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Posts Tagged 'gregory glenn'

Follow up on choir schools, with a suggested course of action

Well, the spike in traffic the last few days leads me to believe that maybe the idea of an Orthodox choir school has drawn the attention of more than my usual two readers. Cool. If that’s so, then let me go into some more detail, and let me suggest a course of action.

First of all, thanks for all of the positive reactions. It’s great to see that there’s a way to describe this vision so that people get it and get excited about it; I hope that this is a sign of things to come. Please continue to share these posts far and wide; it’s an idea that has to gain a certain critical mass before it can go anywhere besides this blog.

Also, there have been a number of excellent suggestions that have come from my “Orthodox choir school: how I’d do it” post. Suggestions about cities, about teaching methods, about other schools to look at, and so on. I appreciate all of that, and I’m all ears for that kind of input. When (I repeat, when) the time comes, that will all be extremely useful — keep it coming!

Something that has been brought up is that there have been people who have toiled in Orthodox children’s music education for years, and there are existing programs that struggle to stay afloat. Wouldn’t it be better to try to build everybody up rather than concentrating efforts in one location? Might putting all the eggs in one basket be a well-intentioned, but ultimately misplaced, idea?

I had a response to this, but before I go into that, I want to make everybody aware of some valuable resources that should be looked at if this subject is going to be taken seriously. There is the Choir Schools’ Association in the UK, and they have a document titled “Reaching Out”, which is a great overview of the current state of the tradition in England. One is a doctoral thesis by one Daniel James McGrath titled “The Choir School in the American Church: a study of the choir school and other current chorister training models in Episcopal and Anglican parishes”. There’s also a doctoral thesis by Lucas Matthew Tappan, “The Madeleine Choir School (Salt Lake City, Utah): A Contemporary American Choral Foundation”.

IMG_3755Something that, alas, I can’t link to but that you should be able to acquire if you want a copy, is the 50th anniversary season brochure for St. Paul”s Choir School. They have them out for the taking in the narthex at St. Paul’s; I got a copy when I went to their Christmas concert on Friday. If you contact the school and ask for one, I have to imagine they’ll send it to you.

Nota bene — with all of these resources, one has to make sure that one takes them mutatis mutandis to a certain extent. McGrath and St. Paul’s are dealing with a context of boys’ choirs, and I’m talking about a co-ed approach, for example. The Madeleine Choir School and St. Paul’s are Catholic, and McGrath is writing from an Anglican perspective. Nonetheless, all are extremely useful in terms of how they talk about organization, curriculum, challenges, and so on — Tappan in particular explicitly has the objective of serving as a “road map” (his words) for those who might want to follow the Madeleine’s lead. Handy, that.

One of the main things I want to put forth here is this passage from Tappan’s thesis on the Madeleine as the justification for a choir school:

…a choir school consists of an institution where children are given a well-rounded musical education as well as liturgical formation in the ars celebrandi, and where they put these skills at the service of the sacred liturgy on a regular basis within a specific community (often that of a cathedral or collegiate chapel). In return, these children are given an outstanding elementary and religious education.

Even though these qualities constitute the basic elements of a choir school, each institution is a unique place where the choir school tradition exists within a particular time and culture… Perhaps the church musician will find in the choir school a model for training young people in an art that has the power to transform lives and to bring many out of the isolation of modern living into a living community of musicians and believers, forming young musicians “for the lifelong praise and worship of God” (p. 2).

But then there’s the epiphany of Gregory Glenn, the founder of the Madeleine Choir School, when he spent three months at Westminster Cathedral Choir School in London:

What Glenn realized was that the institution itself was the formator (emphasis mine). The incessant rounds of daily rehearsals and liturgies in the cathedrals and the process of going through a massive amount of repertoire year after year was crucial to being able to sing, for example, a Poulenc Mass on short notice. The choristers sight-read so easily that rehearsal time was never spent learning notes. There might be a false note or two the first time through a work, but the boys usually corrected themselves the second time around. Choir masters were able to spend the majority of rehearsal time working toward a more musical performance of the repertoire. According to Glenn, the Madeleine Choir School is still working toward this goal, but it becomes more of a reality with time. (Tappan, p. 26)

Here was my answer to the concern about concentrating efforts in one location:

I spent 11 years in a location that was, theoretically, fairly central in the United States, but as far as Orthodox Christianity went, was about as isolated as you could be without being in Wyoming. Almost anything and everything the parish there took on could be (and often was) fairly described as “being a lot of effort for one location”, right down to building a church. It still needed to be done. Along the same lines, the Madeleine school is certainly “a lot of effort for one location” (in Salt Lake City, no less!), but it’s still worth doing.

The other thing I’ll say is that musical efforts in particular often get problematized in “American Orthodoxy” (whatever we mean by that) as “reinventing the wheel”, that reduplication of effort doesn’t accomplish anything… What needs to be recognized is that not all wheels will travel on the same roads[…], people and institutions need to play to their strengths, and dispersion of effort that hangs everything on the energies of either one person or a tiny handful of people is a disaster waiting to happen. The Madeleine Choir School is not the only Catholic school in the Salt Lake City metro area, for example, but its existence allows for the faculty and students to play to a particular set of strengths, and the result is an example that is inspiring. Supporting music education in existing Orthodox schools is a great thing to do, but it also seems to me that establishing a model school that focuses particularly on that aspect will allow for a level of excellence to develop and be made manifest publicly. I think we accomplish a lot more when we’re able to work together than when we’re isolated; my experience is that most of us Orthodox musicians are too isolated from each other as it is, and that that is a bad thing.

Beyond that — as I said earlier, I attended a Christmas concert sung by the choirs of the St. Paul’s Choir School Friday evening with Megan and Theodore; one of the big takeaways was that Theodore was absolutely enrapt when the boys processed in, wearing black cassocks and singing “One in Royal David’s City”. I’ll say that the evening was was mostly the work of the the preparatory choir (the main choir had their big concert yesterday with Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols”), but everybody did something, and they’ve got a good thing going there.

So, where to, folks? How do we get there from here? I’ve told you how I’d do it — and, I have to say, it’s remarkably similar to what Tappan describes Gregory Glenn, the Madeleine Choir School’s founder, as having done (and I discovered Tappan after I wrote that post) — he put a great deal of time in visiting model institutions and putting together a feasibility study/planning document with a proposed budget. Realistically, I think this is going to be somebody’s full-time task for at least six months.

My modest proposal, then, is this — a great Christmas gift to me, to your kids, and to our Church, would be a gift in support of this initial effort. Somebody shared the post saying, “I wish I had a million or two to give to such an undertaking”; well, it doesn’t need a million or two, not yet, and while you might not be in a position to give a million or two, maybe you can do something (particularly since it’s near year-end — taxes are coming!). It doesn’t really matter how much you might be able to do; if everybody who saw my posts over the last week even gave something relatively small, it would go a long way towards making this possible. Anyway, I don’t want to do a hard sell on giving right now. Rather, this is just the trial balloon — the question is, can we fund the initial planning activities, yes or no? You tell me. If we can, then maybe we can do this for real.

The way to give is through The Saint John of Damascus Society; click here, click on the donate button, and you’ll be taken to PayPal. The Society is a tax-exempt (501(c)3) non-profit, so all gifts are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law. If you want to do something but don’t want to do it via PayPal, drop me a line at richardbarrett AT johnofdamascus DOT org.

I’m really not interested in asking for money right now, so we’re clear. This isn’t about money to me. At the same time, without some money, the next steps are really out of reach.

This is an open forum on the topic, so please, any questions, suggestions, comments, requests for more information, anything — keep it coming! And if you want one of the The Choir DVDs, e-mail me with an address.

Okay, my friends. I’ve made my pitch. You’ve all told me you’re interested and supportive; pray for us, tell me what we’re doing next, and share this far and wide if this is important to you. Thanks for sticking with me so far.

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The Choir: “I remember playing tetherball in Latin”

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.

http://utmcs.org/news-and-updates/item/218-documentary-the-choirThe 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.


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