Category Archives: Sight-Singing

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.

Strive for Excellence

The casual Reader might perhaps mistake me as a died-in-the-wool anglophile in the realm of sacred music, especially since I hold the English Choir School in such high regard, but let us face facts-the English cathedral system of forming church musicians works. I was reminded of this yesterday as I listened to an old BBC interview of Sir George Thalben-Ball describing how he landed the his position of 60 years as the organist and choirmaster at the Temple Church (named because of its original link to the Knights Templar) in London.

While studying at the Royal College of Music, Thalben-Ball was called upon to fill-in for the afternoon service. He arrived at the Temple Church to find an orchestral score of Bach’s Mass in B Minor at the organ with a note that 10 movements would be sung that afternoon and that Thalben-Ball would need to transpose them all down a “semitone” because the organ was tuned almost half a step sharp. Thalben-Ball chuckled in the interview saying he must have decently well, since no one accosted him after the service, although he admitted to playing (transposed down a half-step) from the choral score instead of the orchestral score.

If any parish were to call and ask me to fill in that afternoon for a Sunday concert featuring 10 movements of the B Minor Mass and as an aside mention that I would need to transpose the entire thing down a half-step, I would quickly dismiss the call as a prank or feign illness. I simply wouldn’t be able to do it. Had I been a choir boy and sung the Mass first as a chorister and then later as a choral scholar and had been playing and accompanying choirs to a high degree since I was in junior high I might have a chance, but that wasn’t the case. In that sense, I feel like a complete joke telling people that I am a competent church musician, much less one with a DMA. When it comes down to it, what do I really know?! Let’s face it, the English cathedrals know what they are doing and even on their worst days hit a mark of excellence that is simply beyond the reach of all but our best cathedral choirs in the US.

Let us imagine for a moment a different situation. What if each of the 193 Catholic cathedrals (Roman Rite) in the United States were to model the English Cathedrals with a choir of men and boys and a separate choir of men and girls (and remember that most of them also have an excellent mixed choir to boot), where the boys and girls constantly rehearsed and sang the greatest music to the highest standards, especially the music native to the Roman Rite (Gregorian chant), took voice and piano lessons and sang daily for Mass and Vespers for the 5 to 6 years they were in the choir. In high school the girls would continue doing the same, while the boys would settle into their new roles as tenors and basses while singing the same music, only as a tenor or bass. A child who showed talent would begin studying the organ and playing and accompanying for services. When he went off to the university, each organist would receive a scholarship for playing for services for his separate college within the university, under the direction of a phenomenal choirmaster. After graduation, he would then be hired by a cathedral as an assistant organist and begin training the new singers as well (and he could, since he had been through the system himself and would be overseen by the director of music). He wouldn’t have to get a Masters Degree or a Doctorate in either organ or choral directing because he would have been singing in a professional choir and accompanying the same choir long before he even thought about shaving! It is nothing but the old apprentice system at work. Now imagine that happened at all 193 Catholic Cathedrals as well as our Catholic colleges, too. That is roughly 25 boy choristers and 25 girl choristers at each institution in one year. At the cathedrals alone that would be almost 10,000 children annually at least learning what good sacred music should sound like and having his/her moral imagination formed at the same time. Obviously only a small majority of those would go on to work in the field of sacred music, but even if it were 1%, that would mean 100 future professional church musicians, organists and singers, would be in formation each year (we aren’t even counting Catholic colleges). The other 99% percent would probably be open to financially supporting such a system because of the benefits they had received. So far the Cathedral of the Madeleine and St. Paul’s, Harvard Square are the only two who have joined the cause.

I challenge every church musician today to begin forming our future musicians. It will change the face of church music in the US and will transform the lives and Faith of uncountable numbers of faithful. As Fr. Z says, just take the training wheels off and ride the damn bike!

Teaching the Very Young

It seems to be the common experience of a number of musicians today who are very dedicated to realizing the Church’s high ideals for sacred music that they find themselves in the employ of a young (or young at heart) pastor who is only able to offer full time work if said musician is willing to play the organ at Mass, direct the choir, start a children’s choir and teach music in the school to grades pre-k through 8. First of all I want to thank those same pastors who are willing to go the extra mile to bring the greatest of arts to their young parishioners. Secondly I want to thank those musicians who are willing to embrace such a position simply because they love what they do.

It seems that I have received a number of emails of late from such musicians with questions regarding the musical training of the very young, especially pre-school aged children, kindergarten and lower level grade school. Today I would like to share with you a few  resources for those who might find themselves in front of a group of young children unsure of how to best proceed.  Hopefully this post helps.

The first resource I would look into if I had to teach pre-k and kindergarten is Kindermusik. Kindermusik is based on a number of teaching philosophies, two of which are favorites of mine, those of Zoltan Kodaly and Maria Montessori. I do not profess to know everything about Kindermusik, but I have heard nothing but positive comments from those involved in the program. It engages the entire child vocally, intellectually, physically (and spiritually if done correctly, especially withing the context of a Catholic school). Music should primarily be enjoyable for children this age and Kindermusik makes that possible.

For those working with children in kindergarten through grade school (before junior high), I would heartily recommend the Kodaly Method of teaching music. It is primarily a vocal model for teaching music (although one could easily incorporate the use of instruments) and music literacy. Children sing lots of folk songs, which the teacher uses to carefully prepare, present and reinforce musical concepts. Be aware that this method requires a lot of preparation time on the part of the teacher, especially the first year, because the teacher has to make a number of manipulatives for use by each student and then make enough for each child in the class. If you go this route, purchase An American Methodology and its companion book of yearly lessons plans for grades k through 6 here. Be sure to include a lot of sailing songs and drinking songs (yes, I know) for the boys-they really like these.

To be honest, the hardest part about teaching is often how to teach, and the great thing about Kindermusic and the Kodaly Method, especially if you attend summer training sessions in them, is that you learn the art of teaching. I would also seek out the best teachers in your school and plaster them with questions continually. As long as you let them get home to supper each night, they usually enjoying passing on their knowledge. Anyway, I hope this helps.

How Do We Get the Boys to Sing?

Several years ago a friend from Wales (UK) asked me why too many men in the United States simply refuse to sing. According to him, men on the rugby field in Wales sang to intimidate their opponents. As I write this article I have to chuckle, wondering what it would look like if in the last Superbowl Tom Brady had lead his fellow Patriots in a chorus of their favorite war hymn in order to intimidate Manning and the rest of the Broncos. In my admittedly bizarre mind I see Brady signaling to the Patriot pep band, who begin the opening strains of Haydn’s Missa in tempori belli (the Lord Nelson Mass). The football players chant “Kyrie,” joined by the lead soprano of the chearleading squad, crying out to God for mercy in the glorious Greek tongue. It would make a great skit for Saturday Night Live! Still, the question remains. How do we get boys to sing? Why won’t they sing?

The second question is rather easier to answer than the first. The boys don’t sing because their fathers won’t sing and the fathers won’t sing because our current culture doesn’t value it. Why should they engage in an activity they perceive to have no value. I have heard it said that our culture no longer sings because electronic entertainment has made the need for it obsolete, but I don’t buy that. I think it comes down to what a person or culture values. This becomes apparent if one were to compare communal singing to sports.

In many ways, singing and sports are similar. We form singers into a choir, each singer performing a different role, or singing a different part. We arrange sportsmen into a team, each player taking a different position. A chorister learns to sing his part well, yet blend that part in a harmonious manner with others in the choir, always mindful of the conductor’s directions. The child playing sports learns to play his position to the best of his abilities, yet work with the others as a team, under the direction of a coach. Choristers have to practice fundamentals such as breathing, sight-singing, listening and intonation and apply those skills within a certain musical work. Sportsmen have to practice fundamentals like batting, catching, and throwing and put those skills to use within certain plays and innings. Sports and music both can build character such as hard work, determination, focus and passion. Music and sports both cost parents money, sometimes a lot, while concert halls and sports arenas are built at considerable cost to the citizenry to hold the myriads of people who come to watch and listen.

Why, then, is sports so popular (and I am specifically asking this in relation to fathers and sons and boys in general-sorry ladies) and communal singing so undervalued? I have no evidence to support my conclusion other than gut instinct, but I imagine it has something to do with the fact that sports (and the Catholic priesthood) are the last place in American society where boys and men can share a common passion and camaraderie on and off the field with other boys and men, and where boys and men are expected to strive for greatness.

What if the Church were to run (at the very least) some of Her choirs this way, choirs where boys and men sang strictly with other boys and men, and all strove for greatness? St. Paul’s Choir School in Boston is able to fill an entire school strictly with boys who want to sing with other boys. The Madeleine Choir School, while open to both boys and girls, separates them into boy and girl choirs, and each year fill the school with plenty of boys who want to sing. Both of these choirs strive for, and achieve, greatness.

Recently I attended Mass for the first time at a certain parish. As usual, I had prepared myself to hear poor music sung poorly (this was not me making any kind of moral judgment—I was simply operating on experience). True, the music was of an inferior quality, all played on the piano, but the the pianist (male), and the four middle aged men who sang and harmonized were all excellent. To see other men stepping up and taking a lead made me want to sing along in spite of any aversion the music itself. I wonder how many music directors are willing to be a little “sexist” and do such a thing. For the sake of our men and boys, perhaps it is worth more than a thought!

Learning Music and the Classical Trivium

Last week I had the pleasure of rereading Dorothy Sayer’s The Lost Tools of Learning, which is one of the most lucid and well written overviews of the Classical Trivium (part of the larger liberal, or free, arts) I have ever come across. For readers unfamiliar with it, the Classical Trivium consists of three stages of study (which happen to align with the natural learning stages of children), namely the grammar, logic (or dialectic) and rhetoric stages, which are necessary to be thoroughly grounded in before one is able to move to the study of “subjects,” especially the Classical Quadrivium. Sayer’s argument is that while young people today learn all kinds of subjects (and can therefore fill cogs in society’s wheels), they never arrive at Truth. Perhaps this only goes to show my ignorance, but after reading the essay, it finally hit me that the stages of music learning dovetail nicely with the Classical Trivium. By way of explanation I will give a brief description of each “tool,” or stage, of the Classical Trivium.

In the first stage, Classical Grammar (up to somewhere around the 4th grade), the child engages the mechanics of language, specifically learning an inflected language such as Latin or Greek. Only by learning the structure of language in general can one ever hope to understand and communicate effectively in any language. Children in the Grammar stage also excel in the use of their faculties of observation and memory.

In the second stage, Classical Logic, or Dialectic (somewhere around the grades of 5 and 6), the child learns the “logical construction of speech,” focusing especially on “the beauty and economy of a fine demonstration or a well turned argument.”

During the final stage, Classical Rhetoric (beginning around the 7th or 8th grade), the student learns how to communicate effectively himself. Only when he is able to do this should he be allowed to dive into the specialized learning of subjects, by which time he will have learned that all knowledge and Truth are one (or perhaps we could write One).

Now to the question of how this relates to the learning of music. I have found that at a young age, which we will term the Grammar Stage of Music, children love to sing all kinds of simple, but well constructed folk songs, hymns, chants, etc. Most of them can easily be trained to sing in the head voice and they find joy in learning about notes, rhythms, solfege and even singing simple two and three part rounds. The Kodaly method of teaching music works extremely well during this stage. Around the 4th grade children transition to what I will call the Dialectic Stage of Music, at which time they are ready to begin singing simple motets and anthems and have no difficulty analyzing this music, or even the works of the great composers. Children should also begin improvising their own short melodies and rhythms at this time. By the end of this stage they are capable of singing much of the intermediate four part repertoire (where children sing the upper two parts) of the Common Practice Period. When they enter junior high, which I will term the Rhetorical Stage of Music, they should be tackling the more difficult four to eight part music (again, where the children sing the upper parts) and delving into serious music composition. If you don’t believe this can be done, just look to the choir schools. I witnessed it myself at the Madeleine Choir School. Of course it is true that not every student, or even the majority of students, will be composing serious music by the age of 14 or even deciding to go into the field of church music. On the other hand, we will never inspire a new generation of great Catholic musicians, so sorely needed at this time, if we don’t open their eyes to the “Lost Tools of Learning Music” and point them to the One to Whose praises we hope to sing for ever in the Heavenly Jerusalem.

Probationer Lesson Plans

In case you are interested, I thought I would post my entire set of lesson plans (here) I use for training our Probationers, who are generally children in the 3rd and 4th grade with very little (if any) musical training. I am leaving the lessons exactly as they are simply because I don’t have enough time to go through and clean them up right now. Also know that I always plan for more than I have time for, so I don’t always get to everything set for one lesson. I work with the Probationers for an entire year, so I have plenty of time to extend a lesson over two weeks, focus on music for the Christmas program or make allowance for any number of interruptions that might befall us. For the most part, you should be able to follow them, but if you have questions, please feel free to email me.

Teaching New Singers

Chorister rehearsals are currently underway and the children are working on some exciting repertoire. At the same time, I am in the middle of auditions for new choristers (probationers) and looking over plans for their weekly rehearsals. As I have posted before, we are in the process of integrating the Schola Cantorum into our parish school, so the new students will be receiving a solid music education in the school as well. Still, I like to cover (or re-cover) all of the basics with the boys and girls. I thought I would share my goals for the lessons and some general lesson plans in hopes that they might be of benefit.

Because of current time restraints, I meet with the probationers only once a week, for two hours immediately after school (yes, a number of shorter rehearsals would be better, but this is how it is). I first take them to the gym for 10 minutes to run out pent up energy from being in a seat most of the day. During the rehearsal, I make sure that no one exercise lasts more than 8-10 minutes, otherwise I loose them quickly. I also give them a 10 minute break in the middle of the rehearsal when they can eat their snacks and talk. This is the basic overall outline of each class.

In the first month of rehearsals (4), I have only three main goals: 1) to ingrain a healthy vocal technique in the students (while getting rid of any unhealthy singing habits they have picked up), 2) to teach proficiency in solfege (only the diatonic notes of the scale) and finally, 3) to teach a proficiency in reading basic rhythms (eighth note through whole note, no dot) and their corresponding rests. There are other musical items the students learn in the first month, but those are only secondary to these three goals.

Next week I will give a basic outline of how I approach the teaching of the three main goals.

Should Children Have to Audition?

When I first began a children’s choir, long before our parishes’s current Schola Cantorum was born, I took any child who came to me (quite frankly, I needed all the kids I could get). That year was such a nightmare (for a whole host of reasons) that I contemplated shutting down the whole enterprise. In the end I pushed forward and things SLOWLY got better, though I still took everyone who came, regardless of ability or desire.

Several years later I attended my first conference on the training of the child chorister at St. Thomas in New York. Someone in our group asked Dr. John Scott, the choirmaster, how recruiting was going for the choir for the following year, and Scott replied that he was a little concerned because only 8 boys had auditioned and he had only accepted 4 of them (boys who wish to join the Choir of St. Thomas have a pre-audition before they are even allowed to formally audition). It was then that I realized one of the reasons why their choir was so good. Not only did the boys have incredible and inspirational training, they also entered with a high natural aptitude and desire to learn and make music. Admittedly, most parishes have neither the musical nor financial resources to put together such a program, but I firmly believe there is a proper balance between this and the usual “any child can join” policy that exists in the typical parish children’s choir. If you only have time to run one children’s choir with one weekly practice, it is difficult to balance your time between bringing some of the singers up to speed while trying to challenge those who want it, all while dealing with behavior issues from children who don’t really want to be at rehearsal. I would propose the following: begin an “informal” audition to 1) look for a child’s ability to match pitch and determine his general musical aptitude, 2) determine his desire to sing in your choir and finally 3) make sure the child is free from any physical vocal deformities that would make singing of such music impossible.

Regarding pitch and musical aptitude, I only want to know if the child has the capacity to match pitch and to learn (I don’t care if he has never had a music lesson in his life). It is easy enough to present some simple music concept the child doesn’t know and see if he catches on. You will find that most children will have no problem matching pitch and learning simple music concepts.

The second thing to look for, the desire of the child to sing in a liturgical choir, is of the utmost importance. To be honest, this is more important than a child’s natural aptitude for learning music. If you have a chorister who loves to sing and will work his hardest, you have a keeper. I have several home schooled students in our choir who, without my knowledge, decided to sing Elgar’s Ave verum corpus as a communion motet for our city’s monthly Mass for the home schooled community. By pure chance I happened to attend the Mass, and was impressed and proud when they sang it a cappella (they didn’t have an accompanist) and in two parts (and did a great job!). Those kids bring the same pluck and desire to every rehearsal. It makes for a fun rehearsal.

Lastly, I listen for any physical vocal issues that might keep a child from singing, which, to be honest, are very rare. I have only encountered this with two children in my career. I once worked with a young grade school student who wasn’t able to sing a range of more that five notes (he also had difficulties speaking in general), while another child, who was able to sing a wide range at first, lost much of it over the course of a couple of years (he was no where near the age of voice change). His parents took him to the doctor, who discovered a nodule approaching the size of a tennis ball on his vocal chords. After this was removed the child could sing normally again.

It is sometimes difficult not to admit a child to the choir (again, this doesn’t happen often), but I explain to parents that not only am I looking for a child who is a good fit for the choir, I also want the choir to be a good fit for the child. The process is a two way street.

Ely Cathedral Choir

Today I would like to focus on the choir and school at Ely Cathedral. The history of music at Ely is an interesting read and well worth it for any church musician. We often think of the Anglican choral tradition as always having been at its current standard, but that is far from the case. I often wondered why the tradition of cathedral music never crossed the pond from England to America. A large part of that is because many of our early settlers were Puritans. However, I think an equally important reason is that the cathedral music tradition in England really wasn’t worth emulating until the Anglican choral revival, which took place as part of the Oxford Movement in the 19th century. Musical conditions at Ely were considered to be among the worst until that revival. Today, however, Ely has an incredible music tradition, very much alive. The choir comprises some 22 boy choristers, educated at King’s Ely, and 6 plus lay clerks.

Another exciting aspect of the Cathedral Choir is the Cathedral Girl’s Choir, directed by Sarah MacDonald. The girls’s choir began in 2006 and is already at a very high standard. The girls in the choir are of high school age, which lends an emotional depth to the choir’s sound not as easily reached with boys. I have been fortunate to have been in contact with Mrs. MacDonald regarding choristers and sight-singing. She told me that one important aspect of sight-singing is actually the number of times a choir sings each week. She felt that a choir should be singing at least three times each week in order to truly exercise the choristers’ sight-singing abilities. I have never forgotten that.

Finally, I would like to mention the scholarships that each chorister receives at Ely. The boy choristers receive scholarships around 50% of their school fees. For churches that can afford this (or fund raise for it), this is a great incentive for recruiting and retaining choristers, especially when sports have almost entirely taken over the lives of American youth.