The Chorister Summer Camp

Every choirmaster should place a high priority on recruitment, otherwise in time he commits a form of choral contraception, which, coupled to that other form of contraception so prevalent these last 60 years in the Church, has done catastrophic harm to our choirs of boys and girls. There are a myriad of recruiting methods, but one every choirmaster should think strongly about implementing is the Chorister Summer Camp, both as a means to recruit new students as well as an opportunity to teach or review the choristers’ knowledge of the art of sacred music and all that it entails. From the child’s perspective, nothing at the camp can top the joy of spending time with old friends and making new ones. It also provides the ideal place for children, especially those who are unsure whether or not they want to commit to the choir, to give it a go before signing on the dotted line.

What follows are a number of points or ideas, in no particular order, that one might consider when planning the Chorister Summer Camp.

Goals of the Chorister Summer Camp
The choirmaster may have decided to host a Chorister Summer Camp, but it will only help him as a recruiting tool if he has broader and better defined goals for the camp. Besides providing a solid grounding in rhythm, solfege and music theory for new students (as well as a review for the seasoned singers), the general plan of the camp, especially if hosted toward the end of the summer break and the beginning of the choral year, should include an introduction to any demanding repertoire or perhaps getting a head start on concerts and the Christmas season. One year I took the time during camp to teach choristers how to read Gregorian chant and from that point they joined the Gentlemen of the Choir each Sunday to chant the Introit from the Graduale. This summer I will introduce choristers to the choral Divine Office, so that will figure largely in my planning.

Length of the Camp
There are a number of options to consider when determining the length of one’s summer camp, but in general, I would caution the “newbie” not to bite off more than he can chew. Some choirs host a half, or day long, camp, much like a “come and sing” day, where possible new recruits spend time singing alongside older choristers, learning simple but inspiring repertoire, eat and play with the choristers and then finish with Mass or Vespers, in which the new recruits take part and parents come to hear. I personally prefer a longer time, generally a Monday through Friday affair, but one could also opt for a Thursday, Friday and Saturday camp, and end singing Vespers on Saturday or Sunday for Holy Mass. There is no one-size-fits-all; just commit to something and go with it.

Recruiting for the Chorister Summer Camp
Children join the Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum in the 3rd grade because they have received their First Holy Communion by this time and also because their reading skills have reached the level that they can follow and pronounce 80 percent of the words in the hymnal. As a result I heavily target this age group, sending invitations to all of the students in our parish school entering the 3rd and 4th grades and the same to students in our vibrant and growing homeschool community. Before I began teaching music in our parish school I would speak with our music teacher and ask about any especially talented students and call their parents personally. Now that I work in the school I know very well who those students are and I don’t hesitate to hound both students and parents.

At times I have offered our Summer Chorister Camp free of charge and at other times I have asked for a nominal fee to cover any special materials such as new music or music theory workbooks I plan to use. Each choirmaster will have to determine his financial needs and plan accordingly. It is very simple to add up all expenses of the camp and divide the sum by the number of students and voilà, one has the cost per child.

Time for Learning and Time for Play
Because I want both returning singers and new recruits to really enjoy their time at camp, I plan for an equal mount of play and rehearsal time. Remember that it is still summer, their summer! It is also possible to mix music learning and play time.

Camp Schedule and Splitting Up Age Groups
I take the new singers and my Junior Choristers simultaneously for three hours each morning because I have found that the new recruits do better vocally modeling themselves after singers who have had a year under their belts. Likewise, the Junior Choristers benefit from acting as teachers, and as a result everyone learns faster.

In the afternoon I work with the Senior Choristers for two hours (accompanied by a generous break in the middle because even the older singers want to “have some fun”) primarily learning new repertoire (or as I plan to do this summer, learning to chant the Divine Office). Many of my Senior Choristers also spend the morning helping with crowd control and playing at being big brother or sisters to the new singers. It also affords them a lot of free time with friends when I am working directly with the younger children.

As I previously mentioned, my Senior Choristers tackle lots of new repertoire during the camp, especially our more difficult motets or Mass Ordinaries. The music I give to the new singers and Junior Choristers is much easier and consists mostly in a couple of new hymns (as well as a few old standards that they learn to sing really well), a piece of a chant Ordinary, such as a Kyrie or Agnus Dei, and finally one or two simple anthems containing melodic lines and rhythms no more difficult than the hymns they are learning. It is all new to first time campers, but the Junior Choristers appreciate seeing a few things they have sung before.

Some Final Thoughts
I am the worlds worst secretary, and because I can’t hire one, I tailor the camp to meet the deficiencies nature has endowed me with. I don’t do things like creating camp shirts because I can’t imagine the hassle of tracking down the sizes of each child and then ordering extras for those who register at the last moment (not to mention the clutter of extra shirts that aren’t used) or leading actives that involve making note collages requiring scissors, glue, crayons and construction paper (now I would have a hassle AND a mess). I usually draw a quarter note on the board, tell the students what it is and how to clap it, and then we find examples in the hymnal and start clapping rhythms. It is simple and effective. Make sure not to set your singers up for failure, but nevertheless, push them beyond the point they have ever been pushed before. They can do it and they will want to do it.

Lastly, I will share that running a summer camp is not my favorite thing to do, nor is it even near the middle of my list, but it does help with recruitment and helps returning choristers to prepare for the new choral year, and therefore it always makes the list of my summer activities. If the reader has never provided a camp for his choristers, it isn’t too late to start this summer!

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