When to Teach Children to Sight-Read Gregorian Chant

I have heard it stated several times by those who love chant that teaching children to read plainsong is easier than teaching them to read tonal music, however, experience has shown me that this position is dubious at best. Examples given of easy pieces to teach children have included the Kyrie from Mass XVI or the Salve Regina, which ARE easy if the goal is to teach children by rote (especially considering these works are built upon the major scale and include large amounts of repetition in their melodies). I do not doubt that children can and should be taught Gregorian chant by hearing and repeating (after all, one learns one’s native tongue in the same manner), but this binds them to singing only what they have already memorized. I want to find the best way and time to teach them to sight read chant as well, otherwise, the Propers will always be out of reach of my choristers.

At the end of each rehearsal we close by singing either the Salve Regina, the Alma Redemptoris Mater or the Regina coeli (we will eventually add the Ave Regina Coelorum) depending on the season. The Senior Choristers also love singing the Missa cum Iubilo (who can blame them), but teaching them to sight read chant on a daily basis was a process. Beginning last fall the high school boys joined the men singing the Communion antiphon each Sunday, which has been more successful than not,  so I would like to share with you some of the insights I have gained along the way with the hope that they might prove useful.

Firstly, I taught them the Gregorian antiphons as opposed to simplified English versions based upon an experience I had several years ago when I first introduced the Communion antiphons to our adult choir. After several months of singing mainstream English versions of the antiphons I had to confront an undercurrent of rebellion (and this is not a generalization). The few who could already read chant preferred singing the real ones (the Gregorian versions), while those who knew nothing about chant thought the English versions were boring (and I had to agree). After switching to the Gregorian antiphons there were still members who didn’t care to expend the energy learning them, but two or three mentioned to me that at least the Gregorian ones were beautiful to listen to.

Secondly, I had to realize that even though there were only two clefs in chant and no key signatures to confront, the sounds of the scales were completely different. Even though there were no accidentals to speak of, with the exception of flatting the Ti, the boys frequently encountered intervals that they didn’t often sing. Even though there were only four lines instead of five and I didn’t have to teach quarters, halves and whole notes, the music looked different and was therefore a hurdle that had to be overcome for every singer. Thankfully, the boys had heard these antiphons sung every Sunday for the last several years, so they were familiar with the sound of the Communion antiphon. They had sung quite a bit of Latin motets so they at least had a general idea of how to pronounce the words and even recognized a few.  These might seem like little hurdles, but put together, they were a formidable wall to scale for those new to chant.

I started with a simple explanation of the two clefs so the boys could find Do (they were already familiar with solfege) and then pitch the other intervals. Also, I explained that the notes were read left to right, bottom to top. I didn’t mention any exceptions until we faced them in the music. The first rehearsal I had them sight-read the chants on solfege very slowly, phrase by phrase, until they were comfortable with each one. This was often all we tackled  in the first rehearsal of each antiphon. The second rehearsal began the same way, after which I had them switch to the Latin text and gave them a brief explanation of its meaning, especially of the important words. They knew from their years in the choir that I was more concerned that they “sing the text” than “sing the notes,” so the fact that the melody didn’t move in a strict meter didn’t bother them. As they became familiar with the process of reading neumes and the sound of the modes, I explained more and more, both musically and liturgically. To be honest, about 2/3 of the boys are thrilled about the chants and the other 1/3 don’t like them at all, with no middle ground. I pray that time will soften a few hearts.

Six months later, some of the boys have become contributing singers to our small chant choir, while the others continue to grow. I know that next year will be easier as we go through the same chants for the second time. If any of our readers have suggestions for improving the learning process, I would be happy to hear them. At the same time, I would caution the new choir master, or the choir master new to a parish that diving into the murky waters of teaching young people to read chant before they can read tonal music could prove to be a very taxing process that would be better left to the future. I say this because my goal of introducing all of the Propers back into at least one of our Sunday Masses is a process not unlike building a new home, and if I don’t lay a good foundation and build upon that foundation in a methodical way, the home might very easily collapse. I wish you the best as you build your programs of sacred music.

God or Nothing

When the last piece of wrapping paper fell from my presents at my in-laws on Christmas morning, I couldn’t wait to crack the spine of one particular gift, Nicolas Diat’s conversation with Cardinal Sarah, entitled God or Nothing. I heartily recommend the book to anyone who hasn’t yet read it. Today I would like to share with you the good cardinal’s assessment of the crisis of Faith in the modern western world and how it relates to the topics of liturgy and music in particular.

Sarah rightly notes that this crisis of Faith, or silent apostasy, is primarily a “Crisis of God,” which has been going on since long before the middle of the 20th century. In 2000, then Cardinal Ratzinger referred to the 1933 words of a European priest that “[t]he crisis reached by European Christianity is no longer primarily or at least exclusively an ecclesial crisis… The crisis is more profound: it is not only rooted in the situation of the Church: the crisis has become a crisis of God.” It is absolutely essential to keep this reality before us (the “crisis of God”), especially in light of the Church’s focus on evangelization in the last few decades. Both St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI were acutely aware of this problem and confronted it continually. They even began their pontificates with encyclicals focused on the person of God (Redemptor hominis and Deus caritas est respectively). Sarah, following the thought of Pope Benedict XVI, then makes the point that the Second Vatican Council was primarily aimed at battling this problem. Rather than summarize Sarah, I would like to share with you his very own words.

“Indeed, on the subject of Vatican Council II, we will never be able to thank Pope Benedict XVI enough for his hermeneutical work and his authentic interpretation of the will of the Council Fathers. The fact that I refer to his analysis goes to show that the intention of the Council has not been understood full.

“Joseph Ratzinger grasped quite accurately the fact that John XXIII wanted first of all to respond to a major challenge for the modern world: receiving God as he manifested himself in Jesus Christ…

“From the start of Vatican II, although concerned about aggiornamento, the renewal of the Church, and the reunion of Christians, the pope had strongly emphasized that the Council’s chief task was to reveal God the the world (my emphasis), to defend and promote doctrine.” (I find this last part interesting.) 

Sarah notes that Pope Benedict “invited us to focus our attention on the way in which [the constitutions of the council] are ordered,” revealing the intrinsically theological nature (my emphasis) of the council.  First of all comes Sacrosanctum concilium, focused on the Work of God, which should be preferred to all else. Speaking about the liturgy, Sarah says “Before all else, in the Church, there is adoration; and therefore God… [t]he foundation of the liturgy must remain the search for God.”

Following the upon the council’s cornerstone, Sacrosantum concilium, comes Lumen gentium (Christ is the light of the nations), which expounds a theological vision of the Church, since the Church is “not a self-enclosed reality” but must be seen “in terms of Christ. The Church is like the moon. She does not shine with her own light but reflects the light of Christ.” After Lumen gentium comes Dei Verbum and finally Gaudium et spes. The Word of God (Dei Verbum) “is the heart of the message that the Church must reveal and transmit to the world,” while Gaudium et spes gives a vision for what the Church, fully alive and active in the modern world, should look like, namely a light shining in the darkness, bringing all men to the light of Christ and eternal salvation, praising and glorifying God.

Sarah continues “unfortunately, right after the Council, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was understood, not in terms of the fundamental primacy of adoration, of the Church humbly kneeling before the greatness of God, bur rather as a book of formulas…. We have seen all sorts of ‘creative’ liturgical planners who sought to find tricks to make the liturgy attractive, more communicative, by involving more and more people, but all the while forgetting that the liturgy is made for God. If you make God the Great Absent One, then all sorts of downward spirals are possible, from the most trivial to the most contemptible…. Benedict XVI often recalled that the liturgy is not supposed to be a work of personal creativity. If we make the liturgy for ourselves, it moves away from the divine; it becomes a ridiculous, vulgar, boring theatrical game” (my emphasis). Do I hear and Amen!

To return to my original thought on this crisis of Faith and its relationship to liturgy and music, I think we can slay the current and popular belief that by making the liturgy, and by extension liturgical music, “relevant” to people we will somehow bring them back to God. Neither can we do it by recreating marriage, theology, morality or anything else, even God Himself, in human likeness and form. This is nothing but the Devil distracting us from God Himself. Only when we learn once again to kneel in silent adoration before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and with the apostle Philip ask Him to “show us the Father,” will the work of salvation be brought to fulfillment in us and in the world. Only then will His love transform us and the world. Stop the gimmicks, the committees, the meetings, the reports and knock on the door of the Father’s Heart. Trust Him. Let this be our goal in the new year!

A Christmas Carol

“‘Tis the season to… strike the harp and join the chorus.” One of my favorite pastimes in Christmastide is caroling with friends and family, accompanied by fine libations and delectable treats. Like the real wax candles that bedeck our family Christmas tree, though, caroling seems to have become an anomaly in the modern world–a bizarre ritual of old that delights the anthropologist but is of little other use. Christians as much as anyone else simply turn on the radio and think little more of it. Ask the average person in your parish to sing the first verse of Silent Night from memory and I wager he hasn’t got the mental reserve to make it half way through. Don’t doubt me.

In opposition to this decay, I thought today I might refresh our cultural memory of, and hopefully our desire for, the once ubiquitous Christmas carol. To be honest, how many even know what a carol really is, from whence these beautiful songs came and why they are so important–not only for creating a festive mood, but for forming the imagination of our young people (and not so young) and passing on the Faith.

Carols originated as circle dances, accompanied by singing, during the Medieval period. This dance-like quality (Angelus ad Virginem), as well as refrains (Birjina gaztetto bat zegoen, or The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came) and texts in either Latin (Quem pastores), the vernacular (Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen) or both (Psalite, unigenito) were popular–traditions maintained in the modern era. Carol themes run the gamut of the liturgical year or might be secular in nature (Deck the Halls), although the Christmas carol seems to have taken the high ground. Their texts are beautiful examples of popular piety put into words, whether a carol narrates a well know Gospel text such as the Annunciation (The Salutation Carol) or speaks figuratively about the time Mary bore the Christchild in her womb (Maria durch ein Dornwald ging).

Carols developed around the same time as the great mystery and miracle plays (c. 1350-1450) in the golden age of Christendom (although no age is ever perfect) when the Church’s celebration of her liturgical life possessed the vitality to shape and form popular culture. Some carols, such as the Coventry Carol, were a part of these  mystery plays.

 

European countries had a wonderful tradition of carols to which America contributed in her turn (It Came Upon a Midnight Clear and the Negro spiritual Rise Up, Shepherds, and Follow), but in the last seventy-five years the carol has become nothing more than warm sentiments crooned on winter evenings by the latest pop stars emanating from every electronic device imaginable. I’ll gladly admit to listening to and enjoying Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra singing Adeste fidelis (in an era when even the great Hollywood stars knew a bit of Latin) or I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, backed by a large choir and orchestra, but this is an impoverishment of the original carol.

As our culture turns away from God, or more than likely, simply forgets about Him, the popularity of the carol has waned with the winter sun. I sometimes wonder if it isn’t partly the loss of the carol and many other worthy religious customs that has aided the demise of our Faith in the western world (and a loss of the true meaning of Christmas). I have noticed that parents who understand the importance of culture in the formation of their children and therefore instill  in their children a healthy skepticism toward the benefits of “popular” culture are more successful in raising faithful children. Perhaps it would be wise for families to resist the urge to turn on the radio and tune in to the popular “winter holiday” songs and rather, rediscover the simple beauty of the Christmas carol, a true folk tune full of beautiful imagery, Christian meaning and wonderful melodies. Then learn them as a family and sing them together. Click here for a great printable (and free) Christmas caroling book or here to listen to five hours of wonderfully sung Christmas carols.

Keep the flame of the true Christmas spirit burning brightly, continue to wish your family and friends a Merry Christmas! and get together with those same beloved (and not so beloved) kin during the Twelve Days of Christmas and carol to your heart’s content. It is a wonderful way to instill in your children in the real meaning of Christmas, to marvel at the beauty and awesomeness of the Incarnation and to create lasting memories. While you are at it, make a bowl of Smoking Bishop (be sure to have the spirits you put in it blessed today on the Feast of St. John) and toast our heavenly Father, Who in His infinite love sent His Son to become man so that we might become like God! Merry Christmas!

Appropriate Music for the Sacred Liturgy

Several weeks ago David Clayton wrote a piece at The New Liturgical Movement about the push in church music over the last 5 decades to “connect with people by giving them music that is derived from already popular forms.” As he correctly notes, “The problem with this approach is that it can only connect to those people who actually listen for enjoyment to that style of music out of church.” I often observe this phenomenon at work in parishes and in dioceses–the desire to reach various groups with tailored liturgies and music to boot, whether it be the wee tots in parochial school Masses singing “This Little Light of Mine,” pimply faced youngster at Sunday evening Teen Masses strumming on guitars and shouting “Yes Lord, Yes Lord, Yes, Yes Lord,” or any number of graying adults singing at either the contemporary or “traditional” service on Sunday mornings. Gone are the days of the Sunday High Mass that brought together the entire parish family, young and old alike. Clayton also rightly noted that both Ordinary and Extraordinary Form communities fall pray to trap of old music versus new within Mass, which begs the question, where do we go from here? Where indeed!

To begin with, this is not a problem that begins and ends with church music. It is very difficult to implement a program of truly sacred music, focused on the Lord, when so many of our Masses and other services are celebrated as if God were a side note, a somewhat supreme being who is content to stay in the background and ensure that we go no further than feeling good about ourselves and supporting each other in whatever lifestyle we might choose.

Still, there must be a way to claw ourselves out of such a mess. I would suggest that we need to once again discover what the Sacred Liturgy is. If we really believe that God has called us first (and not the other way around), then we have to realize that the work of the Sacred Liturgy is His first. Not to say that He doesn’t allow men to shape the way the it is celebrated in different places and times (we see this in the differences between the various Rites of the Catholic Church). Nevertheless, we must find out His plan. We need to become familiar with the Liturgy in the Ancient Temple of the Israelites as well as the Holy Mass as celebrated in the New Testament. We need to become familiar with the Book of Revelation and the Eternal Liturgy of Heaven. We also need to read Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy, for there is no better source for discovering God’s plan for the Sacred Liturgy. Only then will we be able to approach the question of what music is appropriate for the Mass and Divine Office. Only then will we see in Gregorian chant the archetypal music of the Roman Rite and only then will we be able to compose truly modern music (as opposed to recycled pop music with quasi Christian lyrics). We have a lot of work ahead of us.

A Late Gift for Nicholasmas

As the saying goes, better late than never. Already we find ourselves on the Feast of St. Lucy, a full week after the Feast of St. Nicholas, but nevertheless, I thought I would share with you a wonderful repository of all things St. Nicholas, that like the wise Virgins, you might find yourselves prepared for the feast next year.

If you aren’t already familiar with it, St. Nicholas Center is a website dedicated to the holy man of Myra, and a must see. There are wonderful articles on the events in the life of St. Nicholas, the legends surrounding his personage, descriptions of how he became Santa Claus, Kris Kringle and various other gift givers and why St. Nicholas, who points to the crib instead of replacing it, is simply better.

There are several sections of the website especially dear to me, such as its liturgical resources and musical resources. It contains prayers and collects from the saint’s feast, as well as the order of service used for the Enthronement of the Boy Bishop at Westminster Cathedral in London, English translations of Medieval miracle plays (here for the story of St. Nicholas and the Virgins) and many St. Nicholas carols from throughout the world.

Unfortunately we live in a society in which parents can no longer allow the culture to help form their children, and in most instances are forced to fight such and un-cultural laviathon. As St. Nicholas made so bold as to punch the heretic Arius, I doubt he would have sat idly by as Christ was barred from His own birthday celebration. This website provides a wealth of materials for parents to help fight the commercialization of Christmas (and the loss of Advent altogether) and more importantly, once again put their children on the path to the Manger in Bethlehem.

Where does your heart lie?

Two weeks ago I wrote concerning a comment Msgr. Marini made in a talk regarding the friction that often results between priest and musician clash over matters musical withing the sacred liturgy. Over the next few weeks I would like to look at some of the other comments he made during his talk, points which I think are always important for us to remember.

Msgr. Marini spoke about the ongoing battle between the external work of the musician at Mass, making sure that the music is technically and artistically performed, and the interior work of allowing the Holy Spirit to transform us into saints. How many of us have fought this battle within our own hearts, pouring all of our energies into making the music at Easter or Christmas (or any Sunday, for that matter) perfect and then realizing afterward that while we were physically present for the Holy Sacrifice, we were spiritually far from it. How many of us arrived home after Holy Mass and had nothing left to give our families (and never forget they are our actual vocation).

In spite of all my faults (and my wife would gladly tell you how numerous they are), I feel that this is one area of my life in which I have a leg up, so to speak. I grew up in a family where my father was ALWAYS present. He earned a master degree in education but decided against going into the field because he knew he would have no time for his family. Instead he took a blue collar job in the oil field. When his time was up at work, he left for home and left work at work. His work time was flexible enough that he was able to get away for an hour whenever we had school plays, parent teacher conferences, etc. He came to so much that my siblings and I joked that we wouldn’t mind if he stayed home every once in a while. More importantly, he had an uncanny knack for knowing and keeping priorities in order. God was always first, even when vacation plans had to be moved around so we could drive three hours to the closest Mass for Assumption while traveling in Montana and Wyoming. We have to learn to keep priorities as musicians–God and family.

I think what we can learn from this is that if you arrive at Christmas day and you haven’t been to confession, if your daily prayer has suffered and you haven’t eaten supper with your family at least five nights a week during Advent, then you are in too far. As musicians, we tend to love our work more than others, but that is no excuse for overextending ourselves. God really is concerned with internals before He is concerned with externals. Please don’t misunderstand, I believe in excellence and I abhor bad music badly sung within the sacred liturgy, we need regular practice, but we still have to get our priorities straight. Make a pledge to put God and your family first this Advent and Christmastide. Simplify the music at Christmas Masses if you have to. Take your family to confession. Pray before you ever get to work. And practice resignation once Mass begins, letting the music fall where it wills. You will arrive at Christmas Day (or any other day) full of the joy of the feast!

Liturgical Musicians and Pastors: Are We Really Working Together?

Last month Catholic News Service reported that Msgr. Marini, the papal MC, spoke on October 21 to a group of musicians in Italy as part of a choral festival.. The good monsignor outlined five important aspects of the sacred liturgy and how the choir is called to serve each aspect. While I think his points were extremely valuable for us to ponder (the topic of next week’s post), it was an “uncomfotable, practical question” asked by a woman in the audience afterward, followed by Marini’s response, that caught the attention of most.

“Many times, in our parishes, the priest wants the choir to perform songs that are inappropriate, both because of the text” and because of the moment the song is to be performed during the service, she said. “In these situations, must the choir master follow the wishes of the priest even with the knowledge that by doing so, the choir is no longer serving the liturgy, but the priest?” she said to applause.

Asked for his advice, Msgr. Marini smiled, cast his eyes upward and rubbed his chin signaling his awareness that it was a hot-button topic. He said he felt “sandwiched” “between two fires, between priests and choirs.” Acknowledging the difficulty of such a situation, he said he sided with the priest.

There are situations where priests may not be giving completely correct guidance, he said, and there are directors that could be doing better. But in either case, conflict and division should be avoided and “humility and communion be truly safeguarded,” he said.

This, like with all disagreements, he said, requires that all sides be very patient with each other, sit down and talk, and explain the reasons behind their positions.

But if no conclusion or final point is reached, then “perhaps it is better also to come out of it momentarily defeated and wait for a better time rather than generate divisions and conflict that do no good,” he said to applause.

If the truth be told, this woman’s question resonated more those present than Marini’s previous five points simply because it touched upon a deep wound–the tension so often felt between the priest (who should be the chief liturgist of his parish) and the choir director (who is often designated as the liturgist) at the majority of parishes in Anytown, USA.

To make matters worse, over the last 50 years progressives have so successfully pushed a false view of what the essence of the sacred liturgy is in the classical sense (and I would argue as it is presented in Sacrosanctum Concilium) that there is no common ground between progressives (clergy or lay) and those who wish to see an authentic implementation of the Second Vatican Council (again, clergy or lay).

I realize there are many good priests and music directors in the world today who are in love with Christ and His Church and who want to see the liturgy “worked” in all of its beauty, both for the Glory of God and for the edification of all the faithful, but unfortunately, the union of the two rarely takes place in the parish. Speaking on behalf of liturgical musicians worthy of the name, they often submit as a result of the pastor’s sheer force rather than out of respect for at least being heard.

I am blessed to work for a very orthodox pastor who at at the same time truthfully acknowledges that he doesn’t always understand my insistence on the sacred liturgy being celebrated in the way that I do. But the key is that both of us have an openness to the each other and to the truth and this makes submission on my part much easier (and while I might stretch him liturgical, it is only fair to note that he has stretched me in many areas of the Faith extra-liturgical). If that weren’t the case, I would have no other course of action than to submit to him by turning in my resignation. As I have explained to priests before who seek to understand the church musician, I feel called by God to this work and understand it to be part of my path to holiness. As such I have to be faithful to what the Church asks me to do, whether I like it or not (this is incredibly freeing). I have spent large amounts of time (time often away from my family), money and energy to learn the skills necessary to follow this avocation (I don’t see it as a job). Priests need to realize that for me to do less than what the Church asks of me would be like an athlete showing daily to practice and being told by the coach that he wasn’t really interested in the sport and quite frankly didn’t care to be. Such a coach wouldn’t have a team, and I dare say many priests haven’t been much more successful in procuring and retaining great musicians.

If I had the chance to speak with Marini in person, I would like to share with him that while what he says is true, it is equally true that if the Church is going to call musicians to this vocation, She has a duty to form pastors who will respect and nourish such a vocation (which means forming priests in an authentic ars celebrandi). Charity is never one sided. To be fair, I am sure the good monsignor feels the same way, but I think it is time that we honestly address both sides.

Tips for the Organist

I recently had the good fortune to attend several Masses at parishes other than my own, and each time was pleasantly surprised to hear at least an organ and cantor leading congregational hymns mostly worthy of the name. If I had to guess, I would assume that none of these organists was a full-time church musician, yet each had a very solid technique. It made me think about what I might suggest to each in order to take what was already good organ playing and make it better. What follows are a few practical suggestions for the parish organist.

  1. Practice: It should go without saying that hymns (and any other bits of music used on a regular basis within the liturgy) should be practiced each week, but I have found this is not always the case. When I was in graduate school, I confessed to my organ teacher that I had to practice hymns each week or else I made stupid little mistakes. I was embarrassed by this, having thought that everyone else was good enough to sight-read them. I felt better after he told me that he, too, practiced the hymns he had to play each week and felt that the playing of anyone who didn’t would suffer.
  2. Tempo: Singing a hymn quickly does not necessarily give it life. Once during my high school years my pastor actually stopped me in the middle of the opening hymn and told me to speed it up, so I dutifully played as quickly as I could. He liked everything fast and had a general abhorrence of rests, which he would routinely skip, even when it meant cutting beats out of a measure. Thankfully he and I always got along, but I have struggled with taking music too fast ever since. In reality, a hymn’s life comes from the organist playing it with a deep awareness of the underlying beat (and its division) and passing that feeling on to the congregation. Of course, one must take into account the size and acoustic of the building, etc. but those are of secondary consideration. I would heartily recommend the book Note Grouping by James Thurmond for anyone desiring to gain a greater understanding of how rhythm gives life to music.
  3. Playing the text: Make a concentrated effort to read and understand the text and how it works within the hymn tune. Just because a hymn follows traditional four bar phrasing doesn’t mean the text will. Do you put the tune to the text or the text to the tune? There is a vast difference.
  4. Breathing with the congregation: Stravinsky once quipped that the organ was “the monster that never breathes” and he had a point. At one parish I attended the organist played with incredible speed and vigor. If the final chord of a measure was marked for four beats, she dutifully held it four beats before moving at the speed of light into the next verse. I was holding two squirming children and a hymnal at the time and tried like made to suck in enough air to even start the next verse of the hymn with her. She always won. As a choir master I routinely ask my choristers to take a full beat of breath at the end of a textual phrase. The organ do the same. What about at a textual cadence within a verse? I don’t add an extra beat, but I definitely “stretch” the beat a bit.
  5. Hymn introductions: I almost always play the first line of a hymn for the introduction simply to give the congregation a preview of the coming attraction, and I play it at the SAME tempo as I will play it once they begin singing. Again, take out the guess work for the congregation. If the hymn is exceptionally well know and has a great refrain beginning in the tonic chord (e.g. To Jesus Christ Our Soveregin King) I might play the refrain, but that is more of an exception than the rule.
  6. Number of verses: This is where the problem of hymns within the Holy Mass rears its ugly head. In reality a hymn should be sung from beginning to end with all of the verses, whether Father has to wait or not. There is nothing worse than celebrating Trinity Sunday and the musicians stop the opening hymn following the required two verses to get Father to the altar, clearly leaving the Holy Spirit out of the hymn (and perhaps out of the liturgy!). If Father wants you to stop when the liturgical action is complete, then tell him you would be happy to do so with the Proper antiphons from the Graduale Romanum!
  7. Registration: Registration is not my strong suit, but it suffices to say that a little change within a hymn would be nice. Also, there is no reason to destroy the congregation’s hearing just because you like the reeds on a particular organ, but at the same time, if the congregation is keeping up with the registration, don’t be afraid to use them either, even when the little old lady with the hearing-aides has a fainting spell.

I hope this proves helpful and I also want to say “thank you” to all of you who play the organ during the sacred liturgy. We owe you a great song of gratitude!

Music and the Formation of our Youth

Several weeks ago I gave a presentation to a group of church musicians concerning the great need for children to both experience and sing good music-not just in order to make them discerning aesthetes, but more importantly, to form their souls. I firmly believe that “while it is true that children can make beautiful music, it is more important that music can make beautiful children,” which in no less true when it comes to sacred music.

Unfortunately today the belief holds sway that “we need to give young people what they like in order to get them in the doors.” I encountered this at my first official church job more than a decade ago working for a Catholic Campus Center. The interim director suggested that maybe I should use the piano and some more upbeat praise and worship music and drop the chant (which wasn’t very much to begin with). I knew Praise and Worship wasn’t the best music for the Sacred Liturgy, but what if it would actually bring students in the door and then we could evangelize them from there. In a real desire to do what was best I called a former professor who now teaches at the Augustine Institute in Denver (and who had plenty of experience working with college students) and explained the situation. Like a really good spiritual director he didn’t shoot back an immediate response, but instead asked a question. “Lucas, you need to ask yourself, do you really believe that young people are going to show up on Sunday night just to hear praise and worship, which we as Catholics will never be able to perform to the standards of a Protestant mega church, when they could stay at home and listen to the same stuff on a CD without having to sit through the homily.” I have never forgotten that question.

What if we changed our focus from singing music that makes young people feel good to singing music that helps children to come to know Jesus as He truly is, the God Who became Man so that they could become like God. What if they learned to chant the psalms instead of the trite garbage that passes for kiddie songs today. This isn’t an argument for or against old or new music, but instead an argument for good lyrics set to good music. Perhaps our young people can once again learn that they are children of a Father who loves them and calls them to greatness!

O praise God in His holiness.

Praise Him in the firmament of His power.

Praise Him in His noble acts.

Praise Him according to His excellent greatness…

Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord.”

 

Wonderful Things are Happening in Detroit!

Two weeks ago I spent several days at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit, presenting at, and also attending, a workshop entitled In Service of the Sacred, and I can tell you there are wonderful things going on in the Archdiocese of Detroit. This is only possible because of the many wonderful and talented people involved there with music, including Mr. Matt Simpson, Mrs. Susan Lindquist, Mr. Joe Balisteri (Director of Music for the Archdiocese), Dr. Ron Prowse (Director of Music for Sacred Heart Major Seminary)and of course, Archbishop Allen Vigneron.

I gave a talk entitled, A Firm Foundation: Catholic Choral Education and the Schola Cantorum, in which I spoke about the importance of good sacred music in the formation of the moral imagination of our youth and how that happens in a “choir school.” Afterward, 35 grade school students traipsed into the room and I gave them a 30 minute crash course in the basics of sight-singing. At the end they were able to tackle a short melody on their own. However, even more exciting were two developments I learned of while in Detroit.

First, the archbishop has created a task force at the diocesan level to chart a course for the realization of the Second Vatican Council’s vision for sacred music within the archdiocese, especially at the parish level. The task force hopes to eventually compile a diocesan “Gradual,” which will be more of a repository of readily available sources in English and Latin for singing the Propers of the Mass.

The second wonderful thing I learned about was the great work of Dr. Prowse, who has almost completed composing music for the texts of the Entrance and Communion antiphons found in the Roman Missal, which he has set to Gregorian inspired melodies as opposed to plain psalm tones. The work also includes Responsorial Psalms for the week, Alleluia chants from the Graduale Simplex and a short Kyriale (click here for a short sample). He has been using his settings at the seminary and many of his former seminarians have been pushing him to finish! I think it will prove to be a great resource for any group wishing to sing the Entrance and Communion antiphons at daily Mass, especially since those texts are the ones already found in many of the mainstream music collections used by parishes, such as Breaking Bread. My kuddos to Dr. Prowse! I can’t wait to see the rest of his work and to put them to good use.