Monthly Archives: March 2015

Bertalot’s 5 Wheels (Part 2 of 2)

In part 1 of 2 of this post, I covered the first 3 of Bertalot’s 5 Wheels to Successful Sight-Singing. In this post I cover the last 2 wheels.

Wheel Four-Theory and Practice Bertalot writes “Every theoretical point must be made practical and vice versa. Sing what that see, see what they sing.” In the very first rehearsal when you draw a staff and treble clef on the board to explain what they mean, you must then make it practical by putting music in front of the choristers and asking them to explain it. When you draw the first note on the board and teach them that it is a G, you must then have them sing it. Then put a piece of music in front of them and ask them how many Gs they can find. This must happen with every concept you teach them.

Wheel Five-Steer the Car As Bertalot points out, the most important wheel on a car is the steering wheel, and the choir director needs to have a firm grip on that wheel. A lot of this deals with discipline in the choir room. If you have good discipline in the classroom, teaching your choristers will be much easier. Bertalot says “The children must learn quickly to respond to what I say. They must realize that I mean everything I tell them. Children need boundaries within which they can work. If they learn that you don’t really mean what you say, they won’t know where they are, and they’ll call the shots. From the children’s very first practice on, they need to know that the boundaries are there to help them achieve the great things that I have in store for them.” Go out and Steer the car!

Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum to Sing at Papal Mass

I recently posted about the exciting news that our parish school (Most Pure Heart of Mary) will become the third Catholic choir school in the US this fall.  The choir, the Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum is already becoming a fine choir and regularly sing works by Palestrina, Byrd, Tallis, Victoria and Gregorian chant, as well as sacred music from the modern era.  As I previously recounted, the choir received an invitation from the Foundation for Music and the Sacred Arts (Vatican) to travel to Rome in January 2016 to participate in the very first Children’s Festival for Epiphany.  The choir will join the Sistine Chapel Choir, along with a number of other children choirs, to sing for Pope Francis’ Mass on January 6.

As you can imagine, the choristers are very excited!  Fundraising is already underway, with a quarter of the trip already paid for.  However, we have a number of families with two, three and even four children in the choir whose job is even more difficult than others.  The trip to Rome costs each chorister approximately 70 cents per mile.  If you or someone you know would be interested in funding a scholarship either in full or in part for one of the choristers, please feel free to donate safely here or send your donation to

Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum
1800 SW Stone Avenue
Topeka, KS 66604

Those who donate $50 or more will receive a complimentary copy of the Schola Cantorum’s Christmas CD.  Not only will you be helping to give a chorister a pilgrimage of a life time, you will also be contributing toward the growth of the newest choir school in the United States.  The entire Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum thanks you!

Chichester Cathedral Choir

Today I would like to feature the Chichester Cathedral Choir.  Their website reports that there are 18 choristers and 6 lay vicars, although the picture of the choir shows fewer than 18 choristers.  In many ways it is a typical English cathedral choir set-up.  Nevertheless, I would like to point out an important lesson to be learned from Chichester, namely that there is great continuity in the English cathedral tradition.  How do they achieve it? Let’s look at the director of the choir, Charles Harrison.

Mr. Harrison began as a chorister at Southwell Minister, after which he was the organ scholar at Jesus College, Cambridge (another choral foundation). Following university, he worked as the Assistant Organist at Carlisle Cathedral and then as the Assistant Director of Music at Lincoln Cathedral.  In essence, he has been working in the cathedral system since he was probably 8 or 9 years old.  There are very few associations in the world where the workers still apprentice for their positions, and the English cathedral system is one of them.  Now, lest I create the wrong impression, one must remember it is not a prerequisite that one have been a chorister in order to direct the music at an English cathedral, but of the directors I can think of at the moment, more of half of them were once choristers. Every year the English cathedrals graduate bright musicians for the future as well as others who will be discerning supporters of music.  It really is a self-perpetuating system.  This is an IMPORTANT lesson that each musician in the Catholic Church should learn-recruit, recruit, RECRUIT!  Do not complain to me that there are not enough good musicians in the Church.  Instead, get out there and form them yourself!

Below is a video of the choir singing Poulenc’s Vinea mea electa.

Bertalot’s 5 Wheels (1 of 2)

In my previous post on John Bertalot’s 5 Wheels to Successful Sight-Singing, I wrote about the Great Secret, namely, “every moment of all practices must be geared to sight-singing.”  Today I would like to write about the Five Wheels themselves (the actual 12 steps he outlines on how to teach sight-singing come after the Five Wheels, so please be patient).  I will list them below with a little commentary following each wheel (Bertalot compares these to the wheels of an automobile.  You will see in the next post where the 5th wheel enters).

Wheel One-Passion  It sounds rather like a cliche to write that one needs to have passion for what one does, but it is true.  If you are going to teach your choir to sight-sing, it has to be an obsession with you.  This determination will force you to make decisions about what your choir will sing and how you will teach those pieces of music.  If you don’t make this an over-riding priority you will not succeed at it.  I have personally reached the point where I am not willing to compromise on this issue with my choristers, even if it means cancelling a motet they don’t have time to learn by sight.  I will not go back and you mustn’t either.

Wheel Two-Small Groups  Bertalot believes that ideally one would teach one student at a time (he feels that two students take twice as long to teach as one student) so that no chorister falls through the cracks or get by using another chorister as a crutch, however, he takes four students at a time because of time constraints.  I find this wheel difficult because the choir master never has enough time in his day and training 10 new singers individually doesn’t fit into his schedules.  I currently have 13 new students that I see as a group, and while it goes much slower with this many students, it is what works for my schedule.  You will have to figure this out for yourself, but smaller is better.

Wheel Three-Teach One Step at a Time  I remember the exact rehearsal with my choristers when I finally slowed down enough (I wanted my kids to sound like Westminster Cathedral as soon as possible) that I taught only one concept at a time and made them figure out the music on their own.  We made it through only 4 measures of a new hymn in 15 minutes (unison only), but those minutes flew past and every child was thoroughly engaged and enjoying himself.  It was great!  So… what did it look like?  First they figured out the key and time signatures, then they clapped the rhythm until they had it right. Next, they sang through the hymn in solfege without worrying about rhythm.  Then they put pitch and rhythm together, after which they added text.  It sounds tedious (and it is), but two years later it goes much faster.

Another thing to remember is not to skip important steps or concepts you take for granted. Think of the grand staff.  How many directors teach the staff as having 5 lines?  That is true, but only half true.  The staff also has 4 spaces, which are just as important as the lines.  You would be amazed how long it takes to stick in the minds of some choristers that the scale moves from line to space (or vice versa), rather than line to line (rarely ever do they think it moves from space to space).  Make sure you are teaching only one step at a time and that your steps build one on another in a logical sequence.  And don’t skip important concepts!

Choral Evensong Live from Salisbury Cathedral

This week the BBC presents Choral Evensong live with the Choir from Salisbury Cathedral. Salisbury Cathedral is where the Sarum Missal originated (the Rite in which the Holy Mass was celebrated when England was still Catholic) and a choir has been singing there since its foundation in the 13th century.  The cathedral made history when it became the first English (and Anglican) cathedral to institute girl choristers as well as boys (1991). Currently there are 16 boy choristers and 16 girl choristers who split the daily cathedral choral services each week.  In addition, there are 6 lay vicars who sing the lower parts. The service music schedule is below.

Introit: The ways of Zion do mourn (Wise)
Responses: Tomkins
Psalms 59-61 (Barnby, Carpenter, Howells, Stainer)
First Lesson: Genesis 9 vv 8-19
Office Hymn: Lord Jesus, think on me (Southwell)
Canticles: Second Service (Tomkins)
Second Lesson: 1 Peter 3 vv 18-end
Anthem: Civitas sancti tui (Byrd)
Final Hymn: God moves in a mysterious way (London New)
Organ Voluntary: Fantasia (Gibbons)

Organist and Assistant Director of Music: John Challenger
Director of Music: David Halls.

The Choirmaster

The Choirmaster stood at the pearly gates
His face was worn and old,
He stood before the man of fate
For admission to the fold.
“What have you done,” Saint Peter said
“To gain admission here?”
“I’ve been a Choirmaster, sir,” he said,
“For many and many a year.”
The pearly gates flew open wide
Saint Peter touched the bell.
“Come in,” he said, “and choose your harp
You’ve had your share of hell.”

Anonymous (20th century, quoted from A Guest at Cambridge, 1998)

Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum

I would like to share some exciting news with everyone.  Currently, there are only two Catholic choir schools in the United States, but beginning in the fall of 2015 they will be joined by a third in Topeka, KS.

If you have read my biography, you know that I work for an incredible parish in northeastern Kansas, Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic Church.  The parish is home to 1800 families, as well as a school with 400 children enrolled and a vibrant home schooling community.  The parish is shepherded by two young, dynamic priests who are committed to living the Faith in its fullness and bringing that Faith into the world.  We currently have three men from the parish studying for the priesthood, one of whom will be ordained in May.

Four years ago our former pastor gave me permission to spend six weeks at the Madeleine Choir School in Salt Lake City, UT, in order to gather information for my doctoral document (which is on the Madeleine Choir School).  When I asked him for permission to go, I told him that I would like to begin such a choral program in the parish, and from that meeting was born the Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum.  Until now, the Schola Cantorum has always been an “after school” choir school.  Our 45 choristers currently rehearse two to three hours every week and sing every Sunday, save one, from September through the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (our Patroness).  The choir focuses on intense vocal training as well as sight-singing and ear-training.  Two years ago we began a training program for organist and last year the choir recorded its first CD,  A Service of Lessons and Carols.  In January of 2016, the choir will travel to Rome to sing for the papal Mass on the Feast of the Epiphany, alongside the Sistine Chapel Choir as well as others from around the world.

With the blessing of our pastor and our principal, the Schola Cantorum will be integrated in the parish school in the fall of 2015, thus becoming the third Catholic choir school in the United State of America.

I write this in order to share my genuine excitement with people who feel the same way, but also to ask for a favor.  We are searching for a new music teacher to continue the 25 plus year legacy of our current music teacher who is retiring in the spring.  If you or someone you know would like to help provide an incredible musical education to future generations of our youth, please contact me.  This could be your chance of a life time!  Finally, I ask for your prayers for our new choral foundation.

The Choir of Canterbury Cathedral

The Choir of Canterbury Cathedral is a very old choral institution, going back more than a millennium.  The choir, directed by Dr. David Flood, consists of 25 boys and twelve lay clerks (this is a very typical arrangement), four each who sing alto, tenor and bass.  The choir has a busy schedule, singing seven days a week (Wednesdays are men only, while Thursdays are boys only).  Last year they began a girls’ choir to augment the men and boys and supposedly they are off to a great start.

Below is a video of the choir singing Psalm 42, under the direction of Allan Wicks.  To me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the English Cathedral Choir (Anglican) is the way in which it elucidates the texts of the English psalmody.  These choirs don’t just sing well, they communicate the meaning in the words.  Enjoy!