What to do with a small, inexperienced schola
  • Hi everyone, I hope I'm posting this in the right section. So I am starting a schola at my parish and our first practice will be next week. I have been calling and e-mailing quite a few people asking them to join, but I've only gotten one definite yes (from a soprano with a very nice voice, so I'm happy), but I haven't gotten definite answers from anyone else, so I'm not really sure what to expect at the first practice.

    So I'm trying to prepare for what I'm going to do if I only have 3 or 4 people in the group. Our parish already does Richard Rice's Simple Choral Gradual, so that is what we have to use for propers. I was wanting to sing them in 4-part harmony, but I don't know what to do if I only have 3 or 4 singers (most of whom are not experienced enough to sing a part by themselves). Right now, we just play the propers on the organ and have the cantor sing, which is ok, but 4-part harmony would sound so much better. I was kind of hoping that we could try Simple English Propers because they're all in unison, but our priest wants us to stick with SCG because there is already music for that in the pews and he wants to encourage the congregation to sing along (which is great).

    So where do you start with a very small group of (probably) inexperienced singers? Should I even try to start with harmony? Rice's propers are nice, but the harmony just adds so much and I think they kind of sound boring in unison. If it matters, I am a soprano but I can also sing the alto or tenor parts in these particular propers because they're pretty high. Any ideas?
  • If you only have 3 or 4, I would recommend singing unison first. Then, if you have enough people, go to two part (preferably unaccompanied) YMMV. My schola has only four people (counting myself who now has to play the organ), so we never got to step number 2. I pray that you find success, and that more people become interested after hearing your labors for a few Sundays!
  • Thanks, Barnabus! Excuse my ignorance, but what is YMMV?

    That's right, I'm hoping people become interested after hearing us. I've been disappointed because a few very good people I was counting on can't do it because they only go to the EF now. I love the EF, but I feel I can reach more people in the OF.
  • "Your mileage may vary"
    I've been in somewhat the same situation now for almost 2 months. We have 4 men, 2 women, an organist, and me. The group hasn't done a lot with part music. They do Ordinary chants pretty well, and sing the Introit and the Alleluia (I sing the verse, and the rest of the Propers). None are musicians, though most played an instrument a bit in school.

    For part music, we're 2 parts, with one doubled at the octave. One thing which has been successful for us is to take things with flexible voicings, like the St. Gregory or the Traditional Roman Hymnal they have (yes, it's SSPX, but a good resource and a value at $18/copy....that's just a Schola thing; the PiPs use the Campion missal). I'll get folks singing 2 parts, and if they're solid, I'll add another myself. If they aren't solid, we can cut back to two, or to unison. And we do mostly Eucharistic motets for communion, to increase their reusability.

    I make them READ. So far, they can only do it with the organ; any attempt at a cappella reading collapses into cacophony within 6 beats. I'm trying to feed them theoretical concepts to improve that (solfege etc). Case: Sunday we're doing the Peeters Tantum ergo. Organ intro ends on dominant, they come on on tonic octaves (in C yet), Only they came in on the dominant. So we had to practice that entrance, and explain why it was that way, in hopes that the next time they'd get it. And I showed our one strong soprano how to get the one G in the piece, and it came out, big and beautiful... she was a little surprised.
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  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,355
    If you are already singing Propers, what was your idea/purpose in starting a schola? Is this separate from your choir? Did you not have a choir up to now?

    My first reaction was "Get the Lumen Christi Simple Gradual," but if you're already doing propers - I don't know what you're hoping to accomplish.

    Maybe have them sing a devotional chant hymn (like from the Parish Book of Chant) after Communion? Maybe have them sing the actual Gregorian introit before or after the Rice English version?

    Will your group be large enough for some two- or three-part motets after Communion or Offertory "anthems"? There is plenty of good literature for that, if you have singers strong enough to hold a part on their own.
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  • canadashcanadash
    Posts: 1,456
    We have a large OF parish with a decent sized choir and we sing the SEP propers. We also have a small schola choir which sings only in Latin and tries to sing one of the more intricate Gregorian propers a week. If the parish is large enough, it could support both.

    This being said, the schola has been an uphill battle. The group has had up to five members and as few as one cantor. A couple of girls I asked to join my choir have decided to join the schola due to scheduling conflicts and I was delighted.

    I would begin with downloading the Parish Book of Chant (or purchasing five to ten copies) and learning some of the easier metrical chants. You might pursue some of the easier Gregorian Chants as well. This is not my forte, but these discussions have occurred often on this forum.
  • Thanks for the advice, everyone. I am going to take a look at the Parish Book of Chant.

    The church has a choir, but all they do is sing stuff from Haas, Haugen, Schutte, etc. I play the organ for them sometimes, but I had to sit down with them and explain that I can't play a lot of that stuff on the organ. They aren't open to singing traditional hymns at all, and they omit the propers whenever they get the chance. They were actually relieved when I decided to start a schola, so they can just use piano and guitar for their stuff and they won't have to do anything traditional.

    So right now I play the organ and sing the propers, but I want the schola to sing them unaccompanied in 4 parts, because that's what Rice intended and they sound way better that way. Eventually I'd like to add some chants and polyphonic pieces, but I think that will be a long way off.

    I guess I'll know more after I see who decides to show up to the first practice.
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  • Music Lover,
    I just want to encourage you that there are some fairly simple pieces out there you could do that are "polyphonic" in a sense, and you could do with very few voices. I have a 2-pt acapella version of Franck's Panis Angelicus for example, and a 2-pt "O Cor Jesu" that is very nice. Really, you could do either piece with w/ all men, all women, or mixing together. There are also some nice choral hymns in the St. Gregory hymnal that are fairly simple for even inexperienced choir's to learn. 3pt version of "Jesu Rex Admirabilis" by Palestrina also comes to mind (all men are one part, and then there's alto and sop.) We do a fairly wide variety of simple and more complex polyphony/choral music here at my FSSP parish where I direct; from time to time I do searches on CPDL using the "Multicategory search" to find new pieces.
  • Thanks, Kimberly! Those suggestions really help. I have looked on CPDL but I get so overwhelmed by all of the choices, so that narrows it down for me. I will definitely check out the 2-part version of Panis Angelicus. That would be a good one that we could use often. I'm thinking that probably most of the members won't have experience in polyphony, so we could start with 2-part music and then work up to 3-part, etc. Now I'm getting excited about all of the possibilities out there!
    Thanked by 1noel jones, aago
  • Sorry if this is obvious but invest time in teaching. By the end of the season, make sure they are more confident at reading, and sight singing, and do practice on harmonies, vocal technique etc to strengthen their skills. Probably need to invest more time in this than with an experienced group. Sorry if this is so obvious, but I am amazed the number of choirs who never invest in upskilling.
  • Thanks, Bonniebede. I don't think it's too obvious to say that. I'm expecting the group of people to all be on different levels musically, so I think it will be important to try to get them on the same level as much as I can. It's kind of surprising to me how many choir directors don't focus on technique at all. I'm not very experienced at directing so it will be a learning experience for me, but the little bit I have directed I've tried to focus quite a bit on vocal technique and it made a huge difference. I suppose it will be a learning experience for all of us! God willing, it will be a success.
    Thanked by 1bonniebede
  • BGP
    Posts: 213
    Teach them (and if neccesary learn yourself) chant notation and solfege.

    And teach them (and yourself if neccesary) to not be afraid of it.
  • Thanks, Noel and BGP. I decided to have them sing "Alma Redemptoris Mater" (simple tone) right after the Communion antiphon. It's short and simple, but I think it will be a good introduction to chant for them. I think that will be appropriate for the 1st Sunday of Advent, but someone please correct me if I'm wrong. I still have so much to learn and I want to make sure I choose appropriate music.
  • Well, in case anyone was wondering, I currently have three people (including me) in the schola. I'm trying not to get discouraged. I have a very good bass who can handle his section very well by himself, and then a soprano who does just fine as long as she can sing along with me. I'm going to try to see if she can learn her part well enough so I can sing alto and then we'd have a nice three-part harmony, but I don't want to push it. I am going to make some more phone calls tomorrow and try to keep recruiting. I'm hoping maybe I can get some kids to join, too.

    I guess it's easy for people to complain that they don't like the music, but then when it comes down to it they really don't want to do anything to help. Prayers would be appreciated!
  • I know the feeling! We have 4 people in my schola including my wife and myself. I was trying to play the organ and sing at the same time, but then there was no one to direct the schola. They didn't respond nearly as well. It was probably a combination of the lack of my presence in front of them, and my poor attempts at playing the organ (I'm not an organist). We are beginning to learn sol fege, and I may have recruited two or three more voices (we'll see tomorrow evening). I keep telling myself that good things come from small beginnings. I've known this to be true from several groups that I have had the priviledge to sing with through the years. Do the best you can with what you have now, and when the fruit comes, move from there. It is not a matter of having the biggest or most innovative choir or schola. It is about being faithful to the absolute best offering to the Holy Sacrafice of the Mass that we can make. I have seen my little group become very comfortable with Psalm tones. The next step is to get them comfortable with solfege. Then we will begin reading and singing some of the Gregorian Propers. I'm not giving myself a deadline since I have no idea how long that will take, but I know that it will come if I'm willing to invest myself in the developement of the people I have. Maybe after that happens, others will become interested. In the meantime, we will do the best we can with what we have.

    Lastly, we have become a very close knit group of friends. The faith and dedication of my people humble and inspire me. I am looking forward to making new friends in the future who are interested in making the Divine Liturgy the best they can!
  • Thanks so much for the encouragement, Barnabus! I just saw your other post and I'm excited you have more members now. I've been reaching out to quite a few people, so maybe I'll have a few more next time.

    So are you still playing organ, or are you doing everything a cappella now? I am wanting to do the antiphons unaccompanied so I can direct, but I'm not sure if my singers are confident enough to do that yet. So I guess we'll just see how that goes. If I could get a couple of really confident singers thay would help.
  • I'm directing the Propers, but accompanying the Ordinary. We're doing Mass VIII, and we've been doing it for most of the year (except for Mass XI during Lent). We'll learn Mass XII for Advent this year, and my priest is happy with three Mass settings during the year. He feels that it is better to have organ accompaniment when the congregation is encouraged to sing. I (kinda) agree with him on this. If I had my ideal, I would have the organ only for preludes, interludes, and postludes. I do admit that it helps the congregation sing with more confidence (those who want to sing in the first place).

    I forgot to mention that I am also cantor for my schola and I sing with them during their responses. I don't know if you're doing that, but it might help them build some confidence for their parts.
  • Sounds cool. We are using Mass XVIII for Advent and Lent, and the parish already knows it so we can do it unaccompanied. I agree with what you say about the organ, though. I love unaccompanied chant for the Mass. We chant the Creed in English but use the organ to try and get people to sing. Someday i want to try it unaccompanied, though.

    I've contacted close to 40 people from my parish to get them to join, but I've only gotten a couple of maybes. I hope all this work pays off eventually, because I'm feeling discouraged.
  • RedPop4
    Posts: 24
    I pray you guys are having success. I use Rice's Simple Choral Gradual a great deal, but not every week. As of now, I am only "allowed" to sing the Communion. I use other versions too, here and there, however, S.C.G. more often than others. IF we have time and I am prepared ahead, we sometimes use his Choral Missal but those are a bit longer and a bit more difficult.

    All that to say that the propers from the S.C.G. sound good even with one part not present. Sometimes that's the alto, most times it's the bass line. I sing tenor and it sounds really good with just melody and tenor.
  • It is refreshing to read that I am not alone in these struggles with a small schola at an under-resourced parish. I started a schola (and entire music program) from scratch about three years ago, and we've fluctuated variously from four to eight people on a given Sunday over the years. Currently (due to changes in the lives of a few members) we're sitting at four (including me, who also plays the organ), which has been hard for me because last year we finally got to the point of being able to sing three-part polyphony fairly well. This year we've had to resort mostly to two-part stuff. The core has become very comfortable with full Gregorian propers though, which is great to see. All in all, music and liturgy have improved 200% over the years, but I wish I had even just one or two more competent/confident singers. It would make all the difference.
  • Jeffrey Quick
    Posts: 1,643
    It's amusing to read my description of my schola from 5.5 years ago. I can reassure you that it DOES get better.
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