High school schola loves chant; but boys reluctant to sing out
  • Gamba
    Posts: 119
    Hello!

    God has greatly blessed me by giving me the opportunity, in conjunction with my full-time church position, to also found and direct a group of approximately ten students at the Catholic high school who chant at mass weekly. We began work in September, and I have constantly been amazed by the dedication, devotion, and talent of these students. Some of them had previous experience with playing instruments or singing pop music, but none were previously involved in choirs.

    Presently a typical school mass will involve the proper introit and communion chants, chosen from either the Graduale Romanum or the Grad. Simplex, and also the responsorial psalm and alleluia from CCWatershed or a similar English chant-based resource, with the occasional motet as the 45-minute mass time allows, and only one hymn, at the offertory. They sang also the entire Lumen Christi set of Candlemas propers for the Catholic Schools Mass, and acquitted themselves admirably on Ash Wednesday in cooperation with the adult schola at my church. Liturgy of the Hours (primarily from the Mundelein psalter) is no problem, either, and it is such a joy to see them falling in love with the Church’s music.

    I have one problem, though, with the (5) men. They will sing the correct notes all day long, and have a great time as they go, but they seem to be perpetually frightened to sing them above mezzo-piano. I’m not looking for bel canto, or for anything strenuous and forced – just a resonant, fairly bright and carrying tone that can be heard in the church at a reasonable distance. They are juniors and seniors, all of whom are decidedly past puberty and do not seem to be struggling with squawks and squeaks.

    Information and diagrams about the function of the human anatomy in voice production and attempts to produce kinesthetic awareness of the same in the warmups have not gotten through to them – the girls will sing beautiful top gs and as at full volume, but the boys can scarcely be heard, particularly when singing in the church (800 seats, but a friendly 4-second acoustic). The boys’ sound seems unsupported and generally timid, though they are completely confident about the notes to be sung. I’ve heard them shout or sing comically loudly – I know it’s in there, but something’s in the way.

    I am somewhat hampered in that we have only forty minutes a week to prepare music for the mass the following day, and until the schedule is redone with the next academic year, there’s no hope of changing that. Thus there is a lot less time to be spent in teaching theory and vocal technique, except where the music specifically requires particular knowledge. Obviously they should all have private weekly voice lessons, but I can’t do that and keep my sanity with the rest of my duties, and there’s not funding to hire someone else.

    I am fresh out of my MM in organ and feel rather out of my depth. Our conducting courses were designed as preparation for working with large choirs of trained adults singing Mahler 2 and Beethoven 9, not for training brand-new chanters from the ground up. Having been raised Protestant, the expectation was that all men sang out loud and proud in church; I sang through the voice change and never expected anyone to not sing with gusto, so I don’t have a personal experience with being frightened of singing in church in a way that can be heard by others.

    I would appreciate any advice anyone would care to provide, and also your prayers for their – and my – continued spiritual and musical growth.
  • Kathy
    Posts: 4,987
    This could be a matter of shyness, or a misperception about the masculinity of singing. They may be teased by classmates. I would suggest "hiding" the schola in the back of the church/ loft if acoustically possible.

    Maybe show them videos of English male choirs, or those choirs where all the men are handsome and wear tight black shirts :)

    But mostly I wouldn't bug them about it, if they're afraid to put themselves out there. Time will change this as a cultural/ social phenomenon at the school, but possibly not for a year or two.

    Charles C could probably give more salient advice.
    Thanked by 1Gamba
  • Kathy is right in that there may be a degree of shyness here. Our culture does not encourage men to sing, and often deliberately discourages them from doing so. This may or may not be a factor in your situation.

    You did not state the age of the young men. If they are during or completing puberty their voices may still be in flux, with the result that they are bashful about singing out, or experience difficulty in doing so, or are at that stage at which they are just learning how to use their new adult voices. This, too, may or may not be a factor in your choir.

    Kathy's suggestion about showing them examples of men singing robustly may be encouraging. There are all kinds of American sacred choirs that you could show them on youtube. Also, the English choirs of men and boys may be 'eye-openers' for your youth. All you have to do is google an English cathedral choir or an American choir that you like.

    Set aside a precious five or so minutes of your weekly rehearsal to vocalise and practice diaphragmatic breathing and breath control, etc.

    At least you don't have the problem of competitive singing which often spoils the choral aesthetic which we all work toward.

    I will pray for you and your youth.
    Ask St Dunstan and St Cecilia, two patron saints of music, to pray for your group.
    Thanked by 1Gamba
  • What a beautiful story.

    It's very true that indeed there could be a little bit of shyness. Even at the choir school here in Toronto many of the kids don't sing out, because they can be afraid to compete with the others.

    Some of it may also have to do with age. The voices (please do correct me if I'm wrong) may be changing still to some degree and that may cause difficulty.

    Don't give up! I'll pray for you.
    Thanked by 1Gamba
  • Liam
    Posts: 3,613
    For commenters, please note from the OP:

    "They are juniors and seniors, all of whom are decidedly past puberty and do not seem to be struggling with squawks and squeaks."

    Meaning 16-18 years old. Avg age of puberty onset for males is 13.

    Kathy nailed it. Though I would recommend showing American collegiate and German/Scandinavian mixed-voice choirs rather than English cathedral or college choirs. English all-male choirs may reinforce the association the boys may be trying (whether consciously or otherwise) to avoid.
    Thanked by 2Gamba CHGiffen
  • MarkS
    Posts: 239
    Shyness can certainly be an issue— also the cultural Catholic thing about what singing is like. As a new teacher at a Catholic school years ago on a mission to change the singing culture, I once noted at a meeting that the teachers were not singing at Mass, thereby setting a bad example, and a teacher who had been next to me (three feet away) at Mass turned to me, shocked, and said 'I was singing!' But, actually, she was making no audible noise at all!

    I find that many kids—boys but also sometimes girls—have an idea that their 'singing voice' is somehow different than their 'speaking voice'—that their 'singing voice' is indeed this pretty, quiet little sound. To counter this, I often tell kids that they only have one voice, for both speaking and singing (well, it's mostly true!). I have them speak the text with a nice clear 'public speaking' type voice, and them challenge them to sing the text at the same volume. Sometimes I break it down—speak a word loudly and clearly, and then sing that word. This really seems to help them conceptually. (Not the word I was looking for. More coffee!)
    Thanked by 1Gamba
  • Carol
    Posts: 414
    A choir director I respect uses an exercise where we count on a single tone from 1 to 8 getting progressively louder and then back from 8 to 1 and diminish volume as we count backwards. Perhaps by focusing on volume as its own facet, you may be able to make them more aware of producing more sound without having it sound like a complaint about the men not being loud enough.
  • Gamba
    Posts: 119
    Thank you so very much; I really appreciate your advice – a lot here to implement. I do take care to warm them up for 5-8 minutes at the beginning of each rehearsal, but I recognize that in my concerns over getting them out of the basement register of the modern teen voice I am probably not be doing enough 1) focussing on breath support and control 2) to make them feel less stressed as they dash in from the previous class. Will also try to expose them in rehearsal to recordings of better choirs...who knows what they actually do with the emails I send them?

    It is correct that they are 16-18. They sing either in the back of the school chapel surrounding the organ (but it is a small and crowded room, so who knows whether it feels like a safe and distinct space from their peers) or in the choir loft at the church.

    Watching the school culture slowly change is amazing; my first mass there hardly anyone sang. Now the bigger the schola gets the more the people sing. At the last few Vespers we've sung, the whole school has been chanting away on the psalms, alternating men and women. It's a mighty sound, until someone eventually finds an undetected mistake in my pointing :(

  • melofluentmelofluent
    Posts: 4,160
    Charles C could probably give more salient advice.

    I don't know if dear Kathy means Charles CW or me, but she is so kind as to refer to the geezer contingent, a pleasant notion.

    Choral singers generally have a vested interest in self-determination of concerns as well as corporate goals. So I would defer to Weston Noble's methodology: involve them directly in the diagnosis and correction of "faults." (This would also work with the females, tho' I would initially do this separately.)
    Assign a fairly simple and short metric chant (Pange L/Adoro te/Veni Creator/Puer nobis) to the be learned and memorized. Have each singer perform the whole chant individually. Then instruct and guide the men to simply evaluate characteristics of each singer's rendition for positive attributes. Then guide the discussion towards identifying the most "ideal" performance. Have that singer become a "fulcrum" for a compare and contrast of subsequent standing positions of the remaining voices. A lot of factors come into play here including personality and pedagogical issues. Let the men come to consensus on each decision. Say for example you find the next singer from the center, and you've tried him on either side (it can make a difference) of the lead voice. Once he's assigned a position, find the second most compatible voice to the lead and try him on the opposite side of BOTH the lead and second singer for the new ideal. Remember, everyone has to be involved in evaluation and consensus. "Repeat and rinse" until all five are positioned. Test this formation against some other random changes in positions to check if the ensemble functions to the maximum possible success. Then have the men perform in the ideal formation for the females and vice versa. This process should form a confidence in the men particularly, and this "success" should carry through to their public performances at Mass. This always worked for me in middle and high school choral classroom.

    http://www.welsfinearts.org/home/180010985/180011022/seating the choir for choral blend (james%20jordan).pdf

    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • Kathy
    Posts: 4,987
    See, I knew you'd be helpful :)
    Thanked by 1melofluent
  • I agree with the above posters that they may feel their singing voice needs to be quiet to be pretty (especially if they are unsure how exactly to make an attractive forte noise)

    I would try encouraging them with words akin to "it's a good sound, but I want more of it"
  • davido
    Posts: 141
    If you are showing videos, try Notre Dame glee club. Great group and they are a masculine bunch.

    Do they have in person experience of robust male singing? It can be hard to do something you have never seen. YouTube is great, but a loud living breathing guy in front of them would be better.
  • Gamba
    Posts: 119
    Melofluent, thank you. James Jordan was one of my conducting teachers. He and Noble have thought and written so much, one has to buy everything GIA sells and go to every seminar in the Lower 48 to absorb it all. You have raised points that sadly didn’t make it into JJs one-semester-long course, and I am very grateful.

    And I am loud, living and breathing, and I so far have modeled everything they’ve sung, and at times sung with them in performance.
    Thanked by 1melofluent
  • eft94530eft94530
    Posts: 1,570
    Fieldtrip to a local monastery?
    Thanked by 1M. Jackson Osborn
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 7,527
    Not likely to help, I think: monks tend to sing softly.

    Gamba, do you coach the singers specifically about vowels: keeping space in the mouth, avoiding spread vowels, raising the soft palate, keeping an open throat, reducing muscle tension in the tongue, etc.? I list those points, but you probably are attentive to them already.
    Thanked by 1M. Jackson Osborn
  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 1,727
    Sounds to me like your repertoire is deficient in Bruckner ;-)
  • Have a Friday evening-Saturday choir retreat featuring a vocal coach from a nearby university or nearby major church choirmaster.
    Thanked by 2CHGiffen madorganist
  • I recommend the lads practice singing from memory. The Gloria Patri in whatever mode you are singing in for a start. You sing it, they sing it. That way they stand up straight with arms by the side (like an operatic tenor: all diaphragm. Tell them the story of the operatic tenor (probably Pavarotti) who could push a grand piano across the room by taking a breath and exhaling rapidly while touching the piano with his upper abdomen. "Breathe in and sing out like a man!" tell them. Then a Kyrie from memory and so on. If you want them to sing from neums, write the neums large and have the lads read off the big book, still standing up facing front with arms by their sides. Good luck with this and have a lot of fun!
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 7,527
    Imagery can be a help, but that piano story doesn't make sense.
  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 1,727
    As Berthelot says, soft singing cures may faults and normally I would just say be careful what you wish for: Gamba's singers are lucky to have someone alert to any possible forcing. 40 minutes a week is awfully little, especially if a new Mass is being prepared each time, so perhaps we could help you think about repertoire rather than attempt remote diagnosis of technical issues.

    If there's no time for Locus iste (as serious suggestion, btw), do the Graduale chants include things like the Offertory Jubilate Deo (I wish I could think of something comparable in the Kyriale)? The Simplex chants in octaves might be thin gruel.
    Are the Responsorial Psalms in Anglican chant, where you can talk about balancing chords with 5+5 singers? Any polyphonic Ordinary movements? I would dare them to sing Gallus' Stetit Jesus or Handel's Hallelujah ("Mi--serere, mis-serere...") at mezzo piano.
    Thanked by 2chonak CHGiffen
  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 1,727
    I haven't heard the piano story about Pavarotti, but it's something I've been asked to do in lessons. [edit: Now I see the part about "across the room". Depends on how well oiled the wheels are, I guess ;-) ] Other cheap tricks for engaging support muscles are holding up a chair, or joining hands with another person and leaning backwards, keeping the body straight as in the 'trust exercise'.
  • I feel that singing from memory will only hinder enthusiastic participation rather than improve it.
  • Having them sing the Gloria Patri or other things by themselves seems like an awfully good and encouraging idea!

    Singing back and forth across a room with the girls might help, too.

    Getting a couple of men from faculty or nearby churches to stand in with them might help, too. Don't give up!
  • Gamba
    Posts: 119
    Off to rehearsal, armed with your weapons, to work at this music for tomorrow's mass. Grad. Romanum introit and communion for Friday in 2nd Week of Lent, a Gamba's Own™ psalm and Fr. Weber's gospel acclamation, plus hymn and Roman Missal ordinary as usual. Thank you again; will report back later.
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen