Category Archives: Sight-Singing

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.

 

MPHM Chorister Abby Ferrell Singing in the National Catholic Youth Choir (Summer 2018)

Abby Ferrell, a Senior Chorister (alto) in the Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum spent a week last summer singing in the National Catholic Youth Choir under the direction of Andre Heywood. Below is a clip of the choir singing Palestrina’s beautiful Sicut cervus. Enjoy!

 

Click here for pictures and here for videos of the 2018 choir. Congratulations Abby!

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

Impressions from the CMAA Sacred Music Colloquium 2018

In Catholic circles we often joke that not even God Himself knows how much money the Jesuits really have, the truth of which I witnessed on parade at the beautiful Loyal University waterfront campus in Chicago, host for the CMAA’s 2018 Sacred Music Colloquium last week. I thought today I would share with readers some of my impressions of the wonderful events that took place.

Holiness and Friendship: Saints tend to come in batches, one friend encouraging another, which I found no less true for those I met at the Colloquium. Men and women, priests and religious from all backgrounds and walks of life (my roommate was a priest from Nigeria!), arrived in Chicago, but all were animated by the common goal of Heaven. All were striving for holiness, a witness so important for the world today. Pope Benedict once mentioned that Beauty, especially in the lives of the saints would convert the world, and I was both edified and encouraged by the desire for holiness I saw in so many at the colloquium. This naturally resulted in the deepening of old friendships and the creation of new, lasting friendships built on and in Christ—friendships that will endure.

Beauty and Transcendence: If the Holy Eucharist truly is the source and summit of our Catholic Faith and if all we do as Christians and as musicians comes from and returns to the God the Father, through Christ and in the Holy Spirit in the Sacred Liturgy, then our worship of almighty God is of primary and paramount importance, and so it follows that how we pray affects how we believe, and how we believe affects how we act. The beauty and solemnity in the way the priests celebrated the Holy Masses and the Divine Office spoke not only to a hermeneutic of continuity with all the Church has taught and professed throughout Her 2000 year history, but also spoke to what they themselves believed about God. I found this both inspiring and challenging.

As an aside, it always strikes me that the more we try to make the Mass understandable, the more we try to bring it down to the level of “common humanity,” the harder time I have remembering that God is all holy and all powerful and that He loves me with a love so  deep that He willingly endured His Passion and Death in order to open the gates of Heaven to me. The beauty and transcendence of the Sacred Liturgies at the Colloquium reminded me of just how all powerful God is and how much He must have loved mankind to willingly step down from His thrown, so to speak, and do what He did. When God is presented and worshipped as if He were a cross between Ralph Nader and Maya Angelou (I think these are Peter Kreeft’s words) prayer becomes difficult for me, but the Masses and Divine Office of the Colloquium truly flooded my soul with peace, and yet challenged me to confront my sinfulness and open myself to God’s healing and Almighty Hand.

Awe for the Workers in God’s Vineyard: I was truly edified by those who work so hard in the field of Sacred Music. I met men and women who chose to attend the Colloquium because they wanted to learn how to make this music in order to transform their parishes and they realized the task fell to them alone to make that happen. I was also surprised and edified at the number of young men and women who are entering the field of Sacred Music professionally and who desire to be supremely competent in their craft. As we know, there is often a false dichotomy presented in the Church today between the professional musician and the faithful disciple, and many participants I met were living proof that professional competency and discipleship are both possible and necessary.

Hope: I realize there is a lot of confusion in the Church today, most of it self-inflicted, and while it is easy to become discouraged, don’t despair. I see so many reasons to hope for the future. At the same time, the musicians I met realized that this hope must be grounded in a healthy acknowledgment that the survival and ultimate flourishing of the Faith in the western world is by no means assured, only possible if we continue to pray and work and spend our lives in the service of God’s Holy Will for each of us. There is a healthy dose of very potent leaven in the world today, but it is up to us to kneed the dough and and bring to fruition the bread that God desires. Of course, this is only possible if we are grounded deeply in prayer, especially in the prayer of the Sacred Liturgy.

Fun: I confess wholeheartedly to being a musical geek and that the most fun I had at the Colloquium was on the last day when a number of folks had already left and the choirs needed extra male singers to fill the choral ranks. Mass was celebrated in the Extraordinary Form for the Commemoration of St. Paul and the choirs sang Palestrina’s Missa Aeteran Christi munera. I had never sung this Mass before, which meant sight-singing with no chance of a “do-over.” Scott Turkington joined the choir to my left and Peter Carter of St. John the Baptist Latin Mass Community joined to my right and the sound was glorious! I could have done that all day.

If you have never been I strongly encourage you to do so—you won’t regret it.

 

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.