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.