Program #0226 for Tuesday, January 31, 2012: Catholic Schools Week: The Boston Archdiocesan Choir School

January 31, 2012

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Today’s host(s): Scot Landry and Fr. Chris O’Connor

Today’s guest(s): William McIvor, headmaster, and John Robinson, music director of the Archdiocesan Choir School; and Fr. Michael Drea, pastor of St. Paul Parish, Cambridge

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Today’s topics: Catholic Schools Week: The Boston Archdiocesan Choir School

Summary of today’s show: Boys’ choir schools are an ancient tradition in the Church going back hundreds of years and the Archdiocesan Choir School is the only choir school left in the United States. Scot Landry and Fr. Chris O’Connor talk with Fr. Michael, William McIvor, and John Robinson about the unique school and how it prepares boys with an excellent education and musical skills that put them ahead of even college-level freshman in most instances.

1st segment: Scot and Fr. Chris caught up on their past week. Scot said there was a big announcement today in the Archdiocese. Jim McDonough, the chancellor for the Archdiocese for the past 6 years, is retiring as of March 2 and he will be succeeded by an interim chancellor, John Straub. Scot said this news will be discussed on our Thursday news show.

2nd segment: Scot welcomed today’s guests and asked how the Archdiocesan Choir School started 49 years ago. Fr. Michael Drehe said the school started with 25 boys in 1963 with a primary focus on music. They area choir with a school in that the music is the lifeblood of the choir. But academics are not given short shrift. The founder was Dr. Theodore Marier.

John grew up in England and he said choir schools in that country are very common, but St. Paul’s is the only Catholic choir school in the US. He said that focus on music helps with academics. The discipline and hard work of music train them in the skills needed to succeed in education and Catholic formation helps that.

Bill said the boys sing Mass every day of the week at St. Paul’s. You can’t help having that part of your everyday life but it will affect your faith. It becomes a platform for their formation. The school is currently grades 5-8 and they will be opening a grade 4 next year. Bill said he came from public education where he worked for 40 years and working at the choir school is a delight.

Fr. Chris asked about the unique role of the pastor in the choir school. Fr. Michael said it is the opportunity to be with young people and to present the love of the priesthood and share it with them, to see men who are happy in serving the Lord and the Church. This is an important aspect of his ministry. He also works with Bill and John on the administration: academics, finances, music, and more. With only about 40 students, it has unique challenges and requires a lot of work to maintain. When the boys graduate, they have the opportunity to attend some of the best schools in Massachusetts.

Fr. Chris asked John how he imparts a love for music and for liturgical music to the young boys. John said he’s amazed how the boys coming to the music for the first time find something intrinsic to it that they love. He believes it’s some of the greatest music in the world and these boys are coming into contact with it and carrying on a tradition literally thousands of years old. Fr. Michael said he hears from some of the students when they go away on vacation and come back, their comments when they come back is that they are happy to be able to sing the music they can at Mass. They understand the beauty of the music and how it elevates the soul in worship.

Scot asked Bill what it means for them that they’re the only boys choir school in the country. Bill said it gives them a sense of pride in that they have this unique school. Some of the staff have been at other schools and they have come together to realize what a true treasure they have. Because they are involved every day of the week in the parish and school, it becomes a part of their life. He said they are also proud that their academics are strenuous and they believe the students to be studying a grade ahead. Every student takes French every year and in 7th and 8th grade they study Latin. Every boy studies music theory and they all study piano and are graded on performance, in addition to the recorder and handbells. He said he often hears from Catholic high schools looking for more graduates of the school.

John said the 4th and 5th grade will sing together and then 6th, 7th, and 8th grade will sing together. It works perfectly that there will be 20-25 among them. In the upper grades the boys voices can start changing. Once their voices change, they don’t sing in the choir anymore, but then serve the Mass. They use the same amount of training and study for that service as they do in singing.

Fr. Chris said there is a major commitment by the family to the choir school. John said they try to tell prospective families that it is quite rigorous. The days start with a 7:50am choir rehearsal and the day ends at 3:30pm, although some boys stay later a couple of days for vespers or to practice for Sunday morning.

Fr. Michael said one of the hallmarks of Ted Marier’s founding is the working scholarship. While the basic tuition is about $5,000, the cost is about $15,000 and so the boys work off their costs through various performances and fundraising activities involving the parents.

Bill said the decision to expand to 4th grade came from John. He said in England choir schools start at 4th grade because of how long it takes to train a boy before his voice changes. For the boy to enjoy it more, you start earlier. They don’t have as rigorous schedule as the older boys but the musical foundations begin.

Fr. Chris asked what they are looking for when they audition. John said they are looking for potential, not a finished product. They’re looking for a musical ear, for the ability to hold a tune. Fr. Michael said at a recent audition a young boy came who had prepared with Gregorian chant and it was beautiful.

3rd segment: Scot said you can get their CDs by purchasing them on their website.

John said the aspiration when they graduate is for them to pick up a piece of music and to be able to understand and perform the music. When they begin, most have never read music so the first year is music theory, understanding the nuts and bolts, especially if they go on to become composer or arrangers. In the sixth grade they sing different liturgical music every day and they have to be able to read music.

He said the music theory course by the time they leave is the equivalent of a first-year college course. The boys actually achieve far beyond the ability of most adults, including musical performers.

John said he thinks they’re the only choir school that insists all students learn piano. It helps them to hear music, especially when there are multiple notes. He said the bells are wonderful because it’s challenging to play them all together as one.

Bill said there is a transference from learning to read and write music to all the other subjects and they use the three styles of learning—auditory, kinesthetic, and reading. Some of the eighth graders are taking algebra. All of the kids are very good writers. It teaches them to stay on task and focus, to look and read critically. More importantly, it lays a foundation for decision-making which comes into the spirituality. and because they serve at so many Masses, they hear homilies from four excellent priests on a daily basis and have in them marvelous role models. It makes a formation for a solid Catholic and dignified young man. The music alone and the kinds of experience they get means the eighth graders are at a college level of music.

Scot asked Fr. Michael about what it’s like to sing the Mass among all these great singers. He deferred to John’s assessment. John said Fr. Michael have a lovely, strong singing voice that is very holy. Fr. Michael said the new Roman missal presented a new challenge because he didn’t know how to read the new music and so John has helped him to read music and understand it as a priest and appreciate the new setting in a much better way.

Fr. Michael said Fr. Bill Kelly of St. Mary in Dedham and Bishop Peter Uglietto as alumni of the school. Fr. Michael said when he came back to celebrate the alumni Mass after being ordained bishop picked it up like he’d never left. They also have a seminarian at St. John Seminary as well. Fr. Michael said they also have a number of lawyers and businessmen and politicians in Boston who are alums as well. They also have some other alums who have come back and joined the Men’s Schola which performs on Sunday mornings, which is a good witness to the boys.

Fr. Chris asked John who is his favorite composer and why. John said he always says he can’t bear to choose, but he’s always amazed by J.S. Bach and how he would compose a sonata each week. He also thinks of the 16th century composers and Palestrina and how they illustrate how faith can affect their music.

Scot said single-sex schools are rare today and asked Bill how it helps the boys. Bill said the boys are just driven so much by the music and academics and service without all the other distractions. He said keeping that legacy has had tremendous benefit for them.

Fr. Michael said studies show boys love to be challenged academically and to be called to excellence. He said in a single-sex school that the distractions that boys encounter in adolescent years aren’t present. It allows them to dig deeper in discovering God’s gifts and not be shy about expressing them.

Fr. Michael said they reinforce the Catholic identity in the school by celebrating the sacraments with the boys regularly and coming into the school for events such as question-and-answer. He hopes someday to be able to teach a religion class, particularly with the eighth graders.

Bill said as the boys leave the school, they find the students are going into second and third year French and they hope to do that with Latin as well. They also have new technology, including Smartboards in the classrooms and a website where parents can go and see what homework assignments have been assigned.

There are auditions coming up for boys in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade. On Feb. 4 at Immaculate Conception, Malden; Feb. 11, Quincy Catholic Academy; and Feb 25, St. Julia’s, Weston. All are from 10am-noon or by appointment.

Tuesday through Friday at 12:10pm the boys sing the Mass. Wednesdays at 5:15 they sing Vespers. Sunday at the 11am, they sing the solemn Mass with the Men’s Schola and on Saturday at 5pm, the 5th grade sings the Mass. All Masses are at St. Paul in Cambridge.

In May they have their principal fundraising event of the year, their Gala dinner. This year it will be at the Seaport Hotel in Boston. There will be a live and a silent auction, dinner, and performance by the boys.

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