Revamping Choral Program
  • Hello everyone,

    I am new to the forum, but I have been browsing for a couple of years now. I'm hoping you can help reign my current enthusiasm in, because I'm starting to overwhelm myself.

    A little background. I do not have a music degree. That being said, I have been singing in church choirs and playing piano since I could read (20 something years ago), and playing the organ since highschool. When I took organ lessons for fun in college, they tried to recruit me into music. But alas, I stuck with science because that's where the money was *rolls eyes*​

    All that to say, I am in my third year as the full-time director of music at a gorgeous, traditional, Novus Ordo parish. History of the choir: the previous choir director was there for over 50 years. Thanks to COVID and the lack of music, it was a smooth transition. The only complaints I have received was the bulkiness of the Source and Summit Missals we got for 2022. Otherwise, the majority of the congregation (and the pastor) appreciate my more traditional leanings. Or at least they don't tell me otherwise... I was devastated, to say the least, when they switched back to Today's Missal. I have seen the silver lining though and am now embarking to put together my own hymnal, all public domain of course. I would also like to include Mass Parts and possibly the antiphons, but don't know where to find the correct English translation that would be public domain. So that's Enthusiastic Endeavor #1. (My pastor is aware and supports this)

    Starting this week, my pastor has asked me to start collaborating with a parishioner who has recently graduated with a degree in voice. He is going to be a paid cantor, currently for Vigil Masses and Funerals. The Vigil Mass has the culture of being the "quick Mass", which works in our favor to sing the antiphon refrains and chant Mass parts since they are quicker. We have another parishioner who is classically trained who I want to recruit, so we have some real potential. All three of us have wide ranges. The male singer can sing Bass or Tenor, the female singer and myself can sing Alto or Soprano. I would like to build this up into an actual schola. Side note, while our pastor leans towards active participation being "active", he is OK with the music not being sung by the congregation if it is "truly beautiful and uplifting". I want to have my resources together before we start to build it up though, so I need ideas on 2-3 part harmonies for basically everything. Antiphons (if they should be in parts or unison), Mass parts, motets, etc. Enthusiastic Endeavor #2

    My conscious does prick me a bit that the "pretty" music is going to be at the Vigil Mass. Our main choir on Sundays gravitates more towards the four-hymn sandwich. It is primarily made up of the parish's seasoned, faithful choir members who have been singing for 30+ years. We have done some beautiful pieces, but it is a bit more challenging for it to come off angelic, so to speak. I have started a children's choir that sings once a month in place of this adult choir and they sing more chant and Latin because my thought process is, the congregation will think they're so cute they won't complain. Boy was I right, they love it! So that Mass time has potential to follow suit. We have another Sunday Mass that I do solo that I have thought about having the potential schola sing at, but that's the Mass that previously had a "folk choir" until the Source and Summit Missals came last year. They're also the congregation that if they aren't singing along, they aren't pleased. This brings me back to "enthusiastic endeavor #1". When making my hymnal, should I include the motets etc. we start to sing in the schola? I love how the old St Gregory Hymnal and Pius X hymnals used to have the parts for the congregation, and I thought about going back to that. (I know there is an ongoing discussion on congregations singing parts) I'm not a fan of having different music at different Masses to suit the crowd, and it is a heck of a lot more work to plan each week. How would you go about reconciling this, if it's at all possible? Enthusiastic Endeavor #3

    Finally, what resources would you recommend for me? I'm pretty well versed in Sacrosanctum Concilium and Musicam Sacram, for starters. My new cantor gave me some of his resources to learn solfege so I can teach my children's choir, but a lot of the things on Gregorian chant feel so heady to me and that's where my brain starts shutting down. Where do you suggest I start? Obviously, my own knowledge, but from there do I focus on the new hymnal, the schola, or do they truly need to come together at the same time? Or am I making a mountain out of a molehill? I apologize if I'm all over the place. Like I said, I need some help reigning myself in! Thank you in advance.
  • Magdalene,

    Welcome to the comment side of the forum.

    I would also like to include Mass Parts and possibly the antiphons, but don't know where to find the correct English translation that would be public domain.


    The translation of the Missal into English is, I believe, copyright USCCB. It is, therefore, not (technically) public domain.

    (My pastor is aware and supports this)

    Very helpful.

    "quick Mass",


    That's problematic because, while Mass shouldn't be unduly prolonged, doing the minimum for validity and licitness is a bad starting point for the rest of the Christian life.

    "truly beautiful and uplifting"

    This is a good standard to have, so long as "quick Mass" isn't the subtext of "truly beautiful and uplifting". Imagine a conversation that goes like this, after Mass someday:

    "Father broke his record, saying Mass in 15 minutes and 28 seconds".
    "I knew he could do it, just so we got Mass in during the half-time show."

    2-3 part harmonies for basically everything.


    I'm sure someone here can point you to Mass parts for three voices, and antiphons likewise. 3 part motets are an underutilized resource. Just plan on building 3 parts, not reducing (or damaging) 4 part music to get your 3 parts.

    As to reining in your enthusiasm, I won't try to do that, except to say that you can and should expect some setbacks along the way, so you should never make a step forward unless you're willing for it to be the last step forward you take. I'll respond to the rest of what you say in a later post.
  • First question: how is Father with Latin? I could point you to a lot of decent Latin 2-3 part music with organ, but others will have to handle the English (which of course will be mostly ©)

    Now, re chant: Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. People who write about chant tend to write as if there was a Platonic Ideal chant written on the akashic record by St. Pope Gregory himself, whereas actual chant sung in the parishes has always been suboptimum. You want it as beautiful as you can get it, of course, but much writing is more about "right" than "beautiful". There's more than enough in the front of the Usualis, or Susan Treacy's method from CanticaNOVA. In particular, the only point in learning all the neume names is to talk about them, rather than sing them.

    I would start with chant hymns. They're syllabic, they're strophic (less music to learn), and there are respectable English versions if that's desired. This was a specialty of the Oxford Movement, and many of these can be found in the ECUSA 1940 hymnal, the Engish Hymnal etc. The leader in modern translations of office hymns is Kathy Pluth.

    For English Ordinaries, Paul Jernberg is your guy.

    You'll want a copy of the Gregorian Missal for Proper chants for the NO, eventually. That's not your step 1 though. Right off, if you have 4 (or 2-3 with organ), I'd consider singing the verses of the Psalm to Anglican Chants. You'll get clarity and sophistication,and avoid the soloist feeling one gets from solo cantors. I haven't seen 2-3 part Anglican chants; there are some falsobordoni with small scoring, but these were designed for Latin accents rather than English (which is why A-chant was developed).
    Thanked by 2CHGiffen Magdalene
  • Thank you for the advice. As far as quick Masses goes, don't worry. The fifteen minute Masses were from ~3 pastors ago. Our "quick" is ~40 minutes.

    Our priest is OK with Latin. Since we are a Marian parish, we sing the seasonal Marian antiphons after Communion. The occasional Communion hymn is Latin, and most of the motets the main choir sings is in Latin, since like you pointed out Jeffrey, they are public domain. I would like to do Mass parts in Latin, I would just like to wait until after Lent. I grew up with Latin Mass parts only during penitential seasons, so I don't want the congregation to develop the same association I had. The tricky part would be introducing the Gloria in Latin.

    My primary hang up with learning chant, like you said, is all the fancy lingo and then switching my brain off of modern notation. If it's in modern notation, I'm fine. I'm hoping solfege will help, but we'll see. There's so many resources in chant notation, but it just hasn't clicked yet. Interesting side note, I've found the kids sing chant better acapella. The adults need the organ.

    I will look into Paul Jernberg and the Anglican chants. Do you write your own Psalm refrains and then pick the Anglican chant setting to follow for the verses? I'd be fine doing that since I've been writing my own Psalm settings since I can't stand the same old Respond and Acclaim settings. I'm just curious what your approach is to utilizing them.
  • Don9of11Don9of11
    Posts: 693
    There are a couple that I will mention. First "A Catholic Book of Hymns." This is a collection of over 290 hymns, traditional and in the public domain. https://sacredmusiclibrary.com/all-about-a-catholic-book-of-hymns/

    The Sacred Music Library has other resources you might find useful.

    Also, if you are in need of any hymns to St. Joseph, you can check out " A Collection of Catholic Devotional Hymns to St. Joseph." All of the hymns are in the public domain and were selected from the those that were widely used in Catholic parishes in the late 19th and early 20th century. https://www.motherofmercycatholichymns.com/
  • Some thoughts

    1) It seems as though you feel that this is still a time of transition. I would not advise putting out a parish hymnal until you are confidant what your parish repertoire is and what your path is going forward. For instance, you are not certain what this new schola would look like, so it seems ill advised to fill a hymnal with 2-3 part motets.
    On the other hand, putting one together is a great exercise in really focusing your repertoire. I have done this myself, taking over a congregation with no real repertoire, and narrowing the hymnal down to 200 really worthwhile melodies and texts from which to draw. This has had the effect of strengthening a core repertoire/

    2) In my experience, focusing effort on the main liturgies and largest group of singers paves the best path for a sustainable program, because it forces you to put a lot of effort into pedagogy. Is it possible to pay your ringer singers to be section leaders? You will be amazed at how transformative seeding an amateur chorus with professionals can be.

    3) you should start doing gregorian propers with your little schola, progressing from the easiest (communio) first. These are what the church asks us to sing, and they can be done well with three people. Good musicians will also pick up the notation rather fast when doing it once a week
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • I usually take refrains for ccwatershed. I almost never have reason to do RPs (the occasional wedding), so it's not a big thing for us.
    Kudos for wanting to break the chant-penitence association. The advantages of square notes over modern is that the constituent shapes are more easy to see, and it's easier for those with perfect/good relative pitch. I don't normally think of neumes as fixed pitch at all. If I had to read Mode VII at nominal pitch in modern notation, it might not go well.
    Thanked by 2LauraKaz CHGiffen
  • Thank you for the continued suggestions.

    I will look into the Catholic Book of Hymns and their other resources. It looks promising!
    Since you have mentioned Paul Jernberg, he is popping up everywhere and friends keep telling me about his documentary. I might have to bite the bullet on that one and order his St. Philip Neri Mass setting.

    I definitely don't expect to get a hymnal together before the end of summer. I'm hoping over the next few months to get a better sense of how things will progress. I think I was mostly feeling frazzled and just need to reestablish my footing after being out a few months with a broken hand and coming back just in time for Christmas, now Easter, a new cantor/schola, weddings, funerals, etc. Never a dull moment to just sit and think! haha
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 9,181
    You're right to treat the Saturday Mass as the "quick Mass": since older parishioners often get uncomfortable while sitting, it's best to avoid making the priest wait for music to finish.

    Also, most parishes include some older parishioners who dislike Latin and can get vocal about it, so when you introduce chant antiphons at that Mass -- at communion, for example -- I'd recommend English, as for example in Fr Samuel Weber's "The Proper of the Mass", from Ignatius Press. It provides several melodies for each chant antiphon, with varying levels of simplicity or ornateness, and you can download his organ accompaniments from https://sacredmusicus.wordpress.com/ ).