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Summer Music Training: Royal School of Church Music

Posted by Nathan Costa on

This summer six St. Bart’s musicians made what has become for them an annual trek across the country to spend a week at a Royal School of Church Music (RSCM) Summer Training Course in Newport, Rhode Island. Bass section leader Tim McLellan, the entire Strout family, Stephanie, Ian, Tessa, and Sydney, and director of music and liturgy Nathan Costa joined approximately 40 young choristers, boys and girls, ages nine to 17, and 40 adults July 31 - August 6 in a full week of fun, friendship, and great music-making in magnificent local churches.

Based on the campus of Salve Regina University in Newport, this course is one of several across the country sponsored by RSCM America that offer great choral training and liturgical experience to both children and adults. Daily morning and afternoon rehearsals prepare for full choral services of Evensong and Eucharist at the end of the week at the neo-Gothic chapel on the campus of St. George’s School in Newport and in historic Grace Episcopal Church in Providence. Afternoon activities also include handbell ringing, writing descants, and liturgical formation for choristers and opportunities for composition and other presentations for adults, In downtime the course offers traditional summer camp activities, including a walk along the cliffs with stunning views of Newport homes and the ocean, talent shows, time at the beach, and dormitory living.

Tim McLellan, a veteran of seven Newport courses, including five as head proctor (counselor) sees RSCM courses as a unique experience.

“The experience of working with kids and adults who come together from different places to produce glorious music in worship is something you can’t find anywhere else,” he said. “It’s so much more than summer camp: while we’re all having a good time, it’s different because there’s an end product in mind, three services at the end of the week. It’s a time for children and adults to challenge their musicianship and to learn beyond what we learn at our own individual parishes, and to build relationships across the country and the world.”

For Sydney and Tessa, in their third consecutive year, the course has been a place for real musical and personal growth and friendship. “It’s a chance to be and to grow with other musicians who really care about what they’re doing,” Sydney said.

Tessa recalled the experience of finding her full singing voice her first year: “Singing for a full week in that environment really helped my voice grow, particularly in the higher register, where something just clicked in my voice and opened up a range I hadn’t had before.”

Stephanie, in her fourth year as proctor (counselor), has seen the transformation choristers can make during the course. “The adjustment from home can be difficult for some of the kids,” she said. “They’re away from home and their regular schedule for a full week. But as soon as you see the switch flip, when kids form friendships, they really grow into what they’re doing musically. The older kids pick up the younger ones that are more shy or unsure and lift them up in a real example, whether they realize it or not, of Christ’s love. Particularly for boys, who don’t often get this sort of experience, this is a place where kids can come in and shine.”

Tim also noted the steep learning curve that begins at the course and then continues when choristers return home. “You see kids grow as they struggle with something musically and through hard work and effort figure it out,” Tim said. “But it’s the growth that happens during the year and that kids bring back to the course that is most noticeable. You see the same kids come back and watch them deepen their faith and musicianship each year. Two kids returned this year as [young adult] proctors now shepherding the next generation of youth through this course.”

This year’s course was directed by Sarah MacDonald, director of music at Selwyn College, Cambridge and Director of Ely Cathedral Girls’ Choir, both in the UK. Her choir from Selwyn College completed a California tour in July, including concerts and services in San Diego. The first woman director of a college chapel choir in Cambridge or Oxford, Sarah, or “Mackie,” as she was called during the week, proved to be a formidable choir trainer but with a keen sense of humor, exacting in her musical expectations and pushing her charges likely beyond what many thought they could attain. Music consisted of challenging repertoire, including Jonathan Dove’s “Seek him that maketh the seven stars” (sung by St. Bartholomew’s Choir at Lessons and Carols for Easter and Pentecost in June and again in December) as well as lesser known or newly composed works, such as Missa Brevis by Neil Cox.
RSCM Newport has become a true family affair for all St. Bart’s participants: this year Tim was accompanied by his sister (in her third year) and his parents, all based in northern California and who had long heard stories of his experience. While Nathan was able to visit family based in Rhode Island in downtime, Ian joined his wife and daughters on staff as proctor. In previous years Maya and Marcos McKone-Sweet have also participated in the Newport course.

Even after the recent formation of the first west coast RSCM course, held this year in Tacoma, Washington (at which Tim also serves as head proctor), the Strouts still make the trip to Newport. “We go for the music,” Tessa said, “but we go back for the people, the friends we make, the architecture that you don’t see on the west coast, and the weather.”

In the midst of making and renewing friendships and preparing music for major services, the rhythm of daily life, of work, fun, and prayer, was most meaningful to the St. Bart’s contingent. Participants mark the beginning and end of each day with communal celebrations of sung Morning Prayer and Compline, the final hour of daily prayer, in the college chapel.

Ian, for whom this prayer cycle was a new experience, said, “Morning Prayer is not hard or complicated. You can basically come in half-asleep, the adults even with their coffee, and begin to wake up to the day in prayer halfway through the service. And then we’re put to bed at Compline. It’s a great beginning and end of the day.”

“The rhythm of the day brings us back to what we’re doing there,” Stephanie said, ”being ministers of the gospel through music, planting seeds and having faith that God will germinate.”

As if on cue, Tessa recited from memory the Choristers’ Prayer: “Bless, O Lord, us Thy servants who minister in Thy temple. Grant that what we sing with our lips we may believe in our hearts, and what we believe in our hearts we may show forth in our lives. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
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St. Bartholomew’s Choristers and Choral Scholar programs follow RSCM training. For more information on RSCM Training Courses and how your child can grow from these experiences, please see one of us, or visit http://www.rscmamerica.org/training-courses.php.

~Nathan Costa, Director of Liturgy & Music

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