« AnkstesnisTęsti »
WOMAN'S WORK IN THE TOWN AND COUNTRY
BY CAROLINE M. HALLETT.
HOW TO TRAIN AND KEEP UP A VILLAGE CHOIR.
STRICTLY speaking, the task of training a choir and conducting church music is not woman's work. Yet, as things are at present, it is her work very often, and we cannot altogether help it.
Of course the large town parish, with its staff of trained singers and professional organist, does not require her help. With that she has seldom anything to do. But as everybody knows, in the country village, or even in the smaller town parish, the case is altogether different. There are probably no available funds for paying an organist, or if there were, the organist himself is not easily to be met with. None of the men of the parish can play a note; still less are capable of conducting a choir. The clergyman, although the nominal head, has not much time to devote to the drudgery of actual teaching; moreover he has not had a musical education, and perhaps, has no ear. Yet superintendence there must be, or there is sure to be lamentable failure. No choir can manage itself, but, like other corporate bodies, must have a responsible working head. Some one person must play the accompaniments in church, choose the tunes and chants, and conduct the practices. Now it often happens that the lady worker of the parish is the only person who has the ability, and also the leisure to do all this. Thus the whole thing practically devolves upon her.
After all, she is not altogether unfitted for the position into which circumstances have thrust her. Probably she has learnt music with some degree of thoroughness, and from having begun the piano at five years old, has quite enough manual skill to make the learning the harmonium or organ comparatively easy to her. She has bestowed many hours of her life on practice, and these cannot have been fruitless. Her ear has been trained and her taste also, so that she knows the difference between good and merely trashy music. She can appreciate refinement of style in singing from having heard, as almost every one can in these days, vocal music really well performed, even if she does not sing' herself. And apart from her musical knowledge, she has, we hope, an earnest, reverent spirit, besides the minor graces of patience and tact, these last being invaluable, if not absolutely indispensable, in managing and training a choir.
It might be supposed that in these days, choirs would hardly want a word of advocacy. Yet it is not unusual to hear the remark made, 'We do not have a choir because we want the singing to be congregational.' Now the proposition would be really truer if reversed, 'We want the singing to be congregational and therefore we will have a choir.' As a rule, the larger and better the choir, the more heartily will the congregation join in the singing. On the other hand, it is the hardest work in the world to follow the uncertain lead of pure congregational psalmody. An efficient choir forms a solid unwavering basis for the other voices to rest upon, and singing for all then becomes comparatively easy.
Besides which, the ears of the musical part of the congregation are not remorselessly injured. The trained voices prevail and overpower, if they do not neutralise, the imperfections of the rest. And if another and better argument in favour of choirs is needed, surely it may be urged that to God is always due our best. We offer for His house and service the best material, the most skilful workmanship, the choicest designs, and should shrink from giving Him anything that is meagre, defective, or feeble. Now why should it not be the same in music?
And there is no especial reason why the country village need be altogether behind the town parish in this respect. The music sung in a village church need never be elaborate, but it must not and ought not to be slovenly. The worst kind of singing is spiritless, lazy singing, and at least we will try and avoid that. The test is, Is the music our best, that is the best that we, with time, pains, and willing devotion can furnish for the service of His Sanctuary?
Now the practical question is, How in a country village is a moderate yet satisfactory standard of church music to be reached? First, the choir has to be formed, and of whom shall it consist?
If the parish has a population of 500 or upwards, the choir can probably be formed entirely of men and boys. This may not always be possible; in some places, owing to different circumstances, it seems almost a necessity to make up the numbers with girls', or perhaps women's, voices. But generally speaking, it is the wisest to begin at once with boys only, as Trebles, because in this as in other things, we have to consider the future as well as the present. It is by no means unlikely, judging by the wonderful advance in such matters that has been made already, that at no very distant time the surpliced choir will be not the exception but the rule. Twenty years ago a surpliced choir in a country church was almost a thing unknown. Now it is common enough, as may be seen at any of the large festival gatherings of choirs.
The white-robed procession grows longer and longer, and shows that every year more choirs are adopting the surplice, while distrust of the innovation (now hardly to be called one) is fast dying away. Most
people in these days prefer whatever is most correct and seemly in the ordering of public worship, for it is no mere fancy that outward things have an influence in preparing the inner court of the heart for devotion. Thus if a surpliced choir is most in keeping with acknowledged ideas of what is right and fitting, by all means let us have it, for then it is likely to be on a permanent and lasting footing.
For the choristers themselves also it is an advantage in more ways than one, the wearing a distinctive dress. They are continually reminded that they hold a special office in the church, and this may check carelessness and irreverence. Punctuality is also thereby enforced, all assembling in the vestry, where sometimes a short prayer is read before the clergy and choristers form in procession to their places, and this is surely preferable to the scurrying of feet up to the chancel, some 'just in time,' others late, to the great distraction of the congregation.
But we cannot put girls into a distinctive dress, nor would it be desirable if we could. It is a question whether the prominence of singing in a choir is ever very good for girls. They may sing of course, but not as members of the choir.
Another reason for having boys as Trebles is that they may, and often do, remain members of a choir for years, while girls are only available up to the age for going to service, fourteen or fifteen. It is true that there is an interval of three or four years between the boy's Treble and the man's Tenor or Bass, but in a country choir he need not be useless in this intermediate stage of his voice. He may become an Alto when his voice breaks, for boy Altos are a necessity, and the rougher deeper voices are the most suitable for this part. Of course musicians would say there is the risk of spoiling his voice, but as that is only a possible evil, we cannot afford to consider it, voices being too precious in small choirs to be easily spared.
Thus, unless he is swept away by the ambition that now-a-days carries our lads into a dozen new lines, the railway, police force, or telegraph office, there is at least the hope of keeping him in the choir from childhood to middle age.
Granted then that the boys are the most important element in a choir, the next question is 'How shall we choose them?' It is just as much a mistake to suppose that every child in a school can sing, as it would be to assume that every one has a talent for carving or drawing. Every child in full possession of its senses can be taught to read, but singing is quite another matter. There must be one indispensable requisite, and that is an ear for music.
By this is not meant an absolutely perfect ear, for in this as in other things there are many degrees. But no one should be allowed to join a choir who cannot sing a simple tune correctly. This test may in fact be used in our choice of singers. The very first step is to find out how many of the boys of a parish are able to do this.
Suppose there are twenty boys between the ages of seven and fourteen. They all say they can sing, and so they can after a fashion to judge by the boisterous goodwill with which they join in the school songs. But the choir teacher is doubtful, and invites the whole number to a preliminary trial.
This may take place at the rectory or wherever there is a convenient pianoforte or harmonium. When all are assembled, some simple known tune, say 'Holy Innocents,' is played over, and all present are required to sing it together. Then comes the test. Each boy is asked to sing the tune alone. If he can do this correctly, he may be considered to have 'passed.' But if on the other hand, he wanders off into another tune, or sings a wrong interval, or flounders hopelessly without the power of righting himself, it is needless to say that however excellent he may be in other respects, as a choir boy he is useless.
And it is a strange and perverse fact, that the best and steadiest boys are often not gifted with musical ears, while the scapegraces, who are everybody's torment, can sing as tunefully as blackbirds.
Now no power on earth can 'make' a musical ear, but it is possible to convert unruly boys into tractable ones, and this among other things is the not too-easy task of the choir teacher.
And now having separated the musical from the unmusical, you behold before you your choir of the future! Very shaggy, unkempt, and sunburnt, the little urchins look, as they remain seated in a row, some staring stolidly before them, others indulging in the broadest of grins, then a half-smothered chuckle bursts out, and you think with a sigh of the well-known picture of the Three Choristers, from whose grave devout young faces all boyishness and mirth seem to have fled
Never mind. Boys are not meant to be angelic beings, and we can hardly expect a really devotional spirit until much later on in life. If there is reverence of behaviour we must be content, and it is something to acquire the habit of this in early life. A boy who is naughty and inattentive may sometimes be shamed into good behaviour by being told he is evidently too childish to sing in the choir. And there is often a salutary esprit de corps, the disgrace of one being felt by all.
It is always best to take choristers on trial for a few weeks, and at the end of that time the clergyman or teacher to decide who is to be finally elected. This will depend on three conditions-goodness of conduct, aptitude for singing, regularity of attendance.
The next step is to choose evenings for practices. Two in the week are by no means too many to begin with, and if there can be three, so much the better. And as to place, the school-room is far preferable to the church, though the latter is often chosen with an idea that as the practice is a kind of rehearsal for Sunday, the singers should occupy the same places on both occasions. But surely practice and
worship are things widely different. They should as much as possible be dis-associated from each other. Practice is good honest work, which indeed may be consecrated by the thought that it has a glorious aim, i.e. the perfect rendering of God's praise, yet still it is not the actual offering of praise, in the sense that it is when two or three are gathered in His name.
If the only available instrument is the church organ, and it is thought an impossibility to practice without its help, surely in most cases a substitute may be procured in the shape of a small harmonium. The 'People's Harmonium' costs four guineas, and a second-hand one about three pounds, generally speaking, and they are well worth the money, for this harmonium is a durable instrument, and will remain in fair condition for many years. Its small size too is a great advantage, as it can be easily moved from place to place. And the player sitting before it can command a good view of the singers, instead of being obliged, as at the organ, to turn away from them. This is of importance, as in all teaching a quick eye, as well as a quick ear, is required.
It is not needful to play the regular accompaniment the whole time in practising, as the teacher must give her attention to the vocal parts, and she cannot do this and detect mistakes if the harmonium is loudly resounding in her ears. All that is wanted is the single Treble part played softly as a test whether the voices are in tune. As a further preparation, some exercise sheets of common pasteboard may be made as follows:
A. The common scale with the names appended to each note. B. Specimens of breves, semibreves, minims, crotchets, quavers, semiquavers.
C. The different signatures denoting time.
D. The different keys and their signatures.
And now the first evening has come, and with wonderful punctuality the scholars arrive. None of the excuses which too often greet the teacher's ear at a later period of the choir's existence are heard. 'Mother wanted me,' 'Couldn't get in time,' &c., &c. On the contrary, everybody is full of zeal and delighted expectation. So much the better, the teacher acts on the old proverb, 'Strike when the iron is hot.'
She begins singing the scale Do Re Mi Fa, and the scholars follow ambitiously in her wake. But very soon an unforeseen difficulty presents itself. Nobody can, or at any rate does, reach anything above the upper Do. At the upper Mi she finds her own voice painfully audible. She is alone at last on a solitary pinnacle of sound, the upper Sol. Where are her supporters? They have dropped off one by one.
What is to be done? She feels baffled at the very outset of the new undertaking. But the solution of the difficulty is in reality