We’re often told to limit introducing music to a congregation to no more than one new song a month or every two months, and to repeat the new song at every Mass until the assembly knows it. However you may find when you’re working with children, that you need to be more flexible than this. You may find, as I do, that children can cope with, and even demand, more new music and far less repetition.
Getting the balance right
A children’s choir of mixed ages can learn very quickly, and they can get bored very quickly too. Since music for children is usually simpler in structure and has easier, bright, catchy melodies, this isn’t surprising. The flow-on benefit is that the rest of the assembly is introduced to lots of new music that they can easily learn and join in with. Children seem to thrive on a wide range of music, of all kinds. You may find they need a larger repertoire than the rest of the assembly would normally enjoy, so that there is less repetition from Sunday to Sunday, and the children have access to more choices.
How many, how often?
Our children’s choir sings twice a month for eleven months of the year, five songs at each Mass plus the responsorial psalm. The choir has about ninety songs in their repertoire, as well as the responsorial psalms. About one third of the songs in the repertoire are used regularly, and about one third are only used for specific seasons, Lent or Advent or Easter. Of the remaining third, about half they sing frequently or very frequently, our current favourites, and about the same are only sung rarely, eg for specific occasions such as Mother’s Day or a farewell.
Last year we would have introduced six or seven new songs, and probably the same number moved out of frequent use into the ‘rarely-used’ category. A lot depends on the make-up of the choir: if we happen to have a strong group of older, experienced singers, we tend to do more new material because they enjoy the challenge and because they have sung the old repertoire for so long that it tends to lose its interest for them. But early in the year, with new arrivals in the choir, especially if they are at the younger end of the spectrum, it’s important to select carefully from the repertoire, because everything is new to them and there’s a lot to learn. The end goal is to find a balance between music that both connects to the Gospel message and meets the needs of all the singers.
Meeting a range of needs
There are lots of ways of doing this:
- some bright, easy songs that everyone enjoys singing
- harder songs with verses for solo voices, so only the refrain is sung by the whole choir.
- songs with a response-like phrase that is repeated between other lines
- songs with descant or alto parts
- songs with a repeated ostinato
- call and response songs
- occasional songs for a select scholar
New from old
We recently introduced a new song that’s based on the ‘I am’ statements that Jesus made, in which the two-word phrase is sung to the same melody through the whole song. The little ones can sing just those two words and not just be part of the singing but be re-affirming the central statement of the song. The two-word phrase also works as an ostinato, so we can have a small, capable group singing it as an added part.
We also sing a song for Lent which has a refrain made up of a single phrase repeated four times, with different harmony each time. The phrase also works as an echo, to add interest for the older children, and there are verses that can be sung at the same time, for the older soloists. We hadn’t sung it for a few years, but this year we have a big proportion of very young singers so we brought it out of the music cupboard again, and because of the constant turn-over of singers that is in the nature of a children’s choir, it was fresh again for the older singers and perfect for the little ones.
New all over again
Sometimes the Choir as it is today loves singing a certain song, just as they can’t stand another one. Their tastes as well as their way of understanding the Scriptures have to be taken into account – music follows fashions, as we well know, even liturgical music. So it’s accepted practice to present the choir with a choice of songs and let them decide which they prefer to sing, bearing in mind the Gospel of the Sunday. Furthermore, the three year cycle means that we may not get to sing some of our favourite songs for years at a time, such as a song about Bartimaeus, or Zacchaeus, or the sequence for Pentecost, or a beautiful Easter song we love to sing for Mother’s Day. While they may not actually be new to everyone, they feel new.
The exhortation to ‘sing a new song’ is not a command to seek after the latest music, fresh from the composer’s pen, and throw out the loved and familiar, but rather to praise God anew with songs that let us repeat our joy and thanksgiving as if we had never sung them before.
Guest Writer: Patricia Smith