“Music is one of the foundations of our faith,” says Janet Stites, choir director at St. Francis of Assisi School in Sacramento. “We learn a lot from songs,” she adds, insisting that music and songs draw us into church and theology.
Engaged in music and accompanying choirs since her own school days, Janet sees how music touches lives. Since 2006, Janet has directed the school choir, consisting of 70 students in grades five through eight with eight distinctive rehearsals a week. Any student may join and their participation is outside of school hours – before or after school, or during lunch or recess.
“If they want to sing, they can,” she says, noting how students learn and improve over the years. “It is fun to see them grow.”
“Rehearsals are usually spent practicing for the next Mass or whatever is coming up,” Janet explains. The school celebrates Mass together once a month with prayer services occurring weekly.
The choir also enjoys special performances. On St. Patrick’s Day, they will appear at the Golden 1 Center for the third year in a row to sing the national anthem before a Sacramento Kings game begins. Last fall, they also sang the anthem at Sacramento Republic FC’s final home game. They sing Christmas carols at Camp ReCreation’s “Christmas Experience” event also.
Early in February, they will join with other school choirs to participate in the annual Diocesan Elementary Choral Festival and their spring concert represents the culmination of the choir’s year with a compilation of secular and sacred music among the selections performed.
“For Mass, I do have them solo to gain experience singing by themselves,” Janet says, pleased at how many like to do this. “It’s completely voluntary but they’re taking on leadership roles and it helps them grow.”
Janet radiates joy for her students’ accomplishments and she loves to watch them take music to the next level. “I have had students that have continued singing in high school and beyond and they’re fabulous,” she shares. Some students also complement the choir with other musical instruments: keyboards, violin, flute and drums. She laughs about the drums, recalling how she brought them in and they seem to always attract students. She quips, “well, they keep the beat going, right?”
Janet describes herself as an accompanist, having played the piano since second grade. “I can carry a tune, but I am an accompanist and a teacher,” she clarifies, asserting that her gift is “not vocals.” She also serves as religion coordinator for the school, organizing and preparing liturgies, and she teaches performing arts for grades one through four. Her primary teaching role is science for grades five through seven. With a degree in biology and a master’s degree in genetics, she “loves using both sides of the brain” to teach religion, music and science. She also has volunteered her accompanist talents for parish Masses since 1995.
“I think children who attend Catholic schools are so fortunate, because they can sing their faith,” Janet attests, cherishing the chance for them to learn, practice and share Catholic teachings and beliefs. “If someone asks about the Beatitudes, they might first think of the song ‘Blest Are They,’” she offers, describing how song summons tunes in students’ brains, helps them to commit information to memory, and all while they sing and evangelize.
“When the choir sings, there’s evangelizing occurring for the whole family,” she maintains, content in how her students’ share their musical gifts with the world.
Kathy Curtis, choir director at St. John Notre Dame School in Folsom, also sees a valuable element of faith formation in music. She has taught fourth grade at since 1986 and choir almost as long. “I talk about the songs we sing and why I chose it,” she explains, weaving meaning for her young students. She points to the song “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley” as an example. “I talk about the crosses we bear in life,” Kathy says of the teaching moment.
On another occasion, the choir sang a meditation during Mass. It so moved a young man attending that he came up to Kathy to thank the choir for singing it. “Their voices touched him,” she shares, defining the exchange as a “God-moment.”
The school’s choir invites any student in grades three through eight to participate. In any given year, Kathy sees 25 to 35 students join the choir. They focus on music for the school Mass every Friday and one Sunday Mass once a month. They come after school on Thursdays to practice.
Kathy marvels at the interest among third graders, but notes it wanes a bit among the middle school students. Yet she always enjoys a solid group and describes the students’ involvement as “a growth experience.”
“I play the piano and prepare and lead the choir, but some of my stronger students take turns directing,” Kathy says, commending their abilities and leadership.
A Christmas performance, a talent show and a spring concert make up the choir’s performance schedule. They also will participate in the annual Diocesan Elementary Choral Festival. Kathy recalls fond memories of directing an annual musical, too, giving students a range of experiences including technical production, staging and performance. “They were big shows with 100 students participating,” she shares, detailing how students immersed themselves in programs like “Willy Wonka,” “Aladdin” and “Annie.”
“For so many kids, this is their venue,” Kathy maintains, describing how the opportunity to excel musically allows these gifts and talents to shine for these students, just as others may do well in academics, athletics or other areas. She also sees her students going on to sing in high school and college quite successfully.
“I think I see them growing in faith,” Kathy trusts after decades of teaching moments and God-moments. She relates a recent story from the Kindergarten teacher who tells Kathy her students are happily “singing those songs” that they hear the choir sing. On another occasion, a mother shared how her young daughter commanded their in-home, voice-controlled smart speakers; “Alexa, play Mrs. Curtis’ songs!”
“I’m uplifted listening to them sing,” Kathy smiles, certain that the Holy Spirit moves her and her students along.
Diocesan Elementary Choral Festival is Feb. 4
On Monday, Feb. 4, many of the diocese’s elementary school choirs will come together to participate in the 12th annual Diocesan Elementary Choral Festival, held at Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento.
“This event is an opportunity for our children to share their God-given gifts with one another,” says Laurie Power, chief academic officer of the Catholic Schools Department. “In addition to each elementary school choir performing, choir directors from our local Catholic high schools adjudicate and offer affirming critiques after each school’s performance. It is a wonderful opportunity to have our elementary school choirs work with our high school directors.” For more information, contact the Catholic Schools Department at (916) 733-0114.
In photo above, Kathy Curtis, longtime choir director and fourth grade teacher, directs the student choir at St. John Notre Dame School in Folsom.