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A Youth Choir:

Does Your Parish Have One?

by Gary D. Penkala

In many ways the Church shows her concern for her younger members, offering religious education, Catholic youth groups, young people's centers. In terms of worship there are directives specifically for children's liturgies and even Eucharistic Prayers for children (see With Jesus We Sing CNP Catalog #3090). But what are we as musicians... church musicians... offering our youth?

A parish music program is greatly lacking if there is no representation by childen, be that as part of an intergenerational church choir or as a choir or choirs of their own. We cannot expect leaders for our liturgical music in the future, or even well-trained congregations, if we do not begin now with the youth. (It is the extremely unfortunate case that many of our religious institutions of higher education, including seminaries, offer, at best, only poor musical instruction.)

Youth choirs should be promoted and developed in all parishes, even those without adult choirs. Children are generally very enthusiastic about singing, and will eventually grow into an adult choir. Consider the following steps in forming a youth choir.

  1. Join Choristers' Guild, a national association promoting youth choirs as Christian service groups. They have an abundance of materials on recruitment, plus anthems, posters, cards, musical and religious aids, and a very informative monthly newsletter. Write or email for samples of their materials.
  2. Plan singing dates and anthems for the entire year. If, as you should be, you are interested in a permanent youth choir, do not gear your activity to one special occasion like First Communion. Interest will surely lag afterwards and if the youth choir should ever be called on to sing again, the entire recruiting process must be repeated. Plan to sing one Sunday each month on a regular basis. Children need the structure of weekly rehearsals and frequent goals to keep their interest and enthusiasm high. Include other singing times (First Communion, Christmas, Easter, Confirmation) as special parts of a regular program.
  3. Recruit members. Use every means possible: church bulletin, newsletter, announcements, visits to the church school, CCD classes, youth organizations. Also use personal contact -- talk to as many children as possible.
  4. Rehearse enthusiastically. Let the choristers know their true liturgical function as ministers of music. Build pride in the organization. Plan outside activities for the choir as a group (like singing at malls and nursing homes, picnics, movie outings).

The director's view of the role of the youth choir is important to its success. The choir must be seen in its liturgical role, the same role fulfilled by the adult choir [see Music in Catholic Worship, article #36]. It must not be relegated to the position of a "cute" addition to the liturgy. The music selected must reflect this attitude. The young chorister must be nourished on the quality music of the Church. The early school years are very important in forming the tastes of youngsters. As adults they will like the music with which they are familiar, music and styles they have heard or sung before. There exists such a marvelous opportunity to present the best music to our congregations by teaching it to our youngsters, who are often free of the prejudices of adults. A word of caution should be mentioned, however, in that we refrain from teaching music of inferior quality, music of little merit, lest we cripple our youngsters' musical development. If their only foundation is formed from musical rubbish, nothing of value can be built on this.

The repertoire of the youth choir must include contemporary music, music of today's liturgical cannot stick your head in the sand. It must also include the music of the masters, either in original or arranged form... you cannot ignore our valuable musical heritage. Our youth are capable of much more than we realize. The more we expect of the singers, the more they will give. Elementary-age children have little difficulty in learning Latin-texted anthems and even Gregorian chants. The success of a Latin anthem depends entirely on how it is presented and rehearsed. It should not be singled out as something strange, unusual, or overly difficult. Present it just like any other anthem; work slowly and carefully and the children will accept it. Use praise often! A favorite anthem of a girls' choir I directed (grades 4-6) came from Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, written in Latin for two-part treble voices. All of my junior choirs have sung Latin, including Mass settings of Mozart and Schubert, various chant Masses, Magnificats and Ave Marias.

The youth choir repertoire must not be based on gimmicks, but on proven, quality music from all periods, chant to contemporary. The musical nourishment that children receive when young affects their entire development. The youth choir program in the church places this responsibility on the director. It is a weighty responsibility, but well worth the benefits to the music program, to the singers, and to the future of church music.

CanticaNOVA Publications / PO Box 1388 / Charles Town, WV 25414-7388
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