Saturday, January 22, 2011

Suffer the children? Hardly.

Dr. William Mahrt offered a treasure trove of historical, liturgical, theological, and anecdotal information to those of us fortunate to be in his sessions at the NOLA Chant Intensive. Some of the gold glimmered immediately, and so many of the gems will refract and challenge us to examine them with reflection for years.
One of the most compelling notions for me was his depiction of how the oral/aural transmission of chant melodies, associated with specific psalm texts succeeded by their inculcation with very young children in monasteries. Basically, Mahrt explained, the innate capacity of pre-adolescent children to permanently absorb environmental input by rote experience was capitalized upon by generations of monks, who as children themselves, were vessels storing vintages of chant, and ultimately transmitters of the continued progression of the repertoire necessary to celebrate the hours of each day, and each week.
After coming home from NOLA, one of my fellow teachers at our parish school who is also our accompanist for our Friday school Masses, as well as for weekend liturgies relayed to me that, as I was absent for our Friday Mass that week, the celebrant had his wires crossed, and recited the Kyrie, and as it was the feast of St. John Neumann looked over to her to initiate the singing of a Gloria, which is normally not part of the school's repertoire.
In my mind I instantly linked that need to what Mahrt had said about the capacity of young children to easily learn, and decided to teach the ICEL MR3 Glory to God chant to the entire student body in one week. This was certainly not their first experience with learning chant. That's been part of the curriculum for years. But this was a matter of intent and purpose from my perspective. I even created a score for our Bell Choir, knowing it would take them longer, as they are the 8th grade, outside of the "sponge" maxim.

The second week back, I prepared the school Liturgy of the Word for today on Monday, and having explained the "why" of singing the Gloria on the feast day of a saint during the previous week, was further motivated by knowing we would celebrate the life and sainthood of St. Agnes at the week's end. So, refinement and practice, along with context was heavily accentuated in this week's classes.

So, all I want to share is that likely for the first time in decades, students from our parochial school prayed, not performed, the Glory to God in the unique language of chant. I had provided all with half-sheet scores, but I know they could have sung the new translation even without them, and will likely do so next time around. They sang earnestly, some imperfectly, but most of them in a very solid, tuned unison. They phrased knowingly, keeping the text moving effortlessly and cadencing at full bars through listening together.


This is not about verifying Dr. Mahrt's cognitive theories of learning modalities, or my ability as a teacher, or their ability to acquire a fairly formulaic setting. This was about their understanding, from the adolescents down to the primary first grade level, that this is how we best pray and praise God. It is not at all like some of their favorite songs or hymns, or akin to the "hiccup" style of recitation of the Lord's Prayer or the Pledge of Allegiance. I felt the joy of the angels as my baritone flowed with their treble purity. And they know that the Gloria was a hymn given us by the angel choirs upon His birth, and a foretaste of unheard-of musics that attend our singing praise to our Creator and Father in the heavenly Kingdom.
I don't think I want to think in terms of bricks anymore. Child by child, no matter what their age. Yeah, that works.