When I joined the team here at Corpus Christi Watershed, Jeff Ostrowski encouraged me to write about my parish music program at St. Stephen the First Martyr in Sacramento, California. I hope that, just as I’ve learned so much from other church music directors, you’ll gain a useful idea or two from what we’re doing out west.
St. Stephen’s is one of the largest parishes in the nation served by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP). Our choir generally boasts 30 to 35 active members of all ages, with more always in training. We sing full Gregorian propers, chanted ordinaries (with occasional polyphonic Mass settings), motets, and hymns for about 100 sung Masses each year, including Sundays, feast days, First Fridays, Requiems, and nuptial Masses.
I certainly can’t take credit for building this choir—only for maintaining it. My predecessor, who spent 12 years in the parish, started the St. Stephen’s music program from scratch. He realized early on that he could find his most reliable supply of sopranos among the many homeschooled children in the parish, so he set to work training them. Ever since then, there has been a tradition of proficient young Choristers at St. Stephen’s.
I became music director in early 2014. From the day I arrived, my philosophy has been to make changes only as the choir’s needs and my pedagogical convictions have evolved. Initially daunted by the challenge of taking over such a large program, my “coping mechanism” was to add two more classes per week. But I think you’ll see that what I’m doing now really isn’t superhuman—it just requires some focused thinking about goals. The rest is execution, execution, execution.
So, how exactly do you run a large church choir program? I sincerely hope that when I go to my reward someday, I’ll leave behind a thorough, time-tested, turnkey curriculum that any choir director can use to build a thriving music program within an Extraordinary Form parish. Until then, I’ll just share the best of what I have right now. This will be the focus of my next few articles.
We’ll begin with Thursday afternoons, which is when I offer four levels of training for approximately 75 young people, ages 4 thru 18, in our parish.
The Road to the Loft Is Paved with Furry Puppets
My first class on Thursday afternoon, which I simply call Beginners, is for ages 4-7. Why start children in music at such an early age? The great musicologist Edwin Gordon believed that musical aptitude stabilizes by the age of nine (although musical skill will of course continue to increase with training). To help each student get the most out of his or her God-given aptitude, then, it’s essential to start training as early as possible.
When I first began offering this class, I used fun songs from the Jump Right In Kindergarten book based on Edwin Gordon’s Music Learning Theory (MLT). This past schoolyear, I also incorporated songs and concepts from John Feierabend’s First Steps in Music program. If you’re considering starting a class for this age group, try not to get hung up on any one curriculum. Just make a few high-level goals for the schoolyear, have lots of songs and tricks up your sleeve, and have fun along the way.
My high-level goals for the Beginners tend to be:
- Teach them the most important skill of a musician: listening. If they don’t listen, they won’t advance in music.
- Get them to listen with the whole body. This doesn’t mean they can’t fidget; I actually don’t mind seeing “energetic” bodies in a music class. But they must remain attentive, do what the rest of the class is doing, and be respectful of their teacher and fellow students. I give gentle yet persistent reminders, and I see consistent progress throughout the schoolyear.
- Get everyone singing in head voice. Did you know that the vast majority of kids—and even adults—who can’t match pitch are actually not tone deaf? Most of the time, they can hear that they’re off pitch but they simply can’t coordinate their voice to sing in the appropriate range. So they drone on comfortable lower pitches. By getting them to drop the jaw, lift the soft palate, and hoot lightly like owls, you can guide them to the right placement for their young voices.
- Get everyone to match pitch. Once they’re listening, focused, and using their voices properly, suddenly it’s not so difficult for kids to sing on key.
Of course, you can’t demand perfection in these four areas as a prerequisite to singing songs—you’ll lose the kids. So I’ll dance back and forth between working on fundamentals and letting them sing for the sheer fun of it—knowing that early in the semester, some kids will be off-key. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and progress often comes in unexpected bursts. Along the way, my kids have musical conversations with Mr. Zebra and Mr. Frog (two beloved puppets), explore creative movement, and even dabble in improvisation.
Plan to Change Your Plan
I’ve learned that with this age group, you have to be flexible. Sure, I go into Beginners each week with a lesson plan, but it fits on one side of a page and we rarely get through everything. If one particular song is garnering intense participation and the kids are begging to sing more verses, great. We’ll spend an extra five minutes on that and bump the next song to next week’s class.
I’ve also learned that as important as it is to work towards goals and keep some semblance of order, it’s equally important to love the students. If kids get the sense from day one that their teacher cares about them, they’ll look forward to music class all week and see music-making as a joy in their lives. Conversely, if their first experience with music is at the hands of a stern taskmaster, they may decide that music isn’t for them—and that’s a hard misconception to break.
I’ve been at St. Stephen’s long enough to see children (including my eldest son) who started in my Beginners class become full-fledged choir members. This is highly encouraging, but it also provides me with a valuable feedback loop. If I notice little musical weak spots in the Choristers I’ve formed, I can easily beef up certain aspects of my curriculum so that the next wave of Choristers will be stronger.
In my next article, I’ll go up a level and describe how I train grade-school children for eventual participation in our parish choir.