Saturday, May 5, 2012

A Choir for the Kids

I was watching some youtube clips of the soundtrack for “The Lorax,” which is a ridiculous environmentalist movie that I couldn’t help absolutely loving. A big part of it for me was the great, peppy music.

As I watched, the soloist sing and watched her hand motions and listened to her vocal inflections, something began rather obvious to me. She had learned to sing in church. The tradition was far from chant but the influence of the gospel tradition was so clear. If I had the chance to interview her, I feel sure she would tell a story of singing in church as a kid and then growing up in the choir.

It’s this way for most great singers. Church is the breeding ground, the place where they first discover their skill and cultivate it in a variety of different styles. It is where art as we know it was born, and this remains true today.

The English choral system is still strong in Anglican traditions. Children are singing from the earliest ages, through their teen years, and then have those skills for their whole lives. If you talk to the members of any of the great singing groups in the UK today, you will find that without exception every member grew up with a church choir.

It grieves me to think of how left out the Catholics are here, particularly the Americans. There are exceptions. We have two choir schools, Boston and Salt Lake (the colloquium this year will visit this one). There are well developed programs in some parishes. But these are very much the exception -- to say the least.

In the conventional parish environment -- we can speculate on the numbers but I would say 85% -- there is no choir for the kids that is available year round. There is no real music raining. There is no attempt to make singing a disciplined part of study. Incredibly, this is even true in Catholic schools attached to parishes.

It’s like people have just given up. It is a scandal really. And we wonder why there are no adult musicians around to help with the liturgy. As a result, everyone suffers. The liturgy suffers. Catholic culture suffers.

Anyone can rent from Netflix the Bing Crosby movie “Going My Way” from 1944. The organization and cultivation of the parish choir is central to the plot. It is how the boys became civilized and learned to make a contribution to the community.

How did we go from 1944 to 2012? There is an incredibly painful history here, and it is involves stories of ghastly injustice done to great musicians and institutions. See the history of Boys’ Town. There is plenty to say about that.

But, if you are looking for a narrative that excludes evidence of malice, there is another story to tell. The core of the training and goal of the old children’s choirs was Gregorian chant and polyphony. In 1963, when the vernacular received permission in liturgy and the whole of American Catholics were hurled into this liturgical foreign land, the choirs and the programs lost their foundation. It was replaced by nothing.

You can’t form a serious program around thin, unison pop and pseudo-folk music. Try it and the parents and kids will quickly discern that this is wasting their time. You learn little or nothing. And so long as this form of music dominates the liturgy, there will be little motivation at all for starting the kids out young to sing.

This probably accounts for the neglect, more than any other factor. The musical confusion among Catholics robbed the old ways of their basis, method, and goal. Fifty years later, we live in a musical wasteland.

A major and practical problem: most of the old methods were written for a different age when kids were in music class every day. This is no longer the case. And yet we have very few materials around at all that make it possible to teach kids music in a liturgical context, with the goal of actually singing at Mass, that also deal with the realities of today’s possibilities. You really need a program that moves quickly based on a once-per week rehearsal.

Wilko Brouwers, a chant conductor in the Netherlands, dealt with this problem in his country and put together a program, based on a lifetime of learning and reflection on a century of experience there and around the world. The result came out just last year, and it is nothing short of brilliant. It includes a workbook and a teachers manual. The program is simple, short, and focussed mainly on having the kids sing chant, one step at a time.

Some of us saw these books last year at the Sacred Music Colloquium. In the meantime, Maestro Brouwers worked with Arlene Oost-Zinner to produce a translation from Dutch to English. This is a harder task than it would first appear because music and text are inseparable. But after much back and forth, a stable version emerged.

The title is Words with Wings. There are workbooks for the kids and a manual for the teacher. The CMAA is on track to release them both in a matter of weeks. This is going to be a gigantic breakthrough for the future of Catholic children’s choirs. At last now, parish will have a place to begin, a method for getting started, a goal in mind, and materials that pull all of this together.

This is more than a work of cultural reconstruction, though it is that. This is about the future of art in the liturgy, which is to say, the future of art. It has to begin with the young if it is going to really take root in Catholic life. It is akin to planting a garden rather than scraping around for random bits of food every day.

The timeframe for this approach to produce fruit is not as long as people might imagine. The kids can be singing at Mass in a matter of months. From a social point of view, the parents will be wholly on board when they experience this event for the first time. They will see that there is a big difference between really singing liturgical music as versus the annual Christmas carol sing at the vigil Mass. The support will only grow.

Who knows? Perhaps there will come a time when parents will again see that it is a great use of their kids’ time, even better than sports or video games. It also invests children themselves in the future of the parish and the future of the faith, while instilling in them gratitude later in life for the gift that their Catholic upbringing gave them.

Words with Wings should have come out years ago, but no matter: now is the time to start the change. Now is possible in every parish.

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