Category Archives: Choir Schools

Teaching Gregorian Chant to Boys with Changed Voices

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

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

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

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

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

Tone Quality and Your Singers

Some weeks ago I addressed the challenge of teaching your singers to breath well and today I hope to continue the conversation, focusing on your choir’s  tone quality. I remember well the numerous school and church choirs I sang in throughout my youth and to the best of my knowledge, not one of those choirs’ directors ever mentioned tone quality, much less worked with us to achieve a certain choral sound. The vast majority of our time was spent learning notes and paying attention to the odd, but occasional triple forte encountered on Easter morning. However, if you hope to lead your singers to greener pastures, working on the quality of your choir’s tone produces great dividends.

Warm-ups

I continue to be amazed by the number of choir directors who believe the entire purpose of warm-ups is simply to warm-up their singers’ voices. Perhaps the name warm-up is misleading, because there are so many other things the choir director can accomplish at the same time time. Use this time to build your choir vocally, especially focusing on problems they will encounter during rehearsal in the music.

Listening

The greatest skill you can teach your singers is to listen, both to themselves and to each other. They should sing everything as softly as necessary in order to learn to listen and to become aware of what comes out of their own mouths and the mouths of their fellow singers. When they prove adept at listening, THEN you may allow them to sing louder (just beware that you will need to constantly reinforce listening). All of my experience, though, has taught me that soft singing cures a great number of vocal faults.

Resonance

Resonance is extremely important! Ask your singers if any play the violin or guitar and inquire what would happen if they were to remove the instrument’s strings, stretch them as tightly as possible and then bow or pluck them. The strings would vibrate and make noise, albeit very softly. The sound box, because it vibrates in tandem with the strings, acts as a resonator and amplifies the sound of the strings. The same phenomenon happens to the human voice. As the vocal folds or chords begin to vibrate, they cause cavities in areas around the nose and mouth to resonate and amplify the sound. In this way, the voice is given life.

Help your singers to become aware of the natural resonance already taking place as they sing. Ask them to buzz like bees or to sing a very nasally ee and place their fingers to their noses and cheeks and feel the vibrations. Utilize warm-ups that build resonance and you will find your choir much improved in a few short weeks.

I also find it helpful to avoid overly technical language with most choir members, especially children. For the youngest ones, I simply sing the line of a hymn without resonance and then sing it with resonance and ask them if they hear the difference. They can always hear the difference and are often able to mimic both ways of singing.

Head Voice and Chest Voice

In the beginning stages of your work, strive for a greater use of the head voice, especially by singing everything softly. Often untrained singers have picked up a number of bad vocal habits, most of which result in undue tension place on the voice and singing softly reduces and eliminates this tension. This also encourages singers to listen louder than they sing and will help the overall blend of your choir.

Begin the warm-up with descending scales. The high notes encourage your singers to start in the head voice, and if you make sure they continue to sing quietly, they will bring the head voice down into the lower registers. What you don’t want is for them to start in a lower register in the chest voice and force the chest voice into the higher registers of their range, resulting in unhealthy tension.

Eventually, you will want to introduce the chest voice into warm-ups and into the repertoire, making sure that singers don’t introduce undue tension as they do. The addition of the chest voice adds color to music that would otherwise sound very emotionally restrained.

Vowels

Lastly, I would like to mentioned the manner in which choristers sing vowels and how it affects the tone quality of your choir’s sound. Just as Bostonians sound different from Mid westerners and Iowans speak differently from Georgians, the members of your choir will surely sing vowels differently one from another. Your job is to unify their pronunciation on beautiful vowel sounds. If your choir sings primarily in Latin, you will have a much easier time. I personally follow the Liber usualis for Latin pronunciation and Madeleine Marshall’s English Diction for Singers for English.

Conclusion

The ultimate goal of the choral director is to communicate through the music. In the end it doesn’t matter if your choir resonates well and sings beautiful vowels but can’t communicate. However, it would be pretty hard to communicate without these things.

Vocally Building Your Choir

If more choirmasters were honest with themselves, they would probably acknowledge that no more than 25 to 40 percent of their singers are actually leaders within their choirs. This is not meant to disparage the many fine choristers who dutifully rehearse and sing weekly, but to find ways to help each one become a leader in his own right, or at the very least, to become a little better this week than he was the last. Not only would this raise a choir’s general capabilities, but it would also build confidence and willingness in each singer. They will WANT to accomplish what you ask.

Over the next few weeks I want look at ways you can help your choir grow vocally, starting with breathing, but before I go any farther I would encourage you to take private voice lessons if you haven’t before. This is the best thing you can do vocally for your choir.

James Jordan, the well know choral clinician, is adamant that the best way to help your choir members grow vocally is to get them to be aware of what it is they are doing. This means the difference between each individual singer riding as a passenger in a school bus and being at the wheel of a racing car. You want your choir to be filled with drivers, not passengers, and this starts with singers being aware of the way their instrument works. The voice is a wind instrument, which makes breathing of paramount importance, but don’t fool yourself into thinking this is an overly technical process.

The incomparable William Finn, in his Art of the Choral Conductor (24-25), finds ridiculous the “innumerable monographs and dissertations [that] have been written on the alleged ‘art of breathing.'” Rather, the “average child and adult generally breathe correctly, otherwise the human race would long since have become extinct. But under the stress of self-consciousness, both children and adults are likely to show two faults: first, they raise the shoulders while inhaling; second, nervously or through inadvertence, they permit the breath to be exhaled too suddenly.” Your goal as a choir master is to teach your singers to breath as deeply as possible while the shoulders are down and relaxed. Ask each singer to lie flat on the floor and simply breathe (it is almost impossible to breath incorrectly in this position). As soon as each singer becomes aware of this natural state of breathing he can arise and apply the knowledge to singing while standing. You will need to practice this with your choir members for a number of weeks before it becomes second nature. Then you will have to hold them to it.

Another way singers experience proper breathing (especially if they would rather not lie on the floor) is to slowly breathe out until all air is spent and then relax the body. As the diaphragm returns to its normal position it will draw the breath deeply into the body, almost as if it were filling the stomach.

Once your singers become aware of breathing naturally, your task will be to connect that knowledge to the act of drawing breath and then releasing it slowly as they sing. Ask your singers to breath in deeply over the course of 4 counts and then slowly release the air for 8, 12, 16 or even 20 counts. Eventually they should release the air by humming and singing on neutral syllables, such as oo. Most singers will be able to sustain a note for 8 or 12 counts, but it will take practice before they can work up to 16 and 20 counts. The idea is to slowly release the air as opposed to allowing it to “fall” out.

Supposedly old Italian singing masters asked their students to sing in front of a mirror in a cold room. If the mirror fogged over, it meant the student was using too much air. Likewise, they would ask their pupils to sing in front of a lit candle. If the flame flickered during the aria, it meant the singer was releasing too much air. I have often asked singers to hold a finger in front of their mouths and pretend it was a candle and to imagine not allowing the flame to flicker as they sang. This has had a profound affect on their singing. It is important to note that pushing more air through the vocal apparatus does not mean louder singing, but husky singing, which is never pleasant in church music (or anywhere else).

I should also make a general note about singing posture. Ask your choir members to sing with an athletic posture; neither stiff like a soldier nor drooping like the slouch. Keep the feet slightly apart and under the shoulders with knees slightly bent and the head tall above the shoulders. Remember that good singing is 90 percent mental and encourage them to expand their awareness to other aspects of their singing. They will notice the difference in their sound and so will the congregation.

Music in Catholic Schools

Last week Catholics across the fruited plain celebrated Catholic Schools Week, so I find it apropos to share some musings about music education in our parochial Schools–the good, the bad and the ugly, and offer a plan forward.

First, the Good. There are almost 2 million students served by Catholic schools across the US, making the Catholic school system the second largest educator of American students after public schools. The Church, therefore, exerts a large influence on a sizeable minority of US children and quite frankly usually educates them better than public schools. This means the Church possess a tool of immense value. From my own experience, I can say that Catholic education in our present day is far more Catholic in every way possible compared to when I attended (through the 90s and early 2000s). Schools possess a far superior Catholic identity with a greater focus on evangelizing than in my day (I know some of you are shaking your heads at this point in disbelief and I promise to address your concerns in a moment) due in no small part to a much healthier crop of bishops, priests, parents and young teachers who want the Faith to be taught in its fullness. I wish I could say the same for music education in our schools, but for a few exceptional pastors and teachers, it is rather abysmal. I must say that I find a greater number of parishes that believe in the power of music to evangelize young people, but I can’t say that they always act on this belief in a healthy way.

Second, the bad. Just because the situation one encounters in Catholic Schools today is much healthier now than it was 25 years ago, that doesn’t mean that it is anywhere near where it should be. The educational vineyard has suffered tremendously and it is going to take a very long time and even greater effort to repair the damage of the last 60 years. Throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s pastors and teachers tried to all but destroy the Faith of average Catholics in the west, and now that they have largely succeeded, a much healthier crop of clergy and teachers find it daunting to overcome. More than half the families with children in Catholic Schools can’t even be bothered to take their children to Mass on Sunday, much less give witness to the Faith to their children. This means that even good Catholic schools struggle to fulfill their mission. As I mentioned above, Catholics are realizing how important music is to evangelization, but in general they view it as a manipulative tool used to get young people through the door (I realize they don’t think about it in this way). Basically, give them what they like to get them through the door the first time. If you are familiar with books and programs such as Rebuilt or Amazing Parish, they lean in this direction, while most schools and youth group programs rely on this model exclusively.

Finally, the ugly. What I find so distressing in all of this is that we have sold our educational birthright as Catholics for a tepid bowl of Dewey inspired porridge. The greatest educator in the history of the world is the Catholic Church and over the centuries She developed a model of education based on the liberal (free) arts, the trivium and the quadrivium, crowned by Theology, whose aim was nothing less than to form children to love and seek after truth and to realize that ultimately Truth is a person, the person of Jesus Christ. In this paradigm students move from the here and now to ultimate things, while our modern system of Catholic education tends to be a good public school with religion class thrown in. This system compartmentalizes education into separate and unrelated fields relegating religion to be “just another class.” Some children like math, some like spelling and some like religion. In the end, the general populace wants their children to receive high paying jobs and music doesn’t usually fit into that scheme. Education becomes something we consume instead of something that frees us and music is another consumable product the school provides if enough students and parents want it. There is no belief that some music is good and some is bad and that within these categories there are levels of goodness and badness. There is no concept of offering both God and our students the best of what we have. There is no idea of opening young people up to this great thing we call western civilization. Rather we produce what students and families prefer to consume. We give young people the kind of music we think they want at Mass and wonder why they don’t stick around (admittedly music is by no means the only problem). The Church and Her music become like clothes, just another consumable commodity–young people like them when they are in style, and feel good about them at the time, but soon they wear thin and are tossed in the wastebasket with yesterday’s refuse.

The questions remains, though, how do we move forward. I would suggest that we:

  1. Rediscover the purpose of a Catholic education (and it isn’t to be a better public school with a religion class tacked on) and be able to articulate it over and over.
  2. Rediscover that music has the power to train the heart to love what is good, and that we make the decision to give our students the very best of our musical patrimony.
  3. Devote a large amount of our music education program a program to teaching the music of the Church, one of our greatest treasures.
  4. Slowly introduce a diet of good music while reducing the dubious sort. (Richard Terry told the story of a pastor who changed the music at school Masses over the course of a generation and after that time the problem of music at Sunday Masses had taken care of itself.)
  5. For smaller parishes with limited resources, hire a competent musician who has a knack for teaching to run the parish music program and teach in the school. I personally know of pastors who have been very successful doing this.

If you are trying to move away from Praise and Worship, be sure to read Adam Barlett’s FOCUS on Beauty: The Liturgical Heart of Missionary Zeal. FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) is doing incredible work bringing young people to/back to the Faith and over the last 7-8 years they have made a seismic shift in the way they prepare music for Holy Mass.

Another invaluable tool is the National Catholic Education Association/Pueri Cantores list of Music for Catholic School Masses. Implementing this list of hymns and a beautiful setting of the Mass Ordinary in English would be a vast musical improvement for most parochial school Masses. If you school is ready to sing the Propers (you are blessed indeed!) Corpus Christi Watershed is more than happy to point you in the right direction.

Finally, I would encourage you to never let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Lay people especially need to pray for and encourage their pastors and music teachers, but realize they may be constrained in what they can do because of either outside limitations or by internal ones such as limited funds or extreme pressure from small, but vocal minorities in the parish. If they are working toward the good, do everything you can to assist them. In short, keep up the good fight and keep moving forward!

A Silver Jubilee

“Pleasure and action make the hours seem short.” William Shakespeare

Yesterday marked a milestone of sorts—the 25th anniversary of the first time I played the organ for Holy Mass—Friday, October 2, 1992. I remember because it was the Feast of the Guardian Angels and I played a hymn related to the day, although for the life of me I couldn’t now tell you what it was. Here I am 25 years later thanking God for the life of the church musician, along with its joys and vicissitudes. It is wonderful now to look back and realize with what love God prepared me for this avocation, from being born into a devout Catholic family with a deep musical heritage to beings surrounded by pastors, teachers and wonderful friends along the way who have guided and mentored. Of course none of this would now be possible without my wife Katie, who takes the helm and navigates the family ship every Sunday morning while I busy myself with any myriad of things musical and liturgical.

Many things have changed over the last quarter of a century in the field of church music and thankfully most of them have been for the better. I distinctly remember my 8th grade year in school when I found my mother’s missal from her youth, which happened to contain a short Kyriale at the end in modern notation. She and my aunt recorded the Agnus Dei from Mass XVIII on a cassette and I listened to it and memorized it, enraptured with its beauty and thinking it was the most sublime thing I had ever heard (it would be years before I discovered the Kyrie from Mass IX). None of the young people then seems to care about it or for it, but how different things are today. Young people, parents, priests, religious and the un-churched alike are touched by the beauty of the rich treasury of sacred music, one of the greatest gifts the Church has bequeathed to western civilization.

In many ways I feel blessed because I don’t have to work, I simply get paid to do what I love and the time has truly flown. Yesterday I went to Mass early in the morning at the local to give thanks for such a gift and I found myself repeating the words of Psalm 150… “O praise God in His holiness… Praise Him for His noble acts… Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord!”

St. Mary’s Cathedral Choir, Sydney

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

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

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

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

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

Forming the Next Generation of Church Musicians

Recently I stumbled across a fantastic read, a DMA document entitled The Choir School in the American Church: a study of the choir school and other current chorister training models in Episcopal and Anglican parishes, by Daniel McGrath (2005). I share it with readers today because McGrath is the first author I have found who systematically and succinctly describes the the nature of, as well as the various models of, the Anglican choral system (both in England and in the United States), a model I feel passionately about and one that I believe has the power to inaugurate a true renewal of sacred music.

There isn’t a church musician I know of who isn’t concerned about the state of church music in the western world, but rarely do I find one who knows what to do about it. Obviously our university system with its decline number of organ departments as well as choral conducting departments hasn’t provided the answer. Consider the current situation in music schools where students learn about Renaissance music for one semester and are assumed to have the skills necessary to tackle the repertoire. On the other hand, choristers in the English choral system begin singing large portions of the best of Renaissance music around the age of 9 or 10 and do it repeatedly for four and five years as sopranos. If they are boys they go through the same repertoire again as countertenors, tenors and basses during their time in the Oxbridge colleges. Which program do you think is more successful?

A number of these same students are already accompanying services on a regular basis at a young age. How many young organists in America are accompanying world class choirs and helping to train younger choristers in junior high. Which program do you think is more successful?

One might object that the English choral system is tied too closely to England and the Anglican community to present a model for Catholic parishes, but I would argue otherwise. Firstly, the English choral system grew out of  the monastic, collegiate and cathedral music foundations in existence long before the English Protestant Revolt. Secondly, the system is extremely diversified even among the English Cathedrals–there is no “one size fits all” way of executing it, and this diversity makes it extremely adaptable to other places. At the heart of this system is the development of a beautiful and natural vocal tone, musical literacy, and singing high quality liturgical music on a regular basis within the church service. There is nothing here that couldn’t be adapted to the people of Russia, South Africa, Argentina or the United States.

I would encourage those interested in the English choral tradition to read McGrath’s document and familiarize themselves with what actually constitutes a choral foundation and determine if this wouldn’t work for your parish.

Then read and learn about the three main forms of the English choral foundation. In its highest form is the true choir school, a boarding institution that educates only choristers. In reality, there are only two such institutions left in the world today, Westminster Abbey and St. Thomas, NY, and I doubt this avenue would be useful for most. The second form of choral foundation is the parochial school, usually a preparatory school of some kind, that educates both choristers and non-choristers, but makes the necessary allowances for the musical education of the former. This model is perfect for many Catholic parishes sporting an attached school. Lastly is the after-school model, where choristers are drawn from the surrounding schools and educated either before or after school. This construct might easily serve the school-less parish or the parish with a school music program that has not yet been put under the vision of a pastor who wants to implement the Modern Roman Rite in continuity with the Older Form and the hopes of the Second Vatican Council. The author also gives advice for implementing each of these options.

One last point McGrath makes is how important it is that choral foundations are properly supported. In England the force of tradition as well as that of the monarchy and parliament (many of these institutions are enshrined in law and supported by taxpayer money) ensure their continuation, but such is not the case in America. Instead he suggests that it is the the pastor (and I dare say the bishop) who must support the formation and continuation of good choral foundations. I believe that the more the clergy realize that such schools are important centers for Christians formation, the more they will support them.

I also hear complaints (well founded) that these institutions are not cheap, but restructuring the budget in 50% of parishes would probably do the trick. Lastly, I realize that there aren’t the musicians around to found such choir schools, but the more choral institutions are founded in the US, the more great musicians will be fostered.

I want to paint a picture of what such places could accomplish in the Church. There are currently almost 200 cathedrals in the United States. If each of these cathedrals were to found a choral institution of some kind, each graduating approximately 10 children per annum, that would mean 2000 young people receiving such a formation each year. Within one generation (20 years) 40,000 young people would have been formed in the Church’s vision for the Sacred Liturgy and music. That would be an absolute game changer. Until we start forming our youth in the Church’s treasury of sacred music we will continue contracepting our musical future to death.

An Unpleasant Task

Last week I wrote an article about the chorister audition process and this week I would like to follow it up with another that tackles the ensuing problem of how to deal with the child or adult who either lacks the necessary choral skills to thrive in the choir or whose temperament prevents him from being a fully committed team member. I realize that even suggesting such a termination runs counter to the modern philosophy that everyone should be able to follow his dreams and do as he pleases, but if I had followed every whim in my life I might currently be the worst heart surgeon in America, quite possibly jailed and on death row for have killed more patients than I helped. I thank God that I realized early on that music, and not science, was my avocation. The choirmaster, too, has to help those under his care to reach their potential.

First of all, I want to stress that the vast majority of children and even adults are capable of singing in some sort of choir, if only to fulfill the basic human need for community and joining in the joy of making music. But what does one do with the chorister (child or adult) whose presence in the choir poses a detriment to the group? I find the following categories generally encompass such singers:

  1. those who cannot match pitch,
  2. those who can match pitch but who don’t enjoy singing (adults in this category rarely join the choir, but children who find themselves in this camp are sometimes forced to by well meaning parents who desire that their children enjoy the fruits of the choral experience),
  3. those struggling with vocal issues that cannot be corrected by vocal coaching alone, and finally,
  4. those who possess a decent voice, or even a very good one, but who considers him or herself better than the rest of the team, or worse,  sow discord among his fellow singers.

Generally, adults who can’t match pitch aren’t running to join their local choir, although it has been known to happen. More often than not one finds the adult who struggles matching pitch in certain situation. The director must decide if he has the time to work individually with that person or not. Perhaps he or she is in the wrong section, has never sung in the head voice, sings next to someone whose voice does not blend with his or hers or needs to stand next to a strong voice.  Ultimately, singing in tune is more about listening than anything else. However, if such helpful attempts fail, you have a problem.

I do accept a child into our Junior Choir as long as he or she can match pitch at even the most elementary level (accepting such children into the Senior Choir is another matter entirely) and find that with continual training most children advance in time. I remember one chorister in particular who grasped music theory very quickly but couldn’t sing and match more than a few notes. Her mother and I agreed on a six week trial period for her in the choir, during which time she made slow but continual progress. After a year she became one of the leading choristers in her age group. At the same time, this isn’t always the case and it is possible and even likely that one will encounter the child who is unable match more than a couple of notes even after individual instruction. What is one to do?

What about the child whom God gifted with gold in his throat and a healthy dose of musical intelligence, but who simply doesn’t like to sing (why does God do this?). Sometimes spending a few extra minutes befriending him will change his attitude, especially if he enjoys being with the other children in the choir. On the other hand, I have encountered children who simply dislike the physical act of singing and nothing I do changes their attitudes. Often they excel playing instruments or singing in other types of choir and I encourage this.

As for those with physical vocal problems that cannot be corrected, I find this rare in children and more prevalent in adults, especially those who have abused their voices through years of misuse, such as constant yelling or singing improperly, which results in nodules on the vocal chords. Sometimes the director can correct or mitigate these problems with judicious vocal coaching and/or vocal rest, while at other times a doctor’s help is necessary.

Lastly, one encounters the prima dona attitude, or worse, the singer who sows discord amongst choir members. While the first is annoying, the second is unbearable. The first endangers choral moral, the second will destroy it. In general, a full choir of amateurs who work as a team is preferable to a choir with one or two leaders and sixteen followers. Your choir will advance much faster working as a team. As for the singer who sows discord, there is no other course of action save the termination of such a relationship. It simply won’t work.

Of course, these situations beg the question of how to deal with them effectively. First, charity is key. If each of your singers knows that he or she is appreciated as a person as opposed to a voice, he or she will bear constructive criticism better. Also remember that the director is not just looking out for the welfare of his choir, but also the welfare of each of his singers. Is it charitable to leave a person in a situation in which he has no hope of flourishing? If the above situations can’t be rectified, the choir director has no choice but to charitably ask the chorister (again, child or adult) to leave. Sometimes this conversation turns out well and sometimes it doesn’t, but it does need to take place. There is no way around it. Be sure to pray before you do it and perhaps inform you pastor who he isn’t blindsided by an angry email or phone call.

I readily admit that I am not confrontational by nature and have often allowed personnel problems to fester until they become emergencies, but this only results in good people leaving the choir before the proverbial “rotten apples.” I realize it is hard, but perhaps this is the balance we are called to live–truth in charity. Your program will be better for it.

Chorister Recruiting and Auditioning

It is that time of year when once again I recruit and audition new choristers for the coming choral year. To be honest, I prefer the actual rehearsing and directing of the choir to its management (a necessary evil), but it must be done and there really is no secret formula I use. I find the more children you have in your parish the easier it is. It also helps if your parish has a school and/or an active home school community. I always start by sending a note home with parents of school children and emailing the home school community, and depending on how many responses I receive (or don’t receive), I sometimes call families and make the personal ask.

The audition itself is very straight forward and usually takes about 10 minutes, although I know within the first minute if I plan to accept the child into the choir. After engaging in a bit of small talk, I ask the child to sing Happy Birthday, which seems to be the only song left which American boys and girls still know by heart. Sometimes a child struggles with the octave leap in the middle so I work with him to sing it on pitch, which usually entails helping him to sing in the head voice. If the child sings the song mostly on key I accept him into the choir.

Next, I ask the child to read the first paragraph or two from Psalm 51(50), especially noting how he tackles words like iniquity and transgressions. You are going to have an easier time with the child who slows down and attempts to sound out the word than the one who substitutes it with another word beginning with the same first letter and then seems bored when you try to help him figure it out. I have found without exception that the better a child is at reading the easier time he will have learning to sight-sing.

The rest of the audition I spend testing the child’s ear and voice. I have each one sing a few scales up and down and note the child’s range and vocal quality. Then I test his ear by having him sing back to me random pitches on the piano, a descending half-step scale of 5 notes and a short 2 measure melody, which I make more or less difficult depending on how the child has performed so far. The last ear test I put a child through is to sing back the notes of an inverted chord I play on the piano. It is rare that a child sings all three notes correctly, but most can find the highest note, and quite a few the tonic of the chord. Finally, I clap several rhythms and ask the child to clap them back.

Of course, one might ask why I put a child through all of this when I already know if I plan to accept him into the choir. First, even an informal audition lets the child and his family know that the choir is an important part of the life of the parish and a commitment he should take seriously. Secondly, it allows me to make a better assessment of a child’s abilities and willingness because it isn’t just about finding the right singers for the choir, but also about making sure the choir is good for the child. Thirdly, it allows me to know where children are musically and how best to help them to progress, and finally, to discover which ones are best suited to become Senior Choristers because of the special cultivation each one will need. This might sound elitist, but when each child is pushed to reach his potential, the overall musicality of the choir always improves. Happy Recruiting!

Take 2 Vocal Lessons and Call Me in the Morning

I fondly remember a warm, Sunday afternoon in May a number of years back talking with an old friend at her parish’s yearly picnic as a local men’s quartet entertained us with ballads from the fifties and sixties and other folk music. During a lull in the conversation I watched in fascination as one of the tenors strained to reach notes obviously out of his range. I had never heard the chest voice forced so high in the male register. The veins and muscles in the man’s neck tightened and popped. He strained harder and harder and jutted his chin higher and further in the air in an attempt to hit the notes. After each number he guzzled at least one full bottle of water, but nothing helped. If he had had someone to coach him even a few times it would have changed everything. When he sang in a comfortable register he actually had a pleasant voice.

I  wonder how many of us assume that the voices present at our rehearsal are the voices we are stuck with. I have heard directors comment that if they could hire professional voices like those at St. So-and-so’s, their choirs would sound better. While it is always nice to have a few strong leaders in each section, I wouldn’t give up on your choir members. Long ago I made the decision that I would use the  warm-up period to create the choral sound I desired with the singers I had and it made an incredible difference. What follows are a few points for reflection for those who want to achieve a better sound from their choirs but don’t know where to start.

First, you must have a clear idea in your own head of the sound you want. I would suggest a natural, resonant tone, free of any unnecessary vocal strain. It might be helpful to listen to recordings of choirs that sound the way you want your choristers to sing. Once you possess an ideal, all that is left is to break down your goal into manageable steps by which you can achieve it. Record your choir at regular intervals to mark their progress and to discover if what you think you hear is actually what is being heard. Even if you had the luxury of a fully professional ensemble, there would always be room for improvement, and choir members who know they are improving are generally excited about coming to rehearsals. Lastly, don’t give your singers music they can’t handle (I stand guilty as charged!).

Finally, if you have never had voice lessons, I would encourage you to do so for at least a semester, if not a year, and then apply what you have learned in small ways each week to your choral warm-up and to the music your choir sings. This alone will pay big dividends and you will be amazed at how you and your choir grow.