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Dr. Lucas Tappan is a conductor and organist whose specialty is working with children. He lives in Kansas with his wife and two sons.
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“It is most important that when the faithful assist at the sacred ceremonies … they should sing alternately with the clergy or the choir, as it is prescribed.”
— Pope Pius XI, "Divini Cultus" (20 Dec 1928) §9

The Great Secret
published 2 March 2015 by Lucas Tappan

LMT Charles Cole EFORE I BEGIN this week’s post, I want to make a correction to something I wrote last week regarding John Bertalot’s Practical Secret, namely, condition choirs so that you only have to tell them once. I used the example of a chorister who is not listening when the director tells the choir where in the music they are to begin singing. I made the point that you should not repeat your instruction, because then the choristers know they don’t have to listen the first time around—surely you will repeat it a second, and possibly a third time. I wrote that one should instead plow forward so that the student has to figure it out on his own. While it is true that one should not repeat the instruction a second time in the usual manner and then move on, it is, nevertheless, not true that one should move forward in the way I wrote (students who love choir, but struggle musically, or ones who know musical concepts well, but would rather be goofing off, usually won’t put forth the effort to catch up, which leads to much bigger problems). The afternoon after I posted the article, I stood in front of my choristers and that very example became reality, and I realized I needed to do things differently. I gave the choir an instruction, but one student chose not to listen the first time I said it. What I did is what is sometimes referred to in education circles as the “no opt out.” When said student asked me to repeat what I had said, I looked to another student and asked the second student to repeat what I said. Then (and this is absolutely important!!!) I returned to the original student and asked him to repeat the instruction so that he knew that I would not let him get away with sitting there. It is amazing how well this works and it eliminates so many behavioral problems with choristers. Alright, on to this week’s topic—The Great Secret.

Oh, what would it be like to hand my choristers a new motet and then lift my hands and go? Oh wait, that is a bi-weekly occurrence in the Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum (my group of choristers). Last week I handed my choristers Victoria’s O vos omnes, which they will sing on Palm Sunday as well as during our 3 p.m. service on Good Friday. This is how I began (the story you are about to read is true, but the names have been changed to protect the innocent!).

Me: Susie, what key are are we in? You are correct, Bb minor.

I didn’t explain that Renaissance music could be sung beginning on any pitch you liked or that we were really in a mode as opposed to a key. I was just happy I had 4th through 8th grade students who were singing Victoria. At this point I played the scale and chord structure of Bb minor and asked them to sing lah, which they did correctly (they know that the minor scale begins on lah).

Me: Choir, please sing lah. (I didn’t repeat lah for them after playing the scale. They had to be able to figure it out on their own, which they did.)

Me: Johnny, what time signature are we in? Yes, Johnny, we are in cut time. Edward, what does that mean? That is correct, it stand for 2/2. Sarah, what does the top 2 mean and what does the bottom 2 mean? Yes, the top number means two beats per measure and the bottom number means that the half note gets the beat.

Me: As we learn this piece, we will read it as if it were in 4/4 (this works best for my choristers as a whole).

Me: Sopranos and altos, I would like both parts to sing the alto line through measure 16 on solfege, one note at a time. We will focus on rhythm later (be specific in your instructions!).

I asked both the sopranos and altos to sing because It was a good reading exercise for all the students (I did not play a single note on the piano to help them). This didn’t go perfectly (70 percent the first time through). I had to focus on a couple of the difficult leaps. Next, both parts worked on the rhythm.

Me: Sopranos and altos, I would like both parts to clap the the rhythm and speak the beat of the alto line through measure 16 (all I did was establish the speed of the beat).

My choristers have a fairly good grasp on whole notes, halves and quarters so this line was not a problem (If the line had contained a dotted quarter note, I would have had to stop and make sure a few of the choristers were sure of this rhythm.) At this point, I asked both parts to sing the line again, this time in correct rhythm. Next, I repeated the process with the soprano line. Lastly we put the two parts together, which they sang at about 90% accuracy (the entire process took only 5 minutes). We spent 15 minutes on the piece and learned through sicut dolor meus (singing on a neutral syllable). Not bad.

If I had taught this piece by rote, it would have taken the choir 15 minutes just to learn the first 16 measures (and they would have forgotten this before the next rehearsal). I write all of this because it ties in to John Bertalot’s Great Secret: Every moment of all practices must be geared to sight-singing. If you are going to teach your choir to sight-sing, you must be relentless (in a fun way) about it. Yes, it takes a lot of time and effort in the beginning, but it pays off in the end. Bertalot’s goal was to teach each chorister to read well enough that he or she could sing any of the choruses from Handel’s Messiah by sight after three years. Now THAT is a time saver. We will get to the how of teaching sight-singing later, but for now, MAKE THE DECISION TO TEACH YOUR CHORISTERS HOW TO READ MUSIC. You AND your choristers will be grateful!