Published May 19, 2005
In February, 150 children who sing in choirs around the Atlanta Archdiocese gathered for a Saturday workshop with Paige Mathis, director of Young Singers of Callanwolde.
The daylong workshop, an annual event that began in 1997, ended with the children singing together as an archdiocesan children’s choir at the 5:30 p.m. Mass at Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta.
“The youth represent the future … More and more of the parishes have children’s choirs and I think this archdiocesan festival fostered it,” said Hamilton Smith, music director at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Atlanta. “It’s really a wonderful development.”
Smith is grateful for the work of Cathedral organist Timothy Wissler, Ph.D., who directs a Cathedral children’s choir for boys and one for girls. Wissler, who holds a doctorate in musical arts from the University of Michigan, initiated the annual workshop for children in grades four to eight. About 45 churches have a children’s choir or choir program; five or six churches participate in the workshop each year.
Children begin practicing about five songs and Mass parts at their individual churches and then come together at the workshop to polish their efforts and sing together. Guiding children in church music is both challenging and vital, musicians say.
“The future of singing in the church in large measure is going to be determined by what our young people experience,” Smith said.
Additionally “it’s a very special area to deal with young people’s voices, in disciplining them properly,” he said. “Wissler has done a wonderful job in training them properly, and these are young people who are going to be exposed to the best kind of music by Tim … (music) that has spiritual content. ”
Wissler said the workshop comes about because of many children’s choir directors. “It’s really the combination of all the different children’s choir directors from many parishes that makes it happen.”
“If children sing, adults sing, and singing children grow into singing adults,” he said. “We believe in active participation in the Mass. That also includes singing, so it was time.”
Linda Morgan, music director at St. Andrew Church in Roswell, established a children’s choir at her parish in 1983 before she was able to assemble an adult one. She is a founding committee member of the archdiocesan children’s choir workshop.
“We try to get as many of our child choir members to go to this workshop (as possible). It’s to show the kids you’re not the only one singing, there are kids from all over the diocese doing the same thing you are and isn’t this neat,” Morgan said. “It kind of promotes good music skills for all the kids, and they take that back to their own choirs, and it lets them know they’re not alone in their music making.”
Next year the workshop will be led by Jennifer Langley, the artistic director and conductor of the Atlanta Youth Chorus.
Wissler also took a busload of 70 youth and parents from the Cathedral choirs to St. John the Baptist Cathedral in Savannah last November. They joined children’s choirs from across the Southeast, organized through the international Catholic organization known as Pueri Cantores, to sing Mass parts in Gregorian chant. St. Catherine of Siena Church, Kennesaw, and Mary Our Queen Church, Norcross, also brought their choirs.
“It was a weekend extravaganza. It was a lot of fun,” Wissler said. “It was quite thrilling to be with all these singers working on difficult music. It was a great space for singing.”
Wissler noted that choir participation not only helps children to sing but to see how music is composed, to count rhythm, and to interpret “what the text is saying about life as a Christian.”
He compares it to learning a dance as students progress step by step to become “fine singers” by the time they reach middle school.
“It is magic having kids sing, but it comes with a lot of work and discipline. You learn skills, and you get better … It’s a different expression of working as a team, and we’re doing it for Jesus,” he said. “We’re primarily there to serve the liturgy and to add to the prayer life of any parish or community.”