WO WEEKS AGO I wrote about the Westminster Cathedral Choir School (and choir) and the Guildford Cathedral Choir, two choral foundations of incredibly high standards founded in very short amounts of time to chant the services in their respective cathedrals. But what of the cathedral music director who needs first to prove the viability of a cathedral choir school before he founds one? I would venture to say this is where most choir masters find themselves and thankfully we have the wonderful example of the Madeleine Choir School at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, Utah. Mr. Gregory Glenn, the choir school’s founder and long time pastoral administrator, graciously accepted my request to spend 6 weeks at the school in the fall of 2012 in order to collect information about the school and choristers for my DMA document and it opened my eyes to what was musically possible with children. One question I continually asked myself during my time at the school (and ever since) was why no other cathedral had followed the Madeleine’s lead to found such an institution. It is such a gift to the Church!
Regarding the school’s history, Mr. Glenn related to me that he had had some desire to found an institution like the Madeleine Choir School, but it had always seemed more of a dream than a reality. Nevertheless, he visited all the Catholic schools within a 40 mile radius of the Cathedral and auditioned all students in grades four through eight. Roughly 70 choristers (half boys and half girls) accepted his invitation to join an after school choral program at the cathedral and rehearsals began in the Spring of 1990. The boys and girls practiced separately, each for 90 minutes every week, and only sang for Mass once per month. This went on for some time until the cathedral’s rector, Msgr. Francis Mannion, decided that Glenn should spend time at a real choir school if he hoped to start one in Salt Lake City. Glenn packed his bags and traveled to London for three months in residence at the Westminster Cathedral Choir School in the fall of 1992. Four years later the Madeleine Choir School opened her doors and has been growing ever since.
If you would like to read a much more detailed history of the choir school, go to chapter 3:
What We Can Learn
I think the first and greatest lesson we can learn is that Mr. Glenn had a love of and passion for the cathedral choir school model and had a vision for what such a thing could look like at the Madeleine Cathedral. He also worked with a rector who could share in his vision. Sometimes I talk with music directors and pastors who want the children in their music programs and schools to sing good sacred music, but they haven’t taken time to flesh out in their minds what such a program in their parishes would look like or how they might actually carry out such a plan. They are under the impression that all it takes is learning a couple of neat music hacks for their students to be able to tackle Palestrina Masses, and all for the price of only $10,000 a year for a part-time music director! But this simply isn’t realistic.
The second lesson we can learn is to persevere when the long route is necessary. Glenn began with a good number of students and a strong desire, but not much more. He and Msgr. Mannion didn’t know if Glenn could pull it off. He ran an after school choir program for six years before the school began. It was also A LOT of hard work and Glenn was honest in relating to me the problems he encountered along the way. In the beginning the choir, even with 35 students in each group, never strayed from unison singing. Moving on to part-singing was difficult and didn’t take place until he began a summer camp where choristers finally experienced daily rehearsals for the first time. Chorister parents found it difficult to understand the idea that the choir had an obligation to the cathedral to sing her daily services, even when that meant returning to the Cathedral on Christmas afternoon to chant Vespers, and all this after having sung Midnight Mass and Mass During the Day. When it came time to propose an actual school for the choir, he had to create model budgets and numbers to give to cathedral committees because such a thing had never been done. When the bishop finally gave permission to found a school, it was full the next day, but Glenn had no teachers. Teaching sight-singing has also been a challenge all the while keeping up with concerts and other obligations (thankfully he has the incomparable help of Mrs. Melanie Malinka, the school’s music director).
I write all of this because it shows how one man’s dogged determination brought a choir school into being. There were new challenges all the time, but Glenn kept finding solutions and eventually his plan took root and developed. As in the case of Sir Richard Terry having the friendship and backing of Cardinal Vaughn, Glenn had the support of Msgr. Mannion, the cathedral’s rector. This support was key, but once he had the necessary vision and support, the rest was simply a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. The thing to remember, though, it that he did it, and you can too!