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.
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.
Nathan Knutson, cathedral and diocesan director of sacred music, performing artist, father, lecturer on sacred music