by Jeffrey Tucker
Gregory Glenn, the amazing director of the Choir School of the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, Utah, made a point in a lecture that really struck a nerve. He was discussing the merits of having not just a choir in the parish but of establishing a full school with daily liturgical performances and constant year-round teaching.
Speaking at the Sacred Music Colloquium, He said that the Catholic world is too much caught up in an event-based culture. We need to be focused more on building excellence within an institutional structure, one that reflects constant commitment and dedication over the long term.
And he speaks with some serious authority here. Everyone who attended the concert of the Choir School kids agreed that this is surely the greatest Catholic choir in the country. This is a judgement made by people who would know. I heard that phrase again and again all week at the Sacred Music Colloquium.
His comments were balanced and beautiful and inspiring. What follows is really my takeaway and not his words. He is right. We hold a conference on catechesis and expect everyone to learn how to teach Catholic doctrine in a one-day seminar. We hold seminars on particular topics and expect the attendees to absorb all truth in a few sessions and then teach the world.
In the world of music, we slap together so-called “children’s choirs” and put them on stage for Christmas. Everyone cheers no matter how bad it sounds, and no matter that the kids know nothing of singing or music. Parish musicians show up a few minutes before Mass and just try to get through the next hour without obvious embarrassment. They call it a music program.
The Church Music Association of American holds several events. We do our best to provide a full immersion in the world of Gregorian chant for a full week. Three hundred attended this year. It was an experience beyond description. Such a thing on this scale hasn’t existed in more than half a century. It is glorious.
And yet, there is a difference between an event and institution. There is a serious shortage of institutions that can train musicians on the level they should be trained. You cannot accomplish what is needed in one week. We are also lacking in parishes and cathedrals that are willing to back with full commitment a sacred music programs.
Even the CMAA itself is not yet an institution as such but more like a backer of events and publications and blogs — and that’s great for now but it is not enough. The CMAA stepped up and did the right thing when no one else was willing and now it attracts intense interest and remains the only reliable training ground for average Catholic musicians. But it is not the end point, not the ideal.
What makes a real difference in people’s lives and in the culture are programs that are ongoing, stable, relentless, and embedded in the daily schedules and lives of both the students and teachers. This is what gives rise to full fluency in the language of whatever is being taught.
To observe the working of the choir school at the Salt Lake Cathedral is to make the point. I’ve never heard such a confidence and power in children’s voices. Really it amounts to what might be called mastery, the sound of which we rarely encounter in today’s world. It is a reflection of countless hours of work and unfathomable amounts of dedication.
As Gregory would say, 99% of the real work of the choir school is off the radar screen. It makes no headlines, gets no applause, flatters no egos, and praises no performers or directors. It is the deep rehearsal every day, starting with music instruction at the earliest ages and continuing on through maturity. It means sacrifice, discipline, and non-stop commitment — without pep rallies, banners, and adulation.
His point especially struck home in light of what we see here in Salt Lake. Every parish and Cathedral would absolutely love to have such a choir. Imagine a daily sung Mass and weekly sung Vespers using the best music ever written sung with seemingly impossible precision and power. Who wouldn’t want that?
It doesn’t come easy. It requires someone like Gregory Glenn who is willing to work at low pay for many years, constantly on call and never taking a vacation and doing so with absolutely no assurance that anything would ever come of it. It really serious donors willing to commit serious financial resources with no assurance that the thing would work out in the end. It requires parents who are completely on board with the idea and willing to back all their kids’ efforts.
In short, excellence on this level requires true heroism, which has nothing to do with flags and parades and everything to do with quiet determination in the face of every obstacle. It means pursuing a dream because it is right and true, not because it offers power and prestige. Heroism consists of a million small commitments kept that no one notices, not a few big actions that everyone praises.
Glenn is right about this. The Cathedral of the Madeleine Choir School is leaving its mark on history in a quiet but lasting way.
Let me close with a final plea. I’m forever trying to raise money for the Church Music Association of America, but I would like to suggest another if additional path. If you are looking for an institution to add to your Will, please consider this amazing school. They are pushing a capital campaign for improved facilities right now. They need funds now and in the future. I can’t imagine a better investment in the future of Catholic music than this institution now and in the future.