How do kids feel about participating in a weeklong camp on Gregorian chant?
Flagship “chant camps” on both coasts and in Utah are proving popular.
The summer camp that started in 2010 at St. Anne Church in San Diego has become so popular that this year it had to be held twice.
“The first year, we had 64 kids; last year, 84 children; and this year, 120 between two camps,” said a very pleased Mary Ann Carr-Wilson, the parish’s director of music. “Word got around, and families got excited about it. It’s formative, beautiful and fun.”
The results inspired filmmakers and parishioners Kristen Von Berg and Daniel diSilva to make a short video called, appropriately, Chant Camp (available on YouTube).
“We were like one big wave, singing in unison for the greater glory of God,” said seventh-grader Sarah Kuss, describing the outcome after the five-day camp.
Wilson, a former opera singer, got the idea after attending an intensive chant workshop presented by the Church Music Association of America (CMAA) and later adapted the idea for children.
As a home-schooling mother of four boys, she also knew that if she asked children “to work hard over the summer, it had to be really fun, too.”
Each day, the children not only learned Gregorian chant in a really enjoyable way, but during the two-hour lunch break, they got to play games and soccer with the priests and seminarians from St. Anne’s and make new friends.
With help from some assistant directors and parent volunteers, clear leadership, and support from the church’s pastor, Father Carl Gismondi of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, Wilson became their coach and cheerleader.
“If you want to make something beautiful for God, it involves the effort of all your mind, heart, soul and strength,” she told the children. “And the kids rise to the occasion. I can’t tell you how much they surprise people.”
Wilson pointed out that, last year, San Diego Bishop Cirilo Flores joined the children for the final Mass, sat with them in the choir in the sanctuary and encouraged the children during his homily.
“When the week culminates in the breathtaking, solemn high Mass, and I know that my children’s voices are part of that glorious hymn rising up to heaven. I am overwhelmed with gratitude for chant camp and even happy for the sacrifices it demands of our family,” observed Katie Walsh, whose five children have attended the last four years.
At the lunch break, the children run around, play football with the priests and laugh like the normal kids they are, Walsh said, “but when they return to the business of learning chant, somehow, in spite of their youth and high-spiritedness, they rise to the challenge.”
Wilson tells the chanters at the start that they are not there to sing for her or their parents, though that’s wonderful, but to sing for Jesus.
“Singing beautifully is not the final goal,” she explained. “Jesus has to be at the center and at the final end of our efforts. We want to encounter him and worship him in singing; and in so doing, we want to build up the Church.”
Wilson has the children learn difficult chants, and she is so proud of their good effort.
“One of the neatest things about the camp is to see the teens helping the younger ones, singing right next to them, so they have a voice to guide them,” Wilson said.
She finds that children want to be taken seriously and recognized for how much they appreciate the music. Wilson wants the children to see that what they are learning can remain part of their devotional life.
Whether it’s Ave Maria or other sacred songs, “these are very powerful prayers our ancestors have sung for hundreds of years,” she tells the participants. “Your patron saints have sung these prayers you are singing.”
She provides translations of everything so they know what they are singing about. This helps them to learn they can be evangelizers through the beauty of the Church’s sacred music.
Nancy Jurkoic found that St. Anne’s Chant Camp gave her three sons “a true love and appreciation for sacred music, even though at the time they were only 8, 10 and 13 years old. They will carry this love in their hearts for the rest of their lives.”
In Salt Lake City, at the Cathedral of the Madeleine, which has 360 students in the choir at the parish school, 87 students attended this year’s camp; the camp is nearly 25 years old.
It’s a bit different than choir during the academic year, according to Gregory Glenn, director for liturgy and music. The camp gives the children a chance to have fun, build up the group’s spirit and learn the chant and polyphony motets and Masses for the coming year.
On the East Coast, David Hughes, choirmaster at St. Mary’s Church in Norwalk, Conn., is pleased with his camp’s turnout.
For the daily sessions of the weeklong camp, children rehearse, sing for Mass daily and play games outside — but not always.
To his great surprise, he walked through the door of the first chant camp in 2008 to find 35 kids ready and eager.
After an hour of practicing Gregorian chant basics, he said they could take a short break, get water and play some basketball.
What happened next surprised him.
“They all got a drink of water and all sat down again,” Hughes said. He asked them, “Don’t you want to go play?”
He explained the response he received: “One little boy answered, ‘Mr. Hughes, we’re here to learn chant.’”
“The kids were so enthusiastic about singing beautifully and singing to the Lord it seemed a perfectly natural thing to turn this into a full-fledged student schola program that would meet every week,” Hughes said.
Hughes finds the children have “a tremendous enthusiasm for Gregorian chant because they readily perceive both its beauty and its eminent suitability for the sacred liturgy. I believe very strongly that Gregorian chant should be the foundation of any musical education, not only in a theological sense, but also in a pedagogical sense.”
Time and again, he sees “that beauty speaks for itself and that children especially are thirsting for this beauty. When you give them a taste of something truly beautiful, they only want more and more.”
He talks with them about St. Augustine’s maxim: “He who sings well prays twice.”
“I always underline the adverb well (bene),” he said.
St. Mary’s Chant Camp also includes older students who act as counselors, helping with vocal modeling for the younger students.
From older to younger, the children cannot imagine not coming.
“Singing chant helps me lift my heart and mind to God,” said Regina Kelley, who is 12 years old. “The instruction we get at chant camp is amazing.”
Her 8-year-old brother, Ted, added, “I love the singing; I love to see my friends.”
Brother Gus, 10 years old, agreed: “I really like seeing my friends and singing at Mass every day.”
Their mother, Amy Kelley, who is mom to seven current and former chant-campers, sees positive results.
“Too often, we assume children can’t appreciate the true and the beautiful, so we settle for giving them less,” she observed. “That’s a huge mistake. Kids naturally love beauty and gravitate toward it, if given the chance, and the traditional music of the Church is truly good and beautiful. Why shouldn’t learning it in preparation for singing at Mass be a fun summer activity?”
Joseph Pronechen is a
Register staff writer.