Category Archives: Sight-Singing

Music in Our Schools

Today marks the first day of school for parochial children in my city and thus provides an appropriate occasion to reflect on the nature of our Catholic school music programs and their work of education. Without doubt, the men and women who head these programs provide an enormous service to the Church and I wish to thank them for their work. At the same time, I would like to challenge the prevailing concept, or layout, of such music programs, which more often than not, are modeled after their secular counterparts with a seasonal nod to our Catholic Faith, such as the singing of Christmas carols every December (although they mysteriously disappear in January).

If we desire to educate, we should keep our end in mind–to teach children what is good and to love that good. In our case, students will only know what is good if they hear it and participate in it on a regular basis and they will only love that good if they see it loved and cared for by those they look up to. To this end, I would propose that our music programs should be founded on the ideal of teaching the Church’s music and music in general within the western tradition and to inculcating a love in students’ hearts for this music in all of its forms.

What follows are a few suggestions as to how we might begin moving our music programs in this directions.

  1. Sing real folk music. Invite children to join you in the joy of making music, real music. Children shouldn’t feel as though they are in class. Grab your guitar (appropriate in this case) and have fun. Don’t forget to teach them real dances and perhaps host a ball for older students and their families. At the same time, we should find a way for these things to happen in the home. As musicians, we lament the loss of communal music making, but I wonder how many fight this loss by making music with their own children.
  2. Teach the Church’s music. Children should know a couple of chant Masses by heart, particularly the more beautiful ones. The same can be said for a few of the Church’s well known hymns such as the Adorote devote, Pange lingua or Veni Creator, whether in Latin or in a good English translation. Ideally this would be linked to a child’s Church history and catechetical classes.
  3. Learn to sing the Mass. Whether you have a small schola capable of chanting the Communion antiphon or you teach the entire school to sing the Introit for each Mass to a common psalm tone, introduce your students to the idea of singing the Mass. Encourage (pester if necessary) the priest to sing his parts.
  4. Choose worthy hymns and metered music for use in the Mass. If you aren’t aware, the National Catholic Education Association, in conjunction with Pueri Cantores, has produced a list of Mass settings and hymns appropriate for school Masses, which is a VAST improvement on what one normally hears at school Masses.
  5. The High Mass isn’t just for Sunday. If your parish is an Extraordinary Form parish and is blessed to have a classical school attached, fight the urge settle for daily Low Masses in the effort to get students into class where the “real” learning happens. Priests in this situation would never consent to ditching the proper clerical vesture for Holy Mass, and in like manner, the same Holy Mass should ever be clothed in the aural vesture of sacred music. Beautiful sacred music will go far in forming a love for the Sacraments in the moral imaginations of your students.
  6. Raise up a new generation of church musicians. Support and encourage musically talented children to take up the work of sacred music. Just as we should cultivate religious vocations from the ranks our students, so should we do the same with liturgical musicians.

I wish you all many blessings in the school year ahead!

 

Another Successful Summer Music Camp

Last week the Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum completed its second annual summer music camp. Forty-seven children in grades 3 through high school gathered through the week to experience the joy of music making with others their age and I would like to share with readers a few thoughts and insights gained from the experience.

  1. A choirmaster must always be recruiting and a summer camp is a great recruiting tool. At the end of each school year I give an informal audition to every child in the second grade, which I follow up with a call to parents inviting their children to the summer camp to “try the choir for a week” with no obligation to commit. This personal ask is essential for some parents and students.
  2. Undertake only what you are capable of handling. I have chosen to keep the summer camp on parish grounds with manageable camp hours. Other choirs take children away to youth camping grounds for an entire week. You must decide what you can effectively manage, although I would caution that smaller is better, especially in the beginning.
  3. Separate students into appropriate groups based on age and ability. I have a three hour long morning session for new and first year choristers and for any others who need extra reinforcement in the fundamentals, while more experienced choristers come in the afternoon for two hours. Younger singers are always excited to move into the more experienced group, although they often keep coming to the morning session as helpers. This year I had at least one older student helper for every 2 to 3 inexperienced students. Not only was this a great help to me and to the younger students, it also gave experienced singers the chance to learn by teaching younger children.
  4. Give students great music with an attainable goal. This year choristers gave a short concert for parents on the last day of the camp. I chose quality music I knew they would like and every piece was one the choristers would sing in the coming year. Although I didn’t tell the morning students, my goal for them was facility with solfege in the diatonic scale and an ability to clap simple rhythms composed of eighths, quarters, halves, dotted halves and whole notes.
  5. Make it an enjoyable experience. Three hours of uninterrupted choir rehearsals is a sure way to drive away possible choristers and make returning students think twice about repeating the experience. In order to make the choristers’ experience a positive one, the three hour long morning session was broken up into a number of smaller sessions with breaks in-between so that half of their time was spent learning and the other half outside playing games.  The afternoon session was less balanced, but nevertheless, students had plenty of time to run around outside or to re-connect with friends after the summer break.

If you should decide to host a summer camp I would strongly suggest you contact someone who has already done it. Find out what works instead of needlessly reinventing the wheel. Before my first camp I had a great conversation with David Hughes from St. Mary’s in Norwalk, CT. Mr. Hughes is a veteran chorister trainer and has run a summer camp for a number of years. Mary Anne Carr Wilson, who runs a summer chant camp for children, would be another great resource, or one might attend an RSCM course as a adult. Whichever route you decide to take, be sure to make the week a great experience for your choristers.

St. Rita Choral Academy

In the wake of my cri de coeur last week to American choir directors, asking them to push forward the musical and liturgical training of our children, it gives me great pleasure to highlight such a program opening this fall at St. Rita’s Catholic Church in Dallas, Texas. The parish’s new venture, the St. Rita Choral Academy, is the brainchild of Dr. Alfred Calabrese, one of Corpus Christi Watershed’s many great writers.

Calabrese, who holds a doctorate in choral conducting from Indiana University, took the reigns of the parish youth choir in 2014, which at that time had approximately 14 students in grades 4 through 8–a small number considering the church is the spiritual home to 3,500 families. By the end of last school year, the choir boasted an enrollment of 65 children, boys and girls, in kindergarten through the eighth grade.

As currently constituted, the choir consists of three groups, the first of which is the Cherub Choir. These children in kindergarten and first grade attend a 25 minute weekly session similar to kindermusik, where they move to music, play rhythm instruments and work on unison singing.

The second group, the Seraphim Choir, meet for an hour once per week and focus on unison repertoire, although they make the occasional foray into part-singing with wonderful little works like Praetorius’ Jubilate Deo. The Voice For Life workbooks from the Royal School of Church Music provide choristers with helpful instruction in music theory.

Beginning in the fifth grade, students graduate to the Jubilate Deo Choir. These children, all with unchanged voices, meet for an hour-and-a-half each week and focus  their efforts on more advanced repertoire in order to join the treble ranks of the church’s very fine adult choir. Two part treble repertoire as well as Adam Bartlett’s Simple English Propers are also familiar to the singers.

Each Advent the Cherub and Seraphim Choirs perform a simplified Lessons and Carols, while the Jubilate Deo and adult choirs sing the full version. Later in the month the Seraphim Choir is given the opportunity to sing alongside the Jubilate Deo and adult choirs for the Christmas Eve Mass. Dr. Calabrese was especially pleased last year when the the Jubilate Deo Choir lead the singing entirely on their own for Holy Mass on the Feast of Divine Mercy.

Enter the St. Rita Choral Academy.

Beginning in the fall, the St. Rita Choral Academy will expand the scope of Calabrese’s current work by offering students a chance to augment their training via weekly music history and theory classes and private or group piano and voice instruction, all focused on developing musicianship skills and deepening the child’s knowledge of the beauty of the Catholic Church’s sacred heritage. Calabrese is join by a talented faculty who will, no doubt, offer choristers a wide variety of musical experiences. 

It is my hope and prayer that more Catholic musicians take such bold steps, each of which will provide another brick toward the rebuilding of Christendom in a world more in need of it than every. Please keep Dr. Calabrese, his colleagues and their work in your prayers and be sure to watch for great things coming from the St. Rita Choral Academy in the coming years.

A Call to Educate Our Future Musicians

“My tastes are simple: I am easily satisfied with the best.” Winston Churchill

Many epithets can be applied to Winston Churchill, but mediocre isn’t one of them. When the going got rough, he got rougher. When the stakes were high, he upped the ante. When all seemed on the verge of collapse and surrender, he had already planned the victory. He never, never, never gave in.

Contrast this with Catholicism in the West, where the Church in Her human elements has not only surrendered to secularism, but seems eager to close the lid of Her own coffin. In the midst of such a fait accompli the cry of the church musician for better music is almost laughable. But… perhaps we need a better perspective.

We must remember that those who work for the Church’s destruction are not hacking away at Her trunk as they so often think, they are merely sit on what is already a dead branch in need of pruning. Quite comically, their spiritual, theological and historical eyes are so narrow and nearsighted that they can’t see they are pruning on the wrong side of where they sit. No doubt their rotten branch will crash with a resounding thud, with them on it, but only to the relief of the rest of the tree, which is already in new leaf.

The Sacred Liturgy, bruised and battered though she may be, is emerging from a long winter and the Face of Christ shines more brightly in it. Christ awaits the voice of His beloved to respond to His call once again and the Church needs the musician for this response.

If we expect church musicians worthy of the name to step forward, then we need to train them, which I am happy to say is taking place in more and more areas. We might not yet have reached critical mass, but the mass we have is critical and is growing. Now is the time to push forward rather than to despair.

Each summer I spend two separate weeks at Benedictine College in Atchison, KS, working with high school students who are interested in vocal music and I always spend some of our time together exploring the sublime world of sacred music. Most of these students, without ever having studied the Church’s documents on liturgical music, have an innate sense that our sacred mysteries require sacred music… and they WANT IT!

Within the last few weeks we saw the hiring of James Kennerley at St. Paul’s, Harvard Square, while our very own Richard Clark posted on other wonderful things going on for children in the archdiocese of Boston. Kevin Allen was recently named the music director of St. John Cantius in Chicago, which boasts thriving choirs for children, and Charles Cole and the Schola Cantorum of the London Oratory are currently on tour through a number of western states. This is just a smattering of the good things going on in the realm of sacred music in our larger cities and metropolitan areas, but what about smaller towns and the midwest?

Right here in Kansas, the geographical center of the contiguous states, I know of several parishes in my own archdiocese (here, here and here) where chorister programs are growing and great musicians are developing liturgical training programs for children. These things might seem slight to others, but even the greatest of forest fires begins very small and so will the advent of better music.

If it is true, as Chesterton put it, that “anything worth doing is worth doing badly,” then let’s roll up our sleeves and get started. If you are a music director and haven’t begun some sort of music training for the children in your parish for fear of it going badly, I tell you that whatever you do couldn’t be any worse than what children have been made to endure these last 55 years. Just begin!

Remember that Churchill was more often wrong than he was right, but when he was right, he was really right. Don’t be afraid of failure as long as you are willing to learn from the mistakes you make in front of your present or future choristers. If you model Christian discipleship alongside good musical leadership you will move your choristers and your program forward, just remember to keep your focus on real sacred music. Your choristers tastes are simple: [they are] easily satisfied with the best!

In Defense of the Choir School

Last week it was announced that James Kennerley would take over as the new Director of Music for St. Paul’s Catholic Church, Harvard Square, placing him at the head of the parish’s famous choir of men and boys, founded by Theodore Marier in 1963.

St. Paul’s Choir School, where the boy choristers are educated, is one of only three Catholic choir schools in the United States and provides a truly unique approach to the fostering of Catholic sacred music, an approach we might call the apprenticeship method. Following his audition and acceptance, a boy enters the school in the 3rd grade and embarks on a six year journey of professional music making that culminates in the graduation of a chorister consummate in the choral arts (as well as extremely proficient at the keyboard) who has sung through vast portions of the greatest repertoire of the western world, and therefore knows it as a friend, and for whom the Graduale Romanum is more than a footnote in a college music appreciation course. Mr. Kennerley is no stranger to such a choral education, as he himself is a product of Chelmsford Cathedral Choral Foundation.

It goes without saying that Mr. Kennerley possessed more than the average amount of latent musical talent as a child, nevertheless, his gifts and talents were honed in the professional atmosphere of the English choral tradition, after which he moved on to Harrow School. I can’t say for sure, but wouldn’t be surprised if he took part in the chapel choir program at Harrow, which, according to the school’s website, regularly sings works “by Poulenc, Chilcott, Saleeb, Piccolo, Byrd, Gombert, Faure, Berkeley, Howells, Faure, Haydn, Dyson, Bach, Jackson, Walton, Britten, Duruflé, Poulenc, Adelman, Mozart, Handel and Purcell.” From Harrow School he matriculated to Cambridge University and spent his time there as the organ scholar for Jesus College before being named the organ scholar for St. Paul’s in London–all before the age of 25.

Contrast this with the general experience of a Catholic child in the United States. The unfortunate child spends eight to twelve years in Catholic education shouting banal ditties at an beleaguered congregation, all the while being conditioned to believe in a boringly nice god who saves said child from nothing, and is therefore not worth his time, much less effort. Even Catholic schools with good music programs tend to give the Church’s treasury of sacred music a wide berth because of the undying canard that Vatican II got rid of it.

It might be forgiven students if they can’t improvise like Mr. Kennerley on the Victimae Paschali laudes. It is unforgivable, however, that they have never heard the Victimae.

The same applies to the sublime melody of the Veni Creator.

If we in the United States ever hope to produce liturgical musicians of the calibre of James Kennerley then the choir school is an absolutely essential ingredient toward that goal. I’m not saying we don’t have native musicians of his calibre, but we certainly aren’t producing them in the quantity that the English cathedral choir system is capable of.

Every Catholic cathedral in the United States should be committed to such an ideal. Our cathedrals should either run choir schools or run to establish them. Every parish with a parochial school should focus its music program toward the same goal, albeit to a smaller degree. It is the only way to rebuilt (or perhaps build for the first time ever) a culture of genuine sacred music in these United States.

It is amazing what has been accomplished at St. Paul’s over the last 50 years and what could be accomplished in so many other places in a much shorter time span.

We wish Mr. Kennerley and the boys and men of St. Paul’s Choir all the best!

In Search of the Deeper Meaning

Lay a garland on her hearse…Upon her buried body lie lightly, thou gentle earth.

Pearsall’s setting of these mournful lyrics came to a gentle close, but no one spoke… no one could speak. Never before had I experienced a work so beautifully sung and the experience will remain with me as long as my mind endures. Everyone that day knew he had taken part in something incredible, something otherworldly that might never be repeated. Such was and is the power of music.

I have heard it said that magic shows up at every concert but usually goes home disappointed and George Guest, the legendary conductor of the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, noted that those otherworldly moments in music were rare indeed. Nevertheless, in striving for those moments I believe we raise our choirs to an unbelievably high standard and create music  worthy for the temple (if ever we could do such a thing), music that possesses the power to move minds and hearts. Of course this begs the question, How does one do that?

Fr. William Finn, whom I wrote about last week, noted that most conductors who came to him for advice usually wanted nothing more than a few tricks they could take home to their choirs. They rarely desired to learn those things necessary to breathe life into the music. Yes, choirs need to sing on key, to come in together and to cut off together. They should blend their vowels and produce their consonants rhythmically, but a choir might do all of this and still never reach the outer bounds of beauty’s realm. In short, such a choir would utterly fail to communicate. It isn’t enough to merely understand the words, one must needs enter into the words and ultimately into THE WORD. Quite frankly, this is a herculean task that requires a lifetime of education. For those of you who have read David Clayton’s The Way of Beauty (which I highly recommend), you will understand when I say that it also requires the gift of grace. Regardless, I do believe it possible to point the budding musician into the Way of Beauty.

First of all, it must be said that the mechanics of beautiful music must be present. The right notes matter, as do a host of other things. Beyond the mechanics, however, especially if I were pressed to give one piece of advice, I would point to the text. The text is paramount. Unfortunately, though, we inhabit a very un-poetic world unable to cope with anything deeper than the merely technical in language, which has crippled our ability to understand and finally to communicate.

I would like to delve more into this topic next week, but I will leave the reader with this very simple example. Below is a video of the Regensburger Domspatzen singing two verses of Adeste fideles, the first verse in Latin and the second in German. Listen specifically to the way in which the words and phrases are shaped as well as the way in which the rhythm moves the text. Is there a deeper understanding we gain of the carol’s meaning through the way in which this choir sings it? How does the way in which it is sung convey that deeper meaning? This is where the true are of the choir master begins.

Fr. William Finn and the Catholic Choral Tradition in America

It is perhaps easy to dismiss the Catholic choral tradition in America as being an inferior art to its elder European counterpart. We certainly don’t have as great a quantity of English choir schools or French monasteries.  Nevertheless, we have had, and quite frankly still have, a number of fine choirs, conductors and organists that I would place on par and even above our European brethren. One such name that behooves mentions is that of Fr. William Joseph Finn of the Paulist Fathers.

Fr. Finn, a Bostonian native, founded the Paulist Choristers at Old St. Mary’s in Chicago, and later the Paulist Choristers at St. Paul the Apostle, NYC. His choirs were considered legendary in their time, and under his direction the Chicago choir won first prize in a Paris competition from among almost 100 choirs, for which Finn was awarded the Palms of the French Academy by the French government. His choirs often sang on radio and toured the country and western world at a time when this was almost unheard of.

Sometime after Fr. Finn left Chicago for New York, one of his former choristers and by then brother priests, Fr. O’Malley, took over the reigns of the Paulist Choristers at Old St. Mary’s and conducted them masterfully until 1967. Some have wondered if this formed the story line of the film The Bells of St. Mary’s.

Hearing loss forced Finn to give up the Paulist Choristers in the 1940s, but his influence continued through the numerous books he wrote on music through the years. Quite possibly his great work, The Art of the Choral Conductor is worth a doctoral education on the art of choral training, and the amount of ink he gives to the blending of individual lines and to blending of the choir as a whole is eye (and ear) opening. His later chapter on sight-singing is perhaps the most succinct explanation I have ever read on the process of teaching this art to choristers.

Then again, if you prefer something rather more light hearted, his autobiography, The Flats and Sharps of Five Decades, is a delightful read. My one disappointment after having digested it is that I found very few extant recordings of his choirs. In the book he took such pot shots at world famous ensembles, going so far as to accuse the Westminster Cathedral Choir of always singing flat, that his own choral institutions must have been, or at least should have been, almost other worldly.

Another early work is his Manual of Church Music, which he co-authored while still a seminarian. This book is every bit as foundational and even more in depth than Sir Richard Terry’s Church Music, but has largely been forgotten. It contains a wonderful apologia for the use of men and boys voices within the liturgy, linking it back to levitical priesthood. Of course, this would largely fall on deaf ears today, but one can sense the excitement at the time and the feeling that following Pius X’s motu proprio Church Music had at long last been pointed in the right direction and that days of glory were ahead. In many ways the early liturgical movement was a beautiful time in the life of the Church.

As a final gift, I thought I would leave the listener with a recording of the Paulist Choristers of Chicago performing the Gloria from R. R. Terry’s Mass of St. Gregory at Midnight Mass at Old St. Mary’s in 1964. The choir is under the direction of Fr. O’Malley, but since he was a disciple of Finn, perhaps it will offer us something similar to what one might have heard under the later’s baton.  Enjoy!

St. Mary’s Cathedral Choir, Sydney Australia

I recently experienced the thrill of the hunt when I stumbled upon the Facebook page of St. Mary’s Cathedral Choir, Sydney, Australia, last Lent. To be fair to myself, I had known about and listened to recordings of this fine choir numerous times over the past and had always considered them to be an exceptional group of singers, but it was a a Facebook recording of the choir singing Bruckner’s Christus factus est as the Gradual on Good Friday that struck deeply into my soul.

I’ve heard and sung the piece on many occasions, but never at that precise moment, the proper moment, in the Good Friday Liturgy. Put there, immediately before the reading of the Passion, it beautifully encapsulated the emptying out of Christ on the Cross, yet because of this contained the seeds of glory that would be Christ’s Name, that Name above all other names. I must admit I watched the video a number of times and never tired of it. I even shared it with some of my choristers. It also led to a deeper search of the choir’s website where I discovered another gem–the choir’s podcast, Staved Off.

If you are interested in the great English Cathedral music tradition (I know, the choir is not from England, but I doubt if most listeners could tell that) and want to know more about its inner workings, please consider listening in. There are about a dozen podcasts in all and topics include things such as music for the holy seasons throughout the year and other events such as weddings, information about the choir’s 200 year history, choral festivals, Gregorian chant, English and Latin hymnody and much more. You will hear great recordings of great music sung by the choir and links are provided to numerous other related items. Thomas Wilson, the director of music, is one of the hosts, so you get the information straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak (no disrespect meant to Mr. Wilson). I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

 

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.