Teaching Children the Songs of the Church

an interview with Michael Burkhardt and Cora Scholz

Michael Burkhardt and Cora Scholz will be leaders at COLAM '95, the Conference on Liturgy and Music scheduled for the week | of July 17, 1995 at Calvin College (see "Conferences," p.47). Cora Scholz is executive and music director of the Northfield Youth Choir, director of the St. John's Lutheran Church Junior Choir, and instructor in voice and children's vocal pedagogy at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota. Michael Burkhardt is a composer of much published organ music and is also well-known for his creative hymn improvisations and for his work with children.

Randy Engle, secretary for the COLAM Planning Committee, interviewed them while making plans for their participation in COLAM '95.

RE Michael, many of our readers who are organists IlLknow you from your organ playing and many published compositions. Now we're delighted to see that you have developed a curriculum for children. Tell us a bit about Singing with Understanding (see review pp. 46-47).

MB Well, I'm primarily an educator. That's what I did for ten years in Southern California where I taught a graded choir school program at a parochial school. For eight of those years I also taught at Christ College, Irvine.

The impetus for Singing with Understanding came when Concordia Publishing Company called all music educators teaching at Lutheran colleges to meet annually (we met for three years) to find out what we should be doing to help children's choirs in schools and churches, and to help prepare our college students to teach children. Many ideas came out of those meetings.

I was constantly using folk songs to teach the elements of music to my children. And then I thought, why not use hymns? I decided to develop a curriculum that uses hymns to teach children the elements of music. While they're discovering music, they'll also be learning the songs of the people of faith and the faith story—things they aren't getting anywhere else.

RE So this curriculum teaches the rudiments of music using hymn tunes?

MB Yes. I chose twenty-four hymns on the basis of I I Dcultural diversity, reflecting the diversity of the people I worked with in Southern Califoria. Each hymn comes with a motivational activity, outlined step-by-step, and one musical concept is highlighted for the teacher.

RE Let's back up a bit. How did you become interested in music for children in the first place?

MB I grew up in a little country church of a hundred people. When I was in fifth grade a new pastor came who was also a musician. I was in the children's choir, and he taught us not only the music for the liturgy, but also the arias from Handel's Messiah! Thanks to his care in getting us excited, I learned the hymns and the great music of the church. We memorized a hymn a week—and I still know them today. Eventually I decided on a career in music with and for children.

RE What about your background, Cora?

CS I was raised in the Brethren in Christ Church where members believed instruments were too worldly to be used in worship. So singing was very important in our worship. I grew up hearing the question "What part do you sing?" not "Do you sing?"

Eventually I, too, became a school music teacher, though my first love was solo singing.

RE And you've also begun the Northfield Youth Chior.

CS I cofounded it with Judy Bond, an Orff specialist. VjShe and I had a dream of starting this chorus in Northfield. We began making it come true in January of 1987, and now 185 children are involved in six different choirs.

RE What about your new series of music for children being published by Mark Foster?

CS It's called Music for Young Singers. The people at Mark Foster wanted me to develop a series of choral pieces for them, and I accepted the challenge. I consider myself a scout, and am constantly on the search for something new. I'm especially interested in worthy texts—preferably written by someone other than the composer. Well-crafted, quality literature that includes ethnic music is what this series is about.

RE I know that your adaptation of Ken Medema's "Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying" (Mark Foster YS500) is already popular, because this song has been included in many new hymnals.

CS I'm also concerned that too many children's anthems are pitched too low. By the time children reach the sixth grade, they should know how to use the bottom part of their voice in a gracious manner. If music is pitched too low and a choir director urges a bigger sound, young children especially tend to push their heavy chest voice into their high range. The result is an awful, "yelly" sound. One antidote is to sing literature that won't allow that.

MB Yes. Rather than push the chest voice high, we can work to bring the top voice down and explore their full range.

RE Tell us, Michael, how do you select music for your children's choirs? What's the primary thing you are looking for?

MB Text first. Will it speak to the children and help them grow spiritually and musically? Is it poetically beautiful?

Then I look at how the melody is crafted. I want children to be able to make beautiful sounds on beautiful melodies that have a spark of originality, not a rehash of something already done. I would rather have them sing one melody over three times with variants in the accompaniment so that they learn how to produce good tone and concentrate on the text. I love to find music that can be used in a creative way in worship: Psalm versifications, an anthem, one stanza of a congregational hymn, part of a processional, part of a Bible reading.

CS An especially nice anthem to do that with is Howell's "The Angel Gabriel." The anthem can become part of Scripture reading.

MB Yes, and that's a great piece to involve the children in role-playing. I have soloists sing the inner stanzas as Mary and the angel Gabriel.

RE Michael, I appreciate your choice of language when you say "we involve children" rather than "we use children." Can you talk more about the involvement of children in worship? How can you do that in meaningful ways?

MB Involving children in worship says that children already have a place in worship.

CS Exactly!

MB We need to treat them as part of the church now—they're not becoming part of the church, they are the church. Their involvement in worship is critical.

In our church we've started using families for reading Scripture and singing the Psalm refrains. Children also teach the congregation new hymns; they beam when they are given this servant role in worship. I start with three-year-olds. I am teaching them parts of hymns so they can participate in worship.

CS A concern of mine is that the children's choir at my church is so small, and the percentage of children participating in the church music program is so small. I'd love to see our church recognize the entire church school as the youth choir. I'd like to see the Sunday school teachers singing and teaching hymns in their classes. Wouldn't it be great if the entire Sunday school was the choir for some service?

RE Speaking of recruitment and retention of choir members, share some of your best strategies.

CS I think the responsibility has to be placed back on the parents. Parents need to say that a lot of activities are open for negotiation, but not music involvement. Too many parents give their children a choice; and most kids would rather watch TV than be in a choir.

MB Until a child has experienced music, how can he or she make an informed choice? Perhaps by the time they're in high school they can choose whether or not they want to continue. By that time they will have the tools that will last them the rest of their lives.

RE I want to switch gears and talk about choir techniques for children's choirs. What are some common, unhealthy vocal tendencies that you see in children's choirs?

CS There are a lot of young people who vocally imitate pop culture. And it produces an unresonant, pinchy sound. So I try to provide a good model in my own voice. Children are good imitators; if they hear good singing, they will likely imitate good singing. When I hear what I think is a healthy sound, then I affirm that sound.

MB Vocal production involves the whole person. Singing is a vocal, but also physical, emotional, and spiritual experience. So my rehearsals include a lot of movement. When children come alive, you can just feel the "electricity" between them and the music and the conductor. That's our goal—to have that initimacy of connection on all those planes.

CS There has to be trust. Kids are very self-conscious. They need to know that choir is safe, and that they can rely on each other too. It is also important to get to know the children well; I work with each of them at my house in small groups. Another thing: the better the literature, the better kids sing. Quality literature brings out the best in children.

MB And let children be children. They are children first; respect them for that.

Our greatest challenge is to discern literature that is good coming out of our time. I know the "tried-and-true," but I also need to search out the best of what is being published now. My greatest hope is that musicians and church leaders can come together and agree that worship needs to be worship, not religious entertainment.

RE What are your all-time favorite anthems for children?

MB Bach's "We Hasten with Eager but Diligent Footsteps," Walter Hawkins's "Going Up a Yonder," Pinkham's "Angels Are Everywhere."

CS Buxtehude's "My Jesus Is My Lasting Joy," Harriet Ziegenhals's "Now Let the Heavens be Joyful," Martin How's "Day by Day," John Horman's "My Heart Rejoices in the Lord."

RE Thanks so much for your time, and for the important work you are doing for the children of the church. We look forward to learning more from you at COLAM.

Randall D. Engle (randyengle@aol.com) is pastor of North Hills Christian Reformed Church, Troy, Michigan.