I would like to point the reader to a helpful article that appears in the latest edition of The American Organist magazine (January 2017) by Sarah MacDonald, director of the Ely Cathedral Girls Choir (Ely, England). Mrs. MacDonald writes a monthly UK Report, sharing her extensive knowledge of the English Cathedral music tradition and the training of child choristers and chapel organists. She brings a professionalism to the discussion of training children in the art of sacred music that is often lacking due to a misguided belief that the quality of our liturgical music should be sacrificed on the altar of good intentions. In her current article she tackles 4 pitfalls she feels entrap choral directors working with grade school and junior high children: range, vocal sound, quality of literature (both musically and textually) and finally sight-singing. I would like to briefly touch on each of these.
Mrs. MacDonald believes the greatest concern when working with children is choosing music in the child’s range (Eb 4 to Ab 5 in terms of the piano keyboard) and tessitura (around D 5), which can be difficult when most of the church music in hymnals is pitched lower than it was in previous eras. This is also compounded by the natural desire of children to imitate the so called “pop-music” they hear on a daily basis. Children might resist singing in their head voices simply because they have never experienced the sensation before, but it is worth the effort, both for the health of their voices and for the increase of enjoyment of their singing.
The second problem MacDonald identifies is a lack of any quality in vocal sound and choral blend. I find such artistry is often sacrifice in the director’s drive to “get the notes correct.” If the director had chosen easier music, especially simple music in unison, this would have provided more time to pursue a beauty in presentation that possesses the power to move the heart of the listener (I accuse myself of this often).
Third, Mrs. MacDonald stresses the need to chose choral literature of high quality both musically and textually. She writes “Avoid platitudinous or patronizing poetry–children can (and should) be taught to read and understand sophisticated texts as well as any adults. Teach them to have good taste in well-crafted repertoire.” I think more than enough electronic ink has been spilled attacking the ongoing problem of bad music and bad lyrics in church (I think of my experience as a child singing Great things happen when God mixes with us from the Glory and Praise hymnal in my Catholic grade school) so I will say no more.
Finally, she makes a plea to choir directors to teach children how to read music. She reasons that teaching children to know only a few concepts by rote is unacceptable in any other school subject, so why should it be so in music. Why should children be shackled to the unfortunate circumstance of only being able to sing a few good pieces of music because that is all they ever learned by rote? The earlier music teachers and directors lay a good foundation in sight-singing, the easier it will be for children to learn.
If I might be permitted to add my two cents to end this discussion, I think we as Catholics have an incomparable advantage in the Roman Rite in the possession of Gregorian chant (not withstanding the challenges of actually using it in the Ordinary Form). The repertoire is large enough to encompass any vocal range (and can be pitched accordingly), is very moving when sung in a beautiful, free vocal tone, contains music and text of the highest artistry and the simpler hymns and antiphons can be read at sight after the child is proficient in the use of solfege. Thankfully, even if your parish is stuck at Ground Zero, musically speaking, the number of pastors who would squelch even the occasional Gregorian hymn sung beautifully by a children’s choir is fast diminishing.