St. John’s choirmaster shares love of sacred music with young

STAMFORD—As a young boy, Nicholas Botkins would sneak into the loft of the small Protestant church in Kentucky where his family sang in the choir. There he found what he calls “the ultimate toy” — a church organ. From those simple beginnings came his lifelong love of the organ and a path that led to the Catholic Church.

In the years that followed, he studied the organ and sacred music and would play at Protestant churches around Kentucky. He eventually joined the Catholic Church after being inspired by perpetual Eucharistic adoration at a parish where he was working.

Botkins, who for 10 years was the director of sacred music and master of the choirs at the St. Francis de Sales Oratory, an apostolate of the Institute of Christ the King in St. Louis, was appointed Director of Music at the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist in March.

Motivated by his desire to share his love of sacred music with young people, he recently conducted a Choir Camp at the Basilica for choristers 9 to 17, which offered workshops in sacred music and small group classes in vocal technique, musicianship, ear-training and Gregorian Chant. The students were given lessons in Latin diction and sang pieces in Latin, Greek and English.

Fifteen girls and boys from different backgrounds attended the workshops.

Daily Mass was part of the program, and at the end of the week-long camp, the choir sang at the 12:10 Mass at the Basilica.

“Some of them played an instrument and performed in choirs, but the camp was geared for all children who have an interest in singing,” Botkins said.

Every day, the choristers would meet for warmup and rehearsals. He taught vocal technique, and his colleague, Joseph Elbertson, who sings in the Basilica choir and is a music teacher in Bridgeport, taught musicianship and ear-training classes.

When Botkins was at the Institute of Christ the King, he conducted similar camps and ten years ago began a weeklong camp for children who would come from the United States and Canada to study musical technique, Latin and Gregorian chant.

“Our primary mission is to begin a substantial children’s choral program at the Basilica,” Botkins said. “The camp offers a way to jump-start that program. A week of training is like three to four months of rehearsals crammed into one week and you can get a lot done in a short time.”

Several of the families who participated told him they would be interested in continuing as part of a choral ensemble that would sing at Masses. The next step is to begin having weekly rehearsals and recruit more singers.

“The children’s choir program is intended to offer young musicians the opportunity to share in the musical tradition of the Church, which is part of their formation as Christians,” Botkins said. “It is most important for us as Thomists that we instill in them a desire to cherish beauty, and this beauty is most surely found in the life of the Church.”

Botkins’ love of music also began at a young age.

“I have always been attracted to music,” he said. “I studied violin when I was young and took organ lessons and went to music camp.” He later graduated from the University of Michigan with a major in organ. As an organist, he has played recitals throughout the United States and Europe.

He came into the Catholic faith in 2007 after being inspired by the perpetual Eucharistic adoration that was held at a parish where he was working, and it had a profound and lasting influence upon him. And like St. Thomas Aquinas, he has a deep reverence for the Eucharist and shares his belief that “The things we love tell us what we are.”