Praying with song: Children learn theology behind sacred music

| Susan Klemond | December 21, 2017 | 0 Comments

Miriam Weinand sings during practice for the Cathedral Choir School Dec. 6 at the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul. Photos by Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

As Veronica Jacobs, 15, assembles with fellow youth choristers in the Cathedral of St. Paul’s rear gallery each Wednesday evening for Mass, she’s not only preparing to sing, but she’s also preparing to pray.

“When you sing it, you just feel that you’re making something really great, that you’re giving a gift to Jesus and helping other people to pray better,” said Jacobs, a parishioner at St. Mary of Czestochowa in Delano who has been a member of the Cathedral Choir School in St. Paul for three-and-a-half years.

Catholic music and liturgy are living, said Jayne Windnagel, 53, who teaches the 44 9- to 18-year-olds in the Cathedral Choir School.

Director Jayne Windnagel gives instructions to John Paul DeReuill, left, Dominic Russell and Sam Spanier. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Like the many children who have sung in Cathedral choirs since the 19th century, the current choristers are being formed in the faith as they discover sacred music and the discipline of choral singing in the beauty of the Cathedral. As the choristers sing, the younger aspiring choristers in the Cathedral’s preparatory choir watch, listen and learn.

Along with liturgical music, the St. Cecilia (girls) and St. Gregory (boys) choristers of the upper choir are rehearsing traditional Christmas music they will sing at the Cathedral’s 4 p.m. Christmas Eve Mass.

The children’s choir tradition at the Cathedral began as early as 1851 with children who attended the grade school it operated at the time. Records show children’s choirs were organized at various points during the 20th century. In 1963, Gerhard Lang, a former director of the Vienna Boys Choir, developed the Cathedral Boys Choir, which reportedly sang at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Children can sing with the Choir School, regardless of ability, and the Cathedral currently has a waiting list. Choristers and their families aren’t required to be parishioners.

“My firm belief is if a child is willing and dedicated — no matter what their skill is coming
in — they will learn to sing,” said Windnagel, who has directed the Cathedral Choir School for five years. “They may not all be soloists, but they will learn to sing.”

The Cathedral has few programs for children because of its small staff and many visitors, said Cathedral Rector Father John Ubel. The choir is “one opportunity where they can learn something about their faith and sacred music, and [by] participating every Wednesday during the year, they give back.”

The choir’s curriculum of sacred music — from ancient to modern — fosters in the children a love for the Trinity and deepens their understanding of the Catholic faith, said Windnagel, who also has been music director at St. Michael and St. Mary in Stillwater for 19 years and has a theology background.

She looks for melodies that suit children’s voices.

“The child’s voice evokes a sort of tenderness that only a child can evoke,” she said.

Windnagel teaches the theology behind sacred music and connects music with good, sacred theology, Father Ubel said.

Music is a tool to teach children first the faith, and then life disciplines, said Kathleen Jacobs, 51, who directs the 15 younger children in the Cathedral’s St. Thomas preparatory choir.

Once a month, the St. Thomas choristers join the upper choir at the Wednesday Mass. After watching the older children and becoming familiar with the Cathedral, the 6- to 8-year-olds learn to sing the Mass.

Rather than formally practicing musical pieces or performing with the older choristers, the younger children learn about sacred music and about how to sing in a group, so they can join Windnagel’s choir, said Jacobs, who is Veronica Jacobs’ mother.

As the older children rehearse, they’re learning to memorize music and pay attention to details that are magnified by the Cathedral’s acoustics, Windnagel said.

“Just turning the page of a hymnal can be noisy,” she said. “It requires the children to give a lot of themselves in that [rehearsal] hour.”

The Cathedral’s architecture cries out for sound that matches its beauty, Windnagel said. The children’s voices, together with the Cathedral space, form a single musical instrument.

“The Cathedral takes the music, and you’re part of the instrument, and it’s so much more than just what we can do, being in there,” Veronica Jacobs said. “It’s so beautiful that you feel that your singing has to be beautiful, so [that] you can be there.”

On Christmas Eve, the choristers will fill the Cathedral space with carols “Jesu Bambino,” “Pat a Pan” and “’Twas in the Moon of Winter Time.”

“The carols at the Christmas season are a very special part of the choir, simply because it is a vestige of the past where our culture comes together,” Windnagel said.

Whether or not they sing in choirs as adults, the choristers will benefit all their lives from what they learn at the Cathedral Choir School, she said.

“It’s forming a way of looking at God, life, Christ, Mary and all mysteries of the faith through a beautiful lens,” she said.

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