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Why is singing so scary?

Why is singing so scary?

Within the next few days, a new book will be going to press: Diana Kodner Gökçe, author of Handbook for Cantors, Third Edition and a good friend and colleague of many years, has written a short book called Why We Sing: A Musical Guide for Catholics, aimed at helping address some of the questions and hesitations your average “pew person” often has about singing during liturgy. It’s a great little book, sized (and priced!) for buying in quantity, so you can give copies to a lot of people–and a lot of people need this book. The crux of its point is one anyone who’s made it here to the blog doubtless already knows: the assembly’s singing voice is a crucial part of the liturgy, and every voice is important, and singing is just part of what we do, all of us, not just “musicians.” (By the way, singers are musicians too. Please, if you’re reading this and you didn’t know, spread the word: Musicians are makers of music. Some of them are singing musicians, others are musicians who play instruments. Spread the word. Please lovingly correct the next person you meet who uses the expression “the singers and the musicians,” as though they are two different things, because it’s insulting. Singers are musicians. Thank you.) But many, many people, for many reasons, are uncomfortable doing it. And it’s part of our job to help them.

Interestingly enough, even as this book is in its final stages of production, I came across this column by Bob Batastini, retired senior editor at GIA for many years, written way back in 2001. He used to write a short column at the front of every GIA Quarterly magazine for years, wonderful conversational (and often curmudgeonly) pieces of writing that were almost always full of wisdom. And lo and behold, here is one addressing very much the same issues Diana’s book is getting at. I’m reprinting it here in its entirety.

The article ends with a challenge and a question. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you might answer it, and what you do to help the “non-singers” in your parish learn to be comfortable with their own God-given voices…Drop a comment and let us know!

–Jennifer

******

“We are the Church,” by Robert J. Batastini

In all my years as a pastoral musician, I have never been able to overcome the discouragement that seizes me when I gaze across the singing assembly and see so many persons who neither pick up the book nor make any attempt to enter the song. Whenever I address the assembly before Mass, asking everyone to open the hymnal to a certain number, only to have an entire family in the front pew look as though they didn’t hear me, it is for me one of the most disturbing experiences associated with being a pastoral musician.

I used to think that some sort of arrogance was the basis for such behavior, I but have long ago discarded that harsh judgment. I’m sure that some don’t sing because they dislike the music, or because they are at “that age” when they’d rather be dead that be caught by one of their friends singing in church, and there are those who just don’t get it—they believe that community singing is not important, so let the choir do it. I’m reasonably certain, however, that these reasons account for a mere fraction of the non-singers in the assembly.

Our society seems to be obsessed with winning. It’s not how you play the game that matters. We’ve all seen the little league mom or dad who totally loses control over an incident in a game played by ten-year-olds. Professional sports certainly has its share of individuals who regularly display questionable behavior in their (well publicized) personal lives, but all we seem to care about is how many points they can score…Winning is so important, and winners are so exalted, that being less than a winner makes one a loser, and losing is embarrassing. How do we avoid this embarrassment? Simply, don’t play the game. Kids who are not good at sports often avoid playing sports—even though they could conceivably have fun—because they are intimidated by thoughts of the ridicule that comes with dropping the ball that is thrown or hit to you, or consistently missing the basket. We’re afraid to do things that we are not very good at doing, because we may look silly, or weak, or deficient in the eyes of those who observe us. Yes, and this includes singing in public.

I am convinced that the majority of the non-singers in our assembly would declare unequivocally, “I can’t sing.” What makes some people so certain of this inability to sing? Firstly, I suggest that it’s because the expectations are disproportionately high. To “sing,” in so many minds, is to engage in a solo activity and is not something done primarily as a group experience. It seems as though people feel that because they don’t have a “solo” voice, they should never sing at all.

Secondly, I believe a lot of adults suffer from some childhood experience that forever deprived them of the experience (and right) of singing. Perhaps it was a music teacher who pronounced a verdict on the individual that he or she should just mouth the words. Perhaps it was teacher, family member, or peer reactions to the male changing voice that intimidated the adolescent and initiated a lifetime moratorium on all attempts to sing. It is almost a form of child abuse to forever silence a child’s singing voice because of an inability to match pitch. It is malpractice for a music teacher to fail to work with such a child. (Pitch problems with young children can be corrected in almost all cases.  It just takes a little effort. Yet one wonders what effect the current shortage and/or poor quality of music education programs in many areas will have on assemblies of the future.)

Thirdly, I believe family pressure (intimidation once again) has silenced many an adult voice. I can just hear the barely post-pubescent child announcing how embarrassed he or she is when “dad tries to sing in church.” Dad, in a never ending desire to keep peace, and keep his children going to church, simply gives up.

Singing is as natural a human experience as speaking. Very few of us have the speaking voice of a public orator—some are high pitched, some are raspy, nasal, have peculiar cadences, or speech disabilities—and yet none of us chooses not to speak. Similarly, very few of us have singing voices worthy of solo performance. Would that this didn’t stop us from singing any more than a nasal quality stopped us from speaking. Not everyone is a candidate for the formal choir, but absolutely everyone in the building has a seat in the big choir we call the assembly.

We are the Church. We do not eliminate the weakest link, we strengthen it. We do not banish the defeated, we welcome them. We do not dismiss the underachievers, we support them. This is the Church, and both the Bible and liturgical tradition call for us to be a singing church. Everyone has a right to sing and is encouraged to sing, no matter what they sound like. Everyone has an obligation to sing. And anyone who teases, or attempts to intimidate another for their singing attempts is out of line—way out of line.

Real winners are those who will overcome the fear of potential embarrassment and do what the Scriptures and the liturgy repeatedly call upon us to do.  The question of the day is, How can we now give permission to those who have—in one way or another—had the permission to sing denied them in the past?

 

(“We Are the Church,” from GIA Quarterly issue 13.1, Fall 2001)

Christmas with the Cathedral Singers (Sing Amen! The Podcast: Special Christmas episode)

Christmas with the Cathedral Singers (Sing Amen! The Podcast: Special Christmas episode)

Merry Christmas!

If you have found your way here in some part of the calm after the Christmas storm, welcome. I hope your celebrations of the Nativity were full of beauty and prayer and lovely music–and that you got a nice long nap after. 🙂

This playlist is a companion to the first Christmas playlist we released on December 20 (if you haven’t heard that one, especially if you prefer more contemporary-style music to the old-school carols, please go check it out!), and if I did it right, this one released right about midnight on Christmas Eve/Morning. This is a collection of some of my favorite cuts from the various recordings the Cathedral Singers made over their many years of singing under the direction of Dr. Richard Proulx. (I was fortunate enough to sing with this group for several years, including on the Catholic Christmas Classics recording featured in this collection, so I have a special fondness for all of this music.)  And I miss him still–he was an incredible musician with boundless creativity and intelligence (Richard was generally the smartest person in whatever room he was in) and a delightfully sly sense of humor…those of us who knew him as more than a name attached to a great volume amazing music for assemblies and choirs will, I think, always remember him fondly.

So please enjoy this! It’s another one where I get all the talking out of the way at the beginning and just let you listen to gorgeous music for a while, and as usual you can always find the list, with links to where to find recordings or sheet music, here at the website.

Wishing you all a blessed and holy Christmastide! Thank you again for your support of this podcast over its first six months, and we’ll see you next year!

–Jennifer

 

Music heard on today’s podcast:

O Come, All Ye Faithful G-7462 (arr. Richard Proulx)

As recorded on Catholic Christmas Classics, vol. 8 (CD-590), Richard Proulx, conductor

 

Gabriel’s Message, G-6463 (Basque carol, arr. Richard Proulx)

As recorded on Catholic Christmas Classics, vol. 8 (CD-590), Richard Proulx, conductor

 

Gaudete, G-3056 (arr. Robert J. Batastini)

As recorded on In Sweet Rejoicing CD-323), Richard Proulx, conductor

 

For Unto Us a Child is Born, G-2979 (Jacob Clemens non Papa)

As recorded on In Sweet Rejoicing CD-323), Richard Proulx, conductor

 

For Unto Us a Child is Born, G-6464 (George Frederic Handel)

As recorded on Catholic Christmas Classics, vol. 8 (CD-590), Richard Proulx, conductor

 

Is it Far to Bethlem City, G-2908 (Giovanni Gastoldi)

As recorded on Rejoice in the Lord (CD-290), Richard Proulx, conductor

 

Away in a Manger, G-6238 (Traditional carol, arr. Larry Harris)

As recorded on Catholic Christmas Classics, vol. 8 (CD-590), Richard Proulx, conductor

 

What Child is This?, G-6463 (GREENSLEEVES, arr. Richard Proulx)

As recorded on Catholic Christmas Classics, vol. 8 (CD-590), Richard Proulx, conductor

 

Infant Holy, Infant Lowly, G-2376 (Polish carol, arr. Richard Proulx)

As recorded on Rare Beasts and Unique Adventures, vol. 2 (CD-468), Richard Proulx, conductor

 

Psallite, Unigenito, G-2136 (Michael Praetorius)

As recorded on In Sweet Rejoicing CD-323), Richard Proulx, conductor

 

Puer Natus in Bethlehem, G-3034 (Gregor Joseph Werner)

As recorded on In Sweet Rejoicing CD-323), Richard Proulx, conductor

 

Fum Fum Fum, G-5062 (Catalan carol, arr. Anne Heider)

As recorded on Catholic Christmas Classics, vol. 8 (CD-590), Richard Proulx, conductor

 

En Natus Est Emmanuel, G-2137 (Michael Praetorius)

As recorded on In Sweet Rejoicing CD-323), Richard Proulx, conductor

 

Angels, We Have Heard on High, G-6462 (French carol, arr. Richard Proulx)

As recorded on Catholic Christmas Classics, vol. 8 (CD-590), Richard Proulx, conductor

 

‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime, G-4611 (French folk song, arr. Sally Ann Morris)

As recorded on Catholic Christmas Classics, vol. 8 (CD-590), Richard Proulx, conductor

 

Joy to the World! G-9190 (G. F. Handel, arr. Richard Proulx)

 

Silent Night/Night of Silence, G-5622 (Daniel Kantor, arr. Marilyn Biery)

(Silent Night, Stille Nacht, was first performed on December 24, 1818 in Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria.)

As recorded on Catholic Christmas Classics, vol. 8 (CD-590), Richard Proulx, conductor

A Christmas Playlist (Sing Amen! The Podcast, episode 12)

A Christmas Playlist (Sing Amen! The Podcast, episode 12)

So! It’s almost Christmas, the calendar year is drawing to a close, and musicians everywhere are deep into the work of the season! First, as this year ends, a huge thanks to those who have followed this blog and podcast through our first six months. Despite a bit of a lull as the holiday season hit (it’s just me over here, and sometimes things get overwhelming!) we are just getting started—as I write this, I’m looking at the calendar for the year to come, and we have interviews and conversation on some very cool topics—we’ll be taking with Scott Riedel about worship space acoustics and sound, Lori True about weaving messages of justice into our music, Phil Koncyk and Bob Batastini about forging a healthy multicultural and multilingual worshiping community, Kate Williams on the new resource she has put together for families grieving miscarriages and infertility, Bridget Jankowski about body mapping and the healthy use of our body, and several more—and of course, lots of great music. So please stay with us—2019 will be a great year!

We will actually have two Christmas music podcasts–this one releasing today, and then a special “Christmas with the Cathedral Singers” episode that will release on Christmas morning itself; it’s perfect for listening to on the way home from your Christmas Day liturgies before your annual Christmas Day nap (if that’s how you roll), or any time during the festive season when the rest of the world has taken their Christmas trees out to the curb, but we liturgical types are still partying hard until the Epiphany!

Enjoy–and peace be with you! Blessings for 2019!

–Jennifer

Music Heard on Today’s Podcast:

Theme Music: The Holly and the Ivy (arr. Cotter)

As recorded on Winter Grace (CD-206)

 

The Wexford Carol, G-5208 (arr. Callanan)

As recorded on Star Child (CD-471)

 

Go Where I Send Thee, G-5557 (Spiritual, arr. Uzee Brown, Jr.)

As recorded on Guide My Feet (CD-600), James Abbington, conductor

 

Dream a Dream, G-6653 (True)

As recorded on There is Room For Us All (CD-639)

 

Gaudete! G-9499 (de Silva)

As recorded on Love, Burn Bright (CD-1014)

 

En un Pesebre (Peña)

As recorded on Diciembre en México, CD-322

 

Like a Whisper in the Heart, G-5231 (Moore)

As recorded on Like a Whisper in the Heart (CD-558)

 

Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow (Spiritual, arr. Joubert)

As recorded on 46 More Hidden Treasures from the African American Heritage Hymnal (CD-711)

 

Journey On, G-5914 (O’Brien)

As recorded on The Word is Born, CD-532

 

A Weary Couple, G-9703 (Alonso)

As recorded on Encounter, CD-1037

 

Alegría, G-7614G (Puerto Rican carol, arr. Alonso)

As recorded on Heaven and Nature Sing (CD-770)

 

Friends in Christ, Rejoice, G-8757 (Rory Cooney)

As recorded on Like No God We Had Imagined, CD-965

 

Will you Come and See the Light, G-9273 (Haas)

As recorded on With Gratitude (CD-1006)

 

Silent Night (German Carol, arr. Petrunak)

As recorded on Infant Holy, CD-466

Children’s Choirs, Part 3: Youth Cantor Formation

Children’s Choirs, Part 3: Youth Cantor Formation

Where does the next generation of cantors and music ministers come from, if not from the youngest singers now?

An important part of a strong youth music program is keeping your children growing and challenged and eager to keep learning. It can be challenging for seventh and eighth graders to sing in the same “children’s” choir as second and third graders; totally aside from the reality that they at this point are able to pick up songs and skills more quickly than the youngest children, they are on the cusp of something not-quite-childhood any more, and being treated as children can…grate. (Or so my own middle-school-aged offspring, whom I no longer refer to as a “child,” tells me.)

This, then, is the perfect opportunity to introduce the cantor ministry to your young singers.

Obviously, it is not as simple as just putting these young people up at the microphone to “sing solos”; this process only works in the context of an ensemble where the choir’s mission and function of aiding and supporting the assembly’s song has been foundational since day one, and in a parish where a healthy adult cantor ministry is the norm and model. And I certainly would not as a rule ask one middle-schooler to be “on” for serving as cantor for an entire liturgy. But the process of training youth cantors can be an important one for the grown of these young singers in their ministry.

A few guidelines:

  1. Beware a system where only the singers with the “most beautiful” voices “get to” cantor. Bob Batastini, former senior editor of GIA, has said that in his opinion anyone who can carry a tune and who has a fairly pleasant voice has what it takes to be a cantor. If we train them young in the ministerial side of a cantor’s work, they will be that much more prepared to take on more and stronger leadership as they get older. In my group, any student who reaches seventh grade and wishes to serve as a cantor gets the same training as any others. Those with smaller voices can be paired with other stronger singers. And the whole work of call-and-response, gesturing, eye contact, and negotiating microphone distance is just as much of a challenge to the big-voiced as those with less confidence.
  2. Use your children’s choir liturgies as the perfect opportunity to let your young cantors get experience, but schedule an “adult” or more experienced cantor for those liturgies as well. The choice of adult is also key—it needs to be someone who him- or her-self understands that their role even more than at any other time is to do what is needed to facilitate the assembly’s song and support the children, and otherwise to be as invisible as possible. A younger face can be encouraging and supportive to the group, but more important is the adult cantor’s attitude and approach to working with children. (We are fortunate in my parish to have an elementary school teacher among our cantors, and he is a treasure—he instinctively knows when he can back off and let the kids take leadership, and he never hesitates to do so.) If your adult voice can be a tenor or light baritone, this is even better; even aside from the advantage to having a male role model in a group that too often has a hard time building membership among boys, the fact that your adult will generally be singing in a different octave from your choral singers and/or youth cantors will assure that their sound will not be covered.
  3. Within each liturgy, choose a few specific songs or moments for your youth cantors to lead. Start out with only one or two in a liturgy; as your young cantors grow more assured, this can increase. Choose something very well-known, with a simple part for your young singers; I find that echo-based songs or call-and-response music are ideal for this.
  4. When you begin to teach gesture to your new cantors, do not separate them from the rest of the choir, but have the entire choir begin to learn together, even if your second graders won’t be doing this with an assembly for another 5 years. Work cantor gesture into the warmup; an exercise of “Inhale….sing” coordinating with arms rising on the breath and opening at the onset of phonation will set them up for healthy gesturing as they grow, as well as helping connect their sound to their breath and their body. Make learning the cantor gestures a part of the singing process. And then when it’s time for cantors to sing on specific songs, first have them practice with you, but then have them lead the “assembly” (your children’s choir) on their parts. This is both good for the cantors themselves and for the younger children you hope will see their peers stepping up into leadership and begin to see themselves in such a role. Again, call-and-response songs like “Wade in the Water,” “God is Still Speaking,” and Tony Alonso’s “Glory in the Cross” are excellent choices for new cantors to cut their teeth on.
  5. If your assembly is strong on your parish’s settings of the eucharistic acclamations, but not quite strong enough to sing them without some leadership at the microphone, you could consider having your young cantors lead those as well—but only if they are so well-known by your young singers that they can sing them effortlessly and from memory; nothing inhibits the assembly’s singing more than an insecure cantor (of any age!).
  6. Start with your younger cantors in pairs; after a few times out, shift to solo voices leading short lines on call-and-response pieces. Only much later would I put a young voice on a full verse of a psalm or song.

Do any of you have an ongoing youth cantor program? I would love to hear what works for you!

 

 

Photo Credit: Mike Lyons

God Comes Tomorrow: Music for Advent and Christmas (Sing Amen! the Podcast, episode 11)

God Comes Tomorrow: Music for Advent and Christmas (Sing Amen! the Podcast, episode 11)

I’ve mentioned before that one of my favorite things here at GIA is going through the back catalog and wandering the not-right-off-the-presses areas of the warehouse, because there are so many treasures there—sometimes we get caught up in the allure of whatever is shiny and new and forget how much amazing stuff is still out there from years gone by.

This CD of music by John Bell of the Iona Community is one of those for me, and it’s one I like to pull out every Advent to help pull me into the season. God Comes Tomorrow is this lovely assortment of music for Advent and Christmas—chorally rich and lovely, accessible to the ear, melodically gorgeous, and with the sense of spare and un-encumbered writing that I love so much about John’s work. (The phrase “Less is more” has become a cliché; if you want to hear it in action, in a non-cliché way, go and listen to John Bell’s music.) It’s more than 20 years old, but to my ears this music still wears well.

One of the things I think I like best about John Bell’s music is how, in this world of sometimes hard-and-fast division between classifications of “traditional” and “contemporary,” this music seems to both bridge and transcend these divisions. And I love the idea that Christmas music doesn’t need to be huge and grand and triumphant all the time—these lovely gentle carols with John’s elegant and often subversive texts are a wonderful palate-cleanser from the cultural excess of the season that’s about to be thrust upon us.

So I hope you enjoy these—these are my 9 favorite cuts from a much longer CD, and in this time when things start getting more and more frenetic and we can so easily get bogged down in all the Stuff we have to do (or is that just me?), I pray that we might all remember:

He will come when we’re least expecting him, when agendas have been set,
And the deadlines have been finalized, through which needs are seldom met—
Though for us it’s out of season, God decides the place and time.

(John Bell, “He will Come”)

Peace and good will to all! Wishing you all a joyful close of our liturgical year, and a joyful and rich Year of Grace to come!

–Jennifer

 

Music heard on today’s podcast:

from the collection God Comes Tomorrow, G-5485  by John Bell
As heard on the recording God Comes Tomorrow, CD-494

Advent
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, G-5489
He will Come, G-5486 
Two Advent Hymns (Comfort, Comfort now my people), G-5493
Lift Up Your Heads, G-5494

Christmas
Two African Christmas Carols: Good News for Everyone and Poor Folk Hear Him Gladly, G-5487
Fae Heichts o’Heiven, G-5498
(Note: The octavo for “Fae Heichts o’Heiven” contains both the Scots dialect and a standard singable English translation for those who wish.)
Cloth for the Cradle, G-5495
Sing Gloria, G-5488

 

SingAmen! the Podcast, with Jennifer Kerr Budziak
Sound by Jim Bogdanich

SingAmen! opening music: Promenade, by Bob Moore (from Let Every Instrument Be Tuned for Praise, CD-491, from Liturgical Suite #4, G-4789.. ©GIA Publications, Inc).
SingAmen! closing music: Amen, (from More Sublime Chant, CD-459, The Cathedral Singers, Richard Proulx, conductor. ©GIA Publications, Inc.)

 

Children’s Choirs: How much can you really accomplish in 1 rehearsal? (Part II: Layered Learning)

Children’s Choirs: How much can you really accomplish in 1 rehearsal? (Part II: Layered Learning)

In our post two weeks ago, we looked at how a short seven minute (or so) warm-up process can, very quickly, prepare a children’s choir for successful learning–so if you missed that one, please go check it out, because it sets up for success in the rest of rehearsal.

So following the warm-up process, how do we move into music-making?

I have found, at least, that shifting immediately from a solid, well-aligned, vocally healthy warming-up process into a “please sit down and take out your hymnal/music/booklet” kind of activity is like dropping a lead balloon onto the energy in the room. The very process of sitting and taking out a book physically deconstructs the healthy body alignment you’ve just achieved, and just as important, it separates the process of singing “songs” from that of just singing and making beautiful sound. (Again–we do this all the time with our adults as well; this kind of transitional activity might be worth considering there too!)

Instead: our first activity after the warm-up is always a review of something we know and have memorized, such as a song or hymn or piece of service music for the nearest Sunday they are scheduled to sing (and if there’s nothing for the coming Sunday that they can sing memorized, that heralds a host of other problems, which I’ll address in some future post that might hypothetically be called “Strategic repertoire planning for children’s choirs”). Perhaps it’s the “Glory to God,” or the refrain to the Communion song, or the responsorial psalm…something they can sing from the same body placement and mental space in which they did their warming up, vocalizing, and ear training work.

Our next activity (maybe only 3-4 minutes later) is to learn something brief and new, by ear, still from the posture of a) warming up and b) singing familiar strong music we already know and love. If the responsorial psalm refrain is new, try that–heck, if the people in the pews are supposed to be able to sing it back on one hearing, we should expect our singing kids to do it too, right? Depending on the length of the text, I’ll often speak the text out loud to them and have them echo it back–and almost every time I need to ask them to do it twice, because almost every time the first speak-through is in sing-song-y semi-mumbled school-kid drawl–you know the one, the voice they use to say “Good MORRRR-ning, Faaaather Peeeeeeter….” That isn’t the voice we want. This is where we challenge them to find the strong syllables, the important words, and to speak the sentence as though we were an actor onstage, with strength and confidence.

From here, assuming the piece of music is well-constructed and the composer has been attentive to text flow when setting the melody (and if not, why would you be singing it anyway, right?), transferring this intelligent reading of the text to an intelligent singing should be fairly simple, as you invite them to sing the phrase after you. (Note: do not accompany them at this point; let it be all about the voices, without the often-leaned-upon crutch of the keyboard instrument. Let them hear and learn and own what they are singing as their own solid and supportive unit.) And in some cases, this reading/meaning process can also be transferred to helping your singers learn to apply expressive musical concepts as well.

For example: Here is the psalm response for this past Sunday, November 4, 2018, Year B, taken from the Lyric Psalter collection:

Notice how the text repeats three times, each time at a slightly higher pitch. After the first or second sing-through, when the notes and words are there but the overall “flavor” is still a little lifeless, you might ask your singers, “Why do you think the composer had us repeat the first phrase three times? Wasn’t once enough?” Try to elicit, in some organized “don’t lose the room’s energy” 20-second space of time, some variant of “because we really really love the Lord a lot!–how can we ever say it enough?” Have them sing it again, this time stressing “love” just a little more each time, so that it builds to the final statement.

Here is an opportunity to introduce a new–or not new, to those who have learned the term in their own school music classes or lessons–musical term, “crescendo.” Explain what it means (or ask for hands and let a student tell the group), and ask them to sing the line again, this time building a crescendo up to the third time they sing the word “love,” and then letting the music get a little softer (“diminuendo”) to the end. Then ask them to try the same thing again, with even more crescendo, and even more real feeling from their hearts…

This took four paragraphs and a graphic to describe something that in reality might take 4 minutes of actual rehearsal time: you spoke the text with them twice, and they have sung it a total of 4 or 5 times. During these minutes they have learned something about text stress, how to handle text repetition, phrasing, thinking about the meaning of the words they sing, and one or two musical terms. They have also learned the responsorial psalm refrain, and can sing it solidly and without accompaniment.

(Note: you could also have chosen, back in the ear-training solfège part of your warm-up, to incorporate this melody in your back-and-forth echo exercises, and even to teach it straight-up without telling them what you were teaching–just take the little cells of melody and do them with the singers, with hand signs, as your ear-training for the day.)

Do the math: We are now 15 minutes into our rehearsal time. We have warmed up and sung two of the pieces we are responsible for learning for Sunday. Not bad, right?

Now you will probably need to let them sit down, squirm a little, and move into singing from written materials–maybe throwing in a little quick stretch-and-shake-out break (by quick I mean 15 seconds max) before finally letting them sit and relax for just long enough to pick up their hymnals or song sheets or what-have-you, and open to the page you call out.

This is where your options open up a lot more, and you can get down to work on whatever you think will be most challenging for your group in this rehearsal–because the process that got you here has set you and your singers up for success. Are you trying to accustom younger singers to the way a hymnal’s verses are stacked under the musical lines? Help prepare them for a new opening song or hymn to be used during the Advent season, one with lots of more complicated words in the verses than they are accustomed to? Perhaps your first “memorized” piece after the warmup was the refrain to a song they know really well, but for which they are a little dicey on the verses. Maybe it’s time to introduce a short piece in a new language (anything from “Sizohamba” to “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen”–“Lo, how a rose” in its original German) Change tasks frequently, change posture frequently, and as soon as they seem to be disengaging, switch something up to get them back with you. And wherever possible, try to be rehearsing music several Sundays ahead of when you will need it, because it’s much easier to work with this age group 4 times for 7 minutes on a song than to keep them focused for 15 minutes twice, or nearly half an hour only once. Keep moving.

Always save one higher-energy piece for the end of rehearsal–something joyful, something familiar, even a little boisterous, to wake them back up and send them back to their families and worlds happy they’ve been there.

Again–all this is what I do, and what works for me–please, please jump into the comments and share your thoughts and strategies with the rest of us!

(Next post: We’ll take a look at teaching early part singing and learning to sing in harmony.)

Of Soulful Saints and Saintly Souls: a Choral Sampler (Sing Amen! the Podcast, episode 10)

Of Soulful Saints and Saintly Souls: a Choral Sampler (Sing Amen! the Podcast, episode 10)

(**UPDATE**
This episode was completed and recorded before the tragic events at Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday. Thus what brief narration and commentary I give on the episode does not address the tragedy of eleven people who lost their lives nor the countless numbers who grieve them. And even now, it becomes harder and harder to find words to address the senseless violence and hatred that seems to take more and more of our brothers and sisters each time we turn around…which is why, I suppose, we turn to music, to say what words cannot. So for all of those lost, and for all those who grieve…if all we can do is sing, sing their journey and sing their memory and sing the better world we wish we could have made for them, then that is what we must do, and continue to do…)

Somehow, October is nearly over, and November, with its inexorable push to longer nights and shorter days and years ending, is upon us. And it’s the week when, as a church, we turn to thoughts of our own mortality, and of those who have gone before us. This year is particularly poignant for me personally; last autumn at about this time I was traveling back East as often as I could get away in order to spend time with two people who were very dear to me and who were at that time facing big setbacks in their ongoing battles with cancer…we lost them both within a week of each other shortly after the new year. So I am listening to the music of these feasts with different ears than in years past, and finding in it a comfort I had not fully realized I needed…

This is one of those musical samplers that’s not particularly of use to people trying to plan music for parishes, since it’s basically launching mere days before the feasts it connects to (although I know I’m putting a bunch of these into my “hope chest” to maybe use next year)…but it’s also important for us to remember that sometimes we the ministers need ministering to just as much as anyone else. So I hope something in here can touch the hearts of all of us who this year are holding especially close to our hearts the memories of saintly souls and soulful saints we’ve had to let go of here on earth.

Peace!

–Jennifer

p.s. make sure you listen all the way to the end–in a moment of whimsy, I put at the end of this mostly reflective podcast Richard Proulx’s gently humorous account of the “Choirmaster at the Pearly Gates”…it always makes me smile. (Note: please do not take this piece as in any way reflective of thoughtful Catholic theology, or attempting to negate the promise of forgiveness and grace as free gift; it’s church musician humor, nothing more. 😉 )

Music heard on today’s podcast:

For All the Saints G-4540 (arr. John Bell)
As recorded on The Last Journey, CD-381 by the Cathedral Singers and John Bell

Sancti Dei Omnes (All you Saints of Heaven) G-3793 (arr. Richard Proulx)
As recorded on Let All Together Praise, CD-335, by Richard Proulx and the Cathedral Singers

The Cloud’s Veil G-4664 (Liam Lawton)
As recorded on Catholic Irish Classics, CD-915 by Liam Lawton, with Theresa Donohoo

Precious Lord G-7155 (by George N. Allen and Thomas Dorsey, arr. Nathan Carter)
As recorded on Great is thy Faithfulness, CD-999, a Tribute to the Life and Published Choral Works of Dr. Nathan Carter

Come to Me, O Weary Traveler, G-9135 (Sylvia Dunstan and Paul Tate)
As recorded on Life is Changed, Not Ended, CD-1044, by Paul Tate

Gospel Canticle of Simeon G-9721 (Michael Joncas)
as recorded on Deep and Lasting Peace CD-1047, by Michael Joncas

Lord our God, Receive your Servant G-4538 (John Bell)
As recorded on The Last Journey, CD-381 by the Cathedral Singers and John Bell

The Choirmaster at the Pearly Gates, by Richard Proulx
As recorded on Spirit of God Unleashed, CD-405

Full text:

The Choirmaster stood at the pearly gates
His face was worn and old,
He stood before the man of fate
For admission to the fold.
“What have you done,” Saint Peter said
“To gain admission here?”
“I’ve been a Choirmaster, sir,” he said,
“For many and many a year.”
The pearly gates flew open wide
Saint Peter touched the bell.
“Come in,” he said, “and choose your harp
You’ve had your share of hell.”

Anonymous (20th century, quoted from A Guest at Cambridge, 1998)

 

SingAmen! the Podcast, with Jennifer Kerr Budziak
Sound by Jim Bogdanich

SingAmen! opening music: Promenade, by Bob Moore (from Let Every Instrument Be Tuned for Praise, CD-491, from Liturgical Suite #4, G-4789.. ©GIA Publications, Inc).
SingAmen! closing music: Amen, (from More Sublime Chant, CD-459, The Cathedral Singers, Richard Proulx, conductor. ©GIA Publications, Inc.)

 

Children’s Choirs: So much unfocused energy, so little time… (Part 1: the Warm-up)

Children’s Choirs: So much unfocused energy, so little time… (Part 1: the Warm-up)

Maybe you see the children’s choir once a week, on a weekday after school. Maybe you are wrangling kids from two programs–the parish school kids next door have homework/break time for a while after school until the public school kids get out and can join them. Or maybe your regular weekly rehearsal is on a Sunday, before or after the liturgy most of their families attend. Maybe your rehearsal is only 45 minutes long, during which you need to warm them up, teach them two new songs, review 3 older songs, begin the new Mass parts, and possibly start the new Christmas piece you ambitiously want them to learn. Maybe along with those tasks, you’d also like to, I don’t know, teach them a little something about music and help them gain skills that will lay groundwork for future lives as choral singers…and maybe give them a little of the theology of what they are singing about…

Is this even possible?

I actually love working with my children’s choirs, and after a lot of years of experimentation and exhaustion genuinely am able to do all of the above within that 45-minute period. Is it perfect? Do the kids pay rapt attention to every second, without any squirminess or lack of engagement at any time? Nope, not even close. But…we get a lot done.

This is the first of what will likely wind up as 3 posts about the various aspects of working with children’s choirs: repertoire-teaching, rehearsal management, warming up, even musical literacy. And I find that the entire tone for a rehearsal is set by what happens in the warm-up. This brief process usually gets only about 7 minutes, but it’s crucial for keeping things working and building a solid groundwork for a productive rehearsal.

So: The Warm-up! I’m a firm believer in warm-ups. They do not just “wake up” the voice, they get the whole body and brain ready to work, rebuilding the group of individuals into a cohesive whole. I always do them in the same order: first stretching and readying the whole body for work, then working out the vocal registers in what we normally would think of as a “typical” series of warm-ups, and finally engaging in some exercise that works the brain and the ears, helping to set the ensemble sound and sharpen their musical skills.

1. Stretching and loosening activities, to help them get their bodies ready to make music. (This is important for adults too!) Stretching up to the ceiling one arm at a time not only stretches out the shoulders, but it also activates the rib cage and gets the whole torso moving. Slow shoulder and head rolls can help loosen up tight muscles and find a healthy alignment for the body. The trick is to combine the reaches and stretches and rolls with long slow breaths; this keeps them engaged and makes conversation difficult! (“Drop your head to the front, and slowly rollllll it to one side, then take a deep breath in….and out….let your head fall back to the front and then rollll it to the other side….breathe in…breathe out….”)

2. Segue into simple semi-pitched wake-up-the-voice activities. I like to start with long slow sirens along the length of their vocal ranges, stressing that the point is not to be loud, but just to gently let the voice float up, and float back down. I usually do a siren first, and have them echo it; then I’ll do siren-like vocalizations in different registers and ask them to echo it back. Then I’ll ease into a siren combined with pitch–e.g. I’ll siren up to some fairly high-in-the-register note, and from there just sing “sol, mi, do” on a neutral “oh” vowel, and ask them to sing it back. I’ll then repeat this exercise again and again, gradually moving down in pitch, to help them bring their natural head voice down into what can otherwise turn into a shouty chest register. Sometimes I will change to “sol-fa-mi-re-do”…or “sol-fa-mi-re-do-ti-do,” still on an “oh” vowel…or some easy sequence. And then, by the time we are nearing the lower part of the practical register, I’ll start actually singing these syllables and having them echo the solfège back.

3. Now, in the space of just a few minutes, we have already shifted into pitched exercises, tone, vowel placement, and intonation, and we have worked the lower and higher registers of the voice. Then we shift into working a couple of exercises to get the enunciators moving–you probably have a few of these that are your favorites (such as the one about the many mumbling mice, or the super duper double bubble gum, or what-have-you…drop me a line if you don’t, I’d be happy to help provide more!), but the one I start with every September is the one that both wakes up the text-producing mouth-parts and names them consciously at the same time:

(Pro tip: the hardest word will always, every time, be “of.” You’ll get “The tip o’the tongue, the roof o’the mouth” and so on. If you can get them to sing the “of” every time, you are golden for anything diction-wise you ever ask of them.) Start at a manageable tempo, then as you get going do a nice fun accelerando, which my singers always love and which challenges them. It’s a little silly–but it works. And then through the year you can be specific about which enunciators are the potential problems for different musical issues.

4. The final part of the warm-up that I use now without fail, every single rehearsal, is a brief exercise in solfège and music reading. It’s very simple to do and takes literally only a couple of minutes, and the benefits are almost immediate and applicable. Using a combination of singing movable do solfège syllables, alongside the Curwen hand signs, I have the choir sing (and gesture) up and down the scale together. In early weeks or with younger children I’ll then go to some easy echo work, using syllables and hand signs; as they progress further, I ask them to follow after me and sing the syllable that goes with each of my gestures–starting with easy home base tonic-dominant “do” and “sol,” then adding an additional syllable or two at each rehearsal, sticking with stepwise motion except when going to our home base pitches of “do” and “sol.” As rehearsals go by, their ability to “read” more complicated rhythms in my hands (mirrored in their own) gets more and more complex and confident, and every piece of music they sing becomes easier as they gain this facility.

my wiener dogs

Again: All of this takes literally about 7 minutes, most of the time. The key is to always keep moving, always know what’s coming next, never have to stop and think about what you are doing–because once you let them get away from you for even a second, they are gone like my wiener dogs when they see a squirrel. Keep them moving, keep them working and singing and occupied and engaged, and it’s amazing what they can do.

More next time–I’ll talk about the process I use for teaching a new song without losing focus, which is always a challenge…and how to apply our newfound knowledge of movable do to our church music! Until then–drop us a comment, either here or on the Facebook page; I’d love to hear your tricks for wrangling our young ones and having joy-filled and productive rehearsals!

–Jennifer

 

Conversation with David Haas, Part II: On Self-care and Avoiding Burnout (Podcast, Episode 9)

Conversation with David Haas, Part II: On Self-care and Avoiding Burnout (Podcast, Episode 9)

So out of David’s and my long conversation several months ago we were able to pull not one but two podcast episodes; the first one was two weeks ago (please check it out if you haven’t yet!), and here is part 2.

Here we go a little into what seems like one of the elephants in the room where church musicians are concerned–so many of us who for many years love our work and excel at it find ourselves at some point feeling completely overwhelmed and burned out, either choosing to leave professional ministry entirely or remaining in the work but being unhappy for years on end. This episode is a sort of reflection on the struggles pastoral musicians face; Interspersed with some of his music, here David talks a bit about how we need to take time to care for ourselves and keep our spirits going…

To stay in touch with David, get on his “Daily Living Reminders” mailing list, and see what else he’s doing, check out his website at DavidHaas.us.

Music heard in today’s podcast:

“I Will Live On,” G-8875
As recorded on I Will Live On, CD-970

“Come in our Dark Time,” G-9475 
As recorded on When we are Weak, we are Strong, CD-1011

“Dedicate Yourselves,” G-9488
As recorded on God Never Tires, CD-1010

 

SingAmen! the Podcast, with Jennifer Kerr Budziak
Sound by Jim Bogdanich

SingAmen! opening music: Promenade, by Bob Moore (from Let Every Instrument Be Tuned for Praise, CD-491, from Liturgical Suite #4, G-4789.. ©GIA Publications, Inc).
SingAmen! closing music: Amen, (from More Sublime Chant, CD-459, The Cathedral Singers, Richard Proulx, conductor. ©GIA Publications, Inc.)

The Reluctant Organist by Janette Cooper (treasures from the back catalog)

The Reluctant Organist by Janette Cooper (treasures from the back catalog)

So one of the best things about working at GIA is…the warehouse. Being this close to that much music, that many editions, stacks and racks and boxes and so much music all in one place. Seriously, I’m such a nerd that stepping into the building and smelling that inky publisher smell that lightly pervades everything, even the editorial department, makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.

But I can’t be the only nerd, right? I mean, look at this:

Tell me that doesn’t look like a really fun way to drop an hour or two, seriously?

There’s lots of great new stuff of course, but I’m having the most fun heading to the back of the warehouse and sort of pawing through the boxes of older stuff–books and resources and things that have sort of slipped off the radar in favor of newer products, but which actually have some great content and which, beneath their often dated-looking covers, have some very solid and currently-usable information inside them.

One of those products: The Reluctant Organist, by Janette Cooper, first edition published through the Royal School of Church Music in 1976, with a second edition in 1987. It’s a tiny little book, less than 40 pages long, but it is full of great information for “Reluctants” as the author calls them, describing her target audience on the opening page:

“…The organist disappears, the vicar looks round the congregation and sees Mrs. A whom he once heard play the piano at a children’s party. Told that the organ is very similar to a piano and that anyone can play a few hymns, she feels it would be ungracious to refuse to help next Sunday. She and the choir make valiant efforts and the following Sunday she has been prevailed on to repeat the performance. A year later she is still there…She is uneasily aware that the organ has more dissimilarities with her piano and he left her to believe…and Sundays come along so quickly–no sooner has she learnt the notes of the Whitsun hymns than Trinity is here. She tentatively asks the professional musician at the big parish church if he would give her a few lessons…He suggests that she join the local Organists’ Association, but on her first visit she finds the talk is all about wind pressure per inch, and the second is an organ crawl where everyone except her indulges in lengthy improvisation. She returns to her own church, and to her I offer this interim emergency recipe booklet.”

Perhaps I love this book so much because this was me when I started out on organ, having no idea what I was doing and no one to tell me what to do or how to do it. I so wish I’d had this book back then–her outline of the key points to the workings of the instrument is concise and clear, her approach to pedalwork for beginners is wonderfully commonsense, and I wish I’d known about it 20 years ago.

In this very short book she offers a crash course on the most basic of basics. Here’s just a sampling of her wit and wisdom:

  1. What you’re looking at in front of you when you sit down at the organ for the first time (in the chapters “Geography 1” and “Geography 2”)
  2. Advice on how to start using the pedals: “I will outline an approach to pedalling which may bear more fruit than the stab-and-poke technique employed by many.”
  3. Permission to not start using the pedals: “If you are entirely rational and trouble-hating, be assured that you may be a very competent Reluctant with no use of the pedalboard whatsoever, and skip the next two chapters. It will save much agony.”
  4. Registration: “Your ears will tell you that an 8 and 2 can make a welcome change when used without the intermediate 4, that 16-foot manual stops can be unclear, and that the Swell Oboe can be particularly nasty when used with the Diapason. The matter of registration is subjective within reason: you must listen.”
  5. Rhythmic hymn playing: “…I do not mean merely putting notes down according to the metronome. Rhythm is closely linked to accent, and it may have escaped your notice so far that there is no mechanical way of making an accent on an organ…”
  6. The tremulant: “Now a few gadgets for Reluctants to use most sparingly. The tremulant gives a vibrato to the tone of some stops…and although it can be used to great effect in a few eighteenth and nineteenth century works, I urge you to forget its existence for the time being.”
  7. General professionalism: “Flinging oneself on the organ seat five minutes before a service only to find that chantbook and left shoe have disappeared, opening the hymn book with right hand while the left plays a repeated arpeggio over a firmly held pedal C–both are sure ways to mediocrity and/or disaster.”

Her writing “voice” is delightful and very British, at least to my ears, and I enjoy her writing while appreciating the common-sense approach she brings to what for many of us is a big intimidating instrument.

So…if there are any other “Reluctants” out of there–I’d highly recommend checking it out!

And if you’re ever in Chicago and would like to take a walk through the warehouse with me (I’m serious about that! Come visit us!), I’m always game.