A couple of years ago I gave several presentations on chorister training as part of the Sacred Music Symposium in Los Angeles. As I often do, I requested a small group of young people to work with so that those in attendance might better understand the process of working with children. My only stipulation was that each child must to be able to match pitch.
The day arrived and I stood in front of room full of musicians with half a dozen children as guinea pigs (I make sure the first time I hear them is the first time the audience hears them). I asked them to sing a certain note on a neutral syllable and immediately I knew I wasn’t working with the average group of school children. They stood before me tall and confident, breathed deeply from their diaphragms and sang the most beautiful and moving “oo.” I stopped and joked to the audience that we had been had. These were well trained choristers with a wealth of musical knowledge readily at hand and I would be lying if I were to claim that working with children was that simple. After the presentation I met their choir director, Pete Avendano, a consummate gentleman and musician.
Mr. Avendano, originally from the Philippines, spent his formative years as a chorister/border in the Tiples de Santo Domingo, an all boys Catholic choir school run by the Dominicans and the oldest musical group in the country, founded in the 16th century. Later, he attended the Conservatory of Music at the University of Santo Tomas, a pontifical university, and had the opportunity to sing in both the Coro Tomasino, the college of music’s official choir and the UST Singers. According to Avendano, “The Coro Tomasino is made up of students from the conservatory and focuses on Big Choral works and normally sings for the Opera Production of the Conservatory, while the UST Singers members are from the different colleges of the University.
“I toured with the UST Singers in Europe and America from 1998-2001. That choir gave me the opportunity to experience performing abroad. We competed in top Choral Competitions and festivals in Europe and won many top prizes. The tour would sometimes last for 6 months and we would be traveling in many places around Europe. I had to stop for 2 semesters during those years to be able to join the choir in the tour. This choir gave me all the experiences in college that now Im also sharing with my young students. The UST Singers is considered to be one of the best choirs in the Philippines.
Avendano now directs the music for Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Los Angeles and teaches music in the parish’s school as well as at nearby Precious Blood, and recently took 32 choristers on a week long choir tour to England to participate in the International Children’s Choir Festival at Canterbury Cathedral, directed by Dr. David Flood, organist and choirmaster at Canterbury, and Mr. Henry Leck, founder of the renowned Indianapolis Children’s Chorus. According to Avendano, each had a very different style of conducting, yet each possessed the ability to draw the best from the choristers.
When asked which of the many experiences he found to be the best, he answered that it was singing choral evensong in Canterbury Cathedral. While acknowledging with sadness the English revolt against the Catholic Church, he found it incredible that a place would dedicate itself and its resources to the daily praise of God for more than a millennia-and-a-half and to be a part of that tradition was an incredible experience. Dr. Flood even arranged for him to be able to visit the cathedral archives to see a 1400 century Missal.
Before singing for the festival concert, Mr. Avendano and his choristers took a moment to sing the Salve Regina by Miklos Kocsar in the former Cathedral Chapter House, captured below. They (and their parents) should all be proud of what they have accomplished.
Now back in Los Angeles, Avendano hopes to found a Catholic boys choir this year in the mold of the Tiples, dedicated solely to singing the Church’s music. Such a development would be an incredible gift for the Church in the Los Angeles area. If you are a music educator, Avendano is a man you will want to speak to. Not only does he possess incredible skills as a musician, but he will set your spirit on fire to do greater things with your own choir. As he told me “Never underestimate the children. Their minds are like sponges–they are amazing!”
We wish Mr. Avendano, his choristers and their families all the best!
Today marks the first day of school for parochial children in my city and thus provides an appropriate occasion to reflect on the nature of our Catholic school music programs and their work of education. Without doubt, the men and women who head these programs provide an enormous service to the Church and I wish to thank them for their work. At the same time, I would like to challenge the prevailing concept, or layout, of such music programs, which more often than not, are modeled after their secular counterparts with a seasonal nod to our Catholic Faith, such as the singing of Christmas carols every December (although they mysteriously disappear in January).
If we desire to educate, we should keep our end in mind–to teach children what is good and to love that good. In our case, students will only know what is good if they hear it and participate in it on a regular basis and they will only love that good if they see it loved and cared for by those they look up to. To this end, I would propose that our music programs should be founded on the ideal of teaching the Church’s music and music in general within the western tradition and to inculcating a love in students’ hearts for this music in all of its forms.
What follows are a few suggestions as to how we might begin moving our music programs in this directions.
Sing real folk music. Invite children to join you in the joy of making music, real music. Children shouldn’t feel as though they are in class. Grab your guitar (appropriate in this case) and have fun. Don’t forget to teach them real dances and perhaps host a ball for older students and their families. At the same time, we should find a way for these things to happen in the home. As musicians, we lament the loss of communal music making, but I wonder how many fight this loss by making music with their own children.
Teach the Church’s music. Children should know a couple of chant Masses by heart, particularly the more beautiful ones. The same can be said for a few of the Church’s well known hymns such as the Adorote devote, Pange lingua or Veni Creator, whether in Latin or in a good English translation. Ideally this would be linked to a child’s Church history and catechetical classes.
Learn to sing the Mass. Whether you have a small schola capable of chanting the Communion antiphon or you teach the entire school to sing the Introit for each Mass to a common psalm tone, introduce your students to the idea of singing the Mass. Encourage (pester if necessary) the priest to sing his parts.
Choose worthy hymns and metered music for use in the Mass. If you aren’t aware, the National Catholic Education Association, in conjunction with Pueri Cantores, has produced a list of Mass settings and hymns appropriate for school Masses, which is a VAST improvement on what one normally hears at school Masses.
The High Mass isn’t just for Sunday. If your parish is an Extraordinary Form parish and is blessed to have a classical school attached, fight the urge settle for daily Low Masses in the effort to get students into class where the “real” learning happens. Priests in this situation would never consent to ditching the proper clerical vesture for Holy Mass, and in like manner, the same Holy Mass should ever be clothed in the aural vesture of sacred music. Beautiful sacred music will go far in forming a love for the Sacraments in the moral imaginations of your students.
Raise up a new generation of church musicians. Support and encourage musically talented children to take up the work of sacred music. Just as we should cultivate religious vocations from the ranks our students, so should we do the same with liturgical musicians.
I wish you all many blessings in the school year ahead!
Last week the Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum completed its second annual summer music camp. Forty-seven children in grades 3 through high school gathered through the week to experience the joy of music making with others their age and I would like to share with readers a few thoughts and insights gained from the experience.
A choirmaster must always be recruiting and a summer camp is a great recruiting tool. At the end of each school year I give an informal audition to every child in the second grade, which I follow up with a call to parents inviting their children to the summer camp to “try the choir for a week” with no obligation to commit. This personal ask is essential for some parents and students.
Undertake only what you are capable of handling. I have chosen to keep the summer camp on parish grounds with manageable camp hours. Other choirs take children away to youth camping grounds for an entire week. You must decide what you can effectively manage, although I would caution that smaller is better, especially in the beginning.
Separate students into appropriate groups based on age and ability. I have a three hour long morning session for new and first year choristers and for any others who need extra reinforcement in the fundamentals, while more experienced choristers come in the afternoon for two hours. Younger singers are always excited to move into the more experienced group, although they often keep coming to the morning session as helpers. This year I had at least one older student helper for every 2 to 3 inexperienced students. Not only was this a great help to me and to the younger students, it also gave experienced singers the chance to learn by teaching younger children.
Give students great music with an attainable goal. This year choristers gave a short concert for parents on the last day of the camp. I chose quality music I knew they would like and every piece was one the choristers would sing in the coming year. Although I didn’t tell the morning students, my goal for them was facility with solfege in the diatonic scale and an ability to clap simple rhythms composed of eighths, quarters, halves, dotted halves and whole notes.
Make it an enjoyable experience. Three hours of uninterrupted choir rehearsals is a sure way to drive away possible choristers and make returning students think twice about repeating the experience. In order to make the choristers’ experience a positive one, the three hour long morning session was broken up into a number of smaller sessions with breaks in-between so that half of their time was spent learning and the other half outside playing games. The afternoon session was less balanced, but nevertheless, students had plenty of time to run around outside or to re-connect with friends after the summer break.
If you should decide to host a summer camp I would strongly suggest you contact someone who has already done it. Find out what works instead of needlessly reinventing the wheel. Before my first camp I had a great conversation with David Hughes from St. Mary’s in Norwalk, CT. Mr. Hughes is a veteran chorister trainer and has run a summer camp for a number of years. Mary Anne Carr Wilson, who runs a summer chant camp for children, would be another great resource, or one might attend an RSCM course as a adult. Whichever route you decide to take, be sure to make the week a great experience for your choristers.