I have spent a decent amount of time trying to advocate for the idea of adopting the choir school model in an Orthodox setting, and one of the problems I’ve always run into is that nobody seems to have any idea of what the model I’m talking about looks like. I spend a lot of my time trying to explain what I’m talking about, and I describe examples like St. Thomas Fifth Avenue in New York or Westminster Cathedral Choir School in London, but the description can only go so far to bridge the gap between frames of reference.
The Choir is a documentary about the Choir School of the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, Utah, and it could be just the thing to bridge that gap, I think. It paints an extraordinary picture of an extraordinary place, and it gives you a great sense of what the school means to its teachers, its students, its alumni, and the people in the pews who hear the school’s singers from service to service. To be a chorister at the Madeleine Choir School is to have a rarefied kind of educational experience that prepares one for more than just opening one’s mouth and making pretty sounds; the experience imparts to the kids a lasting understanding of discipline, dedication, resilience, and, of course, faith. Oh yeah, and Latin (“I remember playing tetherball in Latin,” one alumnus says. “That doesn’t happen at any other school”). And, almost forgot, you also get to sing for the Pope.
The guides through this unique school are the students and alumni themselves. Certainly, Gregory A. Glenn, the founder and pastoral administrator of the School (as well as the Cathedral’s director of music and liturgy), and Melanie Malinka, the Choir School’s director of music, are both present throughout, the Papa Bear and Mama Bear so to speak. It’s not the adults, however, but rather the kids and graduates — some of whom have gone on to singing careers, acting careers, church music careers, and so on — who give you the most insight as to what it’s like. “It’s a lot of dedication,” a seventh grade girl tells us, “because you always need to be giving 100% so that the whole choir sounds good.” A fifth grade boy nervously explains, “You have to be in every Mass, but you can miss three. You can’t miss more than three or else. I don’t know because I haven’t missed,” he makes sure to emphasize. “You have to be at all the places on time or else you have to sign the log.” “It’s a lot of our own time, our own commitment,” a chorister says, “but we also get a lot of fun things out of it… [like] we get to go to Italy.” International travel aside, “[The dedication] was the big reward,” an alumna concludes.
Self-confidence is also a fruit of the School’s labor, as we hear in a discussion of what it’s like for kids to sing their first solos. “They put me right in the center of the altar, I was right in the front,” one alum tells us in a fairly typical anecdote, “[and they] had one of the adult members sing with me because my voice was so shaky.” Still, the lesson was valuable: “You just have to do it, you have to get over the nerves, because you know you can do it, you just have to trust yourself… I think it really boosted my confidence… if I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t have been able to do a lot of the things I’ve done [since].” Along similar lines, a current student says, “[W]henever I make a mistake like crack or something, I just keep on going,” a current student says. A classmate agrees: “Now I feel very confident to do it because I’ve already done it.”
The picture that emerges of the life lived by students in the School is intense, to say the least. Regular classes, music classes, violin lessons, choir rehearsals, services, concerts, tours. Gregory Glenn and Melanie Malinka are very upfront about what it means to be a performing choir school: “[P]erformance tours are not really a luxury for a choir school, they’re a necessary part of the curriculum,” Glenn says. “It’s not a vacation,” Malinka concurs. “They are at school when they’re on these tours… We drag them from museum to museum to really enrich the experience as much as possible, and then in the evenings they have to sing a concert or a Mass.” But, Glenn insists, “what they learn on a performance tour is really remarkable.”
The Choir does a really amazing job of giving the viewer a sense of what being at the Choir School is like, and what the School contributes to the life of the Cathedral (and I have to imagine that the filmmakers drew some inspiration from the tantalizing little hint of the proposed series about the Westminster Cathedral Choir School that’s on YouTube). It’s a great ride; you know what a choir school is by the end of the film, you have some idea of what kids get out of being there as well as what they have to put into it, and you hear a lot of wonderful sacred music being sung very beautifully along the way. Still, they’re also very clear to make sure that, tours to Italy aside, the link that all of the great music and discipline and cute kids in choir robes has to the Christian faith is understood: “Even when the choir is giving a concert outside of the context of Catholic liturgy,” one of the Cathedral’s priests tells us, “they’re still evangelizing, they’re still praising God, they’re still giving glory to God[.]” Even so, as another priest says, “[M]usic and… liturgy go hand in hand. Without one, the other is a pauper… For someplace like a cathedral, which is the mother church of the diocese, it is very important to have a choir that is top-notch.”
There are stories lurking around the edges of what the filmmakers show us; how the heck did a Roman Catholic choir school wind up in Salt Lake City of all places, for example? Brief narration at the beginning ties it to a restoration of the Cathedral in the early ’90s, and Greg Glenn having the big idea that a musical institution like a choir school would go along nicely with the Cathedral’s renovation. That’s fine, but how did a building like the Madeleine Cathedral get built there to begin with? In general, the film dances around the Catholic/Mormon thing a bit (it tries to get around it with comments here and there from the conductor of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir); this is perhaps understandable, but the question looms regardless.
One also gets the impression that Gregory Glenn and Melanie Malinka are something of a yin and yang — Glenn perhaps the administrator and idea man, Malinka the teacher and musician. We see Glenn be energetic and vigorous, painting in big broad strokes in a rehearsal with older kids as well as in a performance; we’re also told in an outtake that Glenn didn’t allow any breaks during choir rehearsals, and it was only with Malinka’s hiring that the rehearsals became a little more humane. Malinka is quite enigmatic; she will take you down with the raise of an eyebrow during a Mass, but she also seems to edge towards getting teary-eyed when she talks about classes graduating (the Choir School is preschool through 8th grade). There seems to be a story here about the relationship between these two people at the center of the School, and there are moments when you find yourself curious to know more, but it’s not the story the film is telling.
Of course there is music throughout the film, and for the most part it’s fantastic. The filmmakers show you rehearsals where things don’t go so well, and when the adults react they make it clear the level of responsibility and effort they expect. There are some Morton Lauridsen things they included that I wasn’t thrilled with, but at the same time, you get them singing “Having beheld the Resurrection” from the Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil in the Chiesa del Gesu in Rome (a very nice early moment). There is also a handful of isolated performances on the bonus disc — a chorale from a Bach cantata, an excerpt from Cherubini’s Requiem, and “Deep River” — and these are all also lovely.
If you’re somebody who does anything with music education of children in a sacred setting, you really owe it to yourself to watch The Choir (order it here). There is much here to learn from, much here to be inspired by, much here worth trying to adapt and reproduce for other contexts. I maintain that this is a model worth pondering in an Orthodox context, and I think this film will be a good tool for getting across what excellence in children’s sacred music education can look like. As Tom Hardy’s character says in Inception, “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.” Watch The Choir, and I dare you to not be inspired to dream bigger.