WOULD LIKE TO suggest four different choral approaches that would help the development of your parish music program. These choral approaches involve putting different combinations of voices into groups. Many famous professional choirs adopted the first three combinations; and in order for you to listen to and to compare some examples, I will be posting recordings of the Gloria from Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli sung by three world-class choirs. I have tried all four methods myself at my former parish and the result was very successful. Our music program became one of the more “well-known” programs in the Metro-Atlanta area.
1. Mixed Choir – Most parishes have an adult choir formed by both male and female singers. This approach is the most common one in the world of choral music, both sacred and secular. Having both male and female voices allows the choir to sing a broader repertoire, from four parts to eight parts, or even more. However, in a parish situation, maintaining a good balance between voices can be a challenge. In order to get the “right singers”, it is very important to invite them in person. If you can get a choir of twenty voices, both male and female, you can make a nice and strong sound with the hymns and polyphonic pieces.
A great example of the mixed choir approach is The Sixteen conducted by Harry Christopher. The way they approach the Gloria, having multiple voices on each part, makes the piece very rich.
2. Children Choristers – Many of my fellow bloggers have mentioned the importance of training our children in the art of singing. The children are the future of your parish music program. In order to have young singers in the adult choir, we must start training them and teach them to appreciate good liturgical music when they are young. Besides that, well-trained children choristers have voices that are so pure, that adults can’t really imitate. If you compare this video of the Choir of King’s College directed by Sir David Willcocks to the recording above, you can hear that the light and pure voices of the boys soprano has a very different flavor from the adult sopranos of The Sixteen.
3. Quartet/Quintet/Sextet – This approach the one I enjoy the most personally. But it is also rarely found in parishes. It is basically the smaller version of the mixed choir approach. Instead of having multiple singers on each part, only have one person per part. This approach allows the more advanced singers to sing their line clearly and expressively. Having a smaller choir increase the flexibility of it. It will be easier to set a rehearsal time and it is perfect for the “random” Holy Days during the week. In a bigger parish, the choir director can just invite a few singers from the regular choir to form a quartet. If you are at a smaller parish and is thinking about starting choir, a quartet can be a good option. Start rehearsing with a smaller choir and build your repertoire, and eventually you may think about expanding the choir to a full choir with mixed voices.
The Tallis Scholars uses this approach in their performances. Six singers are singing the six-part Gloria under Peter Philips direction.
4. Schola Cantorum – The last approach is a Catholic one. Traditionally, only male can join the Schola Cantorum. But I think it is fine to have ladies forming their own Schola Cantorum too. At St. Pius X, I had a Men’s Schola and a Women’s Schola. This approach is, of course, great for Gregorian Chant, having the men and women sing chant separately. Usually, Scholae Cantorum tense to be smaller, which means greater flexibility like the quartet. I also found that rehearsals are usually more relax, probably because people are more comfortable around the same sex. This approach, like the quartet approach, also works well in smaller parishes.
The repertoire of a Schola Cantorum is not limited Gregorian Chant. Here is a recording of Richard Clark’s Ave Maria which is a choral piece with chant elements. This recording of the Schola Cantorum Sanctorum Angelorum was made about a year ago in Steubenville.
I hope my suggestions are helpful. Try some of these choral combinations and they would help develop your music program. If you try all four combinations, you should be directing five different choirs. And that is what I did this past year.