May 15, 2014

Transmitting Our Musical Legacy to Young Catholic Musicians – Gary D. Penkala

Online Edition
May 2014
Vol. XX, No. 3

Transmitting Our Musical Legacy to Young Catholic Musicians

by Gary D. Penkala

There is great work being done to promote quality music in Catholic parishes. For example: the Church Music Association of America (CMAA) holds frequent (and growing) symposia and workshops to train parish musicians in chant and polyphony.  Also, Corpus Christi Watershed, Illuminare Publications, and others are producing ample music of good quality, much of it free for the using. The familiar Adoremus has consistently championed the cause of worthy liturgical music. And even less traditional music organizations and periodicals are experiencing a shift toward more sacred and orthodox music.

All of this is wonderful — almost miraculous! But are we ignoring an important facet of the Catholic world? In focusing on current musicians and their training, are we overlooking the roots of the future of Catholic church music —  the roots that might be (figuratively speaking) “under our feet” right now? Are young Catholics learning their rich heritage of Catholic music?

There are indeed some adults who are already devoting great amounts of time and energy to children. The practitioners of the Ward Method of teaching music to children come to mind. And witness the new CMAA program titled “Words with Wings” (, focusing on teaching sacred music to young Catholics. Also, David Hughes is doing amazing things with youth with the student schola at St. Mary’s in Norwalk, Connecticut. (Information:

What can you do in your parish to foster beautiful music? Here are some ways that actively involve children in quality music in a parish setting.

Children Can Sing

The sacred music program at Saint James Catholic Church in Charles Town, West Virginia (where I am music director), has developed over the last seven years into a graded choir program with the following groups:
•  Sacred Heart Choir for children in grades K-2, which teaches fundamentals of choral singing, parish ministry, liturgical participation, and basic music theory.

•  Saint Cecilia Choir, for girls grades 3-8, which builds on the foundation from the previous choir and teaches the girls proper breathing, diction, pronunciation of various sung languages (Latin, Spanish, German, French, Italian); and some of the great music masterpieces (like Vivaldi’s Laudamus te, Purcell’s Sound the Trumpet and Handel’s He Was Despised.)  This choir, together with the Saint Gregory Choir, is affiliated with Pueri Cantores, an international Catholic children’s choir organization.

•  Saint Gregory Choir, for boys grades 3-8, that manifests the long tradition of boy singers in Catholic and Anglo-Catholic heritages, and teaches significant repertoire (like Fauré’s Pie Jesu, Mozart’s Exsultate jubilate and Jesus Christus Gottes Sohn from Bach’s Cantata No. 4). This choir, together with the Saint Cecilia Choir, participates in a “rank” system, wherein singers earn points for rehearsals, Masses, extra events, special service projects, and proceed through various choir ranks (Chorister, Senior Chorister, Junior Cantor, Senior Cantor, Junior Director). Each rank is indicated by the color of the ribbon on the cross worn over the choir robe.

•  Holy Trinity Ensemble is the auditioned group for youth, with members drawn from the girls’ and boys’ choirs. The primary function is to provide a cappella music (occasionally accompanied by a few handbells) for parish Baptisms.  The group expands, adding high school and college “alumni” to provide entertainment (secular Broadway revue music) for our annual Carnevale Dessert Reception and Saint Lawrence Dinner (August 10) for widows and widowers of the parish.

•  Archangelus Chorale, for high school students, provides an opportunity for singers who — by age or voice change — have graduated from the earlier girls’ and boys’ choirs to come together as a mixed ensemble. Singing unison chant, SAB, and even SATB music, they serve as the primary choir for our Wednesday night Mass, which is a required part of the religious education program for grades 7-9.

•  Joseph of Arimathea Choir helps with the congregational singing at funerals, and also presents music of its own, including chant (Requiem æternam, In paradisum), hymn arrangements (Lead Kindly Light), classical works (Mendelssohn’s O Rest in the Lord), and original compositions. Retirees and home school families make up the membership.

•  Bells of Our Lady of Mercy, an intergenerational group that rings 5-octaves of handbells and 3-octaves of choir chimes.

•  Cappella Magna, the larger adult choir that sings music spanning the ages, from chant to newly composed pieces like O Send Forth Thy Light by recent college-grad artist-in-residence Elizabeth Lademan.

•  Schola Cantorum, an auditioned adult group specializing in chant and early polyphony.

Notice that all but two of these groups have a youth component. This graded music program developed over seven years. It began with a small adult choir of fifteen singers (about all that would fit into the tiny loft of the old church), a good-size children’s choir, and a rather small high school group of girls. The program gradually expanded by splitting choirs (forming the girls’ and boys’ choirs), dividing choirs (like the adult choir into a large group and a small schola), adding choirs (like the youngest group that feeds into the girls’ and boys’ choirs), and starting a new handbell ensemble (as the instruments were purchased through memorial donations). Much of this musical expansion occurred as we moved from a small, 200-seat church into our present 1200-seat church, the largest Catholic church in the state.

Ideas That Work

There are many other effective ways to present the beauties of Catholic church music to children in a very hands-on way:

Perhaps the most obvious way is the weekly school Mass. Music for this liturgy should relate well to the quality music that is used in parish liturgies. Children will not thrive on childish sing-song music. It’s important not to “sing down” to children —  they’re perfectly capable of singing chant, Bach, Vivaldi, and Mendelssohn.

Parishes without a school can schedule a homeschoolers Mass weekly or monthly. This provides another opportunity for children to sing good music.

Our parish sponsors a concert series with some of the events in partnership with a local college, Shepherd University (Shepherdstown, West Virginia).  Admission is without tickets (free-will donations accepted), and we have often reserved part of one transept for the children’s choirs to attend as a group. A recent Messiah performance was preceded by a spaghetti dinner for them in the social hall, the children’s choirs having just sung for the Saturday evening Mass. Service, food, and a concert. What a great way to learn the life of a church musician!

We have taken the children’s choirs to a local “Messiah Sing,” after having studied Handel and sung some of the music from this popular work.  This year, for the first time, we  sponsored our own “Messiah Sing,” using all of Part I and the Hallelujah Chorus on an Advent evening. The orchestral accompaniment for the choruses was provided by the Frederick [Maryland] Regional Youth Orchestra of middle and high school students. The audience sang the choruses, and parish singers and guests handled the solos. Our girls’ and boys’ choir combined to sing the aria, “O Thou That Tellest,” preceding the chorus of the same name.

I mentioned above the ranking system that we use in the youth choirs. When singers reach the rank of Junior Cantor, they are scheduled at choir Masses to sing one piece with the congregation (Entrance Antiphon, Gloria, Responsorial Psalm, Gospel Acclamation, etc).  At Senior Chorister status, they first handle cantoring half of a choir Mass, then a full choir Mass. As they become comfortable with this, they are enrolled as Youth Cantors in the regular parish cantor rotation, and they sing for full non-choir Masses.

Several years ago we began presenting annual Carnevale concerts on Shrove Tuesday (the night before Ash Wednesday). These concerts, followed by a dessert buffet with entertainment, were a great way to celebrate the pre-Lenten festivities in an entirely holy way.  Programs for these concerts have included good choral music, like Victoria’s Missa O magnum mysterium. The Agnus Dei from this Mass is an SSATB setting, wherein the two soprano lines are a canon at the unison.

We taught the children’s choir this music, and during the concert they had the privilege to sing it with the parish adult choir and our invited guests, the chamber choir from a local university. The children were given printed invitations to this free concert, which they were encouraged to distribute to friends and neighbors — thus boosting the attendance! The child who had the highest number of invited guests was awarded a prize — a $25 gift certificate to the parish gift shop. The entertainment for the dessert reception after the concert is also handled by youth, who put together a Broadway revue.

The parish children’s choirs joined with others from the diocese to sing at a recent pilgrimage to the National Shrine in Washington, DC.

We presented a musical Rosary in the crypt church to begin the day’s activities. The Our Fathers were sung using the familiar Mass setting, accompanied by random hand chime notes played by the children. The second of the first three Hail Marys was sung by the children’s choir using the chant Ave Maria. The Glory Bes used progressively more complex versions of the Taize canon Gloria Patri, with six young instrumentalists and three handbell ringers involved. Each decade (we used the Joyful Mysteries) was preceded by a short organ meditation on the mystery, from Bach’s Orgelbüchlein. Of course, the last prayer was the familiar chant Salve Regina. This opening service was well received, and many pilgrims in the congregation were amazed at the children’s facility with Latin, equaling their adult counterparts who sang for a later Mass in the Upper Church.

Outreach to the community is an important part of the Catholic singer’s development. Our youth choirs have sung at ecumenical services (anniversary of the Lutheran church’s organ) and at local nursing homes.

As the only salaried parish musician, I am grateful to all the volunteers who make such an extensive music program possible.  Two of them continued in their leadership roles that began over ten years ago: an elementary school librarian who directs the high school choir and the handbell choir (both rehearsing on the same night), and a homemaker who helps with the girls’ and boys’ choirs. A high school senior (a graduate of the girls’ choir) now directs that group and the Holy Trinity Ensemble, and sings with the high school choir. I lead the other groups.
In the near future, we may be tapping the local college music education programs for interns to work with a new choir: the Saint Dominic Savio Choir, made up of boys’ choir members whose voices have begun to change (the cambiata singers).

I hope these examples of how our parish involves children in the music of the Church will lead to some ideas on your part. We must never sell our children short — they can rise to almost any occasion and sing the great music of our tradition.
This past Easter saw the children’s choirs singing Laudamus te from Mozart’s Grand Mass in C minor, for example.

These are the next generation of musicians who will be attending the CMAA events in years to come — and will be leading the choirs that sing for liturgies in our own golden years.


Gary Penkala is Pastoral Associate for Liturgy and Music at Saint James Catholic Church in Charles Town, West Virginia, and is senior editor of CanticaNOVA Publications (

Adoremus, Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy


Gary D. Penkala