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Young Catholic Musicians

by Gary D. Penkala

This article was written as a guest entry at the Corpus Christi Watershed Catacombs blog and first appeared there.

I. A Musical Legacy

There is great work being done to promote quality music in Catholic parishes. The CMAA holds frequent symposia and workshops to train musicians in chant and polyphony. Corpus Christi Watershed and other groups are producing ample music of good quality, much of it free for the using. Even "less traditional" organizations and periodicals are experiencing a shift toward the sacred and orthodox.

And all of this is wonderful — almost miraculous! But are we ignoring an important facet of the Catholic world? In focusing on current musicians and their training, are we overlooking the roots of the future of Catholic church music — the roots that might be (quite literally) under our feet?

There are indeed some adults who are already devoting great amounts of time and energy to children. The practitioners of the Ward Method come to mind. And witness the new CMAA program entitled, "Words with Wings." David Hughes is doing amazing things with youth in Connecticut. What are you specifically doing in your parish? Here are some ways to involve children in quality music in a parish setting.

II. Children Sing

The sacred music program at Saint James Catholic Church in Charles Town WV developed over the last six years into a graded choir program with the following groups:

  • Sacred Heart Choir, for K-grade 2 children, that teaches fundamentals of choral singing, parish ministry, liturgical participation, and basic music theory.
  • Saint Cecilia Choir, for girls, grades 3-8, that builds on the foundation from the previous choir, and teaches the girls proper breathing, diction, pronunciation of various sung languages (Latin, Spanish, German, Italian) and some of the great music masterpieces (like Vivaldi's Laudamus te, Purcell's Sound the Trumpet and Handel's He Was Despised). This choir, together with the Saint Gregory Choir, is affiliated with Pueri Cantores, an international Catholic children's choir organization.
  • Saint Gregory Choir, for boys, grades 3-8, that manifests the long tradition of boy singers in Catholic and Anglo-Catholic heritages, and teaches significant repertoire (like Fauré's Pie Jesu, Mozart's Exsultate jubilate and Jesus Christus Gottes Sohn from Bach's Cantata #4). This choir, together with the Saint Cecilia Choir, participates in a "rank" system, wherein singers earn points for rehearsals, Masses, extra events, special service projects, and proceed through various choir ranks (Chorister, Senior Chorister, Junior Cantor, Senior Cantor, Junior Director), all indicated by the color of the ribbon on the cross worn over their robe.
  • Archangelus Chorale, for high school singers, provides an opportunity for singers, who by age or voice change, have graduated from the earlier girls' and boys' choirs to come together as a mixed ensemble. Singing unison chant, SAB and even SATB music, they serve as the primary choir for our Wednesday night Mass, which is a required part of the 7th-9th Religious Education program.
  • Joseph of Arimathea Choir helps with the congregational singing at funerals, and also presents music of its own, including chant (Requiem æternam, In paradisum) hymn arrangements (Lead Kindly Light), classical works (Mendelssohn's O Rest in the Lord) and original compositions. Retirees and home school families make up the membership.
  • Bells of Our Lady of Mercy, an inter-generational group that rings 5-octaves of handbells and 3-octaves of choir chimes.
  • Cappella Magna, the larger adult choir, that sings music spanning the ages, from chant to newly-composed pieces like O Send Forth Thy Light, by recent college-grad Artist-in-Residence Elizabeth Lademan.
  • Schola Cantorum, an auditioned adult group specializing in chant and early polyphony.

Notice that all but two of these groups have a youth component.

There are many other ways to present the beauties of Catholic church music to children in a very "hands-on" way:

  1. Perhaps the most obvious way is the weekly school Mass. Music for this liturgy should relate well to the quality music that is used in parish liturgies. Children will not thrive on "childish" sing-song music. It's important not to "sing down" to children — they're perfectly capable of singing chant, Bach, Vivaldi, Mendelssohn.
  2. Parishes without a school can schedule a "Homechoolers Mass" weekly or monthly. Another opportunity for children to sing good music.
  3. Our parish sponsors a concert series, with some of the events in partnership with a local college, Shepherd University. Admission is without tickets (free-will donations accepted), and we have reserves part of one transept for the children's choirs to attend as a group. A recent Messiah performance was preceded by a spaghetti dinner in the social hall, the children's choirs having just sung for the Saturday evening Mass. Service – food – and a concert. What a great way to learn the "life of a church musician."
  4. We have taken the children's choirs to a local Messiah Sing, after having studied Handel and sung some of the music from this popular work. This year, for the first time, we're sponsoring our own Messiah Sing, using all of Part I and the Hallelujah Chorus on an Advent evening. The orchestral accompaniment for the choruses will be provided by the Frederick (MD) Regional Youth Orchestra [middle and high school students], the audience will sing the choruses, and parish singers and guests will handle the solos. Our girls' and boys' choir will combine to sing the aria, "O Thou That Tellest," preceding the chorus of the same name.
  5. I mentioned above the ranking system that we use in the youth choirs. When singers reach the rank of Junior Cantor, they are scheduled at choir Masses to sing one piece with the congregation (Entrance Antiphon, Gloria, Responsorial Psalm, Gospel Acclamation, etc). At Senior Chorister status, they first handle cantoring half of a choir Mass, then a full choir Mass. As they become comfortable with this, they are enrolled as Youth Cantors in the regular parish cantor rotation, and they sing for full non-choir Masses.
  6. Several years ago we began presenting annual Carnevale concerts on Shrove Tuesday (the night before Ash Wednesday). These concerts, followed by a dessert buffet with entertainment, were a great way to celebrate the pre-Lenten festivities in an entirely "holy" way. Programs for these concerts have included good choral music, like Victoria's Missa O magnum mysterium. The Agnus Dei from this Mass is an SSATB setting, wherein the two soprano lines are a canon at the unison. We taught the children's choir this music, and they had the privilege and honor to sing it with the parish adult choir and our invited guests (the chamber choir from a local university) during the concert. The children were given printed invitations to this free concert, which they were encouraged to distribute to friends and neighbors (thus boosting the attendance!). The child who had the highest number of invited guests was awarded a prize — a $25 gift certificate to the parish Gift Shop. The entertainment for the dessert reception after the concert is also handled by youth, who put together a Broadway revue.
  7. The parish children's choirs joined with others from the diocese to sing at a recent Pilgrimage to the National Shrine in DC. We presented a musical Rosary in the Crypt Church to begin the day's activities. The Our Father's were sung using the familiar Mass setting, accompanied by random hand chime notes played by the children. The second of the first three Hail Mary's was sung by the children's choir using the chant "Ave Maria." The Glory Be's used progressively more complex versions of the Taize canon Gloria Patri, with six young instrumentalists and three handbell ringers involved. Each decade (we used the Joyful Mysteries) was preceded by a short organ meditation on the mystery from Bach's Orgelbüchlein. Of course, the last prayer was the familiar chant Salve Regina. This opening service was well-received, and many pilgrims in the congregation were amazed at the children's facility with Latin, equalling their adult counterparts who sang for a later Mass in the Upper Church.
  8. Outreach to the community is an important part of the Catholic singer's development. Our youth choirs have sung at ecumenical services (anniversary of the Lutheran church's organ) and at local nursing homes.

I hope these examples of how our parish involves children in the music of the Church will lead to some ideas on your part. We must never sell our children short — they can rise to almost any occasion and sing the great music of our tradition. These are they who will be attending the CMAA events in years to come and will be leading the choirs that sing for liturgies in our own "Golden Years."

CanticaNOVA Publications / PO Box 1388 / Charles Town, WV 25414-7388
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