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Every child can sing: A look at some local children's choir programs

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 23, 2009 - Singing in church is a calling, several area choir leaders said, but it is not limited to those with extraordinary vocal chords or supporting musculature.

"The wider culture seems to put out the idea that you have to be special to sing," said John Cargile, director of Manchester United Methodist Church's 90-member Cantate Choir composed of 6th-12th graders. About 180 children and youth sing in four choirs at the 3,800-member church at 129 Woods Mill Rd. at Manchester Road.

"They are born singing," said Cathy Gollwitzer, the volunteer choir director of the SonshineSingers, the Methodist Church's kindergarten and 1st grade choir.

"They sing with their hearts," Gollwitzer said. "It's a beautiful age, they don't have preconceived notions about music; they love beautiful music."

"Children can learn to sing by learning to listen," said Cargile. "It's an aural issue."

Children who can listen to the music, to the teacher and also to themselves can sing, he said. Some do struggle to figure out what they sound like to the world compared to what they sound like inside their heads, he said.

Singing is like other muscular coordination, like dribbling a ball, said Mark Bender, music minister and choir director at St. Paul's Lutheran Church. It takes some instruction; and practice is better if they learn to sight sing music on key and listen carefully for pitch.

"A generation or two ago, when a (regular) classroom teacher didn't know how to teach singing they'd say: 'Mildred, go in back of the room.' Or, 'Just mouth the words,' instead of helping Mildred." Bender said. Too many Mildreds and equally neglected Mikes have raised a generation of children telling them they couldn't sing, Bender fears.

Last week, as Bender rehearsed "Once in Royal David's City" with 5th, 6th and 7th graders in St. Paul's neo-Gothic music rehearsal hall, he allowed them to sing from the music sheets for the four verses of the 1848 English carol. After one run-through, he ordered singers to put the sheets down, stand up "keeping both feet flat on the floor" and sing from memory. And the music was close to flawless.

They sang "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "O Come all Ye Faithful," "From Heaven Above" and moved onto a hymn that used the word "Noel." "Say No-ale" he told singers in an effort to improve enunciation. One older child grinned at the double meaning. Later, Bender intentionally used humor to fix enunciation. He used a falsetto voice to "sound like Julia Child," the late PBS' television "French Chef” known for her high-pitched, clipped accent. Kids sang the words cleanly on second try.

Music has become more self-centered, focused on the individual becoming a star, of winning "American Idol," Bender said. Blending one's voice into a choir to make beautiful music may seem to be the opposite, he said.

Boys can be hard sells. If a boy's father does not sing from the pews on Sundays, young boys may assume that adult males don't sing and follow that lead, Bender said.

Bender is pleased that most of the more than 500 parishioners who attend Sunday services sing out. Every time he teaches children, he's hoping that as an adult that person will be a good Lutheran singer in the pews, if not the choir loft.

No Family Sing-a-longs

Cultural differences can offer challenges. At Hope Lutheran in south St. Louis,  Rev. Stephen Rosebrock has 20 singers from 3rd grade to 7th grade. Some parents of the parish school's students immigrated from non-Western cultures, and some American-born parents have only played rap or heavy metal music in their homes.

"A lot of young people in our day school are not exposed to any classical musical whatever," Rosebrock said. "Most of our day school students don't have pianos in their homes. None of their parents are symphony goers. Some have no Western music in their background, never knew the scales."

Before they started school their parents didn't teach them to sing their ABCs to the French folk melody "Ah vous dirai-je, Maman" -- better known by its later English verse "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

"Even the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Madonna use Western scales," Rosebrock said.

He starts every class warming up the children with scales, using the solfege method illustrated by the von Trapp children in "The Sound of Music": "Doe a dear, a female deer..."

Just four months into the school year, Hope Evangelical Lutheran's Children choir sang the scales with lilting beauty.

"They can catch on and sing well," he said. "I would have as my goal that every kid in the school would take a musical instrument."

Many teachers regret that many children don't sing in school buses, family road trips or at home together. They wear ear buds.

"The Walkman changed things," said Bender who has taught music for 37 years. "After it came out, children no longer had to make their own music. They could hear their favorites on the Walkman, now they listen to their IPods."

Music Lessons: Brain Enhancers

Some parents believe studies that show that good vocal and instrumental lessons help young children's developing brains. A study of 6 year olds taking singing or instrumental music lessons showed a pattern of greater IQ scores improvement than 6 year olds who did not take music. That research by E. Glenn Shallenberg, a University of Toronto professor, is not related to the debunked "Mozart effect" theory that playing classical music to infants raises IQs.

Nancy McGrath believes in the research. Her daughter Rachel, 12, a sixth grader, sings the St. Paul's children's choir and her son Danny, a high school senior, will play percussion on Christmas Eve at their church. The cognition skills enhanced by memorizing musical chords, chord progressions and verbal passages seem to transfer to study habits in nonmusical subjects, the Canadian study showed. A University of California study showed music study can help math skills.

"I especially believe in the music-math connection," McGrath said. "Music seems to have helped Rachel and Danny relate to math. They are both good in math."

It also keeps them focused, she said. In rehearsals they must watch the conductor at all times and focus to meld into the group or to harmonize. At a recent rehearsal, Bender reminded singers that if they are distracted and miss even a note they will let down the whole "team."

"In choir and band, they learn to work together as a group, become more efficient and learn to schedule practicing, doing homework and finding a balance with their social life," McGrath said.

Her son will study engineering in college next year. He recently told her that whatever he does, music will "always be part of (his) life."

"I was really happy to hear that," she said. "Most of all music is part of a well-rounded education and it helps them appreciate the richness of our Lutheran liturgy."

Cool Stuff

Children's choir directors, who often compete with sports for their singer's time, may toss out sports terms at rehearsals. Rosebrock divides his choir into four teams: Team Bach, Team Beethoven, Team Howells and Team Vaughn Williams. Sports teams go on road trips, stay at hotels and have victory celebrations. Choirs do, too.

Today, choirs celebrate after holiday services and travel. Each year on the weekend after Easter, St. Paul's Lutheran Children's Choir takes a trip during which it sings at a Lutheran church and visits tourist sights. Last year, it visited Indianapolis; next spring, it goes to Kansas City.

Hope Evangelical Lutheran children's choir belongs to an ecumenical network called the Royal School of Church Music. Last summer, Hope's choir went to workshops and sang at the nonprofit network's headquarters in North Carolina. Three young Hope Lutheran singers called the trip "really cool."

The St. Louis Archdiocesan Children's Choir sings at Powell Hall with the Bach Society of St. Louis annually and has sung on ABC's "Good Morning America." The choir travels to a large city - Los Angeles recently, Boston next year - to sing in cathedrals and meet other children's Catholic choirs. In 2006, it represented the U.S. at the Puertes Canotres Festival St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Next December, the choir will return to Rome to sing. (The Archdiocesan Children's Choir can be heard at the beginning of a YouTube segment of Pope John Paul II's mass at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.)

All the cool lures don't work unless the child eventually enjoys music.

"It's work but it's different than class," said Anna Brust, 11, a St. Paul's 6th grader. "It's fun."

This Christmas in area churches, as the clear, pure voices of children begin carols, adults will join the reprises that they learned as children. Many may echo the exclamation of St. Paul's chorister Rachel McGrath, 12, after a recent rehearsal:

"I love singing."

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

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