We come now to the final installment in my series on our music program at St. Stephen the First Martyr Catholic Church in Sacramento, California. You can review previous articles to learn about my Beginners class for children ages 4-7, my ear training and sight-singing classes for grade school and high school students, and our Choristers program that trains children to sing at roughly 100 sung Masses each year.
By now you may be wondering: “Are there no adults in your choir?”
There aren’t many, but that’s not by design. As I’ve mentioned previously, when you work at a traditional Catholic parish with lots of homeschooling families, you can expect that many of these families will want to enroll each of their six or eight or 10 children in your music program. Meanwhile, the adults are busy, busy, busy. Many families commute to traditional parishes from an hour away or more. Moms have their hands full taking care of all those little ones. Dads work long hours to feed all those mouths—and during Sunday Mass, they need to be on duty to carry crying infants and toddlers out of the church. Suffice it to say that it’s relatively rare to find adults who can make a commitment to attend weekly rehearsals and sing regularly at Masses.
So, I do keep my eyes and ears open for potential adult singers. But I’m also resigned to the fact that many of my best candidates are not at a season in their life when they can participate. Having said that, the best recruitment strategy continues to be prayer. In the past few weeks, completely out of nowhere, I’ve gained an adult soprano and adult tenor, both of whom come with extensive choral experience and have fit right into our choir.
For adult choir members, Wednesday evening rehearsal is where it’s at.
The Pillars of a Choral Warmup
Our “adult” choir rehearsal happens every Wednesday from 6:30 to 9:00 PM during the schoolyear. I use scare quotes around “adult” because some of our young singers who attend Thursday afternoon Choristers rehearsal also attend our Wednesday evening rehearsals. I don’t require them to do so, but I appreciate them coming to help fill out what is a small group of adults on Wednesdays.
Just as I do at Choristers rehearsals, I begin each Wednesday rehearsal with a group warmup. Exercises revolve around several pillars:
- Relaxation. We’re all walking in carrying the stresses of jobs, bills, term papers, family life, freeway traffic, and just being a person in 2020. We hold tension in so many ways that we don’t even perceive. But our bodies are our instruments, and the best sound comes from a relaxed body. That’s why I often start off with an exercise or two that restores our body awareness.
- Breathing. Are we using our breathing mechanisms completely and efficiently?
- Support. Are we keeping a full tank of air present underneath the sound—but without driving the air through the sound?
- Space. You can’t create a big, beautiful sound if you don’t open your mouth. So we’ll often call out names or sing simple note patterns as if we were trying to get the attention of someone at the other end of the parish—all the while making sure we’re adding space around the sound in the back of the mouth and the throat.
- Resonance. The danger of focusing on the space in the throat is that the sound will get “stuck” there and become dull. Resonance exercises are designed to bring the sound forward and encourage a healthy amount of mask resonance so that our choir will sound alive.
How We Spend Our Polyphony Time
Once we’re warmed up, we dive into polyphony. You might assume that we spend most of our time working on the polyphony we’ll be singing on the upcoming Sunday or feast day, but this is actually not the case. After about 18 years in existence, we’ve built up a solid repertoire of “anytime” motets, which I can program based on how well they support the propers of each Mass. Our choir members know these pieces well enough that they can sing them after just a run-through before a Mass. We do polish up these pieces from time to time in mid-week rehearsals—especially when we add new members—but I find that even with significant turnover in the choir over the years, our “anytime” motets have been passed along to a new generation of singers without the need to relearn them from scratch.
At a typical Wednesday rehearsal, we spend most of our polyphony time learning new pieces for far-off feast days. Christmas, Holy Week, and Easter tend to dominate our rehearsal time. But each season, I’ll bring new motets for several other feasts, as well as new “anytime” motets that I’d like us to learn just because the text and music is beautiful.
After at least an hour of polyphony rehearsal, I give the singers a break. Some stay in the room asking me questions about the music; others relish the opportunity to chat. The younger singers often go outside for lively conversation, which inevitably breaks into even more song. What can I say? It’s like a disease, this musical gift.
My Great Love: Chanted Propers
After break, most singers stay for the last segment of rehearsal: propers. We sing the full Gregorian propers for each Sunday and feast day Mass, so they require significant rehearsal throughout the year.
The propers are my great love. It would be easy for the modern ear to underestimate these chants, finding them too subtle—and, alas, perhaps even too boring—to hold the attention for long. This is why the propers demand more of us. They don’t necessarily phrase themselves; we must work to bring out their contours. If we’re not precisely together in terms of our timbre, our vowel formation, our timing, and even our breathing, they’ll sound ragged.
When Our Hard Work Bears Fruit
It isn’t until pre-Mass rehearsal that our Wednesday and Thursday singers finally have a chance to sing the chant and polyphony together. This is the one drawback of having separate rehearsals for adult and youth singers. But I believe the benefits of having a distinct Choristers program outweigh this disadvantage. I find that if both groups of singers have prepared to the best of their abilities, they’re strengthened by hearing “everyone else” on Sunday. This is when the hard work really bears fruit and our choir finds its full, true voice.
I’ll stop here. I hope this series of articles has provided you with at least a tip or two. If you have any questions about growing or maintaining a large choir program, please feel free to leave a comment and I’ll do my best to keep an eye out. Thank you for reading.