Category Archives: Choir Schools

When to Teach Children to Sight-Read Gregorian Chant

I have heard it stated several times by those who love chant that teaching children to read plainsong is easier than teaching them to read tonal music, however, experience has shown me that this position is dubious at best. Examples given of easy pieces to teach children have included the Kyrie from Mass XVI or the Salve Regina, which ARE easy if the goal is to teach children by rote (especially considering these works are built upon the major scale and include large amounts of repetition in their melodies). I do not doubt that children can and should be taught Gregorian chant by hearing and repeating (after all, one learns one’s native tongue in the same manner), but this binds them to singing only what they have already memorized. I want to find the best way and time to teach them to sight read chant as well, otherwise, the Propers will always be out of reach of my choristers.

At the end of each rehearsal we close by singing either the Salve Regina, the Alma Redemptoris Mater or the Regina coeli (we will eventually add the Ave Regina Coelorum) depending on the season. The Senior Choristers also love singing the Missa cum Iubilo (who can blame them), but teaching them to sight read chant on a daily basis was a process. Beginning last fall the high school boys joined the men singing the Communion antiphon each Sunday, which has been more successful than not,  so I would like to share with you some of the insights I have gained along the way with the hope that they might prove useful.

Firstly, I taught them the Gregorian antiphons as opposed to simplified English versions based upon an experience I had several years ago when I first introduced the Communion antiphons to our adult choir. After several months of singing mainstream English versions of the antiphons I had to confront an undercurrent of rebellion (and this is not a generalization). The few who could already read chant preferred singing the real ones (the Gregorian versions), while those who knew nothing about chant thought the English versions were boring (and I had to agree). After switching to the Gregorian antiphons there were still members who didn’t care to expend the energy learning them, but two or three mentioned to me that at least the Gregorian ones were beautiful to listen to.

Secondly, I had to realize that even though there were only two clefs in chant and no key signatures to confront, the sounds of the scales were completely different. Even though there were no accidentals to speak of, with the exception of flatting the Ti, the boys frequently encountered intervals that they didn’t often sing. Even though there were only four lines instead of five and I didn’t have to teach quarters, halves and whole notes, the music looked different and was therefore a hurdle that had to be overcome for every singer. Thankfully, the boys had heard these antiphons sung every Sunday for the last several years, so they were familiar with the sound of the Communion antiphon. They had sung quite a bit of Latin motets so they at least had a general idea of how to pronounce the words and even recognized a few.  These might seem like little hurdles, but put together, they were a formidable wall to scale for those new to chant.

I started with a simple explanation of the two clefs so the boys could find Do (they were already familiar with solfege) and then pitch the other intervals. Also, I explained that the notes were read left to right, bottom to top. I didn’t mention any exceptions until we faced them in the music. The first rehearsal I had them sight-read the chants on solfege very slowly, phrase by phrase, until they were comfortable with each one. This was often all we tackled  in the first rehearsal of each antiphon. The second rehearsal began the same way, after which I had them switch to the Latin text and gave them a brief explanation of its meaning, especially of the important words. They knew from their years in the choir that I was more concerned that they “sing the text” than “sing the notes,” so the fact that the melody didn’t move in a strict meter didn’t bother them. As they became familiar with the process of reading neumes and the sound of the modes, I explained more and more, both musically and liturgically. To be honest, about 2/3 of the boys are thrilled about the chants and the other 1/3 don’t like them at all, with no middle ground. I pray that time will soften a few hearts.

Six months later, some of the boys have become contributing singers to our small chant choir, while the others continue to grow. I know that next year will be easier as we go through the same chants for the second time. If any of our readers have suggestions for improving the learning process, I would be happy to hear them. At the same time, I would caution the new choir master, or the choir master new to a parish that diving into the murky waters of teaching young people to read chant before they can read tonal music could prove to be a very taxing process that would be better left to the future. I say this because my goal of introducing all of the Propers back into at least one of our Sunday Masses is a process not unlike building a new home, and if I don’t lay a good foundation and build upon that foundation in a methodical way, the home might very easily collapse. I wish you the best as you build your programs of sacred music.

A Late Gift for Nicholasmas

As the saying goes, better late than never. Already we find ourselves on the Feast of St. Lucy, a full week after the Feast of St. Nicholas, but nevertheless, I thought I would share with you a wonderful repository of all things St. Nicholas, that like the wise Virgins, you might find yourselves prepared for the feast next year.

If you aren’t already familiar with it, St. Nicholas Center is a website dedicated to the holy man of Myra, and a must see. There are wonderful articles on the events in the life of St. Nicholas, the legends surrounding his personage, descriptions of how he became Santa Claus, Kris Kringle and various other gift givers and why St. Nicholas, who points to the crib instead of replacing it, is simply better.

There are several sections of the website especially dear to me, such as its liturgical resources and musical resources. It contains prayers and collects from the saint’s feast, as well as the order of service used for the Enthronement of the Boy Bishop at Westminster Cathedral in London, English translations of Medieval miracle plays (here for the story of St. Nicholas and the Virgins) and many St. Nicholas carols from throughout the world.

Unfortunately we live in a society in which parents can no longer allow the culture to help form their children, and in most instances are forced to fight such and un-cultural laviathon. As St. Nicholas made so bold as to punch the heretic Arius, I doubt he would have sat idly by as Christ was barred from His own birthday celebration. This website provides a wealth of materials for parents to help fight the commercialization of Christmas (and the loss of Advent altogether) and more importantly, once again put their children on the path to the Manger in Bethlehem.

Where does your heart lie?

Two weeks ago I wrote concerning a comment Msgr. Marini made in a talk regarding the friction that often results between priest and musician clash over matters musical withing the sacred liturgy. Over the next few weeks I would like to look at some of the other comments he made during his talk, points which I think are always important for us to remember.

Msgr. Marini spoke about the ongoing battle between the external work of the musician at Mass, making sure that the music is technically and artistically performed, and the interior work of allowing the Holy Spirit to transform us into saints. How many of us have fought this battle within our own hearts, pouring all of our energies into making the music at Easter or Christmas (or any Sunday, for that matter) perfect and then realizing afterward that while we were physically present for the Holy Sacrifice, we were spiritually far from it. How many of us arrived home after Holy Mass and had nothing left to give our families (and never forget they are our actual vocation).

In spite of all my faults (and my wife would gladly tell you how numerous they are), I feel that this is one area of my life in which I have a leg up, so to speak. I grew up in a family where my father was ALWAYS present. He earned a master degree in education but decided against going into the field because he knew he would have no time for his family. Instead he took a blue collar job in the oil field. When his time was up at work, he left for home and left work at work. His work time was flexible enough that he was able to get away for an hour whenever we had school plays, parent teacher conferences, etc. He came to so much that my siblings and I joked that we wouldn’t mind if he stayed home every once in a while. More importantly, he had an uncanny knack for knowing and keeping priorities in order. God was always first, even when vacation plans had to be moved around so we could drive three hours to the closest Mass for Assumption while traveling in Montana and Wyoming. We have to learn to keep priorities as musicians–God and family.

I think what we can learn from this is that if you arrive at Christmas day and you haven’t been to confession, if your daily prayer has suffered and you haven’t eaten supper with your family at least five nights a week during Advent, then you are in too far. As musicians, we tend to love our work more than others, but that is no excuse for overextending ourselves. God really is concerned with internals before He is concerned with externals. Please don’t misunderstand, I believe in excellence and I abhor bad music badly sung within the sacred liturgy, we need regular practice, but we still have to get our priorities straight. Make a pledge to put God and your family first this Advent and Christmastide. Simplify the music at Christmas Masses if you have to. Take your family to confession. Pray before you ever get to work. And practice resignation once Mass begins, letting the music fall where it wills. You will arrive at Christmas Day (or any other day) full of the joy of the feast!

Liturgical Musicians and Pastors: Are We Really Working Together?

Last month Catholic News Service reported that Msgr. Marini, the papal MC, spoke on October 21 to a group of musicians in Italy as part of a choral festival.. The good monsignor outlined five important aspects of the sacred liturgy and how the choir is called to serve each aspect. While I think his points were extremely valuable for us to ponder (the topic of next week’s post), it was an “uncomfotable, practical question” asked by a woman in the audience afterward, followed by Marini’s response, that caught the attention of most.

“Many times, in our parishes, the priest wants the choir to perform songs that are inappropriate, both because of the text” and because of the moment the song is to be performed during the service, she said. “In these situations, must the choir master follow the wishes of the priest even with the knowledge that by doing so, the choir is no longer serving the liturgy, but the priest?” she said to applause.

Asked for his advice, Msgr. Marini smiled, cast his eyes upward and rubbed his chin signaling his awareness that it was a hot-button topic. He said he felt “sandwiched” “between two fires, between priests and choirs.” Acknowledging the difficulty of such a situation, he said he sided with the priest.

There are situations where priests may not be giving completely correct guidance, he said, and there are directors that could be doing better. But in either case, conflict and division should be avoided and “humility and communion be truly safeguarded,” he said.

This, like with all disagreements, he said, requires that all sides be very patient with each other, sit down and talk, and explain the reasons behind their positions.

But if no conclusion or final point is reached, then “perhaps it is better also to come out of it momentarily defeated and wait for a better time rather than generate divisions and conflict that do no good,” he said to applause.

If the truth be told, this woman’s question resonated more those present than Marini’s previous five points simply because it touched upon a deep wound–the tension so often felt between the priest (who should be the chief liturgist of his parish) and the choir director (who is often designated as the liturgist) at the majority of parishes in Anytown, USA.

To make matters worse, over the last 50 years progressives have so successfully pushed a false view of what the essence of the sacred liturgy is in the classical sense (and I would argue as it is presented in Sacrosanctum Concilium) that there is no common ground between progressives (clergy or lay) and those who wish to see an authentic implementation of the Second Vatican Council (again, clergy or lay).

I realize there are many good priests and music directors in the world today who are in love with Christ and His Church and who want to see the liturgy “worked” in all of its beauty, both for the Glory of God and for the edification of all the faithful, but unfortunately, the union of the two rarely takes place in the parish. Speaking on behalf of liturgical musicians worthy of the name, they often submit as a result of the pastor’s sheer force rather than out of respect for at least being heard.

I am blessed to work for a very orthodox pastor who at at the same time truthfully acknowledges that he doesn’t always understand my insistence on the sacred liturgy being celebrated in the way that I do. But the key is that both of us have an openness to the each other and to the truth and this makes submission on my part much easier (and while I might stretch him liturgical, it is only fair to note that he has stretched me in many areas of the Faith extra-liturgical). If that weren’t the case, I would have no other course of action than to submit to him by turning in my resignation. As I have explained to priests before who seek to understand the church musician, I feel called by God to this work and understand it to be part of my path to holiness. As such I have to be faithful to what the Church asks me to do, whether I like it or not (this is incredibly freeing). I have spent large amounts of time (time often away from my family), money and energy to learn the skills necessary to follow this avocation (I don’t see it as a job). Priests need to realize that for me to do less than what the Church asks of me would be like an athlete showing daily to practice and being told by the coach that he wasn’t really interested in the sport and quite frankly didn’t care to be. Such a coach wouldn’t have a team, and I dare say many priests haven’t been much more successful in procuring and retaining great musicians.

If I had the chance to speak with Marini in person, I would like to share with him that while what he says is true, it is equally true that if the Church is going to call musicians to this vocation, She has a duty to form pastors who will respect and nourish such a vocation (which means forming priests in an authentic ars celebrandi). Charity is never one sided. To be fair, I am sure the good monsignor feels the same way, but I think it is time that we honestly address both sides.

Tips for the Organist

I recently had the good fortune to attend several Masses at parishes other than my own, and each time was pleasantly surprised to hear at least an organ and cantor leading congregational hymns mostly worthy of the name. If I had to guess, I would assume that none of these organists was a full-time church musician, yet each had a very solid technique. It made me think about what I might suggest to each in order to take what was already good organ playing and make it better. What follows are a few practical suggestions for the parish organist.

  1. Practice: It should go without saying that hymns (and any other bits of music used on a regular basis within the liturgy) should be practiced each week, but I have found this is not always the case. When I was in graduate school, I confessed to my organ teacher that I had to practice hymns each week or else I made stupid little mistakes. I was embarrassed by this, having thought that everyone else was good enough to sight-read them. I felt better after he told me that he, too, practiced the hymns he had to play each week and felt that the playing of anyone who didn’t would suffer.
  2. Tempo: Singing a hymn quickly does not necessarily give it life. Once during my high school years my pastor actually stopped me in the middle of the opening hymn and told me to speed it up, so I dutifully played as quickly as I could. He liked everything fast and had a general abhorrence of rests, which he would routinely skip, even when it meant cutting beats out of a measure. Thankfully he and I always got along, but I have struggled with taking music too fast ever since. In reality, a hymn’s life comes from the organist playing it with a deep awareness of the underlying beat (and its division) and passing that feeling on to the congregation. Of course, one must take into account the size and acoustic of the building, etc. but those are of secondary consideration. I would heartily recommend the book Note Grouping by James Thurmond for anyone desiring to gain a greater understanding of how rhythm gives life to music.
  3. Playing the text: Make a concentrated effort to read and understand the text and how it works within the hymn tune. Just because a hymn follows traditional four bar phrasing doesn’t mean the text will. Do you put the tune to the text or the text to the tune? There is a vast difference.
  4. Breathing with the congregation: Stravinsky once quipped that the organ was “the monster that never breathes” and he had a point. At one parish I attended the organist played with incredible speed and vigor. If the final chord of a measure was marked for four beats, she dutifully held it four beats before moving at the speed of light into the next verse. I was holding two squirming children and a hymnal at the time and tried like made to suck in enough air to even start the next verse of the hymn with her. She always won. As a choir master I routinely ask my choristers to take a full beat of breath at the end of a textual phrase. The organ do the same. What about at a textual cadence within a verse? I don’t add an extra beat, but I definitely “stretch” the beat a bit.
  5. Hymn introductions: I almost always play the first line of a hymn for the introduction simply to give the congregation a preview of the coming attraction, and I play it at the SAME tempo as I will play it once they begin singing. Again, take out the guess work for the congregation. If the hymn is exceptionally well know and has a great refrain beginning in the tonic chord (e.g. To Jesus Christ Our Soveregin King) I might play the refrain, but that is more of an exception than the rule.
  6. Number of verses: This is where the problem of hymns within the Holy Mass rears its ugly head. In reality a hymn should be sung from beginning to end with all of the verses, whether Father has to wait or not. There is nothing worse than celebrating Trinity Sunday and the musicians stop the opening hymn following the required two verses to get Father to the altar, clearly leaving the Holy Spirit out of the hymn (and perhaps out of the liturgy!). If Father wants you to stop when the liturgical action is complete, then tell him you would be happy to do so with the Proper antiphons from the Graduale Romanum!
  7. Registration: Registration is not my strong suit, but it suffices to say that a little change within a hymn would be nice. Also, there is no reason to destroy the congregation’s hearing just because you like the reeds on a particular organ, but at the same time, if the congregation is keeping up with the registration, don’t be afraid to use them either, even when the little old lady with the hearing-aides has a fainting spell.

I hope this proves helpful and I also want to say “thank you” to all of you who play the organ during the sacred liturgy. We owe you a great song of gratitude!

Music and the Formation of our Youth

Several weeks ago I gave a presentation to a group of church musicians concerning the great need for children to both experience and sing good music-not just in order to make them discerning aesthetes, but more importantly, to form their souls. I firmly believe that “while it is true that children can make beautiful music, it is more important that music can make beautiful children,” which in no less true when it comes to sacred music.

Unfortunately today the belief holds sway that “we need to give young people what they like in order to get them in the doors.” I encountered this at my first official church job more than a decade ago working for a Catholic Campus Center. The interim director suggested that maybe I should use the piano and some more upbeat praise and worship music and drop the chant (which wasn’t very much to begin with). I knew Praise and Worship wasn’t the best music for the Sacred Liturgy, but what if it would actually bring students in the door and then we could evangelize them from there. In a real desire to do what was best I called a former professor who now teaches at the Augustine Institute in Denver (and who had plenty of experience working with college students) and explained the situation. Like a really good spiritual director he didn’t shoot back an immediate response, but instead asked a question. “Lucas, you need to ask yourself, do you really believe that young people are going to show up on Sunday night just to hear praise and worship, which we as Catholics will never be able to perform to the standards of a Protestant mega church, when they could stay at home and listen to the same stuff on a CD without having to sit through the homily.” I have never forgotten that question.

What if we changed our focus from singing music that makes young people feel good to singing music that helps children to come to know Jesus as He truly is, the God Who became Man so that they could become like God. What if they learned to chant the psalms instead of the trite garbage that passes for kiddie songs today. This isn’t an argument for or against old or new music, but instead an argument for good lyrics set to good music. Perhaps our young people can once again learn that they are children of a Father who loves them and calls them to greatness!

O praise God in His holiness.

Praise Him in the firmament of His power.

Praise Him in His noble acts.

Praise Him according to His excellent greatness…

Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord.”

 

Problems Encountered Teaching Rhythms

Every year I spend the first four or five weeks of Probationer rehearsals teaching basics: standing and breathing properly, developing a beautiful tone, singing the major scale up and down to a light accompaniment (which doesn’t include the melody), learning note names, learning simple staff nomenclature and proficiency in rhythms. Today I want to share with you a struggle I perpetually encounter teaching rhythms.

Since learning about Takadimi and using it with children in class, rhythm proficiency has greatly improved. In the past I taught the Takadimi syllables while calling the notes by their traditional names, such as quarter note, eighth note, etc., but students were always confused. Think about it from the point of view of a third grader. It must be terribly confusing that an eighth note receives only half a beat, while an actual half note gets two beats. Or what about a dotted quarter note that receives one-and-a-half beats, but when it is the first note in the measure, it is held until beat two-and-a-half because in music the singer starts counting the measure at one instead of zero.

The main reason I continued to teach these names was because everywhere else the child went, he encountered these names. Well, today I decided to buck the system (in spite of my general LOVE of tradition) and simply referred to the various notes by their Takadimi syllables. Lo and behold, the students made the change quickly and clapped their rhythms almost flawlessly. Perhaps it would be best to approach rhythms this way until students were so familiar with sight-reading rhythms that introducing the traditional note names wouldn’t present any difficulties. If any of our readers have stumbled upon better ways to teach rhythms I would be curious to know. In many ways I feel it is more important that a piece be sung rhythmically well than to be sung with 100 percent note accuracy. I find music with rhythmic vitality much more moving.

Finally, for any of our readers in Detroit, I will be presenting at the archdiocese’s music and liturgy workshop In Service of the Sacred. I will be discussing chorister training as well as working through some of these concepts with a group of school children from the city. If you happen to be at the conference, please say hello!

The Current Heresy

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

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

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

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

Give Yourself a Boost in the New Choral Year

By I stroke of good fortune last Sunday I only had to play the organ for our early morning and late morning Masses, leaving a large amount of free time in between (my wife and children were at her parents for the weekend so there was no reason to go home). After taking some time in our Adoration Chapel, I spent the next hour-and-a-half at a local coffee shop re-reading through John Bertalot’s articles and books on choir training and sight-singing. If ever I received a musical shot in the arm that was it, and I have entered every rehearsal so far this week with a passion and resolve to teach the choristers how to sing the Church’s music, undoubtedly the greatest body of music every composed, on their own. If you haven’t read his online articles, do so now (an re-read them over and over again) and put your choral year off to a great start. Just this afternoon the grandmother of 5 choristers informed me one of her granddaughters told her that rehearsal wasn’t long enough, and that it seemed to be over just as it was starting! Thank you John Bertalot.

On another note, just yesterday I ran across this recording of Westminster Cathedral singing for High Mass in 1954 (Salve sancta parens). It always amazes me that children can do so much musically and how we too often settle for mediocre. Lead your choristers to greatness! Have fun listening and see if you catch the very odd pronunciation of Latin (veddy English) during the spoken blessing at the end.

Once Again the Choral Year is Off to the Races

Today is always a day of great joy and excitement for me as chorister rehearsals begin for the new choral year. If you aren’t used to working with children, it can be a bit daunting on your first day, so I thought I would share with you some ideas of things I use and even things that I would like to do sometime in the future. I am starting this post assuming that you already have music chosen and schedules set in stone, so with that in mind, let’s dive in.

Before rehearsals begin, I sit down and map out which pieces I plan to rehearse in each session for the entire semester. I find that I set much more realistic goals in terms of how much music I endeavor to tackle each time the choir meets. Funnily enough, I get through more music this way, as opposed to trying to schedule rehearsals on a daily basis, which ends badly as I rush the choir through twice as much music (never spending time on details) because I am only focused on the next Mass and forget about spreading concert music out throughout the semester and thus, have to force it in last minute.

On the first day of rehearsals I spend a large amount of time going through rehearsal procedures with choristers. How should they enter the room? Where do their backpacks go? What should each chorister have at his place? How do we pass out music efficiently? How do choristers get tissues and go to the bathroom without wasting time? When should one sit, stand or relax? Etc.

Much of this I have learned from my wife who “teaches” Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. For those who are unfamiliar with this wonderful way of “teaching” the Faith, it is based on the educational philosophies of Marie Montessori (many don’t know she was a devout Catholic) and Sofia Cavalletti. When a child first enters the atrium (the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd classroom), the catechist spends a large amount of time showing the child how the classroom works, including how to walk, talk, carry something, etc. in the atrium. This training removes many behavioral problems because the child knows what is expected of him. Once a stable environment has been established, learning is much easier (and more fun). Another good book on the subject was recommended to me by our principal and is entitled The First Days of School by Wong and Wong.

The last thing I would like to share is an idea I recently had and am trying to figure out how to do it in future years, namely creating the environment of a team among the choristers. Sports teams do this all the time and residential choir schools do it by default, but I don’t know that many choirs do it intentionally. In the modern era when children are pulled in all directions to join this and that, I find that the students who remain in the Schola Cantorum are those who connect to the choir in such a way that they feel they are a necessary part of the whole. The Madeleine Choir Schools takes students on a week long summer camp each year before school begins to help create such an atmosphere and to get a head start on rehearsing concert literature. I am not in a place to do that yet, but I am sure there are other ways to “skin the cat” so to say. If readers have any suggestions (either ideas or books), please let me know.

Whether you conduct a choir of children, adults or both, I wish you the best at the beginning of your choral year!