Monthly Archives: February 2015

Bristol Cathedral Choir and Choir School

Last Friday I wrote about a website entitled Of Choristers, which gives a brief history of many of the Anglican choir schools in Great Britain.  While they are not Catholic choir schools, there is, nevertheless, so much that we can learn from them (I often frown when a pastor or friend from a parish with a school tells me how awful the music is and how there is no one to provide better.  It seems obvious to train the children in the school.  I don’t know why this is such a hard concept).  And to be honest, a large portion of their repertoire is Catholic (one is bound to hear much more Catholic music in an Anglican cathedral than in a Catholic cathedral, something that grieves my heart).

Today I would like to begin going through these choir schools and share with you what I have learned, so I will start with the Bristol Cathedral Choir and School.  The first thing you should do is listen to a recording.  The following is a YouTube video about their recent trip to Poland.  Focus on the choral sound.  Is it something you like?  Why?  Do they sing just the notes on the page, or do you hear joy in their voices as they sing Jubilate Deo?

Visit the choir’s website.  I always like to see how many singers are in the choir.  In this instance there are 14 boys and 14 girls (who are called choristers) and 10 men, 6 of whom are lay clerks and 4 of whom are choral scholars.  Now you ask, “What is a lay clerk?”  The word clerk comes from the word cleric, referring to the time when the choir was comprised of clergy.  A lay clerk is a layman who stands in in the place of a cleric.  The choral scholars are usually men around college age who sing with the choir and receive some sort of a scholarship at a local university and possibly receive specialized vocal training as well. The boys and girls sing only the treble line, while the Gentlemen of the Choir sing countertenor, tenor and bass.  Usually the choir sings 6 services per week, although sometimes only the men, or boys or girls alone sing a particular Choral Evensong.  They practice each morning before school and before each service.  You can also visit the Bristol Cathedral Choir School webpage.  I noticed there are more than 400 students enrolled.  So…what can I take from this brief look.  Here are just a few things I noticed.

1) There are only 28 students in the choir.  It is amazing to me that only 28 voices fill a very large Cathedral.  You don’t need a choir of 80 children (or even 40) to fill your parish church.  Does your parish have at least 28 students?  More than likely.

2) The choir school educates 400 plus students, none of whom board.  I work for a parish with a school of 400 students (none of whom board).  Why can’t I recruit at least that many for a children’s choir (to be honest, I already have!).  Priest, why don’t you consider using music instruction time in your schools to teach liturgical music?

3) The choristers only sing the treble line, while professionals, or at least very competent male singers provide alto, tenor and bass (this doesn’t mean the choristers don’t harmonize–very often, the soprano part is split).  Most parishes will not be able to afford professional singers to sing the lower parts (even if a parish could afford it, it is hard to find them unless you are in a large city or near a major university), but children can be taught to sing in harmony, so the soprano and alto lines are taken care of.

4) The choristers sing roughly 6 services per week and practice 5 days a week, plus rehearsals before services.  I will admit, if you want to teach your choristers to sight-sing to the level of such a choir, they will need to sing at least 3 services per week with as many practices.  Sight-singing is an art and takes constant practice.  If your parish has a school and your choristers come from the school, why couldn’t they sing for Mass on Sunday and twice for daily Masses (often the school children already attend Mass once or twice a week as part of their routine).

If you really feel bold, email the choir director.  Tell him you direct a children’s choir (with a short description of how many children, how long the choir has been in existence and how often you practice) and that you have admired his work.  Then ask him a question.  Perhaps you would like to ask how he auditions the choristers or how he runs the choral warm-ups.  Very often they are very willing to help.  You never know how much this might help your choir?  Basically, learn as much as you can so that you can help your singers.  They will thank you for it!

What if you never had to “teach” your choir notes again?

     The boys of Westminster Cathedral Choir, London, are legendary for their sight-singing capabilities.  Msgr. Lawrence Hull, who at one time sang as an adult member of the choir under its famous founder, Sir Richard Terry, reminisced: “I well remember…the suggestion for a Continental tour.  A maestro of one of the great churches, delighted at the prospect of a visit from Dr. Terry and his choir, and wishing to be as accommodating as possible, wrote to say that he would willingly send the music it was proposed to sing, in order that it might be learned.  His letter was read to the boys, who all chuckled in genuine amusement at the idea of having to ‘learn’ any music.  They were used to singing-practices in plenty, but never for learning notes.”
     One of the greatest investments you will ever make in your singers is to take the time to teach them to sing at sight.  Think of the mother of a 5 year old who teaches her child to help around the house.  It is more work in the beginning, but it provides a great benefit later on.  In addition, the child learns to take ownership in the household and has a greater sense of belonging.  The same is true for your choristers.  But how?  I was not trained to be a music educator, so I have come to most of this through the school of “learning it the hard way.”  To put it in a better light (and to lift your spirits if you have struggled and failed), I think of Edison trying a thousand different times to create the light bulb and failing each time.  When he finally succeeded, he understood the why as apposed to just the how.  You will too.
     I would like to begin our journey into the world of sight-singing with a book by John Bertalot called 5 Wheels to Successful Sight-Singing: A Practical Approach to Teach Children (and Adults) to Read Music.  If you haven’t heard of John Bertalot, treat yourself right now and get your hands on a copy of his book.  It is not only short, but it is fun to read.  Next week I will begin with his Practical Secret.  If you can manage the Practical Secret, the rest will be a piece of cake!

St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle on BBC Choral Evensong

Today on BBC Radio 3, Choral Evensong comes live from St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle.  I look forward to hearing the choir sing Palestrina’s Exultate Deo.  As always, I encourage you to visit the choir’s website, as well as that of St. George’s School to learn more about the choristers and how they are educated.  There is a wonderful video here about the choir.

As in the majority of choir schools throughout the world, St. George’s School educates many more children than the 24 choristers (in this case, the school educates approximately 400 students whom we in America consider to be in grade school and middle school.  For those of you working in parishes with a parochial school, please keep this arrangement in mind!  Enjoy!

Institutions Rather Than Events

Allow me to use an analogy.  Imagine if you will Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens’ beloved character from his novel of the same name.  Oliver’s prospects for enjoying a happy and healthy adult life were less than ideal.  Between the orphanage and the workhouse, and Fagin and Monks, the circumstances of his childhood spelled foreboding for his later years. Had Twist lived in more recent times, he might have been sent to a couple of workshops on family life, with the expectation of his rehabilitation.  Fortunately for him, however, the kindly Mr. Brownlow takes Oliver into his home and cares for him, providing a loving home which proves to be Oliver’s salvation.  It is a beautiful story, but how does it relate to sacred music?

Just as a child’s family generally provide him with the healthiest environment possible, the Church needs institutions where musicians can go to be thoroughly immersed in the art of sacred music, rather than weekend events that can never give full justice to the demands of sacred music (please don’t misunderstand, I think these weekend events do much good for musicians who are already stretched in a million directions, but more is ultimately required).  Fortunately for us, that institution exists and we call it a choir school.  But what is a choir school?  “I posit that a choir school consists of an institution where children are given a well-rounded musical education as well as liturgical formation in the ars celebrandi, and where they put these skills at the service of the sacred liturgy on a regular basis within a specific community (often that of a cathedral or collegiate chapel). In return, these children are given an outstanding elementary and religious education.” (taken from my DMA document on the Madeleine Choir School).  Just as Oliver needed to live in a family to learn what family is about, so too, do our children, our future musicians, need to live and breath in an environment that promotes that greatest of all arts, music.

More on the choir school next week.

Becoming Acquainted with the Choir School

One of my goals in life is to acquaint people with the concept of the choir school.  These grand institutions often practice the art of liturgical music to a high degree–with children!  There is so much we can learn from them.   Something I enjoy doing is nipping around the internet visiting different choir school websites.  If you would like to “get acquainted” quickly, a wonderful sight to visit is Of Choristers.  It is decidedly focused on Anglican choir schools, but the manner in which they train the choristers is extremely relevant to the goals of this blog.  Enjoy reading!

Patience, Patience, Patience

Several weeks I stood in front of 14 probationers (yes, that is too large a group, but more about that in another post) during our weekly rehearsal.  This lively bunch of 8 boys and 6 girls had been working hard, but knew they were nearing break time (the rehearsal is 2 hours long with a 10 minute break in the middle), and of course, there were a couple of boys who were getting restless (what boy wouldn’t in an after school rehearsal like this, right!).  I decided to take a moment to teach a lesson as well as impart some culture before the really important stuff–like snack time–began.  I started recounting a story from Hillaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children (If you have never read these stories, go to and read them with your children TONIGHT!  They make for great, very politically INCORRECT bed time reading) about a boy named Jim and the importance of listening to those in authority.  I barely had time to tell them about “Jim, who ran away from his nurse” when a little girl got so excited that she stammered, “and, and…and he was eaten by a lion.”  No sooner had I told her that she was correct than another little boy shouted out “Hey, there’s a great story in there about a girl who burns to death.”  At this point, almost all of the boys began acting as if they were on fire and the girls had as much fun laughing as the boys did making them laugh.  I had lost all control–time for break!  True, my plan didn’t work, but hey, they knew about Hillaire Belloc.  I guess that Catholic culture is not completely dead!

     I bring this up because before you ever begin working with children you must realize that while it is fun, it can be overwhelming at times.  I have known people who began teaching music in the class room and within a couple of years decided they would rather work for a bank.  So, I tell you Patience, Patience, Patience in Adversity.  You will make it in the end!
     Lastly, as I begin blogging at The Art of the Chorister, I would like to fill in the reader on how I plan to post.  Monday and Thursday will be reserved for the main articles, Monday dealing with the practical aspects of children’s choirs and choir schools in general, and Thursday dealing with the practical aspects of sight-singing and ear training.  Tuesday will be a wild card day (my choice), Wednesday will be dedicated to listening to different choirs and Friday will finish the week with information on various choir schools.  Saturday and Sunday are for my family (you will have to wait until Monday).  I hope you enjoy reading these articles as much as I enjoy writing them.

What choral sound are you trying to achieve?

Each choir director at some point in his career (hopefully very early on) will form in his head an ideal sound for his choir (just because you have an ideal sound, doesn’t mean your choir will sing the same way for Palestrina as it does for Brahms and it doesn’t mean that this sound won’t chance throughout your career).  I have found it beneficial to listen to the great choirs of the world as I continually strive to find my ideal.  One of the great places to hear great music is on BBC Radio 3 ( every Wednesday during their weekly broadcast of Choral Evensong (or when the Catholic choirs in England sing, Choral Vespers).  Today is a great day to start since the Men and Boys of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, are in the docket.  Have fun while you are listening and visit the cathdral’s website, specifically the music page(, and see if there isn’t anything there for you and your choir!

Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum

I have been blessed to work for the past almost seven years for Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Topeka, KS.  When I arrived in 2008 I took over the adult choir and began a children’s choir.  In 2011 we founded the Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum, an after school music program for children modeled after the European choir school, for the formation of future musicians for the parish and for the Church in general.  In 2013 the adult choir was grafted into the program, and today there are more than 30 adults and 45 children (an several student organists) in the Schola Cantorum.  My favorite hours each week are the various rehearsals with the adults (a wonderful family of musicians), the children and the men who sing the Communio and verses during choral Masses.  I look forward to sharing with the readers how this program came about and to encourage others to do the same (If I can do it, so can you!).  In the mean time, please visit Schola Cantorum website ( and like it on Facebook.

*The first video is of the adults singing Palestrina’s Alma Redemptoris Mater.  The second is of the senior choristers singing Boris Ord’s Adam lay ybounden.




The Christmas season is my favorite time during the liturgical year (yes, I realize Easter is the bigger feast), but unfortunately it is tossed in the dustbin the day after Christmas by our secular culture.  On the other hand, I am happy to say that our family’s nativity scene is still proudly sitting in the living room next to our Christmas tree, bedecked with real wax candles that were lit on Christmas Eve (Please don’t waste your time telling me this is a fire hazard.  When was the last time you heard of a Christmas tree catching fire from real candles?  Secondly, don’t ask me when was the last time I heard of anyone having real wax candles on his tree:-).

As a nod to the last day of Christmas, I would like to share William Byrd’s Hodie beata Virgo, sung by the Guildford Cathedral Choir, directed by Barry Rose (we will hear more about him in the future).

(Translation) Today the Blessed Virgin Mary presented the boy Jesus in the temple. And Simeon, full of the Holy Spirit, took Him in his arms and blessed Him for evermore.



A Grand Work!

I still remember the day I walked into Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic School on the first day of my sixth grade year.  Our family had recently relocated from southern Oklahoma to Illinois.  I had never attended a Catholic school before then, and while my family took the Faith very seriously, attending Mass during the week was a new experience for me.  Within the first month of school, our pastor, Fr. James Flach, called all of the 4th, 5th,  6th, 7th and 8th graders together and made it known that the parish was in need of new organists and that he would personally pay for organ lessons for any student who wished to play in the hopes that one would become an organist.  Well… I am that one.  I played the organ during Mass for the first time (during a school Mass) on the Feast of the Guardian Angels and have been at it ever since.  Today I am the one teaching children and hoping that at least of few will follow in the footsteps of a sacred musician (That sounds a little grand.  Perhaps it would be better to say a musician in the field of sacred music!).

Sometimes I feel we forget about the formation of our children in the grand tradition of sacred music.  At the same time, I wonder if some of our many wonderful musicians aren’t a little afraid to stand in front of a room full of children for the first time and raise the baton.  I can’t claim to be Olivier Latry at the organ or Sir Richard Terry leading a smart group of choristers through Byrd’sMass for Five Voices, but there are few people who love working and training choristers more than I do.   I hope that I can pass on the little I have learned to all of those toiling away in their work with young children.  It is grand work indeed!