HOULD ALL CHILDREN be accepted into a church’s or cathedral’s choral foundation? This is a valid question we must ask ourselves, as the answer will have definite ramifications for our programs down the road, whichever path we chose to take. As with many musical questions, the answer will depend upon our circumstances. I am mostly of the opinion that in the average parish each child should be admitted, simply because choir offers not only the chance to hone one’s musical skills, but also to receive a liturgical and catechetical education that is sadly lacking in most other formation programs. I have had a couple of men enter the seminary after singing in the Schola Cantorum and both have mentioned to me how much singing in the choir helped them to broaden and deepen their understanding of and love for the Holy Mass. Children most likely won’t received this education outside of a good liturgical choir. On the other hand, if a child struggles to match pitch, it will be a titanic trial for even the most patient of choir masters. Perhaps we should exam a few concrete situations in order to answer our question.
The Cathedral • The cathedral, as the mother church of the diocese, should be the arbiter of liturgical good taste, exemplar of the Church’s best musical offerings and a light to her suffragan parishes, especially those lacking the financial means and staff to implement such a vision. Or worse, those parishes that somehow possess more bad taste than copious amounts of funds. In order for the cathedral to discharge her duties, she must needs put her best foot forward in all things, which means possessing a professional choir capable of tackling the best the Church has to offer on a weekly, if not daily, basis. In this setting it makes no sense for the director to be pulling his hair by the roots trying to move a choir forward in all aspects of the choral arts, yet finding himself constantly weighted down by 2-3 choristers who can’t match pitch or who simply do not want to be there. Honing a Philip’s motet, such as the beautiful Ascendit Deus, for the Feast of the Ascension isn’t possible under these conditions and such children would be better employed elsewhere (for their own good as well as that of the choir).
My assistant and I recently had the privilege while in England to have lunch with Dr. Ronny Krippner, Organist and Choirmaster of Ripon Cathedral, as well as attend a full rehearsal and Choral Evensong later that day, which proved to be a revelation. When Dr. Krippner took the musical reigns of the choir a year-and-a-half ago he found it in a deplorable state, but within this short span he has worked marvels with the choristers and has amassed a large group of willing boys and girls (recruiting has been a top priority). Nevertheless, he has only three requirements for incoming singers: A) the ability to match pitch, B) the desire to be in the choir and C) the willingness to commit. Simple, direct, fair AND effective.
The Smaller Parish • The smaller parish is sometimes the most difficult place to build a choral foundation because the one absolute thing necessary for choristers is to have boys and girls a plenty, and in such a situation the choirmaster might have no other choice than to accept every child who desires entrance into the choir. Church politics can very often play a part as well. If the choir is small and choristers come with varying degrees of desire and capabilities, the choirmaster will need to stick to a steady diet of good, but simple music, chant, hymns and occasional motets. In the inevitable likelihood that a child can’t match pitch, the director will either have to accept the fact that things will always be “off” or find some other job besides singing that the child can engage in—a choral “bat boy” if you will. I highly suggest the latter.
Healthy Parish w/ Large Child Population • In some ways this situation is the most ideal because the choirmaster can start young children in some kind of preparatory choir on a steady diet of good folk music and simple hymns and chants. In my experience, very few children in like circumstances struggle to match pitch by the time they are old enough to enter the choir and the introduction of very simple music theory and sight-singing games will cut down on the amount of training time expended on new choristers.
A large number of children also allows for a tiered choral system based on a child’s ability as well as his desire, and the beauty of such an arrangement is that the second tier will actually become a better group of musicians by themselves than if they were lumped into one choir with those better than they are. They will have the higher standard of the top choir to constantly measure themselves by, and competition breeds greatness in children.
The Answer • In answer to my own question I would have to say that I agree with Dr. Krippner that students should have to A) be able to match pitch, B) desire to be in the choir and C) be willing to commit to the whole of the program no matter how taxing. It is true that good choirs might offer children the best possible liturgical formation in most parishes at this time, but a healthy parish should be able to provide that for all children regardless of whether or not they are in a choir.
At the same time, if a choir is automatically open to all children with no qualifications whatsoever, parents will forever view it as a free candy shop that children should be able to frequent whenever they feel like it. And if the choirmaster allows children to sing only when they feel so inclined, the experience won’t mean anything and all the best singers will leave. Much like a sports team, a choir is a group of individuals who must commit to the group in order that together they will be greater than the sum of their individual voices, and without some choral discipline and basic choral standards this simply isn’t possible.