You’re reading the third article in a series on my music program at St. Stephen the First Martyr Catholic Church in Sacramento, California. My first article focused on the instruction I offer for children ages 4-7. They discover music by way of fun songs and activities. Along the way, they develop fundamental musical skills.
My second article explained what happens when children advance to my Level 1 and Level 2 classes. There, they receive extensive ear training before eventually beginning to match what they know in their ears with what they see on a page. I believe that this “sound before sight” approach actually leads to better sight-singing, which is a skill every church choir director wishes their choir had in abundance.
Once children graduate from Level 2, they’re ready to attend our Choristers rehearsals on Thursday afternoons. Some parishes use the term “chorister” more generally to apply to any member of the choir. We at St. Stephen’s have always used it to refer to our youth singers up through high school. Our Choristers are not a children’s choir as such; they are members of the St. Stephen’s Choir and sing alongside our adult members. Far from being a mere complement to our parish choir, our young Choristers are, quite frankly, its core.
Growing Up Together in Music
Our Choristers include two groups: Junior Choristers and Senior Choristers. Junior Choristers attend all rehearsals but sing only our First Friday Masses each month. Senior Choristers attend all rehearsals and sing all Masses, including Sundays and feast days.
Most Junior Choristers are kids fresh out of Level 2. This group may also include a few singers who have just joined our music program and have considerable musical training, but who are relatively new to singing. In these cases, if I’ve assessed that they’re ready for the challenge, I’ll throw them right in as Junior Choristers.
Over the course of their schoolyear as Junior Choristers, I’ll watch singers carefully to make sure they’re participating and contributing to the best of their abilities. I’ll assess how they’re doing at First Friday Masses (where the music is relatively simple) and consider whether they’re ready for the responsibility of being full choir members. Once they progress to that level, I’ll have them take a short audition at Choristers rehearsal in front of their peers. This probably sounds intimidating, and yes, everyone gets nervous. But the atmosphere is unfailingly positive and supportive. I’ll solicit feedback from Senior Choristers before telling the auditionee on the spot whether I’m promoting him or her to Senior Chorister.
The positive and supportive atmosphere of which I speak is a way of life for our Choristers. This, I believe, is one of the main benefits of having a Chorister program. The young people in our parish grow up together in music. They learn together, struggle together, and set examples for one another. Senior Choristers instinctively look out for Junior Choristers, making sure they can find measure 32 in the motet and that they have a pencil handy to mark a lift after “Dominum.”
Inside a Choristers Rehearsal
Choristers rehearsals are much like any church choir rehearsal. We begin with a prayer and then do warmups and voice building exercises. We spend the rest of the time learning repertoire. A few thoughts on how we work on a new motet:
- I’ll present some background on the composer and explain what made me choose the piece.
- We’ll then listen to the piece on YouTube or here at Corpus Christi Watershed while the singers follow along with their parts. This step lets the singers know what to expect before they sing the piece.
- I’ve found it best to separate the elements of a motet during the learning process. Rather than sight-reading through pieces on text, we almost always start by solfeging through through one chunk at a time out of tempo. When the solfege is steady, we’ll switch to a neutral syllable such as “noo.” For tricky rhythmic passages, we’ll chant through on “tah” or “bah.”
- Text comes last. We’ll often speak it in an intense, dramatic fashion, emphasizing spacious vowels. “Declare it as if you’re an actor in a bad Italian movie,” I’ll tell the Choristers. Finally, we’ll sing the text on the notes and rhythms we’ve learned.
Through this step-by-step process, a new motet takes shape. It’s time-consuming to work this way, but once we’ve learned a piece, we know it forever. I’ve often had the experience of pulling out a Christmas motet in November and finding that we sound even better on it now than we did when we first learned it for last Christmas.
The Value of a Good Head Chorister
As I mentioned, the peer experience is an important component of a successful Choristers program. To that end, I appoint a Head Chorister to assist me in leading what is typically a group of at least 20 young singers. For the past four seasons, one young lady has held this position with a level of distinction that I can barely describe. She is the only person I’ve ever met (including me) who somehow remains 100 percent focused during every moment of every rehearsal and every Mass. Though she abounds in the virtue of meekness, it does not stop her from leading by example—nor did it prevent her from stepping in and directing the choir at Sunday Mass on one day’s notice when my wife had our fifth child last fall. By gently, quietly setting the bar so high, this remarkable young lady has left an indelible mark on our Choristers program.
This Head Chorister and another tremendously accomplished and virtuous young choir member will be heading off to college this fall (and for some reason, my laptop screen has suddenly become blurry). Rather than dwell on the loss to our program, I can’t help but feel confident that other young singers will realize their time has come to step up and be leaders. They will seize this opportunity to serve with even greater devotion, and to grow in virtue as they do so.
The Circle of Life from a Choir Perspective
While I would welcome more adult members to our choir (and they are beginning to trickle in), our parish demographics are such that we will probably always be heavy on Choristers and relatively light on grownups. Many of our parish’s beautiful large families have enrolled child after child in our music program. It is always bittersweet to reach the “end” of one family, but I can take comfort in the fact that a younger family is probably just about to enroll their eldest in my classes—and what wonderful years of sacred music we’ll enjoy together!
In my next and last article in this series, I’ll describe how I work with our adult choir members at Wednesday evening rehearsals and explain how singers of all ages put it all together to sing on Sundays and feast days.