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Sing choirs of children, sing in exultation

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 21, 2009 - It happens every Christmas the world over. Grandfathers, and great-grandfathers, who rarely lift their voices in song, confidently belt out carols. These Christmas singers may surprise even themselves as they sing third and fourth verses of hymns learned as children.

Often, grandchildren are astounded.

Of course, many female adults sing forth too, also fulfilling the promise of their music classes and children's choirs. Fortunate grandchildren may be more accustomed to grandmothers singing lullabies and itsy, bitsy nursery songs.

Music learned in childhood brings joy that can be revisited over a lifetime. Many pastors and hospital chaplains tell of visiting the sick whose faces shine with joy when they hear a beloved hymn.

"People who have not spoken for months sometimes mouth a hymn's words," said Mark Bender, music minister and choir director at St. Paul's Lutheran Church at Manchester and Ballas roads in Des Peres and music teacher at its parish grade school.

"It's a very powerful thing that someone who is unable to even say their own name, can remember a hymn," said Jon Vieker, assistant director of Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod's Commission on Worship. The Kirkwood-based denomination's seminaries train all future clergy to sing a hymn whenever they bring communion to shut-ins, Vieker said. He hopes that a hymn's words will heighten people's desire to be closer to God, and assure them that "Jesus will hold them firmly in his hands," he said.

Imbedding Faith

These stories of music's lasting effects is one reason Bender refuses to waste the St. Paul's Children's Choir memory "space" on feel-good hymns that are devoid of theological context.

In general, however, worries abound about building a musical memory. Fewer children learn to sight-sing music in schools. School districts such Mehlville in South County that consider teaching music to every student important to their cultural education are becoming rarer. Many districts dropped music because it does not directly show results on standardized tests.

Fewer children take keyboard or string music lessons than a generation ago.

Few families gather around to sing as a family member plays piano, fiddle or guitar. Now, unless children get music training in church or in private instruction, they may not join in church-service singing when they become adults.

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod decided to try to reach out and promote more singing and other music education for children. It has asked all of its parishes to teach children sacred music. Lutherans take pride in their strong musical heritage, which includes not only the hymns of Martin Luther but the work of Johann Sebastian Bach. Many like Bender of St. Paul's are proud of "robust congregational singing" every Sunday.

The synod's Commission on Worship has made a 27-minute video "Children Making Music" featuring parish music directors, parents, pastors and adorable young children making a case for parish support to teach children singing and musical instruments. These have been sent to all 6,170 Missouri Synod parishes as well as 1,200 parishes of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.

The 2.4 million-member Missouri Synod is the second largest Lutheran denomination in the nation and sponsors the nation's largest number of Protestant parochial schools. The 395,000-member Wisconsin Synod is the country's third largest Lutheran body.

Vieker fully appreciates the challenges funding the weekly rehearsals needed for a children's choir. The average Missouri Synod church has 148 members, he said. Paying their pastors and keeping their furnaces humming leaves scant money for stipends for choir directors, organists and rehearsal accompanists. In many parishes, capable volunteers help. Many are determined that the next generation of Lutherans will continue the celebration of their liturgy with "robust" singers not just in the choir loft but in the pews.

Theology in Song

All liturgical Christian traditions include music in worship services, with some of the music composed by great Western composers. As for its importance for children, an Anglican Church study in Britain has shown that singing in children's and youth choirs can be the spark that starts them on the path to ordination.

"I tell the children that Christians have been singing some of these hymns for 1,800 years and they are continuing that tradition," Bender said. "If the theology is not right the piece is not done. The music can deeply imbed its text in a person."

School years are too brief to load a child's memory with mediocre church lyrics, he said. His first choices are hymns that get to the core of the Christian faith. Any hymn that proclaims that "God sent his Son to be his redeemer, and Jesus is that savior" are among his top picks, he said.

Before his singers learn a new hymn, Bender explains the meaning of any arcane words, vague pronouns and the beliefs behind obscure poetic lines.

"Poetry is such an economical communication, a word or a couple words have to convey much meaning," he said. He and his child choristers regularly pull out Bibles and together read verse that inspired a "new" hymn.

Many music directors say such work is essential to help children unscramble puzzling theology in lyrics.

"Music is one way theology is taught," said John Romari, who 11 years ago founded the 70-member St. Louis Archdiocesan Children's Choir. "The feel good stuff, the "Jesus loves me" sort of stuff, does not cut it. You want to put the denomination's real theology into the mouths of the children and the congregation. You use opportunities to explain it to them."

Romari affectionately classifies most of his grade school and high school singers as "music nerds" who find adventure in figuring out the meaning of an Old English, Middle English or Latin lyric before memorizing it.

Child musicians make particularly attentive participants in church services, pastors say. They understand what is happening and often take some joy in the liturgy.

"At church, then, the children don't just sing one number, they participate in all," said the Rev. Stephen Rosebrock, the kantor at Hope Lutheran Evangelical Church, 5218 Neosho Street. "It gives the children the musical vocabulary to participate in services."

His 20-member children's choir at the parish grade school rehearses weekly at school and sings monthly and on major feast days at the church.

Patricia Rice, a freelance journalist, has written about classical music and religion in the St. Louis region for many years.

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