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Mark Doerries on the Formative Arc of Children Leading the Church in Song

In this episode, artistic director Mark Doerries tells the emerging story of the Notre Dame Children’s Choir, now ten years old, and the formative process and unifying vision the choir has built as they learn what it means to sing the sacred story of the church across time and space.

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Episode Transcript:

Mark Doerries 00:07

I think one of the things choir is really excellent at is teaching people how to live and work in a community. So we've tried to build a community of singers and of families around this idea of children singing sacred music, specifically the sacred music of the church. 

Kristen Verhulst 00:34

I'm Kristen Verhulst, your host of this episode of Public Worship and the Christian Life, a podcast by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Find us at

Mark Dories, thank you so much for joining me today in this conversation. 

Mark Doerries 01:01

Thanks for having me. 

Kristen Verhulst 01:03

For all of you who are listening. Dr. Mark Dories is on the faculty of the University of Notre Dame, head of the graduate conducting studio, and associate professor in the practice of conducting for sacred music at Notre Dame. Mark also serves as the artistic director of the Notre Dame Children's Choir, which is part of the Sacred Music Academy and the topic of our conversation today. So, Mark, I understand the choir just celebrated a ten-year anniversary. Congratulations. Tell us the story of the choir. How did it get started? 

Mark Doerries 01:40

Sure. Ten years ago—this is also my tenth anniversary at Notre Dame—ten years ago, I was approached by the director of sacred music at Notre Dame at the time, Margot Fassler. She was the former director of Yale's Institute of Sacred Music, and Notre Dame had brought her here to essentially form a similar program, but centered around Catholic music. And one of her visions was to grow, from the ground up, a community of singers. Instead of having to continue to rely on paid singers to sing the kind of Catholic heritage of music in worship—and that includes music of the Renaissance and Gregorian chant all the way through twentieth- and twenty-first-century music—she hired me to start the program along with my wife, Hillary. We originally had hoped to get about twenty kids in the choir. We visited almost every parish in our community, Catholic and Protestant, and we ended up getting about fifty kids turning out for the auditions. So we created two choirs. And then the next year that grew to 100 kids, and we created four choirs. Before the pandemic, we had close to 300 children in our program, essentially from toddlers and infants all the way up to high school. And we have essentially seven choirs now. We're operating at about 200 kids this year. We're in the process of rebuilding, as many choral programs and not just children's choirs are after the pandemic, but we're excited. As you mentioned, this is our tenth anniversary, and this whole year we're celebrating it with new commissions as well as a special holiday event coming up, and then we have a tour for our oldest choirs that are going to be touring the East Coast and ending in Washington, D.C., with a Mass at the National Shrine and then two services at the National Cathedral. 

Kristen Verhulst 04:07

Wonderful. So ten years, that's quite some time. How has the choir been received? What are you hearing from your parents or even now your graduates, say, in those first couple of years? 

Mark Doerries 04:21

Absolutely. I think there was a need in this community for high-level after-school music programs. A lot of the music programs—there are some wonderful teachers in the South Bend / greater Notre Dame area working in public and parochial schools, but because of class schedules, many times they're just not in contact with singers and musicians on a regular basis. And so we provide a free after-school program that meets an hour and a half twice a week, or three times a week if you're in our most advanced choir. And not only do we teach the mechanics of singing, we also teach music theory, music history, and we also teach . . . I think one of the things choir is really excellent at is teaching people how to live and work in a community. And so we've tried to build a community of singers and of families around this idea of children singing sacred music, specifically the sacred music of the church. And while we are Catholic, our program is ecumenical. We have singers from all different faith backgrounds, including those with no specific faith background at all, Judaism, singers from the Potawatomi tribe in Michigan and now South Bend, who just want their kids to experience high-level music making in a choral setting. So one of the really amazing things is that, thanks to a Lilly Foundation grant in 2012, we have been able to provide all of this at no cost to all of our students, and that includes the tours and the recordings we've done not only all over the country, from Los Angeles to New York City, but even we toured England in 2019 and sang in cathedrals all over the country, and it was at no cost to families. And that's really one of the important parts of our program. Our community is a heavily divided community east/west, where the west side of our community is kind of historically low-income African-American, Latin American families, and the north and east sides are kind of the Notre Dame-influenced communities. Our location is kind of downtown in the middle of those two geographic locations so that we can bring people together, and anyone who wants to participate can do so at no cost. I think it's just a really powerful thing to see kids who I know what their backgrounds are get to know each other, and they don't think twice about which side of the city they come from. They just connect as human beings. Music and singing and faith are the major components of what we do, but we're also trying to just bring the community together, particularly during the pandemic, when we were so shut in. 

Kristen Verhulst 08:00

Yeah, that's beautiful. The choir is really functioning like a bridge, bringing access for many people. 

Mark Doerries 08:08

That's our hope. And Notre Dame has been very supportive of this. Our Lilly Foundation grant has ended, and so we are grateful to the university for continuing to fund this program, kind of ongoing at the moment. We do our own fundraising as well, and that helps pay for our extra events like tours and major concerts or commissions. But our day-to-day activities are supported by the university now. We have a very devoted body of families and singers. As you mentioned, this is our tenth year, and we have singers who've been in the choir for all ten years. They started off in perhaps one of our youngest choirs when they were six or seven. And now they're sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years old and are about to graduate from our program. Many of our students go to college afterwards. Some of them get jobs in the community. But . . . many of them will come back to us at our concerts and sing with us on our final song and catch us up to date on what they've been doing for the last year or two. Even those who have moved away come back for our last concert of the season now. So it's nice to have kind of an alumni following. 

Kristen Verhulst 09:35

That's wonderful. So in our work here at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, we want to empower worshiping communities to encourage and promote that full, conscious, active participation from both the smallest, the children, all the way up to the oldest. As a pastoral musician, what are you learning about selecting choral music or even commissioning choral music so that kind of value is embraced, enhanced? 

Mark Doerries 10:10

This is a fascinating topic and one that we wrestle with every day, because not only [are] the bulk of our choirs concert choirs [who] sing sacred music in a performance round, but we have several choirs that sing for liturgies every week. We have what's called our liturgical choir, and they sing for vespers and mass each week. It's based on an English cathedral model where our children sing the soprano and alto voices, and then we have graduate students who sing the tenor and bass parts, the lay clerics. In this model we're able to sing the heritage of the church's music going all the way back to Gregorian chant and polyphonic music in the Renaissance. We see the children's choir as kind of resurrecting music that was originally written for young voices. That's the music of the chant, the Renaissance polyphony, even into the Baroque period and the early classical period, the treble lines in much of the sacred music that was performed in sacred settings during liturgies would have been sung by boy choirs. We've turned that into a mixed choral sound with boys and girls singing together. But when we think about particularly the Catholic Church's heritage of Latin-based sacred music, much of this would have been sung by young children. And yet today that music is sung almost exclusively by adult professional singers, either in the concert hall or occasionally in paid choral programs in wealthy churches. Our idea is that with training, we can actually teach children to sing this music that was originally written for them and to reclaim it and to reclaim their role in the church as being musical leaders. There was a time in some countries like England and at the Vatican where children's voices were seen as the pinnacle of musical excellence. The sound was considered a truly spiritual experience just to hear the young, untamed voice resounding through a cathedral. And I think something has been lost over the years. And where children have been seen as not capable of being fully fledged performing emotive artists. And so the Notre Dame Children's Choir is trying to resurrect that role that children played in the church as leaders and to overcome what I think is a kind of “children are to be seen but not heard” mentality in many congregations or just maybe in our culture in general, [i.e.,] children are a work in progress [who] don't have anything to contribute to our culture immediately. 

Kristen Verhulst 13:37

And even sometimes in worship they're seen as being cute, they say something cute in maybe a children's message or whatever. So this idea of actively leading the congregation is a wonderful and amazing concept for even a child to begin to understand what that means and to grow into that. 

Mark Doerries 14:00

And we have found that particularly if they are taught how to sing this starting from an early age, when I put Gregorian chant in front of them, when I put a Latin motet in front of them, there's no hesitation anymore. And that has come over ten years. It's taken us ten years to create this culture where kids see this music as normal, as the music of their spiritual and faith backgrounds. A lot of what I think is sung in liturgies, particularly in the Catholic Church locally, might be considered stemming from the 1970s post-Vatican II, the folk mass tradition. And so they get a lot of that at their home parishes. What we offer, I think, in the Notre Dame Children's Choir is not an alternative, but an “and.” We're not trying to replace anything that happened after Vatican II. We're trying to add to that. And this idea of participating with full heart and voice, I think children have been left out of that movement. So this is our way of including them, bringing them into full participation in the church. 

Kristen Verhulst 15:29

That's great. And I love that emphasis on it's just another element to add, and keep building out a repertoire.

Any other ideas for a community who deeply wants to do this, to help the worshiping community understand the important role of children, but maybe feels a little bit at a loss about how to foster that? 

Mark Doerries 16:05

I would say that what we've noticed over the last ten years is that many churches in our community don't have enough children in their own congregations to have a critical mass or enough families who are really committed to it. And so I think the success of the Notre Dame Children's Choir is linking churches together across our community. Not only do we sing at the Basilica at Notre Dame and the convent at Saint Mary's College, but we sing for liturgies in Catholic and Protestant parishes across our community. And not only is that sharing what we do with the greater community; it's also showing other children in the community that singing is a vital part of the sacred community. That's why we've had more and more singers join us through that process. Some of the parishes that we have partnered with have seen their children's choirs grow through this, so they have started their own children's choir because they've had so many kids start in ours, and they do both now. . . .I'm thinking of one Catholic parish here, St Monica's Catholic Parish, that started a children's choir, and their singers are doing both the Notre Dame Children's Choir, which is an after-school program, and then their parish choir, which is in-school program that sings for liturgies during the week and on the weekends. So I think there is strength in bonding together, particularly if you are a small church or a small parish. There is probably another hard-working church musician in a church down the street from you or in another town across the way that has the same desire, but they also don't have enough kids. And so we've seen two or three churches come together, and the kids will sing one week at one parish, another week at the other. And they have a rotational way of doing this.

I think it's really important to take it from the long view, that when you start a children's program, you're growing a seed, and the growing season is ten to fifteen years. So it does mean an investment. I think if you only see it as I'm going to get kids together, and we are going to sing for liturgies, and we're going to learn as much music as we can by rote, I think that it's a short term fix. And I think this idea of kids being cute in the liturgy, that that is sometimes is how people perceive them, and it's also how I think kids feel perceived, so it's not an enriching experience for them. They're not learning and growing over the course of a long period of time. And so I really encourage pastoral musicians to a) partner with each other, and b) envision what a program would be like over even just a three-year vision or a two-year vision or a five-year vision and to prepare for the defeats when a family drops out and maybe they're half your choir right there. I mean, these things happen, and they feel devastating to the director, but I think we have to hold that vision of bringing young people into our sacred spaces as musical leaders.

One of the things that has been successful for us—and this is part of why Notre Dame is sponsoring a children's choir—is that we also train graduate student vocalists and conductors and organists specifically to work with children. So my department here—we’re called the Program in Sacred Music—we offer graduate degrees, master of sacred music and doctor of musical arts degrees in organ, voice, and conducting. But all students have to learn to work with children in a choral setting, or we also have an organ training program where our organ students teach young children how to play the piano and the organ. And so a large portion of the staff of our choirs comes from performers at the university. These are not always education majors. These are often high-level performers that we train to put in the classroom. This is a partnership that has worked really well for us. Our graduate students end up getting the experience of working with young kids and building skills for working with young people in parishes where they get jobs after graduation, and our young children get the experience of working with high-level performers. And so this is something that's unique right now to Notre Dame, but I don't think it is exclusive. I think that there are students at local colleges that want to work with young people, and even if they don't have education backgrounds, what we have kind of proven here is that with the right training and constant gentle pressure, performers can become valuable educators in classroom settings. That's also another kind of long-range vision. I don't know whether any of the colleges up there want to take on that mantle because it is a long vision. But we have seen pretty amazing results. 

Kristen Verhulst 22:44

And the beauty about a long view ahead is that it makes space for those moments when it does go up and down, the bumps in the road. But if you can keep the vision ahead and broad, then that generally gives you some space to navigate some of those challenges, right? 

Mark Doerries 23:05

Absolutely. Absolutely. I work at an institution where the vision of the Catholic Church spans millennia, so when I when we talk to kids and families particularly about participating in our program, we often say, “While you may be the only children's choir in our region that sings this type of music, you are not alone across time, as this practice has been going on for over a thousand years.” It can be hard to convince young people to join something that they have no model for. There aren't other choirs in every town that are already doing this, and so it's helpful to connect them—this is a part of not just the church’s history, but we also see we have high level children's choirs in the community as well for hundreds and hundreds of years, from the Vienna Boys Choir to what used to be the American Boy Choir here. We obviously in our program are very welcoming of female students as well. Our choirs are mixed for most of their training. So that idea that we are not alone across space because these practices are happening in England and Europe, as well as at a few large parishes in the United States, but we're not alone across time as well. 

Kristen Verhulst 24:53

That's wonderful. Mark, as we close out our conversation here, I wonder what words of hope, what words of wisdom you might have for other pastoral musicians, particularly in the field of choral music and working with children? 

Mark Doerries 25:11

Well, while I have been a church musician since I was fifteen, I never imagined that I would be working with children. I was trained as a performer. I went to a conservatory. So when Notre Dame came knocking and asked me to work with children, I said, “Well, you're Notre Dame, so I'm going to take this position, and I'm going to figure it out.” And I think one of the true surprises in my own experience is that I love working with young people and young singers specifically, in that there is such vitality. They are so willing to take risks, to try new things, to just sing music that I would have thought was completely—I don't want to say boring, but I had no connection to when I was younger. I have found a surprising level of willing buy-in from young kids year after year after year. And I have learned how to work with young people. I went back to school. I finished my doctorate in performance. And then there are lots of workshops that pastoral musicians can take part in. If you are a Catholic, there are Ward method workshops; anyone can take those. What I think is a really wonderful program are Kodály training workshops as well as Orff and music learning theory. These are all kinds of basic music education programs that will teach you through summer workshops how to create that longer vision, how to go from teaching my kids just by rote to actually teaching them to read and sight-sing so that you can do larger works. We did the Fauré Requiem with our kids last year we're going to do Carmina Burana with our kids this coming year along with our graduate students. That's because we've had ten years of training them to sing at what I think is in some ways a professional level. We also have tiers, and that came from this notion that kids operate better when they're around their peers. So a six-year-old next to a sixteen-year-old is not a great combination, but five- and six-year-olds together learning at the same rate actually get further than these choirs with large age gaps in them. In many ways, I have to have both working with adults and children in my life and choral music. It has become a vital portion of who I am. And this is something that I never would have thought before I was trained to do choral and orchestral conducting. But the vitality of working with young people truly gives me hope not just for the church, but for our fractured culture, because through music—and I see this every day—they come together and they bond over a common language, or they learn a common language together. And it's this harmonious utopian experience that we have with these 200 kids every week. Politics are aside; it's just sacred music, kids singing sacred music. And I think if we can tap into that wherever you are in the country, do you see yourself as a safe space for kids to come and explore what it means to sing sacred music, explore their own faith in an open way, learn what other people believe from other faiths or even within your own faith tradition, I think that makes the music more relevant; I think that makes singing in in in liturgies more relevant; and it just gets kids to come back again and again and again. So if you're a performer primarily, I truly encourage you to say that our children need excellent performers before them. And if you're an educator, I say work with our kids because we need excellent educators. And if you're a pastor and musician, you are both. You are both the performer and the educator. And that's the nexus of what I think working with kids is. 

Kristen Verhulst 30:20

Mark, thank you so much for talking with me today. 

Mark Doerries 30:24

Thank you for having me.