NORWALK—“Oh pray tell—what is this neume?” asked David Hughes jovially, melodically, as he held up a paper covered in rectangles and lines.
“A torculus!” cried a chorus of small voices gathered in the yard of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church.
And what is a neume, you may well ask? Neumes are notes sung on a single syllable. They’re the building blocks of Gregorian chants—ancient, sacred music that is still a part of Mass in many Catholic churches. And the three dozen children gathered for the 10th year of Chant Camp, run by Hughes, of Norwalk, can tell you all about them.
“I’d say it’s lovely music—and fun,” said 10-year-old Mary Kelley, of Mount Kisco, N.Y.
“It’s a really big part of our religion, too,” added her older brother, Gus Kelley, pointing to the words written in gold across the hearts of their camp T-shirts: “Bis orat qui bene cantat.”
“He who sings well prays twice,” the 14-year-old translated.
Hughes can still remember the first time he experienced a Gregorian chant. He was a junior at Fairfield College Preparatory School, where Richard Cipolla, recently the reverend at St. Mary, was his chemistry teacher at the Jesuit prep school. Cipolla roped him into singing a chant for Holy Week at a convent in Darien.
“And hearing that chant—it really changed my life,” Hughes said. “It was an encounter with beauty that I had never seen or heard before in that way.”
Now, he’s helping children discover it much earlier than he did.
“This type of singing is very rare for kids to do these days,” said the mother of Gus and Mary, Amy Kelley. “Only at Chant Camp would kids willingly sit in this extremely hot gym to eat and sing and play.”
Remarkably, Hughes was not complaining either, although he was standing outside on a humid, 87-degree day wearing a dark blue suit and leather shoes.
Every day, the children meet for practice, sing Mass, then break for lunch and games before an afternoon practice.
The games took place outdoors, with the children, as young as 5, in four lines.
“I love the neumes races!” said 9-year-old Audrey Marvell of New Jersey.
Every neume has a name denoting a distinct progression of notes, and for the neumes race, each team was assigned a neume to mimic. Because a torculus’s second note is the highest, that team raced with sideways jumping jacks, and because quilisma trills, that team raced with a wriggling prance.
“On your mark, get set, neumate!” Hughes shouted, as the teams broke into jumps and flops, flailing their way toward the fence as quickly as they could.
“We’re way too into this,” laughed a camp counselor, Giovanna Loizzo of Bethel.
Then it was time for practice. The flushed children sat down in the gym, where they drank iced water and fanned themselves with blue folders.
Hughes called them to order (“Students, students, all ye students!”) and used a chalkboard to review the terminology for more neumes, before splitting them up to sing a round.
The mumbling sounds of children’s voices quieted. Then, in their stead, clear, round notes filled the gym, cresting one after another, swelling, then subsiding.
Patti Ward, of Norwalk, the parent of two of the campers, had been tidying up after lunch, but as the children sang, she paused and lifted her face toward the music. After the round faded, she smiled.
“It’s straight from their hearts,” she said.