Monthly Archives: May 2016

Teaching the Very Young

It seems to be the common experience of a number of musicians today who are very dedicated to realizing the Church’s high ideals for sacred music that they find themselves in the employ of a young (or young at heart) pastor who is only able to offer full time work if said musician is willing to play the organ at Mass, direct the choir, start a children’s choir and teach music in the school to grades pre-k through 8. First of all I want to thank those same pastors who are willing to go the extra mile to bring the greatest of arts to their young parishioners. Secondly I want to thank those musicians who are willing to embrace such a position simply because they love what they do.

It seems that I have received a number of emails of late from such musicians with questions regarding the musical training of the very young, especially pre-school aged children, kindergarten and lower level grade school. Today I would like to share with you a few  resources for those who might find themselves in front of a group of young children unsure of how to best proceed.  Hopefully this post helps.

The first resource I would look into if I had to teach pre-k and kindergarten is Kindermusik. Kindermusik is based on a number of teaching philosophies, two of which are favorites of mine, those of Zoltan Kodaly and Maria Montessori. I do not profess to know everything about Kindermusik, but I have heard nothing but positive comments from those involved in the program. It engages the entire child vocally, intellectually, physically (and spiritually if done correctly, especially withing the context of a Catholic school). Music should primarily be enjoyable for children this age and Kindermusik makes that possible.

For those working with children in kindergarten through grade school (before junior high), I would heartily recommend the Kodaly Method of teaching music. It is primarily a vocal model for teaching music (although one could easily incorporate the use of instruments) and music literacy. Children sing lots of folk songs, which the teacher uses to carefully prepare, present and reinforce musical concepts. Be aware that this method requires a lot of preparation time on the part of the teacher, especially the first year, because the teacher has to make a number of manipulatives for use by each student and then make enough for each child in the class. If you go this route, purchase An American Methodology and its companion book of yearly lessons plans for grades k through 6 here. Be sure to include a lot of sailing songs and drinking songs (yes, I know) for the boys-they really like these.

To be honest, the hardest part about teaching is often how to teach, and the great thing about Kindermusic and the Kodaly Method, especially if you attend summer training sessions in them, is that you learn the art of teaching. I would also seek out the best teachers in your school and plaster them with questions continually. As long as you let them get home to supper each night, they usually enjoying passing on their knowledge. Anyway, I hope this helps.

Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum Video

As many of you know, our parish founded the Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum in 2011 to answer the Church’s call to establish schools of music to train young people the art of sacred music. Each year we have seen the program expand, and we look forward to working with more than 60 students next year from 6 local Catholic schools and home school programs.

Even though the Schola Cantorum is primarily attached to our parish, its work reaches far beyond. Several years ago one of our high school boys became one of our archdiocesan seminarians. While I don’t take credit for his vocation, he once told me that singing in the choir gave him a much better understanding of the Mass.

This year one of our high school girls is graduating and moving on to study organ at the university. Her plan is to finish her Master Degree and then apply for the Organ Scholar position at Westminster Cathedral in London. If anyone has the drive to make that happen, she is the one.

One of our 8th grade students, who plans to sing in the Schola Cantorum through high school, has fallen in love with sacred music and has told me many times before (as have her parents) that the Schola Cantorum has helped her grow much deeper in her not only in the knowledge of her Faith, but in her practice of It. These are not isolated events.

The Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum has obviously grown beyond any normal parish music program, and as part of our work to provide a solid financial basis for the program and to expand its outreach, we are asking individuals to consider making the Schola Cantorum part of their monthy giving, whatever that amount might be.

Please take a few minutes watch the short short video below about the Schola Cantorum (and share it with everyone you know!) and consider helping our choristers, who might one day be bringing great sacred music to your parish.

How Do We Get the Boys to Sing?

Several years ago a friend from Wales (UK) asked me why too many men in the United States simply refuse to sing. According to him, men on the rugby field in Wales sang to intimidate their opponents. As I write this article I have to chuckle, wondering what it would look like if in the last Superbowl Tom Brady had lead his fellow Patriots in a chorus of their favorite war hymn in order to intimidate Manning and the rest of the Broncos. In my admittedly bizarre mind I see Brady signaling to the Patriot pep band, who begin the opening strains of Haydn’s Missa in tempori belli (the Lord Nelson Mass). The football players chant “Kyrie,” joined by the lead soprano of the chearleading squad, crying out to God for mercy in the glorious Greek tongue. It would make a great skit for Saturday Night Live! Still, the question remains. How do we get boys to sing? Why won’t they sing?

The second question is rather easier to answer than the first. The boys don’t sing because their fathers won’t sing and the fathers won’t sing because our current culture doesn’t value it. Why should they engage in an activity they perceive to have no value. I have heard it said that our culture no longer sings because electronic entertainment has made the need for it obsolete, but I don’t buy that. I think it comes down to what a person or culture values. This becomes apparent if one were to compare communal singing to sports.

In many ways, singing and sports are similar. We form singers into a choir, each singer performing a different role, or singing a different part. We arrange sportsmen into a team, each player taking a different position. A chorister learns to sing his part well, yet blend that part in a harmonious manner with others in the choir, always mindful of the conductor’s directions. The child playing sports learns to play his position to the best of his abilities, yet work with the others as a team, under the direction of a coach. Choristers have to practice fundamentals such as breathing, sight-singing, listening and intonation and apply those skills within a certain musical work. Sportsmen have to practice fundamentals like batting, catching, and throwing and put those skills to use within certain plays and innings. Sports and music both can build character such as hard work, determination, focus and passion. Music and sports both cost parents money, sometimes a lot, while concert halls and sports arenas are built at considerable cost to the citizenry to hold the myriads of people who come to watch and listen.

Why, then, is sports so popular (and I am specifically asking this in relation to fathers and sons and boys in general-sorry ladies) and communal singing so undervalued? I have no evidence to support my conclusion other than gut instinct, but I imagine it has something to do with the fact that sports (and the Catholic priesthood) are the last place in American society where boys and men can share a common passion and camaraderie on and off the field with other boys and men, and where boys and men are expected to strive for greatness.

What if the Church were to run (at the very least) some of Her choirs this way, choirs where boys and men sang strictly with other boys and men, and all strove for greatness? St. Paul’s Choir School in Boston is able to fill an entire school strictly with boys who want to sing with other boys. The Madeleine Choir School, while open to both boys and girls, separates them into boy and girl choirs, and each year fill the school with plenty of boys who want to sing. Both of these choirs strive for, and achieve, greatness.

Recently I attended Mass for the first time at a certain parish. As usual, I had prepared myself to hear poor music sung poorly (this was not me making any kind of moral judgment—I was simply operating on experience). True, the music was of an inferior quality, all played on the piano, but the the pianist (male), and the four middle aged men who sang and harmonized were all excellent. To see other men stepping up and taking a lead made me want to sing along in spite of any aversion the music itself. I wonder how many music directors are willing to be a little “sexist” and do such a thing. For the sake of our men and boys, perhaps it is worth more than a thought!

Expect the Best-And You Will Get It

Can you imagine the following?

This fall Pusillanimous University (PU for short) is starting up a new football team, named the Mediocre Mavericks, so that everybody can play football and feel included. Whether you want to spend hours practicing before the game or just show up for the game itself, this is the team for you. The Mediocre Mavericks are all about openness and inclusivity—we want everyone to play. We are also excited to announce that everyone will get a trophy simply for being a part of the team. These will be given out at the beginning of the year to insure no one feels any pressure to stay through the whole season. Call and join today!

Sadly, this is how many parishes run their youth music programs (often adult programs as well, but I am sticking with children today), although they wouldn’t see it that way. The thinking is that since the Catholic Church is open to everyone (which I don’t disagree with in the slightest) a parish should start a music program for children and let everyone in so that all, regardless of talent or ability, are able to participate. Everyone brings his own voice or instrument and away they go. In this way, everyone feels welcome and wants to lift up his voice to praise God, and as the song goes, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” This sounds great on paper in the current cultural climate, so I want to take a serious look at how this might play out in real life. I think the best way to do this is to compare paradigm to a sports team.

Firstly, there are so many activities going on and competing for people’s time in America that one can no longer expect children to join a music program if it doesn’t offer something of value. There are many reasons a child might join a sports team, but I think it comes down to value. To start with, parents believe sports to be important for their children’s development because sports teach lessons on teamwork, discipline, friendship, winning and loosing, etc. Children focus on value, too, but in a different way. They see their friends on the team and want to join too. They like winning and want to join a winning team. On the opposite hand, if a parish offers a program open to every child, with no demands, where children are never pushed to be their best, then parents and children perceive the choir to be valueless. Only trash is cheap, or one might say, “you get what you pay for.”

Now I would like to share my own experience with the Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum. If a child wishes to join the choir, I give a somewhat involved audition in order to discover where the child is musically and what potential he/she possess. In the end, I invite each child to join as long as he/she can match pitch and is free of any severe vocal issues. Parents are aware in advance that there is a chance, albeit ever so slight, that their child might not be asked to join the choir. The fact that there is an audition lets parents and children know that I have expectations. Secondly, there is a probationary year during which children learn about their voices, good habits of singing and reading music, and I get to learn how serious they are about singing in the choir. Even though it has been rare, I have recommended to parents before at the end of this year that the Schola Cantorum is not a good fit for their child. I explain that it isn’t just about me getting the voices I need, it is also important that the child enjoy the choir. It shouldn’t be agony.

When children become choristers and start singing weekly at Mass, I expect them to put forth their best effort. Some adults have asked me before if I am pushing too hard, but I point out that the same children exert far more energy and just as much drive on the sports field because their coach wants them to be their best. I kid you not, a response I have gotten before is, “Yes, but this (the choir) is for church.” I should have said that God believes in each child’s potential far more than the coach because He made them and knows what each is capable of. Therefore, they should give more at church!

It is also interesting to note that the choir continues to grow (we are more than 50 strong, and next year we will break 60). Off the top of my head, the only two groups for children in our parish (sports included) that are larger than the choir are the parish school and the religious education program for children enrolled in public schools. It stands to reason that parents must see some value in the choir.

Next year we will have enough children to break the choir into two groups, one an advanced group and one a general choir open to all (please note the irony). The general choir will be better than most other children choirs because they know that I expect their best as well. I was reminded of this yesterday in our rehearsal when almost every one of our top singers had to be gone for some reason or other. We were rehearsing Vaughan Williams’ Let all the world in every corner sing for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. My first thought was one of skepticism, but then those kids pulled it off, singing in a way that I would have been proud to have heard within Mass. I was having so much fun I pulled out Bruckner’s Locus iste (which they had never seen before) in the last five minutes of practice and asked them to read through it on a neutral syllable. They basically had it by the second time around. I understand this piece isn’t anything difficult, but I was still proud of those boys and girls!

I guess what I am trying to say is please set the bar high for the children in your parish. They will thrive on it. If you truly love the children of your parish, believe that they are worth the effort—they will thank you for it many years later. If you truly love the children of your parish, fight the elitism that says young children can’t sing or just can’t appreciate good music. Be the true egalitarian and give them the best our Church has to offer! This doesn’t even touch on the spiritual gifts you will impart to these children.