Deep Learning & Devotion: Trinity's Cathedral Music School

by Susan Craig

What is deep learning? Choirmaster JED JOHNSON describes it as devotion that becomes formative. In his words, “Music forms us when we devote ourselves to it.”  It’s this kind of devotion in which cathedral choristers are schooled—a devotion formed of discipline and dedication, a slow and deliberate absorption of skill and artistry. Cathedral choristers, current and former, exude that sense of devotion. When they speak of their experience, it’s with a sense of awe and reverence—and a smile.

For Senior Chorister and high school sophomore WALKER McKAY, cathedral choir is about much more than singing. In his words, being a chorister has taught him to increasingly “put God first.” When he reaches a high note, there’s a “rush of adrenaline,” in which he feels “every fiber of himself praising God.” Walker says the challenge of learning how to sing again after his voice changed kept him engaged and stimulated. Through music, too, he’s been drawn more deeply into liturgy and reading scripture—which might not have happened, he said, without his choir immersion.

RUTH DIBBLE describes her nine years as a chorister as a lesson in “balancing joy with responsibility.” With a deep love of singing, she made choir a priority. This meant two weekly practices as well as rotating Sunday performances, along with school commitments. Ruth would tell you that, in addition to receiving a college-level music education, she became adept at time management. She describes a certain holiness in choir rituals, such as robing and processionals. Through the choir, she says, she helped spread music’s sacredness to others, like “praying twice.”

Assistant Choirmaster KATIE GATCH compares the chorister program to team sports. By being part of something larger, the individual learns accountability. To Katie, choral singing actually involves athleticism: the breath, movement, coordination, attention to timing and nuance. Like sports teams, older choristers serve as role models to younger members. Choir also teaches choristers to acknowledge errors—if someone misses a note in rehearsal, they raise a hand—a handy tool, but even more, a lesson in “owning one’s mistakes.”

A USC Music/Education graduate, Katie believes Trinity Cathedral’s music education is unparalleled in the southeast. Not only do participants learn music theory and performance; they also learn Anglican tradition, sacred music history, and become fluent in the “language of music.” Through pilgrimages, such as the one to England’s Durham Cathedral, choristers are exposed to living history as well—in this case, performing in a 1000-year-old cathedral.

Along with the chorister program, there is much other “deep learning” going on in the cathedral. You may hear USC organ students practicing on the Trinity organ, a rich tradition of sharing resources (and a gift to those who happen to be in the cathedral.) MARY WALDO, classically trained musician and instructor, is currently teaching Suzuki-method recorder at Trinity to a mother/son duo from St. Luke’s Church. Beginning this January, she’ll offer a session of adult and youth recorder lessons for anyone interested. She and Katie hope to expand music teaching to other parts of the community, including public elementary school students.

Music education at Trinity is not a solitary, single-focused enterprise. It is made up of moving pieces, all working in concert to spread the sacred beauty of music—not only to parishioners, but to all who are drawn. Through cathedral concerts and other performances, as well the choral service of Evensong throughout the liturgical season, the gift of music emanates to the community. At Trinity, music is created to be shared; to be transformative; to be another form of prayer.

Some facts about the Cathedral Music program

• In 2003, when Jed assumed the role of Choirmaster, the oldest youth choristers were 4th graders.
• Trinity’s choir today consists of approximately 90 youth and 30 adults.
• This year’s Novice class includes 8 boys and 7 seven girls, the largest to date.
• The Novice course prepares students to read music, understand liturgy, and sing scales on key.
• Junior choristers are typically boys grades 4–5 and girls grades 7–8, and spend two years in training, including two rehearsals per week and individual lessons.
• Senior choristers continue their music education, even as they’re full members of the Cathedral Choir, with all responsibilities entailed.