Tuesday, October 28, 2008

To be Young and Singing

If your parish has a children's choir, thank both the director and the pastor, both of whom are crucially important to maintaining such a program in time when such choirs are ever more rare in Catholic Churches. If they are singing serious music, such as chant, receiving real training in music theory using the voice, that is all the more spectacular.

When you read the personal biographies of great singers, in our times or the past, it comes up again and again that their first training occurred in church. Would that the schools were a substitute but even in the best of times, it was the liturgy of the Church that provided the most intense singing experience.

What happens when children's choirs are gone for more than one or two generations? We see the results all around us. Scholas have a hard time forming in parishes where very few people can read music or feel confident that they are singing notes at all. You might be able to get past the failure to read, but they don't understand how their voices work and they don't have the confidence to sing publicly (as versus in the shower).

There is also the problem of proper artistic formation. People cannot reliably distinguish what Pius X called "true art" from music that has long been said to be inappropriate for Mass. The capacity to know the difference cannot be spelled out in some rule book or scientific measure of beats and intervals. It comes from familiarity with music generally and the sacred music tradition in particular.

In a parish where there is a huge dearth of talent and a lack of common commitment to true art, starting fresh with a sacred music program can be a serious challenge. The ground can best be prepared by an active children's choir program that extends over a long period of time.

Starting is itself a challenge. In observing this in a number of parishes, it seems clear that it is not enough for there to be one music director with the goal in mind. That music director can carve out a place in the schedule, post signs, talk to many parents privately, and still find himself or herself standing in front of an empty classroom. It's not the case that parents don't want their children to learn to sing.

The problem is that there too many other priorities that come first, such a sports or studying or playing with friends or whatever. There are a thousand reasons not to show up.

Another problem is that parents expect fast results that cannot be obtained in a high-quality program. They want the kids to learn songs to sing to family and friends, in the hope that the child will become some kind of singing phenom like you see on television. When this hope doesn't materialize, they take to kid out so that he or she can discover his or her true brilliance in another setting.

Careful music training takes place over a series of years in which the student discovers how to distinguish between high and low notes, whole steps and half steps, and learns how to sing on pitch and sight sing. Ideally, the child learns the do-re-mi system of singing as the first music instrument and finds out how to navigate up and down this scale, starting from any note and moving to any note. This is critically important for learning to sing and learning about music, but it is not the kind of talent that is going to impress extended relations at family reunions. This is source of frustration for parents who are themselves illiterate in this area.

Technology has helped pedagogy in most every area of life, but the field of music is highly specialized in that it requires an unusual interaction and coordination between abstract thinking and real-world doing. It takes time and relentless effort. Whatever tools we might have at our disposal today, music comes down to the relentless practice and the striving for improvement over a long period of time. In this sense, music pedagogy today and music training takes no less time right now than they did in the ancient world. It can't be rushed. And as time becomes ever more valuable, the willingness to make the sacrifices diminish ever more.

The music teacher himself or herself also needs a supportive pastor. Nor is it enough for the pastor generally to nod agreement with the idea of a children's choir program. He must also encourage parents relentlessly both publicly and also privately. He probably needs to personally call parents with young children and make sure that the parents know that it is a parish priority, that it matters, and why it matters.

Many pastors figure that they have enough on their plates without intervening in what is widely considered to be a matter of private family business. But without this support, it is too easy for parents to just figure that music education is not for their kid.

Even with a good teacher and an activist and supportive pastor, parish involvement might be low for a few years. The parents most likely to put their kids in a choir program are those who plan years in advance. The program has to first exist, probably at a small level, and then young couples need to see the kids sing and dream that their own children will someday join. Children of 4 and 5 need to see older children singing and want to join them when they are old enough to.

I hate to say it but it is often the case that children who are already 10 and older when the choir forms are already interested in too many other things to change direction. So the plan for the choir must be a 10-year or 20-year plan, and the short tenure of pastors tends to shorten the time horizons.

Boys in particular are a challenge, given the public-school culture that regards singing as something that is not masculine in the same way that hunting or football is. Boys in general eschew the arts, and are more likely to require pressure to pursue them. In other words, it has to be seen as something crucial to education – a required course.

Pastors must also learn to deal with interruptions in the schedule, as kids go off to college and move out of town or possibly come back later in life. The full benefit might no accrue to the parish in particular but to the Church overall, and many years down the road.

It is possible to cite studies show a link between music education and other for coursework. It is possible to cite the historical precedence that regarded music education as part of a foundation for all education. We might cite its therapeutic achievements and its source as an outlet for creativity.

But for Catholicism, the benefits come down to the concern for beauty in the worship of God. If this doesn't matter, children's choirs in parishes don't matter. But if it does matter, we desperately need them, for music proves to be a difficult task to undertake for adults. The time to learn is when you are young. This is an investment that pays high returns only many years from now.

There are a million reasons not to have children's choirs but one good one to undertake the effort: the liturgy desires our voices. At every stage in salvation history, music has been present. It must always be so.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: