Note: The lecture below was given at the first meeting of European presidents of Fèdèration Europèenne des Choeurs de l'Union in Brussels, Belgium, 4th and 5th of April 2002. Professor Moe was asked by them to speak about this topic.

L’arte de motiver les enfants au plaisir de chanter
The art of making children sing with joy

by Bjørn Moe

Dear colleagues and choir enthusiasts,

It is not without concern that I have agreed to speak on this subject, for who can honestly say that they can handle the art of making children sing with joy?

My background in this topic is thirty years experience as the conductor of the Nidaros Cathedral Boys’ Choir. I was born and raised in the Boys’ Choir.  Nidaros Cathedral Boys’ Choir today consists of fifty boys and twenty-five men, in all, 75 people who meet voluntarily for rehearsals three times a week.  Nobody forces attendance.  At worst, they can quit immediately, but as of yet, they have not done so.

I am often asked how I manage to get such a good choir.  And my answer is:  what is most important is that the singers come back for the next rehearsal.  As long as they come back for the next rehearsal, and that they really want to, you can do the most incredible things with them!

Here is the main question:  What creates a desire to sing, so that every boy will sing with real joy, and not with a feeling of being forced?  I believe the answer is pretty complex, and that it has many connections.  I shall try to touch on some of the connections.

Confidence in the choir


As adults, I’m sure we all have sometimes recognized how insecurity can reduce our performing capability, or spoil the fun of finishing a task.  Children feel the same, and probably more so.  Think about the very first rehearsal in the “Concert Choir” for a boy who has just been transferred from the training choir.  The first months for him are a never-ending journey through new material, difficult scores, foreign languages, new surroundings, new friends, new conductor.  No matter how talented this boy, he will meet with a mixture of success and failure.  Through these first months, the foundation of a good and secure singer is formed.  This reveals how important it is that the conductor and his singers take care of this little person, who might be only 8 or 9 years old.

In academic literature, the American social psychologist Abraham H. Maslow described the importance of satisfying the need for confidence in order to achieve on a high level.   And in this case, not to give what you have to give, simply to realize yourself as a singer.  All human beings, children included, have their own self-respect that must be protected and nurtured.  If we ruin self-confidence, we also ruin the singer.  Just think about the difference in the sound and intonation of a child who sings with or without self-confidence!   Therefore it is so important that the children’s achievements be valued in a positive way.

As directors, we must learn to emphasize the positive when we want to improve the negative.  Constant comments such as ”That was bad,” ”You’re not sitting properly” and “That was not in tune” spoil the singer’s satisfaction and self-confidence, and do not create joyful singing.   Rather say that the boy has a nice sound and that he does a lot correctly, but if he would make an adjustment, it would be even nicer.  Not only the conductor, but also the singers must learn to behave in an encouraging way to each other.  A "thumb’s up" for a boy who has been fighting through a solo produces a lot of warmth.  It can also be very helpful for a new boy to sit beside an experienced and clever boy.

Good choirs and long tours

Most of the boys find long trips exiting, but there are also some who worry.  To be away from mom, dad, brothers or sisters, from his bed, can produce sickness, vomit and tears.  To try to prevent this, we have divided our choir into different areas of responsibility.  Each adult is responsible for two boys.  This adult functions as a "father" to the two boys, helping them with tickets, money and passport, but also making sure they brush their teeth, change socks and go to bed when they are supposed to.  This adult also has a superior to whom he reports.  And at the top of the ladder is the “Godfather,” the conductor.

We know from experience that this arrangement makes everybody more comfortable during the tour, so that all can achieve on a high performance level.  I think all children need "visible adults" around them.  By that, I mean adults who will take responsibility, adults who actually talk to the boys, who wonder how they are, who will joke with them, who will help them if they need something, and who will dare to give the children responsibility.  And that is just what we want:  responsible singers.

The music

Awhile ago, I asked the boys what music they would prefer to sing.  They could choose among three works we had in our repertoire:  Schubert’s "Mass in G major," Bach’s motet "Fürchte dich nicht," or simpler gospel music.

50% voted for Schubert, and the other half wanted to sing Bach.  I asked:  what about the gospel music?  Fair enough, the boys said. It is fun to sing, but Bach and Schubert give us much more, and their music is more demanding.  The story speaks for itself.  Children don’t necessarily want the simple and easy.  There are so many educationalists who say that it is important to stay on the child’s level, but what is actually the child’s level?   I think that many educators define the child’s learning capacity on a shaky basis.  This often originates in the educator's low performance level.  If the teacher is a bad musician, he or she also inhibits the child’s development.

My experience is that boys like challenges, and that they love tackling them.  And when they overcome the challenge, they also love the music, and they spread the music of joy and delight.

As "visible adults" and conductors, we must learn to understand and appreciate this human learning process, so we can direct the process with encouragement and inspiration.  You cannot escape hard work.  Everyone who has learned a Bach motet is sure of that.  In addition, it is important to have an inspiring conductor with an inspiring future goal, for example, a tour.  It is unnecessary to force a child to sing when you can lead the child to produce a lot more with happiness. 

Natural variations among the boys

Even in the best choirs, there will be singers who don't always succeed, or some who will need more time to succeed. At this point I communicate openly with boys and parents, and tell them that the boy needs more time.  Some are quicker to take on new material than others, and it would be wrong to hold back the quicker boys, just so everyone can reach the goal at the same time, i.e., to be good enough to join the Concert Choir.  The boys know very well who are clever and who needs more time to learn.


The problem is to keep inspiration up when you remove the goal for which the boys have been working.  It is when faint-heartedness is overwhelming that these boys need the conductor’s attention.  It is at this moment the conductor needs the ability to read the singer’s body language, so that he can give encouragement and support early enough.   But in this situation, when it is so important to care for those who struggle, one must not forget that it is just as important to give the cleverest boys encouragement, too.  Even the absolute best singer can be disappointed over his own achievements, and needs attention.  If you forget this, you can lose your best singers.

The conductor

Whether we like it or not, the conductor is Alpha and Omega.  It is the conductor, with his personality, his choice of music, his pedagogic skills and his knowledge, who must lubricate the complicated choir machine.  To the children, we therefore become big authorities.  Too big, sometimes.  The children can often put too much weight in what we say and what we do.  It is very easy for a child to misunderstand a joke, a comment, a remark meant in a friendly way.  We therefore have to be both strong and soft at the same time when dealing with children.  We must therefore work on ourselves in the role of "human authority."  We must never descend into becoming an "authoritarian authority."

  © 2000 Bjørn Moe - All rights reserved