Monthly Archives: February 2015

The Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge

The Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, currently under the direction of Andrew Nethsingha, is one of the great collegiate choir in the world, although a relative newcomer to the choral scene.  The choir began in the late 17th century, but it was not until the 20th century that its reputation rose to international status, thanks to Dr. George Guest, the choir’s director from 1951 to 1991.  In one way St. John’s is similar to King’s (both in Cambridge).  Boys form the treble line while college undergraduates sing alto, tenor and bass.  On the other hand, the choral sound is very different.  King’s tends toward a very pure, strait tone (veddy English and veddy Anglican) while St. John’s sings with a more continental tone (think more along the lines of Westminster Cathedral and a prudential use of vibrato), introduced by Guest.  I personally like St. John’s sound very much.

Lastly, I want to write a few things about George Guest (I could write a year’s worth of posts about him).  He had a legendary way of getting his choir to truly communicate text and music to the listener, as opposed to merely singing the piece.  I remember asking someone one (I can’t even remember who, but it was someone who had attended a workshop of Guest’s) how he did this and the man responded that he thought it was Guest’s wonderful, almost poetic command of language.  Guest knew how to communicate well in the spoken medium and was able to transfer this to St. John’s Choir as they sang.

There are two videos below from a two part series made about St. John’s in the late 1970s. There are plenty of clips of the choir as well as interviews with Guest.  Especially listen to Guest’s command of the English language in the beginning of the second video.  He knew how to use words.  Period.  Something more choir directors learn to do!

The Great Secret

Before I begin this week’s post, I want to make a correction to something I wrote last week regarding John Bertalot’s Practical Secret, namely, condition choirs so that you only have to tell them once.  I used the example of a chorister who is not listening when the director tells the choir where in the music they are to begin singing.  I made the point that you should not repeat your instruction, because then the choristers know they don’t have to listen the first time around–surely you will repeat it a second, and possibly a third time.  I wrote that one should instead plow forward so that the student has to figure it out on his own.  While it is true that one should not repeat the instruction a second time in the usual manner and then move on, it is, nevertheless, not true that one should move forward in the way I wrote (students who love choir, but struggle musically, or ones who know musical concepts well, but would rather be goofing off, usually won’t put forth the effort to catch up, which leads to much bigger problems) .  The afternoon after I posted the article, I stood in front of my choristers and that very example became reality, and I realized I needed to do things differently.  I gave the choir an instruction, but one student chose not to listen the first time I said it.  What I did is what is sometimes referred to in education circles as the “no opt out.”  When said student asked me to repeat what I had said, I looked to another student and asked the second student to repeat what I said.  Then (and this is absolutely important!!!) I returned to the original student and asked him to repeat the instruction so that he knew that I would not let him get away with sitting there.  It is amazing how well this works and it eliminates so many behavioral problems with choristers.  Alright, on to this week’s topic–The Great Secret.

Oh, what would it be like to hand my choristers a motet they had never seen and then lift my hands and go?  Oh wait, that is a bi-weekly occurrence in the Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum (my group of choristers).  Last week I handed my choristers Victoria’s O vos omnes, which they will sing on Palm Sunday as well as during our 3 p.m. service on Good Friday.  This is how I began (the story you are about to read is true, but the names have been changed to protect the innocent!).

Me: Susie, what key are are we in?  You are correct, Bb minor.

I didn’t explain that Renaissance music could be sung in any key you liked or that we were really in a mode as opposed to a key.  I was just happy I had 4th through 8th grade students who were singing Victoria.  At this point I played the scale and chord structure of Bb minor and asked them to sing lah, which they did correctly (they knew that the minor began on lah).

Me: Choir, please sing lah. (I didn’t repeat lah for them after playing the scale.  They had to be able to figure it out on their own, which they did.)

Me: Johnny, what time signature are we in?  Yes, Johnny, we are in cut time.  Edward, what does that mean?  That is correct, it stand for 2/2.  Sarah, what does the top 2 mean and what does the bottom 2 mean?  Yes, the top number means two beats per measure and the bottom number means that the half note gets the beat.

Me: As we learn this piece, we will read it as if it were in 4/4 (this works best for my choristers as a whole).

Me: Sopranos and altos, I would like both parts to sing the alto line through measure 16 on solfege, one note at a time.  We will focus on rhythm later (be specific in your instructions!).

I asked both the sopranos and altos to sing because It was a good reading exercise for all the students (I did not play a single note on the piano to help them).  This didn’t go perfectly (70 percent the first time through).  I had to focus on a couple of the difficult leaps.  Next, both parts worked on the rhythm.

Me: Sopranos and altos, I would like both parts to clap the the rhythm and speak the beat of the alto line through measure 16 (all I did was establish the speed of the beat).

My choristers have a fairly good grasp on whole notes, halves and quarters so this line was not a problem (If the line had contained a dotted quarter note, I would have had to stop and make sure a few of the choristers were sure of this rhythm.)  At this point, I asked both parts to sing the line again, this time in correct rhythm.  Next, I repeated the process with the soprano line.  Lastly we put the two parts together, which they sang at about 90% accuracy (the entire process took only 5 minutes).  We spent 15 minutes on the piece and learned through sicut dolor meus (no Latin yet).  Not bad.

If I had taught this piece by rote, it would have taken the choir 15 minutes just to learn the first 16 measures (and they would have forgotten this before the next rehearsal).  I write all of this because it ties in to John Bertalot’s Great Secret: Every moment of all practices must be geared to sight-singing.  If you are going to teach your choir to sight-sing, you must be relentless (in a fun way) about it.  Yes, it takes a lot of time and effort in the beginning, but it pays off in the end.   Bertalot’s goal was to teach each chorister to read well enough that he or she could sing any of the choruses from Handel’s Messiah by sight after three years.  Now THAT is a time saver.  We will get to the how of teaching sight-singing later, but for now, MAKE THE DECISION TO TEACH YOUR CHORISTERS HOW TO READ MUSIC.  You AND your choristers will be grateful!

The Propers

Recently Dan Craig wrote a guest article at the Corpus Christi Watershed blog regarding the use, or lack thereof, of the Propers within the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, as well the practice of replacing the Propers with less than ideal texts.  In his post’s closing statement he opined “I feel many of our present difficulties (I assume he is referring to liturgical difficulties) would vanish if we simply followed the GIRM.”  I agree with him wholeheartedly and I must admit that I find it rather odd that we tend to replace most of the Propers of the Mass (usually taken from Sacred Scripture) with songs that at best leave the believer in a confused theological state (I think of the text Sing a New Church Into Being).  That being said, I don’t foresee those in authority publicly setting things aright any time soon.

To be honest, I think some of our clergy suffer from the same problem that many dads do, namely, they have lost all sense of what it means to lead as a father.  A good father doesn’t raise his children by following the latest trends, but unfortunately that seems to be the rule of the day.  What about the father who has a spiritual awakening and realizes that his family is far from where it needs to be?  Should he merely resign himself to the fact that his family will never come closer to the good Lord?  Sometimes good priests do the same thing.  I have heard members of the clergy pass the buck and say they are waiting for their bishop to speak about the matter, or for the Church to make a stronger stance.  The priest is waiting for the bishop, the bishop is waiting for the bishop’s conference, the bishop’s conference is waiting for Rome and Rome is, well…  You get the point.

Perhaps the only advise I can offer are a few points:

1) Think of where we have come from regarding music in the Church, even in the last 20 years.  I realize some readers feel the situations in their own parishes are hopeless, but take heart.  There has been an explosion of interest in chant and other great liturgical music in the Church and the younger clergy are on board.  Several years ago a good friend of mine was ordained for a rural diocese and asked me to provide music for his first Mass, which included the Simple English Propers and the English chants from the Roman Missal.  Last May another friend was ordained and he asked me to lead a Schola singing English Propers by Fr. Weber, O.S.B. and Mass XIII.  This year one of the seminarians from our parish is being ordained and he has asked that our parish’s Schola Cantorum sing the Propers from the Graduale Romanum and Juan Padilla’s Missa Ego flos campi for his first Mass.  Take hear and be of good cheer.  It won’t be long before one of these men comes to your parish.

2) Priests, sing the Mass!  You are the father of your congregation and you must lead by example.  I don’t care if you can sing or not (I mean that sincerely).  It will change the way your parish worships and will provide a welcoming environment for the propers.

3) Start a choir school, especially if your parish already has a school.  My parish graduates 50 students every year.  In ten years that will be 500 students who love good liturgical music (Propers included) and know how to make it (and who will have been taught why the Propers are so important).  Imagine how the liturgical landscape would change if even 100 parishes across the nation made the change.  That would be 50,000 people in only 10 years!  It is hard to beat an army that large.

King’s College, Cambridge

One of the most famous choirs of men and boys in the world is the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.  Many music lovers will know of them due to their annual broadcast of Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve.  In the 20th century the choir boasted such famous directors as Aurther Mann, Boris Ord (of Adam lay ybounden fame) and Sir David Willcocks (who doesn’t love his descant for O Come, All Ye Faithful?).  Currently Stephen Cleobury, formerly of Westminster Cathedral, directs the choir, which is composed of 16 choristers (ages 9-13) and 14 undergraduate choral scholars from the university.  The choral scholars do not necessarily “read” (this is the British term for “to major in” or “to study”) music at the university, but rather come from a variety of disciplines.  Regarding the choral scholars, I would like to make the following point.

The use of choral scholars is a wonderful option for cathedrals or churches that struggle to find (or finance) professional male singers to sing countertenor, tenor and bass.  One could easily do the same with men from the local university or college, or one could even mix high school men along with college age men and adult men from the church.  It will be a different sound, but no less valid.

Again, I want to point out that the choir school admits both boys and girls and provides an education for 350 students in addition to the choristers.  The choristers’ duties take place primarily outside of school.  If you are the music director of a parish with a school…  Need I say more!  Also, such famous musicians as Christopher Tye and Orlando Gibbons went through the choir school.

Lastly, King’s college provides vocal instruction both for the boys and for the choral scholars.  This is something that many of the great choir schools have begun doing in the last few decades and I agree strongly with the practice (and highly recommend it if possible).  It is almost impossible to take care of each vocal issue within the context of the choir rehearsal, but a weekly voice lesson provides ample care so that each chorister learns to use his voice to the best of his abilities and with as little tension as possible.

There are so many fine recordings of King’s College that it is difficult to decide on one, so I present three.  The first is a televised recording of lessons and carols from 1954 with Boris Ord conducting.  The second is a recording of Allegri’s Miserere mei, Deus, and the final, well… speaks for itself.  Enjoy!

A Practical Secret

Children can be very infuriating at times.  How often have you announced the name of the motet your choir will be rehearsing next and one of your choristers shouts out “What did you say?”  You repeat the answer to him and before your are finished, another chorister says “What was that?”  You think that is the end of it and you begin working on the motet, only to notice three children looking at you with blank stares.  When you ask them why they aren’t singing, invariably two of the three respond that they didn’t hear what you said (the third child tells you he never received a copy of the music, but on further investigation, you find that it is the very first piece of music in his binder, if only he had looked).  John Bertalot is correct when he says, “Choir directors have to repeat instructions because the choirs have trained their directors.  They have conditioned the director to accept their own low level of concentration so that everything must be said two or three times to enable everyone to hear and respond.  I am in charge of this choir and they do things in my way, not vice versa.”

I have always found that rehearsals that move along at a decent pace, with little wasted time (including me talking) are the best rehearsals.  More music is covered and choristers generally have a feeling of accomplishment.  They don’t like to sit around while I repeat instructions multiple times for the benefit of those with selective hearing (if I had told those choristers it was break time, every one of them would have heard it the first time and would have been out the door before I could repeat what I said).  So… how do you recondition your choristers?

As Bertalot writes “You first have to get their attention.  You may have to do this in the old way, by repeating your call for silence.  Then you tell them that from now on, when you tell them something you will do it only once.”  Then you have to stand by what you said–NO MATTER WHAT!  From personal experience, those choristers who never catch what you say will begin to ask their neighbor to repeat your instructions.  This is when you start rehearsing the work immediately so that their neighbors are all singing and can’t respond.  The chorister who didn’t hear you the first time will have to look at his neighbor’s music to find out where he should be.  If you keep this up, those choristers with selective hearing WILL begin to hear you the first time.  You will waste much less time and you will enjoy the new found energy of your rehearsals!

A Practical Secret: Condition choirs so that you have to tell them only once.

Next week: the Great Secret.

Westminster Cathedral Choir School

“In his book “Why Catholics Can’t Sing,” author Thomas Day recounts the story of a certain American couple that had long had an abhorrence for the sung Mass (Missa Cantata), preferring instead the Low Mass, where peace and quiet (one might more accurately say the lack of crooning and warbling) prevailed. While vacationing in England, the husband and wife found themselves in London one particular morning, and on the advice of the hotel clerk decided to attend Holy Mass at Westminster Cathedral, naturally opting for the Low Mass. Shortly before Mass began, “majestic organ music thundered through the cathedral,” and they realized to their horror that this particular Mass was to be the High Mass. Immediately they held council and decided to leave, but as they rose from their pew to make their get-away down the center aisle, they saw with dismay the procession already beginning its pilgrimage to the altar. They were trapped and could do nothing but grin and bear it. However, what proceeded took them by absolute surprise—the beauty and power of the music wedded to the eternal liturgy struck them to the core.  They experienced nothing less than what many others have experienced in many places and in many different times and cultures—the power of music to convey eternal truths in a way the spoken word could never do.  Such an art as that practiced by the Choir of Men and Boys at Westminster Cathedral is only possible via a living and breathing community of musicians (in this case a choir school) that has dedicated itself to the practice of sacred music within the cathedral.” (from my DMA document on the choir school)

Westminster Cathedral in London, England, might arguably be home to the greatest Catholic sacred music program in the world.  The cathedral’s choir is the only cathedral choir in the world to maintain the tradition of daily singing the Holy Mass and Vespers.  “The cathedral, a beautiful building in the Byzantine style (it remains unfinished to this day), was to become a home for Cardinal Vaughan’s (the cathedral’s builder) views and hopes for the sacred liturgy. He felt that all the arts must work together alongside a well executed liturgy in order to give God fitting worship, and he considered music to be of the highest importance.” (taken from my DMA document on the choir school)  Fortunately, Cardinal Vaughan’s vision is alive and well at Westminster today.

I don’t mean to disparage any of the many great cathedral choirs and choir schools in existence, but I chose Westminster Cathedral Choir School to be the first of several choir schools I write about because I think it represents a benchmark or a gold standard for sacred music in the Latin Rite Catholic world and because it has reached this benchmark using children.  I am continually amazed by what these boys are capable of achieving.  Just take a look at the repertoire, both for Sunday and ferial Masses and Vespers, they sing on a regular basis.  While Gregorian chant and classical polyphony definitely form the backbone of the choir’s repertoire, the choir, nevertheless, sings music of all eras and commissions new works on a regular basis.  The group’s founding choir master, Sir Richard Terry, wrote a book entitled Catholic Church Music, which still contains valuable information for those working with children.  I encourage you to become familiar with this choir and their work.


Finally, I want to make a couple of “take home” points for those who read this article.

1) Sacrosanctum concilium declared “The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care. Choirs must be diligently promoted, especially in cathedral churches (114).” In addition to providing appropriate music for the liturgy, I firmly believe that one of the primary duties of church musicians is to recruit and train new generations of musicians.  The cathedral, being the principal church of the diocese, should lead this charge on both accounts and the choir school provides an excellent model.

2) Even if you don’t work in the cathedral setting, the choir school is a great model.  If your parish has a school, that school should be fostering the treasury of sacred music in its students to the extent that it is able.

Next week, the cathedral choir school at Regensburg!