Category Archives: Choir Schools

Chorister Catechesis

Each year the Archdiocese of Kansas City (KS) hosts a vocation day for area 5th grade students and as part of the day, Archbishop Joseph Naumann celebrates Holy Mass for all of the students. Quite naturally, he speaks to them in his homily about vocations, both the universal call to holiness given to each person as well as the particular vocation God gives to each Christian in order to live out his call to holiness.

I wasn’t able to attend the Mass this year, but I heard afterward from the mother of one of my choristers (Matthias) that at one point in the homily, the archbishop asked the students what their purpose in live was. One student answered with Matthew Kelly’s to become the best version of yourself. The archbishop acknowledged that was true, but that he was looking for something else, so he asked the question again. Matthias shot his hand in the air and the archbishop called on him. With a volume that only a 5th grade boy can muster, he rattled off that his purpose in life was to know, love and serve God in this life, and to be happy with Him forever in the next. Archbishop Naumann acknowledged that this was what he wanted to hear, strait from the catechism. Matthias’ mother told she she beamed with prided thinking she had done her duty to make sure her son knew his purpose, but when she asked him about it afterward he told her that “part of the credit goes to Dr. Tappan, who makes us tell him at every choir practice what our purpose in life is.” I must confess that I felt a great amount of pride upon hearing that. It is true that I ask each one what his purpose in life is, both on that particular day and for all eternity. I often wonder if what I teach in choir has much of an eternal effect on the lives of my choristers—I hope it does.

In a similar vein, my wife’s aunt and uncle, cattle ranchers in the beautiful Kansas Flint Hills, have five children, four of whom are grown now, but the father told me once that every single day, when they awoke at 5:30 in the morning and put on the first pot of coffee, he asked his children to tell him what their purpose was in life, and they had to be able to answer as Matthias did. The father told me recently that he still asks that question daily of his two grown sons who work on the farm. He also asks his daughters whenever they visit.

About 10 years ago, the middle of their five children, a daughter of only 15 years, was diagnosed with cancer and the family watched as she succumbed to the agonizing disease over the course of more than a year. Still her father asked her that question. What is your purpose in this life?  He told me that he also had long conversations with her about the glory of Heaven and how she was truly blessed because she would arrive there before the others. He told her she would have to pray that the rest of the family made it.

As the cancer worsened, she refused morphine as much as possible, offering up the pain for the conversion of sinners and for the holy souls in purgatory. As her body became so emaciated she stopped having visitors for a time because she was embarrassed by how she looked. It wasn’t long, though, before she asked for visitors again and told her family it was just the devil working on her vanity. The night before she died her family gathered in her hospital room to pray the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross and afterward she told her family that that was the last time that they would pray together, that she was going to go home. She died peacefully the next day as her mom drove home from the hospital and her father was driving to it. It is the only time I can ever remember a parent being filled with joy that his child had made it “home.” I will never forget having had the privilege of chanting the In pardisum at the funeral.

As we remember all of the faithful departed during this month of November, be mindful of the immense power that you as a choir director having in orienting your choristers toward Heaven, so that they, too, might one day be counted among the faithful departed.

A Refresher on Chorister Training

It has been some time since last I wrote about chorister training, and now that the school year is fully underway, I thought it might be helpful to offer a refresher on the logistics of training our young people in the art of liturgical music.

I think the largest hurdle most choir directors face is actually working with children (if that is not one’s cup of tea). As always, there are both joys and drawback working with children as opposed to teenagers or even adults. Children bring an enthusiasm to choir rehearsal that is rarely topped and they have no preconceived bias toward learning to sight-sing. While your adult sopranos will begin to squirm as soon as you warm them up above a G or A below high C, that won’t be the case with children. On the other hand, if you have a great group of adults, they will move through music at an incredible rate of speed, which is the cause of deep satisfaction in the director AND the singers. Adults generally spare you discipline problems that spill out of children and there is the joy of adult interaction. Regardless, there are three areas that are especially helpful to be competent in when working with children.

First is the creation of routine. Routine helps children to grow. A proper routine can also steer children away from discipline problems. Every choir needs to have a healthy routine so the children know from the moment they walk through the door what is expected of them. I would highly recommend the book The First Days of School by Wong and Wong. It deals primarily with the classroom setting, but the routine of a choir is no different. If you set a certain tone in the first few rehearsals, you and your choristers will be off to a great start.

Second is the teaching of children. Knowing how different boys and girls are and how these differences help them learn differently is crucially important. Also important is knowing the difference between the way children and adults learn. Even within children, there are different learning styles depending upon the age and maturity of a child. If you are running a choral program from children in kindergarten through high school, I would suggest you acquaint yourself with the 3 main learning styles in the classical model: the grammar, logic and rhetorical stages. This is especially helpful when teaching younger children. As for working with junior high and high school children I would suggest reading Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov. All too often choir directors rely on a couple of key singers to support the entire choir as opposed to building everyone up into an effective choral unit. How do you help underachievers to work at the level of your best choristers? How do you help every child understand that he/she is absolutely crucial to the choir and that they need to work as if they, too, know that? Teach Like a Champion gives so many helps toward this goal that I can’t recommend it highly enough. I would warn you though, you must practice many of these concepts in front of a mirror before you use them in the class room.

Third, you will have to have a basic understanding of psychology. The same group of singers will one day make you think you have the best choir in the world and the next day make you wonder if they have ever sung two notes together. They will have a terrible pre-concert rehearsal and then dazzle you in the concert itself. On the flip side, they will also rehearse so well before Mass that you can’t understand why they sound awful 15 minutes later when Mass begins. Do you ride out the terrible music or is there a way to turn around a bad situation in the middle of it? Sports psychology is especially helpful here and there are so many of these books that you could probably choose one whose author and specific subject matter appeals to you personally and be fine.

Once you find yourself settling down to the actual teaching, the obvious question is how? For the traditional English way adapted to the Catholic setting (especially for the ancient form of the Mass) your first read should be Sir Richard Terry’s Catholic Church Music. His early time at Westminster Cathedral coincided with a flowering of liturgical and musical life within both the Catholic and Anglican spheres and many major English choir directors were writing books to explain to smaller parish choirs how the cathedrals did it. You can find many of these free and online at Google Books, but again, just start with Terry. You will find that while the cathedral music scene in England (Catholic or Anglican) has changed through the decades in regard to music choice, you will nevertheless find that the method is still rather the same. At the same time, I would say that the method has been broadened and deep by the addition of singing coaches and mandatory piano lessons (if not other lessons) for choristers. Every student you are able to coax into piano lessons will be nothing but a step forward for your choir. I can almost always tell the difference between choristers with similar abilities when one plays the piano and the other doesn’t.

If you find joy in creating a music curriculum for your students (and you should always try to deepen their musical knowledge), then all you need to do is decide what skills and to what level children need to learn them and then create a plan to systematically teach them. If this is not your forte, you might want to look at some of the current choral music training programs. Perhaps the Ward Method, Kodaly Method or Voices for Life (from the Royal School of Church Music) are right for you. I also highly recommend anything written by John Bertalot. I will caution that it takes an enormous amount of time to teach sight-singing, so many choral directors skip it. Please don’t. You are cheating your students and depriving them of a skill set that will provide one of life’s great experiences, being able to both create and perform music to a high level.

You will of course need repertoire for your choirs, and repertoire that is appropriate to where your choristers are musically. I have said it before and will say it many times again, I would rather hear children sing a hymn in unison or a piece of plainchant to a high degree that to hear them butcher even the simplest of 4 part motets. If you struggle finding repertoire don’t hesitate to ask online at places like the CMAA Forum. Look through the Corpus Christi Watershed website or Cantica Nova. Visit music lists of cathedrals or churches with a children’s choir at the same level as yours. I would even suggest simply teaching your choristers the liturgical music currently in use at your parish, but to a high degree. They will already have heard much of it, but your parishioners will notice it being sung well by a choir as opposed to being belted at various levels of competency through a microphone by one of your cantors. Do not be afraid to start with SIMPLE, as long as the text and music are of a high quality.

Lastly, try to get as much parental involvement as you can. You will need it to handle large groups of children and you will also widen your sphere of influence in the parish. If even a few influential parents in your parish think that you provide a program of high quality for their children, they will tell others and make your life (and recruiting) much easier. In the end, you will create life long friendship that will bring great joy to your good days and comfort to those difficult ones.

Leeds Cathedral and the Schools Singing Program

Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6)

Today I would like to highlight the wonderful choral music program from the Diocese of Leeds, England, and the work they do on a weekly basis with more than 3,500 youth from around the diocese. According to Thomas Leech, the director of the schools singing program for the diocese, “this is the largest church music program in the country. It’s a diocesan program rather than a cathedral-centred approach. Although the cathedral choirs are of an extremely high standard, it’s always been important to us that the school-based work is most important—that then reaches out to the elite choirs, rather than the other way around.” (Music Teacher Magazine, September 2018, pg. 65) And reaching out they do, leading choirs in 53 schools, plus 6 professional boys’ choirs, six professional girls’ choirs, five mixed choirs, two youth choirs, and three university choirs. Needless to say, it takes a large staff to keep such an undertaking afloat: 6 full-time and 1 part-time musicians, a development administrator, 2 organ scholars, 1 choral conducting scholar, and 12 choral scholars.

One particular item of note is that the boys and girls are more often separated into different choirs than not, and the boys’ choirs have usually been founded before the girls’ choirs. This is very important if we ever hope to see boys and men singing in our church choirs in great numbers again. Unfortunately, militant feminism has driven males from many aspects of church life, but none probably more so than music.

I should also mention that many of these students come from impoverished areas, and if statistics in Leeds are similar to other urban areas in the western world, the majority probably come from broken homes as well. The schools singing program might well be one of the most stable forces in the lives of many of these children, which provides an incredible entry point for evangelization, and from what I have read, Mr. Leech and the diocese work to capitalize on this opportunity.

I have often felt that in addition to great choir schools at our cathedrals, the Church needs grass roots programs like this throughout our parishes. It is within the parish that most Catholics receive their sacraments and live the life of Faith. This model seems to be extremely well suited to providing high quality sacred programs within the reach of all young people, whether from rural or urban areas. I would personally love to hear from archdiocesan directors of music in these US of A and find out how feasible this might be. It seems that if it were to be successfully implemented even once in a few strategic geographical locations other dioceses would be willing to try it.

As a parting gift, I leave you with the following video of the massed cathedral choirs singing Ding! Dong! Merrily on High.

 

MPHM Schola Cantorum Welcomes Largest Group of New Singers

The Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum welcomed its largest incoming class of new singers (Probationers) this year with 22 in all: 9 boys and 13 girls. It no doubt helped that the choir hosted a choir camp in early August for more than 40 children. All agreed it was a wonderful week of music, which culminated in a sung Mass for the Feast of St. Lawrence.

Activities ranged from learning about the kinds of notes and clapping rhythms to singing folk songs and Gregorian chant. Of course, it wouldn’t have been a proper choir camp without solfege (do, re, mi…) and needless to say all of the children can now sing the major scale (with hand signs) up and down and had fun performing various renditions of Do, A Dear from The Sound of Music.

My favorite comment came from a boy named Isaiah, who exclaimed somewhat surprised after the 1st day, “Dr. Tappan, this camp is actually fun!” The second day was only half over when he told me he was definitely going to join the choir. I related the story to his mother, who laughed and said she wasn’t going tell him that he never had a choice in the first place.

Summer Camp III
Summer Camp II
Summer Camp I

Photographs from First Mass of Deaconal Service

Thanks to a parishioner, Allan Goodman, I am able to share these beautiful photographs from Pentecost Sunday, 2018, when the Rev. Mr. Nicholas Ashmore served his first Mass as a Deacon. The MPHM Schola Cantorum was privileged to sing for the occasion.

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MPHM Schola Cantorum
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Singing the Sequence for Pentecost.
Chanting the Communion antiphon.
Chanting the Communion antiphon.
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Choristers receive Holy Communion.

 

Precious in the Eyes of the Lord is the Death of His Faithful Ones

Everyone experiences certain events throughout his life, ones which he remembers with incredible fondness and nostalgia, perhaps even with a bit of longing. Perhaps it is best that God created man to live in time, continually moving toward eternity, lest he become comfortable “here below” and fail to keep his eyes lifted heavenward. Nevertheless, certain moments in this valley of tears remind us to raise our eyes again to the Father Who loves us and to strive for Heaven with all of our being. These experiences provide strength for those who are persecuted—strength to remain faithful to their call. They also call the lost back to faithfulness. I am reminded of Christ’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, where He gave His apostles a glimpse of His heavenly glory to fortify them against His coming Passion and to both comfort and challenge them after His Resurrection.

One such personal experience of mine took place at the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains on 2 January, 2016. The Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum was on pilgrimage to Rome and in that capacity sang for Sunday Mass in the basilica. It was early in the morning, perhaps too early for most Italians, and the sun had just burst forth along the horizon of a beautiful and crisp winter morning. The choristers had vested and made the short walk from the bus to the church. As choir director I really had no idea what to expect as we arrived. The sacristan motioned for the singers to proceed to the ancient choir stalls surrounding the altar and confessio, shortly after which, Holy Mass began. The Missa cum iubilo rolled down the nave and back again as the Eternal Sacrifice resounded about us. We sang in view of the creche, not far from the chains that held St. Peter both in Jerusalem and in Rome, ever watched over by Michaelangelo’s Moses. There we were in the Eternal City where St. Peter stood as pontifex between the Old and New Testaments, announcing the Kingdom of God to what was then the greatest kingdom mankind had ever known. Two thousand years later the great Roman Empire had been consigned to history, while the Church, ruled by the Lord of history, stretched across the entire globe as a sign to all people that God, in His Son, has redeemed mankind and opened again the gates of Heaven to all below. In our parish back home, the inquisitive sojourner in our Perpetual Adoration Chapel might have noticed inscribed around the monstrance the Latin phrase Ecce panis angelorum factus cibus viatorum (Behold the Bread of angels, made the food of travelers). There in the creche in the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains was a small likeness the Infant-King, Who in that Mass became the Living Bread, the Holy Eucharist for each of us, food for us travelers. To this day everyone who traveled with the choir remembers this Mass as the crowning moment of the entire trip.

We have all encountered these moments that sustain us along our pilgrim way and I assume the same could be said of all the Holy Martyrs. I have often wondered what went through the heart and mind of the Maccabean mother, who, “being filled with wisdom: and joining a man’s heart to a woman’s thought” (2 Maccabees: 7:21) not only beheld, but counseled her seven sons to remain faithful to the God of their fathers and to the laws of Moses, even if when it meant torture and death at the hands of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Surely there were moments she remembered from her life that, along with her prayer and confidence in God, emboldened her to watch the deaths of her sons with every hope that their sacrifices would be rewarded in eternal life. I also imagine that her husband, who I assume was deceased by this point, inculcated a love for God and His Law in his family that helped sustain them as well. I am moved by this story every time I hear it and I pray that I might be given the grace to endure such a test if, God forbid, it should ever happen to me and my family.

Imagine my surprise this morning as I read through a portion of the Roman Martyrology to discover that in the old Roman Calendar both the Feast of St. Peter in Chains and the Feast of the Maccabean mother and her sons shared the same calendar day (tomorrow, 1 August) and that this family are traditionally thought to be buried in the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains. How fitting it is that St. Peter in Chains, by no means the most beautiful and opulent in Rome, houses Michaelangelo’s Moses, a symbol of the Law to which this family was so faithful. It is a poignant reminder to me to constantly pray for the gift of fortitude. May we pray for such witnesses to be raised again in the western world, and we pray for the intercession of those Christians who have been martyred in various parts of the globe this century. May their prayers and example bring us to the Gates of Heaven and may Mary, Queen of all Martyrs, give each of us such strength and courage.

 

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!