In response to some important questions I’ve gotten about teaching kids to sing in church, I’ve asked my wife Maria Sheehan, a longtime music teacher, to write a guest post based on her experience. — Benedict
I have been a vocal music educator in some capacity for the past 20 years. I’ve taught pre-schoolers and retirees and every age in between, folks with “no ear” and folks who have been making music for decades, my own family and total strangers. I love to work with beginners, though.
We generally think of beginners as young. But in church music there is a huge population of adult singers who, while having spent years singing in choirs, still don’t really know what they’re doing. Their ear and their dedication have carried them through. I especially love to work with these students. I love to help them get to those wonderful “Oh, I get it!” moments!
We all agree that church singers need training. And we also agree that we have to somehow teach our children about church singing, too. But that’s a tall order. It sounds like it requires a ton of time and thought and energy and staff. It even sounds like we need to add children’s choirs and adult music classes and voice lessons to all the other things our small churches are trying to do.
Well, I’d like to offer a somewhat different perspective on this dauntingly huge task.
Through my years of teaching I’ve noticed that the training these “experienced beginners” need is nearly identical to the training that young musicians need. And this has allowed me to successfully teach these two groups at the same time and collect some important observations. So, based on this experience, I want to share with you a firm belief I now have that may sound crazy.
Children’s choirs are not necessarily the best way to create competent, active young church singers.
I think a big mistake we make as music educators is that we relegate children to children’s choirs well past the age when it is necessary or appropriate. And we have fallen into this as church communities as well. It’s easy to do, since we are just following the model of modern schooling. Children are assembled into groups of similar ages for their entire education. Then, once their education is complete, they enter the adult world and are deemed ready to participate in it. They switch from youth activities to adult activities, youth choir to adult choir. (This attitude is lasting all the way through college now.)
But I would like to propose another model. And I think church choirs are ideally poised to offer children what the educational system isn’t really built to be able to offer: inclusion in an important aspect of the adult world at a much younger age, inclusion in the spiritual and artistic adult world.
Stage 1: Young children need to learn to sing
I’m not suggesting children’s choirs have no benefit to the young musician, quite the opposite. It’s clear that this is where it starts. As children begin school (around age 5 or 6), they should also begin singing in a choir. It is at that age—when they can speak fluently and expressively but can’t yet easily write down what they’re saying—that their musical aptitude is most able to grow. Historically, singing games have been one of the primary pastimes of this period of childhood. So at this age, children are cognitively and developmentally primed for singing in a choir. This choir can be a church, school, or community choir, so long as it provides the children with the necessary foundation.
Young children should be learning songs by rote. They should be learning how not to yell when they sing (learning to use their head voice), and learning how to take singers’ breaths (proper support and breathing for vocalizing). And they should be learning to memorize a variety of songs in different languages, learning how to sing together and follow a leader. This is the solid foundation that every young singer needs. And it can start while the children are still quite young.
Stage 2: Older children should sing with adults
Around the time that their language skills begin to include grammar and their writing becomes competent, around 9 or 10, children should begin to participate in more advanced ensembles. It’s this point of transition that I believe we have been neglecting for decades as music educators. This is when the children should join the adult singers. It is also when a musical apprenticeship, as it were, should begin in a church choir. Children should join in the music training that the adults receive.
A quick aside regarding a single track of training for both adults and children. It’s more likely than not that the children will advance quite a lot faster than the adults! Not to worry, though, just the excitement of “being with the grown-ups” and doing what they’re doing as well as they are doing it will keep the children engaged and active while the adults limp along.
It’s also interesting to note that 9 or 10 about the average age of a boy chorister in any of the great men and boys choirs found throughout music history. And remember, these boys were responsible for performing the great choral works of Western music even into the 20th century. Adult female sopranos are a relatively recent development in music history.
These children that join with the adults in the church choir should still be encouraged to participate in a non-church ensemble. They should be singing repertoire beyond just church music and having broader musical experiences.
Stage 3: Adolescents need to be given ownership
By the time they reach 13 or 14 most children will have solidly entered puberty. All the musical experience they would have acquired by this point can help to carry them through that difficult physical and emotional transition. They should still work on singing technique as it applies to their changing voices. And, ideally, they should have the technical skill to be able to tackle repertoire that speaks to their emotional turbulence and strengthens them in their difficulties.
Young adults of this age group should absolutely still be participating in ensembles outside the church community, though they now should be more advanced ensembles. They should be singing a wide variety of repertoire and genres, so they can build a comprehensive vocal literacy. This will serve to aid them in their understanding and execution of church music. They can also be given extra responsibilities as a church singer. Give them some conducting duties. Let them assemble a service. Have them sing in a small ensemble or even do a solo. Have them read in church.
It has also been my experience that by this point in their development, children are capable of finding those things that they simply need to do, that they feel enriched by, and in which they lose themselves because of their intense interest. So why haven’t more young adults shown an interest in church music? Sadly, I think it’s because we are often not giving them the chance to.
To continue to engage and inspire children to sing through their adolescence requires that they have access to repertoire that they cannot sing alone. It requires that they have access to adult ensembles and performances that we generally treat as too challenging or mature for children. In order to really take music education seriously, adults must include the children in their own music making.
The Good News: Churches can do this
What’s the good news here? The training needed by our adult singers is the same training needed by our children. We can kill two birds with one stone in our work to revitalize a culture of singing in the Orthodox church. Parishes can move immediately into creating a program that will help address multiple problems.
This does require that a church have a competent music director. And this means someone with the ability not only to conduct an ensemble well, but to train their singers in musicianship and to offer vocal coaching to adults, adolescents, and children. It’s not likely that you’ll find all these skills in a volunteer. However, it is something you can expect a professional vocal music educator to be able to do.
By this plan we can easily see how a young person can be nurtured and encouraged into the role of a capable church musician at a much younger age than we currently tend to expect. And, except for the community ensembles that provide the broader experiences which I have found to be indispensable in the development of a life-long singer, there are no extra resources required on the part of the church choir director to include these young people in the work of church singing. It only requires a change in perspective, and the treating of these children as truly valuable.
Do a search for a children’s choir in your area. Ask around. Check out what your child’s school has to offer. There’s still a lot of choral ensembles out there in all but the most rural areas. And if you don’t have one, start one, even if it’s only in your church community. Teach the children the troparia of the days of the week, of the 12 feasts, of the important saints to you and your family and your church. Get them singing together.
In his other post Benedict offered suggestions for how parishes can move towards employing a competent music director. I believe that, with the above guidelines in mind, even a small church community with only one trained musician can accomplish a great deal towards encouraging and teaching the next generation of church singers.