New Year’s Resolution: More Chant for Children

The crèche inside St. Peter’s Basilica this year has a moving fisherman who catches a little fish–one of many interesting things to see in the scene. It is quite beautiful. Today I was kneeling there, surrounded by children who were very interested in having a good long gaze at everything. Unfortunately, some of their parents seemed more interested in getting the right photo, or moving on to the rest of the day, and quite a few children had to be coaxed, pulled, or ordered away from this representation of the Lord’s Nativity.

Priorities.

Children are natural contemplatives, one of many–many, many–reasons why Gregorian chant can be considered as their native musical habitat. Other reasons include the following: they have not yet been completely won over by meter. Melody is easier to learn at that age than harmony, and chant is interesting melody. Children are in a phase of life with God-given powers of memorization, such that what is taught will be easily retained, for life, and so they can easily be given this treasury of the Church’s heritage to keep for their whole lives through. There are many other reasons. But one of the main reasons is the contemplative reason: children are naturally able to wonder. This natural ability can be enhanced and fostered by music that is supple and haunting and full of mystery. Everything about the chant is evocative, from the pure and simple set of vowel sounds (try singing the simple Ave Verum Corpus while listening for the “u” sound), to the way it rises, to its cadences. And, it is joined to the sacred words.

Probably everyone who has taught children chant has had the experience of hearing that a voice is missing, only to realize that one of the children has gotten so lost in the music or the liturgical season that he or she has simply forgotten to keep singing.

It takes very little to teach children chant: very little time, and almost no money at all. It does sometimes require breaking down resistance. Besides the lingering, rather boring doubt about the continued relevance of chant after the Council, despite Sacrosanctum Concilium’s express sanctioning of chant, another kind of resistance comes from parents and teachers. There are two basic schools of thought about children and singing: cute, and good. “Cute” singing is when children sing bad music badly–an activity which, if you remember back to your own childhood, no child ever wants to do. “Good” singing is exactly what children are likely to do if you teach them Gregorian chant.

The question at hand is whether we are willing to overcome the resistance of the grownups who all too often want to please themselves, for the sake of the children, who can be well-armed by the chant with a better interior life, musical accomplishment, immersion into ecclesial culture, and formation of the imagination and intellect. Imagine a generation meeting the challenges of adolescence with this formation already accomplished, and having enjoyed doing it.

7 Replies to “New Year’s Resolution: More Chant for Children”

  1. Perhaps the greatest resistance to chant is because of the Latin. The resistance comes not from the children but from the parents who have their own biases and hangups against it.

  2. Ted, that certainly can be the case. Funny thing is, children learn the Latin so quickly and sing it so well. Sometimes I think that can be embarrassing to adults. I'm not ashamed to admit that some of the children I've taught now sing chant more effortlessly and with more contemplation than I do. It's delightful!!

    Kathy, great post. You are so spot on about children getting lost in wonder and absorbing the chant. Teaching them has been a huge blessing to my spiritual life. Buon natale, dear friend! The picture you paint of the crèche is delightful. I hope you are teaching children again soon, if you aren't already, and catching many small fish for the Infant King.

  3. In our parish we have an all girls Latin choir. They sang at the Latin Christmas Eve Mass. They were angelic. They have a wonderful teacher in our choir director. I agree they do learn the Latin very quickly. I think it is just so wonderful that I can facilitate and encourage my girls to participate. For them to be able to grasps such a great part of their Catholic heritage really makes me very happy.

  4. Angela, you remind me of a good point-
    Yay for parents that support youth chant programs and encourage their children, even setting aside time for practice!!
    Directors, it goes a long way when we appreciate the parents and cultivate relationships with them. A parent who understands the educational, social, and spiritual aspects of their children learning chant in a group is a huge asset to the parish/ cathedral program.

  5. Julia, I think even small children of 3-4 years can learn Mass ordinaries and alleluias.

    For more formal studies, I've found that there are some background skills that make a difference in teaching a chant choir. Children have to be able to hold papers and books in their little hands–quite a skill! They have to be able to read, and to find their place, and to listen carefully. A whole class of 7 year olds could do this well, and wouldn't it be wonderful if children spent their First Communion year singing? But younger children (from perhaps 5) could be incorporated into a group where there are older children who would be able to look out for the younger, side by side.

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