St. Augustine launched its school-wide mandatory choir five years ago, and organizers say they see evidence that music has begun to permeate and enrich the lives of the students and the school. Students spend twenty minutes each day singing together. The early grades practice as a group, but middle school is separated into boys and girls choirs, while high school boys and girls usually practice separately but sing together.
The choirs perform at two concerts each year, but primarily their work is devoted to liturgy. Ben believes that the most beautiful choral music ever composed was made for liturgy, and that men are most focused when their activity is part of the mysterious relationship with God. He urges his students to understand what they are singing, and to turn it into a prayer. He can tell that they don’t do it all the time, but he can also see how their tastes in liturgical music have developed so that they prefer music that accentuates the mysterious beauty of the sacred action.
Ben, who has led the high school boys for five years, has found that they all can sing challenging music but some will put in more effort while others let the confident singers do most of the work. From time to time, he will have them practice a piece they know but make the stronger voices stay silent. Usually they will rise to the challenge and do a great job.
The music has made an obvious impact, according to Ben. Groups of kids will sing for fun during lunch or after school; the seniors will learn folk music that they can sing at lunch or recess. This past summer, Ben hired a number of the boys to help with some landscaping around his house, and was thrilled that they regularly launched into their rock-work while singing “Tennessee Ernie Williams’ Sixteen Tons."
Hearing the high school boys -- scholars, cool kids, and athletes -- singing around campus helps the middle school boys get into singing. Middle school boys choir director, Nick Zepeda, says that for half or more of them, singing is a completely new experience, which has its advantages. “They are tabulae rasae (blank slates) with no bad habits yet," he said. Some of the girls are different -- they have grown up imitating the styles of popular female singers. “They have to work out of their Celine Dion styles. Our singing is focused on God. The individual loses himself in the swelling chorus of praise.”
Nick also finds that the middle school boys are surprised at what they can do. They begin with simpler pieces in unison, and need a lot of pushing and cheerleading on the part of the director. But as they begin branching to two and even three voices, choir becomes another area where they can shine and they start to strive for excellence. St. Augustine Academy’s bi-annual Cultural Night Out provides further motivation. “They are amazed at what musical performers can do, and get excited to be a part of making excellent music themselves,” he said. “That is like what happened to me growing up. Even though my dad was hard of hearing, he would take us out to concerts so that we could hear what beautiful music really is.”
Nick also sees signs that music affects the kids. He hears that they start singing pieces at home, and together in unguarded moments. And finally, even if they are too cool to throw themselves fully into it during their rebellious years, he knows they will have the storehouse and the tools for when they come to their senses as adults.