Category Archives: Chorister Training

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.

Sound Does Matter

As we stand upon the threshold of a New Year, waves of joy and apprehension simultaneously flood my soul as I arrive, rested, back to work following a beautiful holiday vacation. Mind you, I don’t consider Christmas “done in” yet, nevertheless our new year of grace presents a time for fresh beginnings and in that vein I feel obligated to press for one particular New Year’s resolution from you and your music program—namely, switching from a predominantly fake system of amplification (that thing we call the microphone) to the beauty of natural resonance.

I confess an innate disgust for all things fake, but the microphone stands as a doubly dreaded foe due to my unfortunate lack of technical prowess. Perhaps it’s only my personal experience, but its use seems to fall into two camps in the Church. Ordinary Form parishes worship the microphone as the unum necessarium, the one thing necessary, to bring the Liturgy to life, while Extraordinary Form parishes tread upon the microphone as one attacks a venomous serpent. Thus I find the shear volume of the Ordinary Form parts my hair down the middle (but at least can hear the homily!) while the quiet of the Extraordinary Form graciously envelops me (even during the homily!). I realize this contemplative nature is due as much if not more to the very nature of the Extraordinary Form, but I wouldn’t mind a little updated amplification during the homily. It makes me feel unduly past my prime when my wife and I are forced to whisper back and forth throughout the 40 minute long sermon asking each other “what did he say?” Alas!

I will never forget about a decade ago entering the local church to pray and noticing that the pastor had a man from Bose Sound Systems on site testing new sound equipment. The priest read passages from Scripture as the technician experimented with various sounds levels and microphone positions, while the speakers, placed in the sanctuary facing the nave, produced such a loud cackle that I couldn’t even pull my thoughts together to pray. In a sense, I understood every word. As a matter of fact, I was beaten over the head by every one of them. Yet I had no space in which to contemplate the WORD because there was no silence, no quiet, no stillness. The pastor and I were friends, so he left the sanctuary to ask me what I thought. What ensued was a short conversation about the nature of the Sacred Liturgy and its twofold purpose of worship and sanctification. We spoke of the difference between the Catholic Mass and a Protestant worship service, the former by necessity sung as the Church’s eternal hymn of praise, while the latter is almost entirely spoken due to its over emphasis on the written word of God to the exclusion of the Word of God.

The sung Liturgy is much less attached to the microphone due to the repetitive nature of the Ordinary of the Mass and the natural resonance of the singing. Plus, the gift of silence offers one the priceless pearl of contemplation. Ask any mother what she would like after a day at home with the young ones and I guarantee you she won’t ask for more noise. Perhaps Christians share the same boat. They are simply tired of the noise.

I don’t know if my conversation with Father was the catalyst, but I noticed later that when the new sound system arrived, the speakers were mounted in numerous indirect locations to the congregation, replicating a pleasing and natural resonance. It was perfect!

On the other hand, most church musicians  follow the Rolling Stones amplification model of QUANTITY over quality. I watch in amusement as some church bands practically caress the microphones as they get tooled up (do I hear strains of Preciousssssss……) and later as they perform. Quite frankly it’s exhausting to listen to and practically douses any warm strains of congregational singing with the iciest of waters.

I felt somewhat vindicated recently when a good friend and far greater intellect (Dr. Kevin Vogt, Director of Music at St. Michael the Archangel in Leawood, KS) posted a New York Times article on Facebook entitled Dear Architects: Sound Matters—a wonderful read about acoustics and the forgotten ingredient in architecture–sound.

Vogt commented by way of a forward to the article that “while many people appreciate the beauty and reverence of our celebrations at St. Michael, many others feel it is lacking affective appeal. There are a lot of reasons why this might be, but those of us who experience and think about this every day believe that while our sound system is excellent, the scale of the room and the lack of early sound reflections make any unamplified sound very quiet and isolated…”

Chant and polyphony (and even congregational hymnody) developed before electrical amplification and I firmly believe that proper acoustics are essential to their success (I will spare you a long tangent about the overtone series). As Dr. Vogt recognizes, “As Catholics, we believe that Christ is truly present in the assembly of the baptized, when it prays and sing, and so the very sound of the Church praying and singing is ‘sacramental.'” The Church’s music loses much of its sacramental power when its natural voice is destroyed. Imagine the difference between chant sung in a carpeted bungalow as opposed to a Gothic cathedral (or even a humble country church from the 19th century for that matter).

Dear Architects: Sound Matters rightly makes the connection between sound (not just the amount, but the very quality of it) and the fittingness of a building (does it do what it is supposed to). For example, “an expensive, solid wood door sounds better than an inexpensive hollow one, partly because its heavy clunk reassures us that the door is a true barrier, corresponding to the task it serves.” In another place the author writes “If only subliminally, we also know, by contrast, when sound spoils architecture because it fails to correspond to funtion. The bygone Shea Stadium in Queens was joyless partly because the design of its low, wide semicircle dissipated the sound of a cheering crowd into Flushing Bay. Fenway Park in Boston is the reverse; it concentrates hometown joy.” Such a dichotomy is an apt description for many of our churches.

What good is it training choirs to praise God beautifully and to communicate the Gospel effectively if at the end of the day the congregation feels isolated by cold and emotionless music? I realize it is “right and just” to give God what He deserves whether people feel good about it or not, but in today’s climate the church musician is under fire from a thousand different voices shouting at him through more than microphones to be relevant. What musician would continue to offer such an invitation to serial martyrdom when no matter how well he does his job, the acoustical devil spits his work back in his face Sunday after Sunday. Maybe the first step is to slowly ween congregations from amplified sound (this Sunday perhaps), or if amplification is necessary, to convince one’s parish to invest in a high quality system that delivers necessary but understated amplification effectively. That would make a fantastic Resolution!

St. Mary’s Cathedral Choir, Sydney

It has been some time since last I posted about one of the great cathedral choirs in the world, so what better time than the present to write about about St. Mary’s Cathedral Choir and its accompanying Cathedral College (choir school), the only Catholic cathedral choir school in the southern hemisphere. The choir, founded in 1818, constitutes the oldest musical group still in existence in Australia.

Thomas Wilson is the current Director of Music and probably more than anyone has brought the choir to an incredibly high and enviable position in the Church music world. Wilson is originally from New Zealand and at the age of 18 was made the director of music at Wellington’s Metropolitan Cathedral. He eventually made his way to London and to the Royal College of Music and ended up as the assistant organist at Westminster Cathedral before returning to the bottom side of the world.

He noted that “One of the things about growing up in New Zealand was being given opportunities that I might not have had elsewhere. I was allowed to learn by making mistakes. Then when I was given the chance to go overseas to London I very quickly realized where the level was. I remember being absolutely driven to be part of that, to swim in the same current as these incredible musicians I encountered in the Royal Academy and at Westminster Cathedral.”

Early in his tenure at St. Mary’s he began the tradition of singing Vespers daily (the choir already sang Holy Mass each day) and hired professional men as lay clerks. This commitment to professionalism is sorely lacking in too many of our great Catholic churches today (although there are a number of shining lights here and there) and it is refreshing to see it coming from unlikely places.

I would like to leave you with a couple of videos of the choir singing. First the boys, then the changed voices (the choral scholars) and finally the professional men and boys singing Allegri’s Miserere mei, Deus. Enjoy!

Forming the Next Generation of Church Musicians

Recently I stumbled across a fantastic read, a DMA document entitled The Choir School in the American Church: a study of the choir school and other current chorister training models in Episcopal and Anglican parishes, by Daniel McGrath (2005). I share it with readers today because McGrath is the first author I have found who systematically and succinctly describes the the nature of, as well as the various models of, the Anglican choral system (both in England and in the United States), a model I feel passionately about and one that I believe has the power to inaugurate a true renewal of sacred music.

There isn’t a church musician I know of who isn’t concerned about the state of church music in the western world, but rarely do I find one who knows what to do about it. Obviously our university system with its decline number of organ departments as well as choral conducting departments hasn’t provided the answer. Consider the current situation in music schools where students learn about Renaissance music for one semester and are assumed to have the skills necessary to tackle the repertoire. On the other hand, choristers in the English choral system begin singing large portions of the best of Renaissance music around the age of 9 or 10 and do it repeatedly for four and five years as sopranos. If they are boys they go through the same repertoire again as countertenors, tenors and basses during their time in the Oxbridge colleges. Which program do you think is more successful?

A number of these same students are already accompanying services on a regular basis at a young age. How many young organists in America are accompanying world class choirs and helping to train younger choristers in junior high. Which program do you think is more successful?

One might object that the English choral system is tied too closely to England and the Anglican community to present a model for Catholic parishes, but I would argue otherwise. Firstly, the English choral system grew out of  the monastic, collegiate and cathedral music foundations in existence long before the English Protestant Revolt. Secondly, the system is extremely diversified even among the English Cathedrals–there is no “one size fits all” way of executing it, and this diversity makes it extremely adaptable to other places. At the heart of this system is the development of a beautiful and natural vocal tone, musical literacy, and singing high quality liturgical music on a regular basis within the church service. There is nothing here that couldn’t be adapted to the people of Russia, South Africa, Argentina or the United States.

I would encourage those interested in the English choral tradition to read McGrath’s document and familiarize themselves with what actually constitutes a choral foundation and determine if this wouldn’t work for your parish.

Then read and learn about the three main forms of the English choral foundation. In its highest form is the true choir school, a boarding institution that educates only choristers. In reality, there are only two such institutions left in the world today, Westminster Abbey and St. Thomas, NY, and I doubt this avenue would be useful for most. The second form of choral foundation is the parochial school, usually a preparatory school of some kind, that educates both choristers and non-choristers, but makes the necessary allowances for the musical education of the former. This model is perfect for many Catholic parishes sporting an attached school. Lastly is the after-school model, where choristers are drawn from the surrounding schools and educated either before or after school. This construct might easily serve the school-less parish or the parish with a school music program that has not yet been put under the vision of a pastor who wants to implement the Modern Roman Rite in continuity with the Older Form and the hopes of the Second Vatican Council. The author also gives advice for implementing each of these options.

One last point McGrath makes is how important it is that choral foundations are properly supported. In England the force of tradition as well as that of the monarchy and parliament (many of these institutions are enshrined in law and supported by taxpayer money) ensure their continuation, but such is not the case in America. Instead he suggests that it is the the pastor (and I dare say the bishop) who must support the formation and continuation of good choral foundations. I believe that the more the clergy realize that such schools are important centers for Christians formation, the more they will support them.

I also hear complaints (well founded) that these institutions are not cheap, but restructuring the budget in 50% of parishes would probably do the trick. Lastly, I realize that there aren’t the musicians around to found such choir schools, but the more choral institutions are founded in the US, the more great musicians will be fostered.

I want to paint a picture of what such places could accomplish in the Church. There are currently almost 200 cathedrals in the United States. If each of these cathedrals were to found a choral institution of some kind, each graduating approximately 10 children per annum, that would mean 2000 young people receiving such a formation each year. Within one generation (20 years) 40,000 young people would have been formed in the Church’s vision for the Sacred Liturgy and music. That would be an absolute game changer. Until we start forming our youth in the Church’s treasury of sacred music we will continue contracepting our musical future to death.

An Unpleasant Task

Last week I wrote an article about the chorister audition process and this week I would like to follow it up with another that tackles the ensuing problem of how to deal with the child or adult who either lacks the necessary choral skills to thrive in the choir or whose temperament prevents him from being a fully committed team member. I realize that even suggesting such a termination runs counter to the modern philosophy that everyone should be able to follow his dreams and do as he pleases, but if I had followed every whim in my life I might currently be the worst heart surgeon in America, quite possibly jailed and on death row for have killed more patients than I helped. I thank God that I realized early on that music, and not science, was my avocation. The choirmaster, too, has to help those under his care to reach their potential.

First of all, I want to stress that the vast majority of children and even adults are capable of singing in some sort of choir, if only to fulfill the basic human need for community and joining in the joy of making music. But what does one do with the chorister (child or adult) whose presence in the choir poses a detriment to the group? I find the following categories generally encompass such singers:

  1. those who cannot match pitch,
  2. those who can match pitch but who don’t enjoy singing (adults in this category rarely join the choir, but children who find themselves in this camp are sometimes forced to by well meaning parents who desire that their children enjoy the fruits of the choral experience),
  3. those struggling with vocal issues that cannot be corrected by vocal coaching alone, and finally,
  4. those who possess a decent voice, or even a very good one, but who considers him or herself better than the rest of the team, or worse,  sow discord among his fellow singers.

Generally, adults who can’t match pitch aren’t running to join their local choir, although it has been known to happen. More often than not one finds the adult who struggles matching pitch in certain situation. The director must decide if he has the time to work individually with that person or not. Perhaps he or she is in the wrong section, has never sung in the head voice, sings next to someone whose voice does not blend with his or hers or needs to stand next to a strong voice.  Ultimately, singing in tune is more about listening than anything else. However, if such helpful attempts fail, you have a problem.

I do accept a child into our Junior Choir as long as he or she can match pitch at even the most elementary level (accepting such children into the Senior Choir is another matter entirely) and find that with continual training most children advance in time. I remember one chorister in particular who grasped music theory very quickly but couldn’t sing and match more than a few notes. Her mother and I agreed on a six week trial period for her in the choir, during which time she made slow but continual progress. After a year she became one of the leading choristers in her age group. At the same time, this isn’t always the case and it is possible and even likely that one will encounter the child who is unable match more than a couple of notes even after individual instruction. What is one to do?

What about the child whom God gifted with gold in his throat and a healthy dose of musical intelligence, but who simply doesn’t like to sing (why does God do this?). Sometimes spending a few extra minutes befriending him will change his attitude, especially if he enjoys being with the other children in the choir. On the other hand, I have encountered children who simply dislike the physical act of singing and nothing I do changes their attitudes. Often they excel playing instruments or singing in other types of choir and I encourage this.

As for those with physical vocal problems that cannot be corrected, I find this rare in children and more prevalent in adults, especially those who have abused their voices through years of misuse, such as constant yelling or singing improperly, which results in nodules on the vocal chords. Sometimes the director can correct or mitigate these problems with judicious vocal coaching and/or vocal rest, while at other times a doctor’s help is necessary.

Lastly, one encounters the prima dona attitude, or worse, the singer who sows discord amongst choir members. While the first is annoying, the second is unbearable. The first endangers choral moral, the second will destroy it. In general, a full choir of amateurs who work as a team is preferable to a choir with one or two leaders and sixteen followers. Your choir will advance much faster working as a team. As for the singer who sows discord, there is no other course of action save the termination of such a relationship. It simply won’t work.

Of course, these situations beg the question of how to deal with them effectively. First, charity is key. If each of your singers knows that he or she is appreciated as a person as opposed to a voice, he or she will bear constructive criticism better. Also remember that the director is not just looking out for the welfare of his choir, but also the welfare of each of his singers. Is it charitable to leave a person in a situation in which he has no hope of flourishing? If the above situations can’t be rectified, the choir director has no choice but to charitably ask the chorister (again, child or adult) to leave. Sometimes this conversation turns out well and sometimes it doesn’t, but it does need to take place. There is no way around it. Be sure to pray before you do it and perhaps inform you pastor who he isn’t blindsided by an angry email or phone call.

I readily admit that I am not confrontational by nature and have often allowed personnel problems to fester until they become emergencies, but this only results in good people leaving the choir before the proverbial “rotten apples.” I realize it is hard, but perhaps this is the balance we are called to live–truth in charity. Your program will be better for it.

Chorister Recruiting and Auditioning

It is that time of year when once again I recruit and audition new choristers for the coming choral year. To be honest, I prefer the actual rehearsing and directing of the choir to its management (a necessary evil), but it must be done and there really is no secret formula I use. I find the more children you have in your parish the easier it is. It also helps if your parish has a school and/or an active home school community. I always start by sending a note home with parents of school children and emailing the home school community, and depending on how many responses I receive (or don’t receive), I sometimes call families and make the personal ask.

The audition itself is very straight forward and usually takes about 10 minutes, although I know within the first minute if I plan to accept the child into the choir. After engaging in a bit of small talk, I ask the child to sing Happy Birthday, which seems to be the only song left which American boys and girls still know by heart. Sometimes a child struggles with the octave leap in the middle so I work with him to sing it on pitch, which usually entails helping him to sing in the head voice. If the child sings the song mostly on key I accept him into the choir.

Next, I ask the child to read the first paragraph or two from Psalm 51(50), especially noting how he tackles words like iniquity and transgressions. You are going to have an easier time with the child who slows down and attempts to sound out the word than the one who substitutes it with another word beginning with the same first letter and then seems bored when you try to help him figure it out. I have found without exception that the better a child is at reading the easier time he will have learning to sight-sing.

The rest of the audition I spend testing the child’s ear and voice. I have each one sing a few scales up and down and note the child’s range and vocal quality. Then I test his ear by having him sing back to me random pitches on the piano, a descending half-step scale of 5 notes and a short 2 measure melody, which I make more or less difficult depending on how the child has performed so far. The last ear test I put a child through is to sing back the notes of an inverted chord I play on the piano. It is rare that a child sings all three notes correctly, but most can find the highest note, and quite a few the tonic of the chord. Finally, I clap several rhythms and ask the child to clap them back.

Of course, one might ask why I put a child through all of this when I already know if I plan to accept him into the choir. First, even an informal audition lets the child and his family know that the choir is an important part of the life of the parish and a commitment he should take seriously. Secondly, it allows me to make a better assessment of a child’s abilities and willingness because it isn’t just about finding the right singers for the choir, but also about making sure the choir is good for the child. Thirdly, it allows me to know where children are musically and how best to help them to progress, and finally, to discover which ones are best suited to become Senior Choristers because of the special cultivation each one will need. This might sound elitist, but when each child is pushed to reach his potential, the overall musicality of the choir always improves. Happy Recruiting!

Take 2 Vocal Lessons and Call Me in the Morning

I fondly remember a warm, Sunday afternoon in May a number of years back talking with an old friend at her parish’s yearly picnic as a local men’s quartet entertained us with ballads from the fifties and sixties and other folk music. During a lull in the conversation I watched in fascination as one of the tenors strained to reach notes obviously out of his range. I had never heard the chest voice forced so high in the male register. The veins and muscles in the man’s neck tightened and popped. He strained harder and harder and jutted his chin higher and further in the air in an attempt to hit the notes. After each number he guzzled at least one full bottle of water, but nothing helped. If he had had someone to coach him even a few times it would have changed everything. When he sang in a comfortable register he actually had a pleasant voice.

I  wonder how many of us assume that the voices present at our rehearsal are the voices we are stuck with. I have heard directors comment that if they could hire professional voices like those at St. So-and-so’s, their choirs would sound better. While it is always nice to have a few strong leaders in each section, I wouldn’t give up on your choir members. Long ago I made the decision that I would use the  warm-up period to create the choral sound I desired with the singers I had and it made an incredible difference. What follows are a few points for reflection for those who want to achieve a better sound from their choirs but don’t know where to start.

First, you must have a clear idea in your own head of the sound you want. I would suggest a natural, resonant tone, free of any unnecessary vocal strain. It might be helpful to listen to recordings of choirs that sound the way you want your choristers to sing. Once you possess an ideal, all that is left is to break down your goal into manageable steps by which you can achieve it. Record your choir at regular intervals to mark their progress and to discover if what you think you hear is actually what is being heard. Even if you had the luxury of a fully professional ensemble, there would always be room for improvement, and choir members who know they are improving are generally excited about coming to rehearsals. Lastly, don’t give your singers music they can’t handle (I stand guilty as charged!).

Finally, if you have never had voice lessons, I would encourage you to do so for at least a semester, if not a year, and then apply what you have learned in small ways each week to your choral warm-up and to the music your choir sings. This alone will pay big dividends and you will be amazed at how you and your choir grow.

Chorister Vocal Training at the Regensburg Cathedral Choir School

If a picture is worth a thousand words a video is worth ten thousand. Some day I would love nothing better than to create a series of videos that systematically deals with training voices of children, both individually and within the choral setting. I feel this is a true need for many of our church musicians who want to train the youth of their parishes, but who feel utterly overwhelmed by the prospect. Unfortunately my ability to navigate technology is at about the same level as my ability to sing in 4 part harmony simultaneously, so the project will have to wait for more favorable times. However, I would like to share a video with our readers for the interim.

Here you will find a fine documentary (2009) produced about the Regensburger Domspatzen, the choir of men and boys at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Regensburg, Germany, which has filled the ancient city and cathedral with glorious music for more than a millennia. At the heart of the choir is its choir school, where boys have been formed year after year into one of the great choirs of the world. Pope Benedict’s brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, directed the choir for 30 years and marked the choir’s 1000th anniversary during his tenure.

The documentary is in German (unfortunately without subtitles), but the sections I have listed below provide a glimpse into how the choristers are trained and can generally be followed without any knowledge of the German language. I hope they provide a glimpse into the great tradition of training children our treasury of sacred music.

Video 1: (02:02) This section shows the choir’s vocal instructor giving group vocal lessons to new recruits. She leads them through vocal sirens, which place the voice in the head voice and develop resonance.

Video 2: (00:48-03:25) More of the above, but with added work on the chest voice. The German choir, in my opinion, place a greater stress on developing the chest voice than their counterparts in England.

Video 3: (00:01-01:05) This video continues to show the development of the head and chest voices with the addition of proper vowel formation. You will notice how each chorister learns to shape his mouth and lips to create a tall, open space for tone production. (06:29-end): Here the choristers sing parts of the round (that isn’t really a round) Das Orchester (here in English), in which each voice, or part, imitates one of the instruments in an orchestra. This song is great in that it can be used to teach many things, including singing in parts, legato and staccato, high and low, head voice and chest voice (as well as blending both together), etc.

Video 4: (04:27-06:23) This clip shows the voice trail to determine which choirs the new boys will be placed in. One item to note is that these boys are vetted vocally before they ever arrive at the school. If you are just beginning such a children’s choir, you will not have the luxury of being so choosy. (08:13-end) Here is the first rehearsal in choir for the new boys.

Video 5: (01:11-02:40) Here we see Sister measuring the new boys for cassocks and surplices. (02:45-04:15) This video provides a look at a full choir rehearsal. The Domspatzen (which literally means “cathedral sparrows”) relies upon the German tradition of using high school boys whose voices have changed to sing tenor and bass. Note the different sound they make as opposed to the English tradition, which relies upon professional male singers whose voices have fully matured. (08:10-09:20) This clip shows the full choir singing together in the cathedral. This is not the primary cathedral choir, but a training choir. You will notice the difference in quality between this and other parts of the documentary which show the main choir singing. Unfortunately the choir routinely sings for Mass standing in front of the original main altar.

Video 6: (01:18-02:00) Here we see students in individual instrument practice, especially piano practice. There is not a choir school I know if that doesn’t provide its choristers individual piano lessons, which are essential to a fuller understanding of theory and music in general, especially how individual lines of music work together. (04:37-05:36) Finally, we see in video 6 the importance of learning solfege.

Video 7: (04:37-05:32) Along with individual piano lessons, most choir schools now provide a weekly voice lesson for each chorister. It is not uncommon for the vocal coach to routinely visit choir rehearsals and even lead warm-ups from time to time in order to form healthy vocal habits in choristers.

Video 8: (00:00-01:52) This video shows auditions for the main choir cathedral choir. Notice that the vocal coach as well as another choir director sit in. This provides the director additional input and feed back and helps makes the decision much more impartial. (03:29-06:15) First we see a boy singing a the German Lieder. I have noticed that the German choir schools place a greater emphasis on the entire German vocal tradition rather than simply on sacred music. I feel this is one reason for the different sound produced by German choirs, which makes more use of vibrato and a healthy inclusion of the chest voice, what is commonly referred to as the continental sound. Lastly, we see Dr. Buchner (head of the cathedral choir) workng with the new boys to creating the choral sound he desires. This is critical. Such fundamentals must be practiced on a regular basis, which I find is one of the hardest things for choristers to do (they just want to sing!), but a great choir is not possible without this.

Video 10: (01:03-end) Here we see the result of so much hard work, the main choir singing in the cathedral.