent working toward a musical performance as opposed to a merely note-perfect, but lifeless, one.

The reality in any great liturgical choir is that there is simply too much music to learn by rote. The mediocre liturgical choir, on the other hand, spends all of its time learning notes and never arrives at the shores of a beautifully moving performance. Teaching one’s probationers to audiate launches their ship into a world of learning and musical self-discovery.

At the same time, we must differentiate between audiation and teaching music theory. All the choir schools and choral foundations I am aware of teach music theory (the intellectual knowledge of how music works), but it is possible to intellectually understand the why behind rhythms and scales but not learn how to clap them or sing them in real time. Therefore these schools and foundations employ extra-curricular avenues for connecting the theoretical knowledge of music to the ear and mouth. Below are a number of methods used to help probationers navigate this ocean.

Piano Studies
The most widely used method for teaching audiation is private piano study, which teaches, or rather reinforces, the music theory a probationer learns in class. I find it interesting to note that while this method is an excellent way to reinforce music theory in a visual way (using the keyboard) as well as to teach the child to pay attention to more than one musical line at a time, it doesn’t actually engage the child’s eye ear in a manner that naturally teaches him to read an interval on the page and then interpret what that interval sounds like in his mind simply because the piano does the work for him. It is interesting to note, however, that in the world’s great cathedral choir schools the standards are so high that entering probationers must already posses incredible pitch memory and piano study works perfectly for these boys. For them, the process of audiation takes places naturally and quickly and it usually suffices to throw them in the deep end and make them swim, so to say. Regardless, piano study is still the best way to deepen the probationer’s audiatory skills. If I could find the funds, I would require all of my choristers to take piano lessons as part of their studies.

Solfege
Many choir schools and choral foundations make solfege a fundamental part of their musical training because it teaches the probationer the sound of the major and various minor scales and teaches him to navigate these scales easily. A child instinctively learns to find DO from any other note in the scale and the same eventually goes for all the other pitches. By the time a child is able to navigate a diatonic hymn (with the occasional secondary dominant) or simple square note chant notation, it is generally just a matter of time and experience before he becomes comfortable tackling simpler polyphony and finally harder repertoire. Solfege also helps the child to think of the musical line in a linear fashion so that each note is tuned to the one before it as well as to the one after it, not just vertically with all of the other pitches sounding at the same time.

The one downside to solfege is that some children find it difficult to remember the actual solfege syllable names even after they are fluent in diatonic reading. One must remember that the goal of solfege is not that every chorister is able to sing his music to solfege syllables, but that every choristers can pitch the notes of the scale correctly.

Suzuki Violin Studies
A few programs teach classroom Suzuki violin in the early grades in order to develop the probationer’s sense of pitch. The nature of the violin and the way in which the child makes a note sound upon it means that the pitch can easily be played too high or too low (because there is no fret to guide him) and the child is taught to be aware of this slight fluctuation in pitch in order to correct it. This is very different from the piano, where the proper pitch, without any fluctuation in tuning, sounds as long as the right key is struck.

Another benefit to classroom violin study is that when the child has an exceptional teacher, he will learn just how beautiful and moving a musical line can sound, and hopefully when he sings he will imitate the violin’s timbre, its use of messe di voce and judicious vibrato to bring out the musical line as well as the violin’s incredible range of emotive possibilities.

Vocal Coaching
Most of the great choir schools and choral foundations today employ vocal coaches in order to provide each chorister with a weekly voice lesson. Obviously these lessons are geared toward teaching healthy vocal technique, but the added benefit is that the probationer can’t rely on another probationer next to him to give him his part. His sight-singing prowess is uniquely on display and he will try that much harder.

Other Instrumental Studies
Quite often choristers embark on further instrumental studies, in addition to piano, such as learning one of the many orchestral instruments. This again simply reinforces the theoretical knowledge learned in the classroom.

Composing
Lastly, as probationers progress into seasoned choristers, they often try their hand at serious composing, which brings them to the pinnacle of audiation. Here the child takes the grand sum of all his musical studies and experiences and weds them to his own ability to imagine, hear and create musical ideas, and thus a new composition is born. It will have taken quite some time, but the young boy will have become fluent in the divine language of music.

Colin Mawby (1936-2019)

I learned with sadness last Sunday that Colin Mawby (Nov. 24) and Stephen Cleobury (Nov. 22), both former directors of music at Westminster Cathedral, London, had passed away–a great loss to the world of sacred music. While Cleobury, who went on to direct the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, is undoubtedly the more well known of the two men, I want to pay particular tribute today to Colin Mawby and his particular services to the Church.

Mawby began his music career as a chorister at Westminster Cathedral under the great George Malcolm, the man responsible for introducing the “continental sound” to Westminster, making it unique in the world of English Cathedral Choirs. Mawby assisted Malcolm at the organ from the age of twelve.

In 1961 he ascended to the post of Organist and Choir Master at Westminster Cathedral and it was because of his work there that I first came into contact with him. As I was finishing a chapter in my dissertation about the cathedral’s Choir School, I contacted Martin Baker to inquire about the turbulent times of the 60s and 70s and how the choir had managed to survive the upheaval. Baker put me in contact with Mr. Mawby, for which I am forever grateful. I will never forget sitting down to supper with Mawby one evening in Rome and asking him what Westminster was like during the days of the great Cardinal Heenan. He laughed and said that modern child labor laws would never allow the choir master at Westminster to work the boys the way he had been worked as a chorister and the way he had worked the boys in his early days at the helm of the choir. I share this completely from memory, so my apologies if it is not 100% accurate, but I remember him saying the boys sang roughly 15 services weekly, including the capitular High Mass, Vespers and Compline on most days.

He told me of marching the boys into the cathedral on Christmas Eve to chant the entire office of Matins, after which the boys launched right into Midnight Mass. If that wasn’t enough, and because Westminster was a cathedral and it was the bounden duty of the cathedral’s chapter to offer to God the worship of the Divine Office, the boys sang the office of Lauds immediately after Midnight Mass. Because the mystery of the Incarnation is so great that the Church gives us three very distinct Masses on Christmas Day to celebrate different aspects of Our Lord’s birth, the boys still had two more Masses to sing. They were back in the apse of the cathedral to sing for Mass at Dawn and again for Mass during the Day. They still couldn’t officially begin Christmas break, though, until they had sung Solemn Vespers on Christmas Day in the afternoon. The choir’s heaviest workload occurred in the spring during the Holy Triduum, when Mawby said they might spend up to eight hours a day singing in the Cathedral.

All of his efforts to that point paled in comparison to how hard he had to work following the Second Vatican Council to keep the choir going and the school open. He fought for the choir and school even to the end of his life. He also battled for quality sacred music all throughout the church. I think I speak for many church musicians today when I say how grateful we are for his work at Westminster Cathedral.

Mr. Mawby also deserves recognition for his work as a composer. Probably his most well known work is his Ave verum corpus, one which has already entered the current canon of sacred works and which (I believe) has the power of endurance.

Other works include Haec dies

…and his Tu es Petrus.

 

Finally, I would like to add an Ave Maria I am happy to say I had a part in. In January 2016 our Schola Cantorum traveled to Rome and Mawby composed this work for the choir to premiere at the Basilica of St. Ignatius (it begins around 30 seconds).

Mawby was gracious enough to fly to Rome and have supper with the choir and listen to them sing. It was a time that many of our choristers and their families will never forget.

We give thanks today for the great work Colin Mawby undertook for the good of our Holy Mother, the Church, but even more importantly, we commend his soul to the mercy of our Heavenly Father.

Requiem aeternam, dona eis Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Where do we go from here?

In his work The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis writes about the mediocrity of our race: “Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Such is the nature of man that he settles for that which is easy. WE settle for that which is easy—especially in the realm of our sacred music. One only has to attend Mass at the average American parish for ample proof. On the other hand, I recently had the chance to speak with a small group of church musicians from around the mid-west that, each in his or her own way, is having a profound effect on the musical environment in their parishes and cathedrals, both in the sacred liturgy and through their teaching and mentoring of others. Both the weeds and the wheat are growing in the Lord’s vineyard and so it will be until the end of time.

Over the course of the last two months I have written about various forms of the choir school and have encouraged those who are able to begin choral foundations of some sort for youth in their parishes and cathedrals. Today I ask each of you who directs music in one of these churches to make a commitment to form the next generation of musicians. We need to break out of our complacency and ease. We need to break away from simply providing music for the next Sunday’s Masses. We need to lift the minds of our young people out of the gutter of self-absorbtion and turn their hearts to the glories of Heaven! God has given us the task to do this through the glory of music. Music might not be the only way to do it, but it is certainly one of the most beautiful ways.

If you struggle to know where to begin or how to begin I want to help. Over the course of the next weeks I plan to go through the process of founding various choral institutions with all of the myriad of questions that can arise along the way, from discussing various models for funding your venture to the training and disciplining of choristers.  I will even discuss ways to help convince the powers that be.

The time has come for us to stop complaining and begin doing. We must bear the weight of Glory!

If You Want to Catch them All

The Cathedral of St. Anne in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Leeds, England, like many other cathedrals in the western world prior to the Second Vatican Council, was home to a renowned sacred music program steeped in the Church’s tradition of plainsong and polyphony. This fell apart when the axe fell during the turbulent 60s and according to the cathedral’s website, its music program sank lower and lower until the late 1980s, when the bishop at the time took the bold step of hiring a full time music director whose task it was to create a cathedral choir of 24 boys to be drawn from throughout the diocese. (This should serve as a constant reminder to our prelates and clergy of the impact they can have on sacred music in the Catholic Church.)

In 2003, the cathedral’s commitment to worthy sacred music led its music staff to create the ambitious Schools Singing Programme, a musical outreach ministry providing quality music instruction to children from all over the diocese. The program’s goal is first and foremost to form all the young people in the diocese. From these foundational programs, the cathedral then draws singers to its own choirs. I have followed the program for a number of years and remember thinking it incredible when the program worked with 2,500 students each year throughout the diocese. Now that number has has almost doubled. According to the program’s website, it currently serves 4,000 children each year, many from the most economically depressed areas in England, and it has provided choral instruction and singing opportunities to 25,000 young people over the last 16 years. This is the fruit of only 1 diocese!

There are 9 full-time and 9 part-time staff at the diocese who work in 53 schools and more than 40 after school choirs, not to mention the 6 cathedral choirs that rotate to sing Holy Mass and Vespers almost every day of the week. All the cathedral’s choristers receive private vocal tuition and there are 45 places for organ students currently available to musicians throughout the diocese, all of which are full.

Readers can browse a number of articles about the program here or listen to  the quality of the Cathedral Choir recorded at Midnight Mass in 2017 (the Mass Ordinary is Haydn’s Nicholas Mass).

In 2009 the Cathedral even partnered with a local Catholic School to found a Cathedral Choir School, now celebrating its 10 anniversary.

If there is a valuable piece of advice I would like readers to take away from this post, it is that Catholics HUNGER for great music in their churches (and quite frankly, the Sacred Liturgy demands it) and they are willing to financially support it if they are confronted with a great vision for sacred music being implemented and carried out. We need a vision this big and this bold! What a gift to the Church it would be if some of our cathedrals and growing number of truly Catholic colleges and universities in the United States would be willing to take on this work.

A Professional Choir in 6 Years!

Two weeks ago I wrote about the Westminster Cathedral Choir School (and choir) and the Guildford Cathedral Choir, two choral foundations of incredibly high standards founded in very short amounts of time to chant the services in their respective cathedrals. But what of the cathedral music director who needs first to prove the viability of a cathedral choir school before he founds one? I would venture to say this is where most choir masters find themselves and thankfully we have the wonderful example of the Madeleine Choir School at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, Utah. Mr. Gregory Glenn, the choir school’s founder and long time pastoral administrator, graciously accepted my request to spend 6 weeks at the school in the fall of 2012 in order to collect information about the school and choristers for my DMA document and it opened my eyes to what was musically possible with children. One question I continually asked myself during my time at the school (and ever since) was why no other cathedral had followed the Madeleine’s lead to found such an institution. It is such a gift to the Church!

Regarding the school’s history, Mr. Glenn related to me that he had had some desire to found an institution like the Madeleine Choir School, but it had always seemed more of a dream than a reality. Nevertheless, he visited all the Catholic schools within a 40 mile radius of the Cathedral and auditioned all students in grades four through eight. Roughly 70 choristers (half boys and half girls) accepted his invitation to join an after school choral program at the cathedral and rehearsals began in the Spring of 1990. The boys and girls practiced separately, each for 90 minutes every week, and only sang for Mass once per month. This went on for some time until the cathedral’s rector, Msgr. Francis Mannion, decided that Glenn should spend time at a real choir school if he hoped to start one in Salt Lake City. Glenn packed his bags and traveled to London for three months in residence at the Westminster Cathedral Choir School in the fall of 1992. Four years later the Madeleine Choir School opened her doors and has been growing ever since.

What We Can Learn
I think the first and greatest lesson we can learn is that Mr. Glenn had a love of and passion for the cathedral choir school model and had a vision for what such a thing could look like at the Madeleine Cathedral. He also worked with a rector who could share in his vision. Sometimes I talk with music directors and pastors who want the children in their music programs and schools to sing good sacred music, but they haven’t taken time to flesh out in their minds what such a program in their parishes would look like or how they might actually carry out such a plan. They are under the impression that all it takes is learning a couple of neat music hacks for their students to be able to tackle Palestrina Masses, and all for the price of only $10,000 a year for a part-time music director! But this simply isn’t realistic.

The second lesson we can learn is to persevere when the long route is necessary. Glenn began with a good number of students and a strong desire, but not much more. He and Msgr. Mannion didn’t know if Glenn could pull it off. He ran an after school choir program for six years before the school began. It was also A LOT of hard work and Glenn was honest in relating to me the problems he encountered along the way. In the beginning the choir, even with 35 students in each group, never strayed from unison singing. Moving on to part-singing was difficult and didn’t take place until he began a summer camp where choristers finally experienced daily rehearsals for the first time. Chorister parents found it difficult to understand the idea that the choir had an obligation to the cathedral to sing her daily services, even when that meant returning to the Cathedral on Christmas afternoon to chant Vespers, and all this after having sung Midnight Mass and Mass During the Day. When it came time to propose an actual school for the choir, he had to create model budgets and numbers to give to cathedral committees because such a thing had never been done. When the bishop finally gave permission to found a school, it was full the next day, but Glenn had no teachers. Teaching sight-singing has also been a challenge all the while keeping up with concerts and other obligations (thankfully he has the incomparable help of Mrs. Melanie Malinka, the school’s music director).

I write all of this because it shows how one man’s dogged determination brought a choir school into being. There were new challenges all the time, but Glenn kept finding solutions and eventually his plan took root and developed. As in the case of Sir Richard Terry having the friendship and backing of Cardinal Vaughn, Glenn had the support of Msgr. Mannion, the cathedral’s rector. This support was key, but once he had the necessary vision and support, the rest was a matter putting one foot in front of the other. The thing to remember, though, it that he did it, and you can too!

A Professional Choir in 6 Months

So it continues… the challenge I lay down to church musicians to found choir schools or choral foundations in their respective cathedrals and churches. To that end, I offer these brief histories of two choral foundations begun in the 20th century, namely Westminster Cathedral Choir School (Catholic; 1901) and the Guildford Cathedral Choir (Anglican; 1960-61). The incidents I relate in these histories come from a variety of sources, but I rely primarily on Andrew’s Westminster Retrospect (Westminster) and Carpenter’s The Beat is Irrelevant (Guildford).

My reason for offering these histories simultaneously is that both institutions were founded at the same time as their respective cathedrals and were considered as part of the fabric of each building. Cardinal Vaughn, the spiritual son of the great Cardinal Manning and builder of Westminster Cathedral, felt the choir to be as important to the solemn celebration of the Church’s sacred liturgy as the cathedral itself. His original agreement with Sir Richard Terry, Westminster’s first choirmaster, was that the choir would sing the daily High Mass, the little hours, Vespers and Compline (can one even imagine!). At Guildford the original plan had been for sung services only on the weekends, but Barry Rose, the choir’s first director, was adamant that there be daily choral services in the cathedral and his opinion held sway. In either case, it was unthinkable that the celebration of the liturgy could be separated from the best liturgical music. Of course, this view requires the creation of some sort of stable, first rate choral foundation, in order to make it a living reality.

The second reason I offer the histories of these two great cathedral choirs in the same post is that they had to be founded and their choristers trained to extremely high standards in relatively short periods of time. Terry had only six months to prepare his boys for Holy Mass on Ascension Day (1902), when the they, together with the men of the choir, offered Byrd’s Mass for 5 Voices in the  cathedral’s Chapter Hall. Rose had roughly the same amount of time before his choir’s first choral service in the new cathedral (1961), the televised enthronement of the new Anglican bishop of that see, followed by the cathedral’s consecration a month later.

Westminster Cathedral Choir School (originally a boarding school for choristers only) opened in 1901 with 11 choristers, then grew to include about 25 boys by the following June when daily choral services began in earnest. Terry was known for his unrelenting hard work, grueling standards and numerous rehearsals. During his tenure at Downside Abbey (before moving to Westminster) teachers complained that his rehearsals eclipsed all other school activities and one can only wonder what they were like when he began anew at Westminster. Rose didn’t have a dedicated choir school, but did form a partnership with the Lanesborough School, where he trained choristers four days a week in addition to rehearsals at the yet unfinished cathedral. I have sat in on rehearsals conducted by Rose and I can say they are truly thrilling and his quest for beauty in unrelenting. I can well imagine that neither he nor Terry ever settled for less than twice what the choristers thought was their best.

It must also be noted that Byrd’s Mass for 5 Voices not withstanding, both choir masters put the quality of performance before the difficulty of repertoire and always focused on the music of the liturgy before moving on to “filler” music. Rose would often spend most of a rehearsal before Choral Evensong on getting a few lines of one of the Psalms perfect, which necessitated scrapping the proposed anthem in favor of Tallis’ If Ye Love Me, supposedly sung more often in the early days of the choir than many singers cared to remember. Thankfully Mr. Rose recorded most of what his choir sang during his tenure at Guildford Cathedral (offered on YouTube by Archives of Sound). Terry noted in his 1907 book Catholic Church Music that it would be better to sing the psalms and antiphons at Mass and in the Office recto tono than to give them an unmusical rendering. I often wonder if some of the vitriol directed against the Church’s music is due to its less than stellar presentation.

Lessons to be Learned
The greatest lesson I feel we can learn from both of these is the connection between the sacred liturgy and liturgical music. The Second Vatican Council reminded us that the Church’s treasury of sacred music is Her greatest art because it doesn’t just adorn Her rites, but becomes part of them. If we want to renew the Church’s Sacred Liturgy, we must also renew its link with sacred music. It is a travesty of titanic proportions that the completely sung Sacred Liturgy is rarely offered in Cathedrals today, even for great feasts, much less on a daily basis. Our Cathedrals owe God nothing less than the solemnly sung Liturgy (which encompasses more than Mass!) on a daily basis. Please note that this is not a slight against Cathedral music directors. I know so many good ones who work tirelessly to make things as beautiful as they are allowed.

The second lesson we can learn is that the practice of making the Church’s music is only possible with constant rehearsal and dedication on a daily basis. It is wonderful that volunteer choirs exist at cathedrals and they most certainly add to the beauty of the Cathedral’s sacred worship, but they simply cannot bear the load of the Church’s daily liturgy. This is almost impossible without the aid of a choir school. Of course this begs the question of which kind of choir school should a cathedral have, but this can only be discerned by those at each cathedral. A cathedral in one of our great metropolitan areas almost necessitates a residential school of some kind simply because there often aren’t many children living in their geographical areas and grueling daily travel would be to much for children and parents. Most cathedrals in the United States could adequately work with a day school, while those in the more remote areas might have to content themselves with an after school choral foundation that sings on Sundays and major feasts only.

Because this article deals with cathedral choirs that were founded in a very short amount of time I want to address circumstances particular to their foundings. While I can’t speak from personal experience, I feel that this would be the most musically rewarding way to begin a cathedral choir school or choral foundation. In order to do this, a musician would need to have the complete trust and friendship of the bishop, rector and the cathedral’s master of ceremonies (or in the case of a larger parish, the pastor). The musician would need carte blanche to do whatever necessary (and within reason) to make such a foundation possible and would need to have every help from the cathedral and diocese as are regularly necessary to establish a new school, much less a residential one. If the cathedral or church already had a school, the music director would need the same cooperation from the principal, teacher and parents.

Another key ingredient to such an undertaking would the selection of the best choristers. In this kind of institution only the most ideal children could be accepted. Children, even those who had no previous training, would need to possess a beautiful singing voice, free of anything that might hamper the development of the choir’s tone, an incredible ear able to reproduce what it hears correctly the first time, a driving desire to be part of such a choir and the intellectual capabilities to deal with such intense learning on top of all his or her other school requirements. I once heard John Scott, while at St. Thomas Fifth Avenue, mention that as of May in that particular year, he had only accepted four candidates on probation for the choir the next year. His standards were that high (and yes, there were a number of other boys who inquired and even auditioned). Those selected had to be able to learn to read music in a very short time, create a quality choral sound and develop a decent repertoire to handle the demands of daily choral services. One would also have to be as exacting with the men of the choir.

If you are a bishop or cathedral music director and are reading this blog, I venture to guess you already understand the intimate relationship between good sacred music and the Church Liturgy. If you do, please consider moving forward with such a venture as a cathedral choir school. There are wonderful people of great faith and incredible talent who are more than willing to help. We need to be bold!

A WHAT School?!?

Last week I wrote about the affect that the founding of roughly 350 choir schools in the United States would have upon our general level of sacred music within a single generation and provided a number of resources for the novice and not-so-novice who would like to know more about choir schools, but who are currently unable to visit these great institutions.

Today I would like to continue this thread of thought in order to discover more about what makes a choir school tick. I also want to tie the choir school concept to several real models that I feel are every bit worth imitating in one way or another. Along the way I hope to provide more resources for our readers should they wish to dive further into the subject.

In order to begin our conversation, I believe it is necessary to keep in mind that the ultimate goal of the church musician is to provide the most beautiful music possible for the sacred liturgy and NOT (necessarily) to create a school. This is perhaps why in England cathedral choirs are often referred to as choral foundations. For example, there has been a choir at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London since 604 A.D., but it wasn’t until centuries later, in 1123 A.D. that a school was established by the bishop of London to educate boy choristers. The important thing is the choir that sings for the services. The cathedral does not announce each week that St. Paul’s Cathedral School (where the choristers are educated) sings for the cathedral’s services, but rather that St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir sings for the services. It is, therefore, possible to have a fine choral foundation without an actual school (Rippon Cathedral Choir). However, I firmly believe it is more difficult.

Another point to keep in mind is that there are very few “real” choir schools left in the world. What I mean by this is a school whose sole raison d’être is the education of a certain church’s choristers and no other students. Two such elite programs that readily come to mind are the choirs schools at Westminster Abbey (Anglican) and St. Thomas Fifth Avenue (Anglican). Both of these schools are residential and educate only the boys who sing in each church’s choir. As far as I am aware, the Schola Puerorum, the school for boys of the the Sistine Chapel Choir, also exists solely for the purpose of educating the choir’s choristers, but it is not a boarding school (are are Westminster and St. Thomas). The same is true for St. Paul’s Choir School (Boston). The obvious reason for such schools is that the musical education of the choristers becomes the guiding principle for all of the school’s education decisions and programs. The downside, however, is that educating such a small number of children is EXTREMELY expensive and strong in will and perseverance would have to be the rector of any church to attempt building such an institution.

Much more common today is the choir school that educates non-choristers as well as choristers (and often both boys and girls, even where the choir remains open to boys only). This list includes choir schools such as Westminster Cathedral Choir School (Catholic) and the Madeleine Choir School (Utah). The Madeleine Choir School has always educated non-choristers, whereas Westminster Cathedral Choir, like many other European choir schools, began educating non-choristers in order to keep the school financially viable. St. Paul’s Cathedral School (London) is another well known choir school that now educates both choristers and non-choristers (I would recommend readers watch the 1978 documentary Paul’s Children, the first part here, during the tenure of the legendary Barry Rose). Some, like Westminster Cathedral and St. Paul’s are boarding schools (at least for the choristers) and some, like the Madeleine Choir School, are simply day schools. In choir schools that educate both choristers and non-choristers, there can exist a tension between plotting an educational course that provides the best environment for choristers and one that favors non-choristers. The Madeleine Choir School implemented a creative approach to this issue, allowing the school principal to plot a course for the daily educational needs of all students, but retaining the cathedral choir director as the school’s pastoral administrator, a position above the principal, which allows him final say should there ever arise an conflict between chorister and non-chorister interests.

The mission of all of these choir schools remains the training of their choristers in the art of sacred music. The main difference, however, among all of the schools I have mentioned, is how much control each school is able to exert over a chorister’s formation. The greatest amount of control is exerted by the residential “real” choir school that can plan all of its educational and extra-curricular events around the needs of the choir. This lessens slightly as one descends to the non-residential “real” choir school, then to the residential choir school that educates both choristers and non-choristers, next to the non-residential choir school that educates choristers and non-choristers, penultimately to the regular school that partners with a cathedral or church choir and lastly to the choir that exists as an after (or before) school model.

As I just mentioned, there are regular schools (non-choir schools) that work in partnership with a church’s choir to provide an ideal setting for the musical education of that church’s choristers even though the school is not a choir school. This model is perhaps more common in England where there is no-separation between church and state. It is also somewhat easier to facilitate because English schools generally begin much later than American schools (around 9 a.m.), which allows for a choir rehearsal at school each morning at a reasonable hour before the school day officially starts. (I have personally tried this at my own American parish and a 7 a.m. choir rehearsal somehow sounds much more cruel to choristers and parents than an 8 a.m. choir rehearsal.) A wonderful example of such a choir is the London Oratory Schola Cantorum, directed by Charles Cole.

Take a moment to visit these choirs’ websites to find out about the history and structures of each one. Is the choir attached to a school? How often does each choir rehearse and when? How many Masses, parts of the Divine Office or services does each sing weekly? Where are the choristers educated? Do choristers received a reduction in school fees because of the time they give to the cathedral or parish in service to the liturgy? Do choristers receive a thorough grounding in music theory? How many services does each choir sing on a weekly basis? What kinds of music does each choir sing? Are choristers required to take lessons in piano or in other instruments? Are choristers given voice lessons as part of their musical education? Who sings the alto, tenor and bass parts in these choirs, professional singers, boys with changed voices or a combination of both? Are there other organists or helpers on the music staff (educating choristers is VERY time consuming)? Does the choir take part in musical events outside the liturgy, and if so, does this help them to sing at a higher level within the liturgy?

These are things a choir director needs to think about as he plans to build a successful choral foundation at his own cathedral or parish. And because I do think it is indispensable that liturgical musicians in American begin to build choir schools for the training of our own future musicians, next week I will begin taking readers through the histories of the founding of various types of choir schools. The schools I have selected were all founded in the 20th century and therefore have many more documented histories available to help the church musician of today create his own blueprint for such an incredible institution.