AM HAPPY to announce that this fall the Cathedral of Saint Mary in San Francisco, CA, partnered with Saint Brigid School in order to create an official choir school for the cathedral. Dr. Christoph Tietze, the Cathedral Director of Music, kindly emailed me the following, which I share with readers now:
The vision of a cathedral choir school began in 2009, when the cathedral rector, Msgr. John Talesfore, invited the sisters from Saint Brigid School for dinner. Saint Brigid School has been within the cathedral parish boundaries since 1992, when Saint Brigid’s parish was dissolved, and the cathedral clergy provides all the pastoral care at the school. Msgr. Talesfore brought up the idea of a choir school and found enthusiastic reception of the principal, Sr. Carmen Santiusti, and the rest of the sisters. I was asked to take over the existing choir for one year and then make a feasibility study.
During that first year, the choir grew from 15 to 40. I proposed a 5 stage plan to build up a 5-day after school program. That 5-stage plan was flexible enough to make changes along the way. When adding the second rehearsal day, I already ran into problems with the many after-school activities, and at that point it became clear that the ultimate goal would need be rehearsals at the beginning of the school day.
For several years, we settled into a routine with two after-school 60 minute rehearsals a week, and a chamber choir meeting twice a week before school for 25 minutes. We also expanded the music instruction at the school, which had been 30 minutes a week for each grade. The children now receive 2 to 3 hours a week. The curriculum is based on the Kodaly Method with some input from the Ward Method, with the addition of an instrument program: recorders in grades 3 and 4, strings in grades 5 and 6, and handbells in grades 7 and 8. School Masses are alternately prepared by each grade, and that grade becomes the choir for that Mass.
Moving all the rehearsals to the morning hours remained the main challenge. I visited the Madeleine Choir School in Salt Lake City for a week, and the Saint Brigid School administration and music staff visited the Cathedral School for Boys in San Francisco, which is the choir school for Grace Cathedral. On the basis of our observations, and also on discussions with the Oratory School in London and Saint Mary’s Cathedral School in Edinburgh, we decided that the only feasible application for Saint Brigid’s involved a later academic start time of the school day, to accommodate choir practices in the morning.
Everything was set for implementation in the Fall of 2020, when the pandemic shut down the school and delayed our plans by two years. We are finally implementing the new schedule this Fall.
The choir schedule is listed at this website. You will see that the choir does not sing every week. Most choir members are not Catholic, and even a large number of the Catholics are not cathedral parishioners. So we have the full choir sing once a month and for special occasions, boys and girls alternating for the Gregorian Chant Mass once a month, and the older choir members taking on many of the Archdiocesan events.
The number of choir members has remained around 40 for the last 10 years, even though there has been a drop in enrollment in the school (140 at present). Choir scholarships help choir members meet school tuition, and there are special scholarships for incoming students, drawing talent to the school. We also provide scholarships for individual instrument instruction, usually paying about half of the cost.
I direct the choir with the music teacher, Marni Strome, assisting. Marni came to us from Calgary, Canada, where she was artistic director of the Calgary Children’s Choir.
Onward & Upward • My hope is that little by little our cathedral churches will take a lead in raising up a new generation of church musicians worthy of the name. Thirty years ago most pastors would not have been open to inaugurating good sacred music programs in their parishes, but times have changed. Now it is the case that most younger clergy want better music in their parishes but they can’t find musicians to help them. While there are many reasons for this (just remuneration being foremost), it is also true that we need to do a much better job recruiting and training up musicians.
I pray that the new choir school at Saint Mary’s Cathedral will not only bear much fruit, but will also provide a kindly light for other programs to follow.