Dear Music Directors…

I’ve received a lot of correspondence from music directors since Jeffrey posted the FAQfrom the Words With Wings Workshopsite the other day.  Here’s a summing up of the kinds of comments I’m getting:
“I’m really excited about using Words with Wings book with my kids’ choir.  I’m not sure how this would work with kids in the parish, though.  My pastor feels, and I agree, that we have a good thing going with our music program.  He relies on me to keep making it happen.  Everyone is so busy, and it is all I can do to get eleven kids together for a choir rehearsal”
I hear what this person (and many like him) are saying.  If things are already on the right track, why ruffle feathers in the parish?  If the music at Mass is already pretty good, why should we worry about getting more kids involved, especially at the expense of other programs going on?  Moreover, we already have a music director (me) and things are going well.
Makes sense.  Why fix what doesn’t appear to be broken. 
But how many kids are really involved in the music program?  And how many kids participate in your CCD program?  If you compare the two numbers, you’ll see a huge disproportion.  I don’t think it is because all of the other kids in the parish are incapable of singing simple songs or chants, or incapable of learning a tiny bit of music theory and a lot about the liturgy.
I have suggested to many that have written to me that they talk with their pastors about broadening music education for all kids.  The lessons in Words With Wings don’t take much time.  And even though there are so many things for classroom teachers to do, isn’t education on the music and the liturgy just as important, if not more important, than some of the other activities planned for classrooms?  We have to be honest with ourselves here, and quit blaming things on packed schedules.
As a music director, how can you help?  And why should you?
Something that is hard for musicians to admit to themselves– myself included – is that non-musicians can do a good job of things, too. In fact, this is precisely how things used to work in the Catholic schools. There was a lot of Ward lessons in classrooms the United States and beyond until the 1960s.  The Ward curriculum was designed, not for music specialists, but for classroom teachers to make part of there daily work with the kids.  Training was offered every summer, and teachers would go get the training they needed for the year.  In fact, if you look at the Ward Centre classes still offered at the Catholic University of America, you can see that that is precisely how it works.  You go get the training in Ward I.  Then you can teach Ward I.  Then you go back and get the training in Ward II.  Then you can teach that, and so on.
So why isn’t anyone teaching Ward anymore, not even in the schools?  Well, you might have a handful of people trained, and a rare program or two that features some Ward instruction, but the problem is, again, that the demands of today’s culture and today’s classroom do not make room for music lessons every day.  Ward was designed to be taught in the regular classroom – every day – for eight years.   
I did take time out from life and work and went through all of the Ward training a few years back.  The lessons I learned are valuable, but if there is no place to apply them outside of my choir rehearsal, how can they really make an impact?  How can they do all they promise to do?
The Ward program of yesterday did make an impact.  In workshop after workshop I do across the country, there are people from a certain generation who come up to me and say:  “I remember this stuff from school.  I remember singing the chants, and singing at Mass.  I loved it. What happened to it all?”
What happened will never be entirely clear.  Though they had the education, did all these people join church choirs when they reached adulthood?  Probably not – one reason being that because during the 70s, there were few choirs left to join.   And those that were formed were not singing any of the music these people had learned in their early years.  But that doesn’t mean that their music education wasn’t valuable.  All of these people still have a sense of how music works in liturgy.  They remember it, and they value it to this day.
Wings author Wilko Brouwers has done what was long overdue and seemed impossible… he has taken the best of this tried and true pedagogy and updated it to fit today’s schedules.  He has made it accessible to all, once again.  In twenty short lessons, all children are given the opportunity to learn something they will carry with them all of their lives. 
Teachers who learn the program, even if they go into it kicking and screaming, just may catch the bug, or at the very least, have to admit a greater appreciation for the music that the GIRM says is to be given pride of place after they’ve taught the twenty lessons.  Parents who see children and teachers making progress every week will become more invested in what is going on musically in liturgy. And in the liturgies of the parish.  And music directors will have a greater pool of children to draw from for their children’s choirs in future – not to mention scholas down the road.
As music director, you can teach the Words With Wings curriculum in your choir rehearsals.  But since you are the music go to person in your parish, you can go one step further in the spirit of service. You can encourage pastors to schedule a workshop to bring classroom teachers along. (Sometimes it is good to bring a neutral party in from outside to do the dirty work, especially if you or your pastor fears some reticence).  
You can attend the workshop – along with the teachers – to let them and your pastor know that you will continue to be a resource for them.  You can help the teachers throughout the year.  Music and education programs don’t have to operate on separate planes anymore.