Category Archives: Chorister Training

A Call to Educate Our Future Musicians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Defense of the Choir School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Search of the Deeper Meaning

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fr. William Finn and the Catholic Choral Tradition in America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St. Mary’s Cathedral Choir, Sydney Australia

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

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

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

 

Further Thoughts on the Westminster Cathedral Choir

Two weeks ago I shared with readers a letter I sent to the Head Master of the Westminster Cathedral Choir School (London) regarding the school’s recent decision to alter the boarding arrangements of its choristers. I felt (and continue to feel) that such an incredible religious and cultural institution as the Westminster Cathedral Choir must be preserved and promoted at all costs.

The Westminster Cathedral Choir was built, so to speak, by Cardinal Vaughan and Sir Richard Terry, the choir’s first director, in 1901 alongside the actual cathedral, owing to the Cardinal’s belief (and the Church’s) that nothing should be spared in the worship of almighty God and that all the arts, but especially music, should be employed toward that end. If a grand cathedral for London was to be built, then there must be a program of sacred music worthy of the Ancient Rites that would celebrated in it. Sir Richard, a convert to Catholicism and the undoubted leader of the revival of English Renaissance music, fulfilled the cardinal’s desires and made his dream a reality.

In the wider western world, Pope St. Pius X would shorty release his Motu Proprio Tra le solecitudini, calling for the restoration of Gregorian chant as the Church’s music par excellence and for the primacy of Renaissance polyphony above other choral music. At the same time, the early music scene was alive and well in England and much of the early music that Terry unearthed eventually found its was into the cathedral music lists. It was thanks to Terry that we now have the Byrd Masses for 3, 4 and 5 voices and many other gems of the English Renaissance. To this day, the influence of Pope St. Pius X and Sir Richard Terry are evident in the cathedral music lists, where Gregorian chant and polyphony, especially works from the English pen, form the bedrock of the cathedral’s music program.

Equally impressive as Sir Richard Terry are many of the men who took up the baton after him, names such as George Malcom, Colin Mawby, Stephen Cleobury, David Hill, James O’Donnell and now Martin Baker.

A number of years ago I had the privilege of hearing the choir live in concert and even the greatest of expectations I had were blown away. If I had had any misgivings about the $25 ticket I purchased (a large amount in graduate school), they were quickly done away with. I vividly remember being moved that evening by the simple chanting of the Veni Creator in alternatim with Durufle’s variations on the same melody. On my way out, I bought a CD of the choir singing Christmas Vespers and listened to it so much in the ensuing years that many of the tracts no longer played.

There are so many things I would like to share about the Westminster Cathedral Choir, but perhaps I will end with this. Each summer I spend two weeks at Benedictine College in Atchison, KS, teaching high school students in the college’s immersion programs. One of my favorite things to do is to share with these young people how music is able to convey Truth, Goodness and Beauty in a way that the spoken word never could. Listening to Sir James MacMillan’s setting of the famous passage from Matthew 16, Thou art Peter… (Tu es Petrus), we flesh out a greater understanding of the  Petrine ministry in the life of the Church in general and in the life of English Catholics in particular.

In this video we watch as Pope Benedict XVI enters Westminster Cathedral during his pastoral visit to England in 2010, the first visit from a reigning pontiff since the number of practicing Catholics surpassed the number of practicing Anglicans in 2007. The very term “pope,” from the Greek word for “father,” reminds us that our Holy Father is just that, a father, and that a father’s first duty is to provide for, to serve and to protect his children, even fighting for them when necessary. When we realize that Catholicism in England only recently emerged from four centuries of persecution and even now is under new forms of assault from modern culture, MacMillan’s setting, which conjures up images of a great battle, seems especially poignant. One might easily imagine it as a musical backdrop to the epic battles in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Pope Benedict, in this moment, prepares to enter into battle on behalf of his English children, but one is struck by the frailty of the man and realizes that this battle will not be of a physical nature, but of a spiritual one. By the grace of the Sacraments, particularly the Holy Mass, the devil will once again be put to flight. The music acknowledges this truth as it serenely comes to an end and the choir intones the Introit. Pope Benedict, papa, enters into the Holy of Holies, and in persona Christi is victorious over sin and death.

I am reminded of the care with which the Pieta was transported from the Vatican to New York City for the World’s Fair in 1964 and I hope and pray that the Westminster Cathedral Choir will be treated with as much veneration and respect.

Strive for Greatness!

I offer the following as a healthy antidote to so much drivel we hear today in the Church coming from people who should know better. Stop trying to remove the cross from Christianity and from our every day lives. Stop trying to make everything easy, and therefore unimportant. Instead, help us and those around us to pick up our cross and follow Christ.

Consequently, if you are church musician, strive for greatness, both for yourself and for your music program. Don’t stoop to the lowest common denominator. Again I say strive for greatness!

  1. Strive for greatness yourself. Do you strive to become a better musician, singer, organist? Do you strive to better manage your tasks? (and I don’t mean trying to get more done).
  2. Ask those around you to strive for greatness. Do you expect greatness from those around you? Do you always push them to greater heights, without pushing them too far? Do you strive to understand them and what you can do to help them achieve greatness? Do you accept constructive criticism from those same people when they push you toward greatness?
  3. Give your musicians quality music to sing and play and ask them to sing and play it well. Each parish will have a different dynamic, but even if you find yourself in a less than ideal situation, insist upon quality in the music. You won’t find yourself striving for greatness if the best you can hope for is mediocre music done well.
  4. Communicate through the music. I assume you work to get the notes right, but do you work to communicate the text? Yes, what we do is ultimately for God and this should always be first and foremost in our minds. Nevertheless, there is nothing wrong with edifying our parishioners at the same time.
  5. Ask for feedback from sources you can trust. Not everything you do will be great. Make sure you have some trusted sources who think with the mind of the Church, but who nevertheless will tell you when things aren’t going well or could even be better.
  6. Work to build healthy friendships and to know your musicians outside of your music program. Holiness and love for good music is more caught than taught.
  7. Strive for holiness and real communion. This is the most important of all, but don’t think it is holiness versus excellence. Rather, excellence is part of your holiness. Above all else, spend time with our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and do all that you do with Him and for Him.

Regarding the last point, I am reminded of the following passage from the book In sinu Jesu: “This is what I want of you: time “wasted,” spend in My presence. Time given to Me for My sake…Do you think that I was always meeting with My disciples to plan events, to organize and strategize and plot our course of action? All of this is the world’s way of achieving what it sees as results. When I walked with My disciples, when I rested with them, our delight was in being together. They remained with Me for Me alone, and I remained with them out of My love for them, just as I remain in the Sacrament of the Altar out of the love I bear My whole Church…” (102)

 

 

Millennials and Authenticity

Following the recent Synod on the Youth and the comical spectacle of some prelates trying to be relevant to young people by hosting a disco for them in the Piazza della Minerva, I would like to take up the topic of millennials and authenticity once again, especially as it regards sacred music.

If there is one mantra I continually hear regarding this enigmatic group, it is that they desire authenticity–but here we need to define terms. What do we mean by authenticity? What do they mean by authenticity? I think it is necessary to look at the lives most millennials have lived to this point and ask what unreal situations have they faced and experienced and what does this teach us about the reality, or authenticity, that they desire.

First, we start at home. Here we see a generation raised primarily in broken homes, where mother is divided against father and father against mother. Many of their fathers were never present, leaving their mothers to raise the children. Even if their mothers were present, many chose to drop off their children, their family’s greatest commodity if I might put it that way, at the local day care to be raised by surrogate, or unreal parents. Millennials  have had no experience of authentic family.

Second, we look at friendships. Friendships for millennials exist primarily in the virtual worlds of Facebook, Twitter and the many other forms of social media that allow them to be completely engaged with everyone and no one, all at the same time. Over and over we hear of the tragedy of a young person with 500 Facebook friends committing suicide because he didn’t have one real friend. Millennials have had no experience of authentic friendship.

Lastly, we look at religious affiliation. Millennials are leaving the Catholic Church at an alarming rate (around 85%). The Church, or I should say those in the Church, have bent over backwards to be relevant in every way, shape and form to this generation. We have given them everything they wanted, even liberation from God. Millennials have had no experience of authentic holiness.

All of this has left the millennial generation floundering in doubt, disbelief and depression. Is it any wonder they desire authenticity? I firmly believe that deep in the recesses of their souls they want someone to tell them that despite the best propaganda available today, they are not their own gods and don’t need to try to be. Yes, they are sinful (any millennial who takes even a brief look at his life can see that) and need a Savior, and no they cannot save themselves. Instead, there is something, rather Someone, who can. Jesus Christ! More than that, He loves them with an eternal love that seeks to burn away their imperfections and purify them until they are able to love in the way that He loves. This is true authenticity and the only way to bring millennials out of the self-imposed prisons in which they find themselves. At the heart of this transformation lies the turning away from worship of self to worship of the One, True God, as He is and not in the image we wish to make Him.

In this way, the Sacred Liturgy, our worship of the One, True God, and the music wedded to it are of supreme importance. Is the music we sing authentic? Does it speak to the reality of God as He has revealed Himself? Does it authentically present the Christians “story” in all its fullness: creation, the fall, the Incarnation, the Pascal Mysteries, the Second Coming and the Parousia? Does the music’s rhythm and melody work toward the glory of God or toward our own self fulfillment?

In the Roman Rite, this means that chant, especially where it concerns the texts of the Liturgy itself, is of paramount importance, whether in Latin or the vernacular. In addition to plainsong, polyphony should also have a role, but beyond this, there really is a large variety of musics and styles that could be considered authentic for the Sacred Liturgy. Unfortunately, there is also MUCH music that is inauthentic. Pope St. Pius X, in Tra le sollecitudini, gives three criteria for such authenticity: the music must possess 1) sanctity and goodness of form, 2) true art and 3) universality.

A number of years ago the CMAA published a pamphlet entitled Twenty-Four Questions on Sacred Music, and the very first question takes up a defense of these three criteria. I think it fitting to end with its explanation of these three criteria. We should spend time contemplating the music we make and ask ourselves whether it corresponds to these criteria. Is the music we make truly authentic sacred music? It really will have an impact on the millennials we hope to evangelize.*

“On the centenary of its promulgation, John Paul II urged us to revisit and learn from St. Pius X’s letter motu proprio on Sacred Music, Tra le sollecitudini(1903). Pope Pius distinguished three characteristics: “sacred music should consequently possess […] sanctity and goodness of form, which will spontaneously produce the final quality of universality” (§2).

“Concerning sanctity, for music to be sacred means it is not the ordinary, not the every-day. It is set aside for the purpose of glorifying God and edifying and sanctifying the faithful. It must therefore exclude all that is not suitable for the temple — all that is ordinary, every-day or profane, not only in itself, but also in the manner in which it is performed. The sacred words of the Liturgy call for a sonic vesture that is equally sacred. Sacredness, then, is more than individual piety; it is an objective reality.

“Concerning goodness of form, the Latin speaks of bonitate formarum, “goodness of forms”: this refers to the tendency of sacred music to synthesize diverse ritual elements into a unity, to draw together a succession of liturgical actions into a coherent whole, and to serve a range of sacred expressions. Excellence of forms also serves to differentiate those elements, to distinguish the various functions of liturgical chants by revealing their unique character. Each chant of the various Gregorian genres presents a masterly adaptation of the text to its specific liturgical purpose. No wonder the Church has consistently proposed chant as the paradigm of sacred music.

“Sacred music must be true art, says Pope Pius, “otherwise it will be impossible for it to exercise on the minds of those who listen to it that efficacy which the Church aims at obtaining in admitting into her liturgy the art of musical sounds.” Beauty is what holds truth and goodness to their task. To paraphrase Hans Urs von Balthasar, without beauty, the truth does not persuade, goodness does not compel (The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, I: 19). Beauty, as expressed in the Church’s liturgy, synthesizes diverse elements into a unified whole: truth, goodness, and the human impulse to worship.

“Concerning universality, sacred music is supra-national, equally accessible to people of diverse cultures. The Church does admit local indigenous forms into her worship, but these must be subordinated to the general characteristics of the received tradition. By insisting on the continuous use of her musical treasures, especially chant, the Church ensures her members grow up hearing this sacred musical language and receive it naturally as a part of the liturgy.

*While I consider the Sacred Liturgy and Sacred Music to be of paramount importance in the evangelization of all peoples, I also want to acknowledge that these are not the only things necessary. Unfortunately, progressives often set up a false dichotomy between discipleship and the worthy celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, as if one naturally excludes the other, and they use this to downplay the importance of the Liturgy. I refuse to accept this straw man argument. It is both possible and necessary to have both—one cannot exist without the other.

Chorister Catechesis

Each year the Archdiocese of Kansas City (KS) hosts a vocation day for area 5th grade students and as part of the day, Archbishop Joseph Naumann celebrates Holy Mass for all of the students. Quite naturally, he speaks to them in his homily about vocations, both the universal call to holiness given to each person as well as the particular vocation God gives to each Christian in order to live out his call to holiness.

I wasn’t able to attend the Mass this year, but I heard afterward from the mother of one of my choristers (Matthias) that at one point in the homily, the archbishop asked the students what their purpose in live was. One student answered with Matthew Kelly’s to become the best version of yourself. The archbishop acknowledged that was true, but that he was looking for something else, so he asked the question again. Matthias shot his hand in the air and the archbishop called on him. With a volume that only a 5th grade boy can muster, he rattled off that his purpose in life was to know, love and serve God in this life, and to be happy with Him forever in the next. Archbishop Naumann acknowledged that this was what he wanted to hear, strait from the catechism. Matthias’ mother told she she beamed with prided thinking she had done her duty to make sure her son knew his purpose, but when she asked him about it afterward he told her that “part of the credit goes to Dr. Tappan, who makes us tell him at every choir practice what our purpose in life is.” I must confess that I felt a great amount of pride upon hearing that. It is true that I ask each one what his purpose in life is, both on that particular day and for all eternity. I often wonder if what I teach in choir has much of an eternal effect on the lives of my choristers—I hope it does.

In a similar vein, my wife’s aunt and uncle, cattle ranchers in the beautiful Kansas Flint Hills, have five children, four of whom are grown now, but the father told me once that every single day, when they awoke at 5:30 in the morning and put on the first pot of coffee, he asked his children to tell him what their purpose was in life, and they had to be able to answer as Matthias did. The father told me recently that he still asks that question daily of his two grown sons who work on the farm. He also asks his daughters whenever they visit.

About 10 years ago, the middle of their five children, a daughter of only 15 years, was diagnosed with cancer and the family watched as she succumbed to the agonizing disease over the course of more than a year. Still her father asked her that question. What is your purpose in this life?  He told me that he also had long conversations with her about the glory of Heaven and how she was truly blessed because she would arrive there before the others. He told her she would have to pray that the rest of the family made it.

As the cancer worsened, she refused morphine as much as possible, offering up the pain for the conversion of sinners and for the holy souls in purgatory. As her body became so emaciated she stopped having visitors for a time because she was embarrassed by how she looked. It wasn’t long, though, before she asked for visitors again and told her family it was just the devil working on her vanity. The night before she died her family gathered in her hospital room to pray the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross and afterward she told her family that that was the last time that they would pray together, that she was going to go home. She died peacefully the next day as her mom drove home from the hospital and her father was driving to it. It is the only time I can ever remember a parent being filled with joy that his child had made it “home.” I will never forget having had the privilege of chanting the In pardisum at the funeral.

As we remember all of the faithful departed during this month of November, be mindful of the immense power that you as a choir director having in orienting your choristers toward Heaven, so that they, too, might one day be counted among the faithful departed.

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.