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Happy Campers = Active Participation

Choir camp for children

For more than a decade, each August, as the summer draws to a close, St. James Cathedral in Seattle has focused its energy on providing a day camp for young singers of our parish and the deanery.

The purpose of the week-long choir camp is not to provide parents with one last break before the school year starts (although it does do that). Nor is its purpose to entertain children jaded by three months of soccer camps, ballet camps, CYO camps, and just plain camping camps. The reason for the choir camp is stated succinctly in our published mission statement, on which the entire youth music program at St. James is built: "To develop full, active, and conscious participation in the liturgy through singing." Although the camp is packed with activities, every class, rehearsal, game, and quiet time is planned to prepare young musicians for a new season of participating in the Mass.

Choir camp at St. James is designed for the Schola Cantorum, our advanced youth choir for children 9 to 13 years of age. Originally, the organist and an experienced conductor ran the whole camp with about 25 students. It has grown over the years, both in the number of campers and the number of professional and volunteer staff members. In 2012 we will limit the camp to 40 singers directed by a gifted minister-conductor-pied piper, Stacey Sunde. She is assisted and supported by other teachers from the youth music program, an organist, a number of high school students who eagerly sign up to assist, a host of committed family members, and the coordinators of almost every department and ministry of the parish.

The camp runs for a week — Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. — and concludes on the following Sunday, when the Schola Cantorum sings with the congregation at the 10:00 a.m. Mass.

Camp schedule

Each day begins with a 15-minute "surprise," which encourages families to get their young musicians there on time but also means that a traffic problem won't cause a child to miss valuable training time. Surprises have ranged from a visit by service dogs active in hospital ministry to a visit from the archbishop. We have had a bagpiper, a rugby-star tenor, and an Irish dancer. The most unforgettable surprise was the appearance of the pastor in his Rome seminary days' cassock, cape, and hat. Smile-bringing, yes; happy camper–making, of course; but most importantly, the cross-section of surprise guest parishioners demonstrates to the choristers how important their ministry is to everyone in the entire community.

The campers then go in procession to the chapel for the divine office we call morning praise. We sing the same music every morning, so by mid-week, the campers are leaders of song, cantors, psalmists, and sometimes even the organist. A lay leader from the parish pastoral staff gives a brief reflection on a Scripture about music in prayer and the Christian life. The campers' families and other parishioners are invited to join us for this time of prayer.

After morning praise, we process (we practice processing everywhere we go) back to our main room to start the day's work, which is a predictable medley of rehearsals, musicianship lessons, voice classes, mini-performances, small group sectionals, Orff percussion ensemble, and quiet times to reflect and to write.

Some of the week's activities are not as predictable but are so important in helping each singer feel the cathedral is her or his home.

  • We explore the secret parts of the cathedral: sub-sub-basement tunnels, bell towers, attic, convent garden.
  • The organist demonstrates the pipe organs and then takes the campers through the belly of the beast, inside the pipe chambers.
  • The director of liturgy helps the campers search out all representations of Mary in the cathedral's art, reveals the hidden messages in our icons, and explains the liturgical traditions found in treasures from the vestment collection.
  • I lead a session called "The Dance of the Mass," in which we review and practice all the gestures of the Mass, from the sign of the cross at the font as we enter to the reverence of the altar, the Blessed Sacrament, and each other at the sign of peace. We review gestures for the divine office, such as the sign of the cross at the beginning of the Gospel canticle.
  • A physical education instructor volunteers to organize outdoor play sessions that are almost too much fun and at the same time help develop important ensemble skills — mutual support, common goals, and shared victories.
  • We visit the cathedral kitchen, which feeds nearly 200 people each weekday.
  • To meet our neighbors, we sing a short recital at a retirement home across the street.
  • And we share food, of course! Parents prepare healthy, tasty camper snacks (funded by patrons eager to support the children). The snacks are served in different locations so that everyone becomes familiar with every part of St. James Cathedral: the front steps, the chancery, the rectory, the music offices.

On Wednesday we begin attending midday Mass. The first day, we sing all the people's parts with faculty serving as psalmists and cantors. By Friday, the campers fill all musical ministries in addition to supporting the people's song.

On Friday afternoon, we invite the families and parishioners to a camp concert, award assembly, and ice cream party.

On Sunday, the happy campers are fully, actively, and consciously participating in the liturgy with the 1,000 parishioners at the 10:00 a.m. Mass.

Our coolest discoveries

For the last several years, the cathedral's webmaster has created a website for the camp. During the day, parents, faculty, and staff shoot photographs of the campers engaging in various activities. At the conclusion of the day, the webmaster uploads a message from the director, types up the writing the students have done during their reflection time, and posts some of the photos from the day with captions (but never names of minors). By the time campers get home, they can already find an online diary of their activities. Over and over, delighted parents (and grandparents) have told us this was the first time they could ask, "What did you do today?" and the answer was something other than "Nothing" or "I don't remember." The students are able to talk about everything they learned using the website's photos and comments. To get the flavor of our choir camp, visit; in the sidebar, click on Photo Gallery; then click Choir Camp under any of the last several years.

Our second-coolest discovery is our brightly colored, theme-announcing T-shirts! If you can find a donor to fund them, T-shirts make it easy to spot wandering campers, and they help develop a sense of ensemble and unity.

Some lessons we have learned

  • Children younger than nine years of age generally cannot manage such a long day or vigorous schedule. This can be a hardship for families with younger siblings, so occasionally we make exceptions.
  • A shorter day is difficult for working parents.
  • A tuition fee is essential. We charge a small tuition ($60 for the entire week) that helps families commit to their children's attendance. So that the tuition is not a deterrent for low-income families, we raise money to give complete scholarships to any family that requests one. We have found this to be the easiest fund-raising effort we have.
  • No one teacher should be the leader for more than 90 minutes.
  • Other than the hour-plus of the Mass, activities need to change focus after 20 minutes. Leaders do not have to be changed, but the type of activity does. For example, singing might change to rhythm clapping, or note learning to quiet writing.
  • Don't hang too many ornaments on the tree. I know it sounds like we offer a lot of different things, but we have been tempted to add more. Choir camp is not daily vacation Bible school. Scripture is learned through the music we sing. Choir camp is not Sunday school. Faith formation happens when we understand and believe what we sing.
  • Singing is an activity in which our society has a gender bias; that is, it is not masculine to sing when your voice has not yet changed. We have worked to find ways to support young men with unchanged voices to find manhood in singing.

Camp themes

Each year we select a theme for choir camp. In the Year of St. Paul, it was "Run the Race." Last year we had as a special guest a parishioner who composed the music for the Harry Potter and Halo video games. During the week the campers learned from him about the recording industry, rehearsed the setting of "Ave Maris Stella" he composed for and with them, and made a professionally produced recording.

This year our theme is "Heroes for God." We will be reviving our mini-version of the Play of Daniel, a medieval sung drama. The Schola Cantorum will be divided into groups of four or five, and each group will learn one medieval Latin chant and choreography; this gives every child an opportunity to work in a small group with a professional coach. We will put the play together with elaborate costumes from the cathedral's collection, with modest lighting (PowerPoint is so versatile!) and professional medieval music singers and instrumentalists who volunteer their talents for the project. We will perform it at the closing concert on Friday.

Day's end

Every day concludes with prayer, to which the parents are invited. The prayer consists of singing — not rehearsing — one or more of the musical prayers the campers have worked on that day. And then, as always when we conclude a Schola Cantorum rehearsal, we join in the prayer prayed by psalmists and cantors since the fifth century:

O Lord,
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.


Dr. James Savage has been director of music at St. James Cathedral, Seattle, since 1981. Earlier he ministered as a parish musician in southern Germany. He is on the steering committee of the Conference of Roman Catholic Cathedral Musicians. He has served on the board of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM) and was named NPM Pastoral Musician of the Year in 2002. As a Fulbright Research Fellow, he studied 18th-century liturgical music in Germany. He has taught at the Universities of Oregon and Washington and at elementary schools in Eugene, Ore.