Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Madeleine Choir School

With music education in Catholic parishes and schools in such awful shape, a story like this one on the Madeleine Choir School in Salt Lake, City, is very inspiring.

St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican is huge. But the voices of the Madeleine Choir School are big, too: at once breathtakingly sweet and powerful.

Next month, 80 students from the Salt Lake school will travel to St. Peter's for the ultimate field trip: singing Mass in the historic heart of Catholicism, the very center of the very center of their faith. It's the school's third invitation to sing at St. Peter's, but the first invitation to sing a Sunday Mass.

On a recent morning, students rehearsed one of the selections they'll perform, their voices so pure and joyful that the school's choir room seemed too small and ordinary to contain them. Still, music director Melanie Malinka thought there was room for improvement.

"How can you make these words sound interesting?" she asked.

A hand shot up. "Diction!"

When it was time to rehearse "Ave Verum," whose words are in Italian, Malinka urged the students to be careful of their pronunciation. "You have to be careful to say vehrgeenay, not vurgunay," she reminded them about the Italian word virgine. Otherwise, those folks in Rome might say, "They must be an American choir."

"We don't want them to say that, do we?" asked Malinka with a smile.

Modeled after historic cathedral choir schools in Europe, the Madeleine Choir School was begun a decade ago to provide rigorous training for local children and liturgical support for the Cathedral of the Madeleine. It is one of only two Catholic choir schools in the United States, and the only one that includes both girls and boys.

In 1998, just two years after the school began, the choir was invited to sing Mass at St. Peter's. Afterward, the children met with the cardinal archpriest, "who was particularly complimentary about the children's singing of the Gregorian Chant," remembers school director Gregory Glenn.

The school now plans a singing tour in Europe every two years, with a stop in Italy every four years so that each of the fifth- through eighth-graders can make the pilgrimage to Rome once during their school years.

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