A Response

Recently a friend and priest commented to me that he felt some seminarians and young priests were far too focused on the exterior details of the Sacred Liturgy, ultimately missing Christ in the celebration of the Sacraments (personally, I think his comments were directed more to me than to certain seminarians). To be fair, he is a very good priest with a heart after the Heart of Christ, one who both believes and practices an orthodox Faith (and celebrates the Liturgy beautifully and reverently) and believes these things are essential to the mission of the Church, which seeks “to baptize all nations.” Nevertheless, I want to address this somewhat common, if negative, assumption about younger Catholics, whether clerical or lay, based on my experience working for the Church.

First, as a church musician and liturgist, my job IS to be concerned with the Sacred Liturgy. It would be a dereliction of my duties were I not. Can you imagine engaging someone to teach your children who didn’t have any interest in them? It’s a comical thought.

Second, I find that those who make such an accusation usually don’t understand the connection between cult and culture, that how we pray determines what we believe, and that what we believe determines where we focus our lives. Perhaps a homely analogy will demonstrate my point.

My wife and I love our children dearly and work to create strong familial bonds that will help us in our work to form virtuous children who will one day arrive at Heaven’s shore (and take care of us in our dotage!), and nowhere does this happen more than at the dining room table. Early on, my wife and I realized that the majority of our human and Christian formation came to us through our parents as we sat down each night to supper, so we decided to give our children the same gift. Like so many other things, though, the devil has been in the details and we have had to pay attention to these details along the way, while  not losing focus on the end goal.

When we moved into our house 5 years ago, we found that our dining room was the most uninspiring room in the whole house. It was rather depressing. We still sat down every night to supper and spent quality time together, but it wasn’t until we gave the room a new coat of paint, nice window treatments and hung quality pictures on the walls that we found we couldn’t wait to spend time it that room. Supper hadn’t changed; we didn’t love our children more (at least not for that reason); but we anticipated our time together more.

The next addition was a new (at least to us) dining room table. Our home is an 80+ year old colonial and I had always dreamed of beautiful Georgian table as the final touch in the room, but knew I could never justify what would amount to half a year of college tuition to pay for such an heirloom. God, however, in His eternal sense of humor inadvertently brought my attention to such a table and chairs for 10 in solid mahogany and brass on Craigslist for a fraction of the cost. As I paid for the table, I wondered if the inlaid table top would survive our boys, who had the unfortunate habit of dragging the points of their silverware across the table. We purchased place mats for everyone and instituted a policy that one’s plate, cup and silverware always had to stay on the place mat and that everyone had to stay in his chair until were finished.

We also had to fix the problem of our children starting to eat before we got to the table, so we taught them to stand behind their chairs until we had prayed. Only then would we ALL sit down. As the final touch, we decided that on Sundays and feast days we would pull out the wedding china and my grandmother’s wedding silver to give the day a real specialness.

My wife and I often comment that supper is our favorite time of the day. We ask each of our children to tell us what their greatest joy of the day was as well as their greatest sorrow and we sometimes read a short biography of the day’s saint. We find that supper is where we have really grown as a family and where we have learned so much about our children. It is also where we talk intentionally about our Faith with our children. This is our evangelization time, if you will. Some people might acuse my wife and I of focusing too much on the details to the detriment of letting our children be kids by trying to recreate long gone social customs or pretending that we are somehow higher on the social ladder than other people, but nothing could be further from the truth. We are resigned to the fact that wedding china will break (and has broken) and that milk will continue to spill from precariously stemmed glassware. They are, after all, just things, but they are sacramentals in the sense that they speak to us about the beauty of the vocation of a Christian family and they reinforce in us the desire to become the family God has called us to be.

Some time ago we spent a few days with extended family who regularly passed out paper plates to everyone in an effort to keep things easy. The table was usually half full of groceries or toys that had to be pushed aside, and which caused people to eat all over the house.  My wife commented later that she missed getting to spend quality time at the table with everyone and I couldn’t have agreed more.

In the same way, I focus on beauty in the externals of liturgy and music not because I worship them, but because I love God and He is worth it. Every so often (although not nearly enough) I get flowers for my wife and my naturally frugal mind always cringes at the cost, but I am amazed how such a simple gesture brighten’s my wife’s entire day and I find that by “wasting” my money on her, I find freedom and joy. To be honest, focusing on the external aspects of liturgy engages very little of my day. Even at home I don’t sit around talking to my family about liturgy. We pray together and pass on the Faith to our children, but I can’t remember that I have ever engaged my children in a discussion about the aesthetics of the liturgy, even on their own level.

I am sure that there are those seminarians and priests and laymen who are too focused on the externals of liturgy, but don’t forget they exist on both sides of the liturgical divide. I would venture to say that in the past 50 years there have been more than a fair share of priests and seminarians who were overly focused on the liturgy in an effort to destroy all that was holy and good, including Faith in Christ. Perhaps the supposed over emphasis on the Liturgy among younger Catholics today is just a response to its devaluation since the 1960s. I have said it before and will say it again: if the Sacred Liturgy is where we meet the Lord, then there you will find me.

Choosing Choral Repertoire

I find that one of the most difficult aspects of my position is choosing choral repertoire for the Sacred Liturgy. How does one remain faithful to the Church’s mandates for liturgical music and choose music the choir enjoys singing and the congregation (not to mention the pastor) enjoys listening to (or should that even be a concern?). What about my own preferences or the abilities of the choristers?

Every choir director probably knows of one or two pieces his choir loves to sing and does well, but his choir likely sings more than twice a year. Is it alright for him to program the same piece several Sundays in a row?

In order to answer these questions, it is good to remember the two classical “ends” of the Mass: 1) the Glory of God and 2) the sanctification of the faithful. We need to follow what the Church has discerned to be true liturgical music, what is worthy of the temple, but also be mindful of the laity who are spiritually nourished or starved to an extent by the music they hear.

Obviously, Gregorian chant should play a healthy role in every parish’s liturgical life, although by no means the only music one should hear. Of course, the Extraordinary Form parish will naturally be used to copious amounts of chant while the Ordinary Form parish might need copious amounts of coaxing. If your parish is new to chant, I would suggest learning a number of the superbly accessible Gregorian hymns in English, such as Godhead here in hiding (Adorote devote) or Hear Us, Almighty Lord (Attende, Domine).

The first place one should go in choosing choral literature is to the texts of the sacred liturgy themselves, especially the Propers. I personally look at those before I look at the readings since the Offertory or Communion motet is an extension of sorts of each respective antiphon.

One great resource for literature is Dennis Schrock’s Choral Repertoire.  I have learned so much simply by reading this book. It lists composers and works according time period, nationality, nature of the work (sacred, secular, Mass, motet, madrigal, etc.) and popularity (based on the frequency of performance). I have learned about a great amount of modern music this way. I also enjoy reading the choral lists posted by most of the great Cathedrals and choral foundations, both in the US and on foreign soil and I don’t hesitate to ask other choir directors for their suggestions. On occasion I have even commissioned works from our parochial school music teacher (what are friends for).

I will assume that our readers already know they need to choose liturgically, musically and theologically sound music for use in the Mass or Divine Office. Some other things to keep in mind are:

  1. Choose repertoire for the choral forces at your disposal. Don’t tackle that 8 part war horse when you only have 12 people in your choir (I am guilty of this). I would much rather hear the simple done well (even if your choir has to sing hymns as motets) than the complex done badly, or even mediocrely. (Mediocrity is often what kills chant!)
  2. Choose music that your choir sounds good singing or the acoustics of your church support. My choir has sung Messiaen’s O sacrum convivium on several occasions but the dryer acoustics of our parish church don’t do it justice. Messiaen’s music really needs the acoustics of a French cathedral to pull it off successfully.
  3. Don’t be afraid of modern music (or, don’t be afraid of older styles). Church musicians need to continually expand the treasury of Sacred Music and I firmly believe that we will never exhaust the music possibilities of the texts of the Sacred Liturgy.
  4. Work to expand and deepen your choir’s and your congregation’s musical abilities. At the same time, don’t kill them with relentless good taste. There is nothing wrong with throwing an appropriate bone on occasion.
  5. Sing music that not only glorifies God, but also brings your congregation to a greater love of God (His Truth, Mercy, Charity, Goodness, Beauty). The two are not exclusive.

Good luck!

Teaching Gregorian Chant to Boys with Changed Voices

I have heard it said that teaching chant to the masses for the Masses is quite an easy thing to accomplish, especially for children. Possibly, but if your goal is to teach youth the glories contained in the Graduale Romanum, I suggest you buckle your seat-belt and say your prayers. Nevertheless, such a worthy goal should be attempted so I thought I would share my choristers’ path to singing the Communion antiphon.

Seven or eight years ago I introduced a set of simplified vernacular propers (specifically the Communion antiphon) to my adult choir and to the parish. I can’t say I was overly taken by them, but they were better than most (I was not familiar with Fr. Weber’s settings at the time) and allowed me to travel the well promoted path of singing chant in English first. To my consternation, the choir didn’t like the either (why should they if I didn’t) and found them rather boring. Even our pastor at the time couldn’t stand them and told me so. I took the hint, but as a last ditch effort I proposed the choir sing the actual Communio chant from the Graduale Romanum. He acquiesced and we sang. I expected a healthy dose of negative feedback, but never received any (to be honest, there wasn’t any positive feedback either). Everything about the chant proved a challenge: the language, the music notation, even the sound of the modes. It took a couple of months before the small group of men could tackle one entire antiphon with any sense of confidence within a reasonable amount of rehearsal time. The second year through, was a revelation. The singers found the modes well established in their ears and the notation familiar to their eyes, and if the men could do it, then why not the boys.

At first I taught all of the boys with changed voices, but that was a mistake. It wasn’t worth the ill will caused by dragging unwilling participants across the Gregorian finish line. Instead I taught those who wished to learn in a separate, faster paced rehearsal. The boys encountered the same learning curves the adult men had previously, but their facility in solfege speed up the learning process, which I share with you now:

  1. (Melody) I asked the boys to sing through the chant first in solfege, without concern for rhythm, and reviewed tricky spots along the way (currently, the boys are capable of this after two times through the antiphon in solfege).
  2. (Rhythm) Then I lead them through the chant on a neutral syllable, such as nee or nah (the n only rearticulated at the beginning of an actual syllable in the Latin text). I focused on the chant’s rhythm and phrasing before adding the text.
  3. (Words) Next I focused on the text, both its literal meaning and liturgical meaning, and how to pronounce it. They knew certain words and phrases such as Deus and dixit or Cantate Domino canticum novum from other songs we had sung and were aware of numerous cognates. Between that and their knowledge of the texts in English they could usually make a decent guess at translating the antiphon before we spoke the text in a musical cadence.
  4. Finally, we put the various parts togethers and sang through the Communio twice before moving on. After two practices the boys could sing an antiphon to a high degree of accuracy, even if musicality came later.

Next year they will tackle the Introits, though I expect less of a learning curve. Regardless, I will let you know how it goes.

Tone Quality and Your Singers

Some weeks ago I addressed the challenge of teaching your singers to breath well and today I hope to continue the conversation, focusing on your choir’s  tone quality. I remember well the numerous school and church choirs I sang in throughout my youth and to the best of my knowledge, not one of those choirs’ directors ever mentioned tone quality, much less worked with us to achieve a certain choral sound. The vast majority of our time was spent learning notes and paying attention to the odd, but occasional triple forte encountered on Easter morning. However, if you hope to lead your singers to greener pastures, working on the quality of your choir’s tone produces great dividends.

Warm-ups

I continue to be amazed by the number of choir directors who believe the entire purpose of warm-ups is simply to warm-up their singers’ voices. Perhaps the name warm-up is misleading, because there are so many other things the choir director can accomplish at the same time time. Use this time to build your choir vocally, especially focusing on problems they will encounter during rehearsal in the music.

Listening

The greatest skill you can teach your singers is to listen, both to themselves and to each other. They should sing everything as softly as necessary in order to learn to listen and to become aware of what comes out of their own mouths and the mouths of their fellow singers. When they prove adept at listening, THEN you may allow them to sing louder (just beware that you will need to constantly reinforce listening). All of my experience, though, has taught me that soft singing cures a great number of vocal faults.

Resonance

Resonance is extremely important! Ask your singers if any play the violin or guitar and inquire what would happen if they were to remove the instrument’s strings, stretch them as tightly as possible and then bow or pluck them. The strings would vibrate and make noise, albeit very softly. The sound box, because it vibrates in tandem with the strings, acts as a resonator and amplifies the sound of the strings. The same phenomenon happens to the human voice. As the vocal folds or chords begin to vibrate, they cause cavities in areas around the nose and mouth to resonate and amplify the sound. In this way, the voice is given life.

Help your singers to become aware of the natural resonance already taking place as they sing. Ask them to buzz like bees or to sing a very nasally ee and place their fingers to their noses and cheeks and feel the vibrations. Utilize warm-ups that build resonance and you will find your choir much improved in a few short weeks.

I also find it helpful to avoid overly technical language with most choir members, especially children. For the youngest ones, I simply sing the line of a hymn without resonance and then sing it with resonance and ask them if they hear the difference. They can always hear the difference and are often able to mimic both ways of singing.

Head Voice and Chest Voice

In the beginning stages of your work, strive for a greater use of the head voice, especially by singing everything softly. Often untrained singers have picked up a number of bad vocal habits, most of which result in undue tension place on the voice and singing softly reduces and eliminates this tension. This also encourages singers to listen louder than they sing and will help the overall blend of your choir.

Begin the warm-up with descending scales. The high notes encourage your singers to start in the head voice, and if you make sure they continue to sing quietly, they will bring the head voice down into the lower registers. What you don’t want is for them to start in a lower register in the chest voice and force the chest voice into the higher registers of their range, resulting in unhealthy tension.

Eventually, you will want to introduce the chest voice into warm-ups and into the repertoire, making sure that singers don’t introduce undue tension as they do. The addition of the chest voice adds color to music that would otherwise sound very emotionally restrained.

Vowels

Lastly, I would like to mentioned the manner in which choristers sing vowels and how it affects the tone quality of your choir’s sound. Just as Bostonians sound different from Mid westerners and Iowans speak differently from Georgians, the members of your choir will surely sing vowels differently one from another. Your job is to unify their pronunciation on beautiful vowel sounds. If your choir sings primarily in Latin, you will have a much easier time. I personally follow the Liber usualis for Latin pronunciation and Madeleine Marshall’s English Diction for Singers for English.

Conclusion

The ultimate goal of the choral director is to communicate through the music. In the end it doesn’t matter if your choir resonates well and sings beautiful vowels but can’t communicate. However, it would be pretty hard to communicate without these things.

Vocally Building Your Choir

If more choirmasters were honest with themselves, they would probably acknowledge that no more than 25 to 40 percent of their singers are actually leaders within their choirs. This is not meant to disparage the many fine choristers who dutifully rehearse and sing weekly, but to find ways to help each one become a leader in his own right, or at the very least, to become a little better this week than he was the last. Not only would this raise a choir’s general capabilities, but it would also build confidence and willingness in each singer. They will WANT to accomplish what you ask.

Over the next few weeks I want look at ways you can help your choir grow vocally, starting with breathing, but before I go any farther I would encourage you to take private voice lessons if you haven’t before. This is the best thing you can do vocally for your choir.

James Jordan, the well know choral clinician, is adamant that the best way to help your choir members grow vocally is to get them to be aware of what it is they are doing. This means the difference between each individual singer riding as a passenger in a school bus and being at the wheel of a racing car. You want your choir to be filled with drivers, not passengers, and this starts with singers being aware of the way their instrument works. The voice is a wind instrument, which makes breathing of paramount importance, but don’t fool yourself into thinking this is an overly technical process.

The incomparable William Finn, in his Art of the Choral Conductor (24-25), finds ridiculous the “innumerable monographs and dissertations [that] have been written on the alleged ‘art of breathing.'” Rather, the “average child and adult generally breathe correctly, otherwise the human race would long since have become extinct. But under the stress of self-consciousness, both children and adults are likely to show two faults: first, they raise the shoulders while inhaling; second, nervously or through inadvertence, they permit the breath to be exhaled too suddenly.” Your goal as a choir master is to teach your singers to breath as deeply as possible while the shoulders are down and relaxed. Ask each singer to lie flat on the floor and simply breathe (it is almost impossible to breath incorrectly in this position). As soon as each singer becomes aware of this natural state of breathing he can arise and apply the knowledge to singing while standing. You will need to practice this with your choir members for a number of weeks before it becomes second nature. Then you will have to hold them to it.

Another way singers experience proper breathing (especially if they would rather not lie on the floor) is to slowly breathe out until all air is spent and then relax the body. As the diaphragm returns to its normal position it will draw the breath deeply into the body, almost as if it were filling the stomach.

Once your singers become aware of breathing naturally, your task will be to connect that knowledge to the act of drawing breath and then releasing it slowly as they sing. Ask your singers to breath in deeply over the course of 4 counts and then slowly release the air for 8, 12, 16 or even 20 counts. Eventually they should release the air by humming and singing on neutral syllables, such as oo. Most singers will be able to sustain a note for 8 or 12 counts, but it will take practice before they can work up to 16 and 20 counts. The idea is to slowly release the air as opposed to allowing it to “fall” out.

Supposedly old Italian singing masters asked their students to sing in front of a mirror in a cold room. If the mirror fogged over, it meant the student was using too much air. Likewise, they would ask their pupils to sing in front of a lit candle. If the flame flickered during the aria, it meant the singer was releasing too much air. I have often asked singers to hold a finger in front of their mouths and pretend it was a candle and to imagine not allowing the flame to flicker as they sang. This has had a profound affect on their singing. It is important to note that pushing more air through the vocal apparatus does not mean louder singing, but husky singing, which is never pleasant in church music (or anywhere else).

I should also make a general note about singing posture. Ask your choir members to sing with an athletic posture; neither stiff like a soldier nor drooping like the slouch. Keep the feet slightly apart and under the shoulders with knees slightly bent and the head tall above the shoulders. Remember that good singing is 90 percent mental and encourage them to expand their awareness to other aspects of their singing. They will notice the difference in their sound and so will the congregation.

A Review of Fr. White’s Tools for Rebuilding

I recently finished reading Tools for Rebuilding, a well known book in U.S Catholic leadership circles written by Fr. Michael White, pastor of the Church of the Nativity in North Baltimore, and his assistant, Tom Corcoran. If you are unfamiliar with this work, it is the sequel to the book Rebuilt by the same authors, detailing the re invigoration of the Church of the Nativity over the course of Fr. White’s tenure. The parish’s story is well known among bishops, priests, directors of religious education, youth ministers and others who seek to spread the Gospel in an increasingly secularized society. The entire Rebuilt movement is spreading through workshops given across the county and via social media.

To be fair, I find much in the book worthy of reflection. Both Fr. White and Mr. Corcoran possess and promote a lively and orthodox Faith, which they refer to as “dynamic orthodoxy.” They took a failing parish and turned it around, tackling issues that many pastors and parish leaders might find overwhelming (only high school boys serves).

Many of the book’s 75 Tools (each is a chapter) embody common sense strategies for creating any healthy organization, and to be honest, parishes can learn a lot from them. Fr. White challenges his parishioners’ consumer mentalities. He welcomes newcomers, asks the newly arrived to get involved and challenges those involved to go deep into their faith.

Interestingly, he acknowledges the Eucharist to be the source and summit of the Church, channeling most of the parish’s energy into making the “weekend experience” the best the it possibly can, but here I feel his model runs out of steam. The Mass cannot be reduced to a “weekend experience.” This mentality focuses on the people being the primary end of worship as opposed to the Triune God. One finds this none too subtle ideology in the book’s focus on clean bathrooms over beautiful vestments, or “relevant” music (read pop music) over the Church’s music. This is really sad because it sets two objectively good things in opposition to each other instead of making them work side by side, another silliness of the modern age. Why shouldn’t a parish have beautiful vestments AND clean restrooms? Why can’t there be relevant music that is ALSO truly beautiful? Why can’t we worship God, build up the faithful AND welcome the newcomer (or the fallen away Catholic)? Why can’t we celebrate the Sacred Liturgy worthily AND build Christian fellowship?

I am truly edified by Fr. White’s work, but I do hope that his regard for the church growth movement doesn’t negate the Sacramental and supernatural nature of the Church. We need to present the Church in ALL of Her fullness.

Music in Catholic Schools

Last week Catholics across the fruited plain celebrated Catholic Schools Week, so I find it apropos to share some musings about music education in our parochial Schools–the good, the bad and the ugly, and offer a plan forward.

First, the Good. There are almost 2 million students served by Catholic schools across the US, making the Catholic school system the second largest educator of American students after public schools. The Church, therefore, exerts a large influence on a sizeable minority of US children and quite frankly usually educates them better than public schools. This means the Church possess a tool of immense value. From my own experience, I can say that Catholic education in our present day is far more Catholic in every way possible compared to when I attended (through the 90s and early 2000s). Schools possess a far superior Catholic identity with a greater focus on evangelizing than in my day (I know some of you are shaking your heads at this point in disbelief and I promise to address your concerns in a moment) due in no small part to a much healthier crop of bishops, priests, parents and young teachers who want the Faith to be taught in its fullness. I wish I could say the same for music education in our schools, but for a few exceptional pastors and teachers, it is rather abysmal. I must say that I find a greater number of parishes that believe in the power of music to evangelize young people, but I can’t say that they always act on this belief in a healthy way.

Second, the bad. Just because the situation one encounters in Catholic Schools today is much healthier now than it was 25 years ago, that doesn’t mean that it is anywhere near where it should be. The educational vineyard has suffered tremendously and it is going to take a very long time and even greater effort to repair the damage of the last 60 years. Throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s pastors and teachers tried to all but destroy the Faith of average Catholics in the west, and now that they have largely succeeded, a much healthier crop of clergy and teachers find it daunting to overcome. More than half the families with children in Catholic Schools can’t even be bothered to take their children to Mass on Sunday, much less give witness to the Faith to their children. This means that even good Catholic schools struggle to fulfill their mission. As I mentioned above, Catholics are realizing how important music is to evangelization, but in general they view it as a manipulative tool used to get young people through the door (I realize they don’t think about it in this way). Basically, give them what they like to get them through the door the first time. If you are familiar with books and programs such as Rebuilt or Amazing Parish, they lean in this direction, while most schools and youth group programs rely on this model exclusively.

Finally, the ugly. What I find so distressing in all of this is that we have sold our educational birthright as Catholics for a tepid bowl of Dewey inspired porridge. The greatest educator in the history of the world is the Catholic Church and over the centuries She developed a model of education based on the liberal (free) arts, the trivium and the quadrivium, crowned by Theology, whose aim was nothing less than to form children to love and seek after truth and to realize that ultimately Truth is a person, the person of Jesus Christ. In this paradigm students move from the here and now to ultimate things, while our modern system of Catholic education tends to be a good public school with religion class thrown in. This system compartmentalizes education into separate and unrelated fields relegating religion to be “just another class.” Some children like math, some like spelling and some like religion. In the end, the general populace wants their children to receive high paying jobs and music doesn’t usually fit into that scheme. Education becomes something we consume instead of something that frees us and music is another consumable product the school provides if enough students and parents want it. There is no belief that some music is good and some is bad and that within these categories there are levels of goodness and badness. There is no concept of offering both God and our students the best of what we have. There is no idea of opening young people up to this great thing we call western civilization. Rather we produce what students and families prefer to consume. We give young people the kind of music we think they want at Mass and wonder why they don’t stick around (admittedly music is by no means the only problem). The Church and Her music become like clothes, just another consumable commodity–young people like them when they are in style, and feel good about them at the time, but soon they wear thin and are tossed in the wastebasket with yesterday’s refuse.

The questions remains, though, how do we move forward. I would suggest that we:

  1. Rediscover the purpose of a Catholic education (and it isn’t to be a better public school with a religion class tacked on) and be able to articulate it over and over.
  2. Rediscover that music has the power to train the heart to love what is good, and that we make the decision to give our students the very best of our musical patrimony.
  3. Devote a large amount of our music education program a program to teaching the music of the Church, one of our greatest treasures.
  4. Slowly introduce a diet of good music while reducing the dubious sort. (Richard Terry told the story of a pastor who changed the music at school Masses over the course of a generation and after that time the problem of music at Sunday Masses had taken care of itself.)
  5. For smaller parishes with limited resources, hire a competent musician who has a knack for teaching to run the parish music program and teach in the school. I personally know of pastors who have been very successful doing this.

If you are trying to move away from Praise and Worship, be sure to read Adam Barlett’s FOCUS on Beauty: The Liturgical Heart of Missionary Zeal. FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) is doing incredible work bringing young people to/back to the Faith and over the last 7-8 years they have made a seismic shift in the way they prepare music for Holy Mass.

Another invaluable tool is the National Catholic Education Association/Pueri Cantores list of Music for Catholic School Masses. Implementing this list of hymns and a beautiful setting of the Mass Ordinary in English would be a vast musical improvement for most parochial school Masses. If you school is ready to sing the Propers (you are blessed indeed!) Corpus Christi Watershed is more than happy to point you in the right direction.

Finally, I would encourage you to never let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Lay people especially need to pray for and encourage their pastors and music teachers, but realize they may be constrained in what they can do because of either outside limitations or by internal ones such as limited funds or extreme pressure from small, but vocal minorities in the parish. If they are working toward the good, do everything you can to assist them. In short, keep up the good fight and keep moving forward!

Forward, Ever Forward!

Yesterday I had the immense privilege of attending the Kansas state Pro-Life Mass and Rally to mark with sadness the 45th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade and to pray for the continued conversion of our nation and for an end to the scourge of abortion in our land. As I looked around at the myriad faces of grade school and high school students present, it gave me cause to contemplate the other great holocaust plucking young men and women from our ranks, almost universal apostasy.

The fact that a third of my generation never made it out of the womb alive is  disgusting, but what of the others who received the chance at life? If the statistics are correct, almost 80 percent of Catholic youth leave the Church by the age of 23. I wonder how many of the youth I encountered yesterday will still be among the spiritually living a decade hence? The thought isn’t heart-warming. Sometimes it’s utterly unbearable.

I write, however, with a deeper purpose. I encounter so many faithful Catholic men and women, priests and religious, fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, not to mention a number of youth, who have grown complacent in the current situation, feeling helpless. They live in Faith, but without Hope. I grant that it is difficult to live the virtue of Hope surrounded by spiritual death and destruction on every side, and perhaps even harder when such evil emanates from those within the Church.

I am aware of the many readers here who work untiringly in the field of sacred music (and elsewhere), who wonder at times if their work matters, if their prayers are heard. To each of you I say continue living in Faith, praying for the virtue of Hope. Remind yourselves of the History of Salvation and the great love of God for His people. He will not abandon you or leave you orphaned. It seems impossible at times to remain calm in the barque of Peter as the winds rise and the waves buffet her about and the vessel fills with water. But Christ is still at the helm, the same yesterday, today and forever.

One day, God willing, when He calls you into the New and Eternal Jerusalem, you will discover the eternal consequences of the offering of your widow’s mite. You will be amazed at the countless number of souls who will have arrived safely upon that Shore because you pressed forward resolutely, not stopping to count the cost. Forward in Faith! Forward in Hope! Forward, ever Forward!

What if…

If only… At some point in every man’s life he mutters this phrase in a moment of  absolute frustration. If only… I have my own slew of such stories, many of which deal with a beautiful, but old colonial style home my wife and I purchased a number of years ago (if only the builders hadn’t planned the main gray water drain line to exit the house into the back yard, snake under the entire garage, enter our neighbor’s yard and then return back into our front yard to connect to the main sewer–who willingly creates problems like that?). As musicians, priests and liturgists each of us has similar stories he could tell about his own parish church and problems he deals with because the building wasn’t conceived through careful thought and planning. Following my article last week on the importance of the right sound quality in churches I thought long and hard about the various peoples and knowledge I would bring to the table if I were building an ideal Roman Catholic Church and would like to share that with you today. What follows is a short list of those people I feel should be involved in the planning of a church from the very beginning to ensure a worthy celebration of the Roman Rite in both of its forms. (I do not include obvious examples such as engineers, contractors, fund-raisers, etc., but confine myself to those with an obvious connection to the Sacred Liturgy.)

Priest: As obvious as this is and should be, I wonder if priests sometimes view their role in the church building process as more of parish CEO than as chief parish liturgist. As the one responsible for the celebration of the Sacraments and as the spiritual father of a vast family he is leading to Heaven (on whom the building will have an obvious impact) , he needs to have a clear vision of what a church building is. Obviously this won’t be the strength of every pastor, which is both natural and to be expected, but if he struggles in this area, he needs to find those who can help him.

Liturgist: I hesitate to include liturgists in this discussion, having had more trouble with them in my life than I care to recall. (I somewhat rue the fact that I have liturgist in my official parish title, but the Lord has a sense of humor.) However, there are some really good ones out there who understand the history of the Roman Rite and its liturgical requirements and they can offer insights that otherwise might never be thought of. Such a liturgist needs not only to understand the Roman Rite and its rich history, but needs to have a love and respect for that history, especially for both forms, as well as such things as ad orientem worship.

Organist/Choir Director: Again, I hesitate to add musicians to this list for the same reason I hesitate to add liturgists–too many of them disdain the Roman Rite’s liturgical patrimony, which bodes ill for any of our building projects. However, the importance of music in the celebration of the Roman Rite behooves a pastor to include a liturgical musician worthy of the name, and to do so from the very start. It goes without saying that a fine organ should be part of the project from the beginning and it is much easier to remove walls or add them before they are built rather than after. Many parishes won’t be able to afford a quality instrument until after the church is built, but it should be planned for from the very beginning. A quality acoustician (recommended by a organ company of high quality) goes without saying as well (refer to my article last week on this topic).

Liturgical Architect: It is imperative that a parish employ an architect steeped in the history of church architecture. This does NOT lock a parish into copying a specific style, nor does it preclude a genuine inculturation of local elements. Nevertheless, your parish will not succeed in building a church structure worthy to be called an icon of Heaven if you don’t have an architect who can embody some part of the glory of Heaven in stone, wood and glass. Duncan Stroik is well known for his ability to do this, but there are others as well.

The Way of Beauty: David Clayton’s book The Way of Beauty should be require reading as well as the basis for reflection and discussion for any church building committee. One must always keep in mind that the church building itself is a sacrament of Heaven and this book is the most complete, yet accessible work I have encountered that forms such an understanding in the reader.

Whether a Gothic cathedral in France, a rural Norman church in England or a Californian mission church, each one in its own way has the power to lift our eyes in contemplation of the New and Eternal Jerusalem. My prayer is that parishes recognize both the incredible potential and responsibility they possess in erecting such edifices.

Sound Does Matter

As we stand upon the threshold of a New Year, waves of joy and apprehension simultaneously flood my soul as I arrive, rested, back to work following a beautiful holiday vacation. Mind you, I don’t consider Christmas “done in” yet, nevertheless our new year of grace presents a time for fresh beginnings and in that vein I feel obligated to press for one particular New Year’s resolution from you and your music program—namely, switching from a predominantly fake system of amplification (that thing we call the microphone) to the beauty of natural resonance.

I confess an innate disgust for all things fake, but the microphone stands as a doubly dreaded foe due to my unfortunate lack of technical prowess. Perhaps it’s only my personal experience, but its use seems to fall into two camps in the Church. Ordinary Form parishes worship the microphone as the unum necessarium, the one thing necessary, to bring the Liturgy to life, while Extraordinary Form parishes tread upon the microphone as one attacks a venomous serpent. Thus I find the shear volume of the Ordinary Form parts my hair down the middle (but at least can hear the homily!) while the quiet of the Extraordinary Form graciously envelops me (even during the homily!). I realize this contemplative nature is due as much if not more to the very nature of the Extraordinary Form, but I wouldn’t mind a little updated amplification during the homily. It makes me feel unduly past my prime when my wife and I are forced to whisper back and forth throughout the 40 minute long sermon asking each other “what did he say?” Alas!

I will never forget about a decade ago entering the local church to pray and noticing that the pastor had a man from Bose Sound Systems on site testing new sound equipment. The priest read passages from Scripture as the technician experimented with various sounds levels and microphone positions, while the speakers, placed in the sanctuary facing the nave, produced such a loud cackle that I couldn’t even pull my thoughts together to pray. In a sense, I understood every word. As a matter of fact, I was beaten over the head by every one of them. Yet I had no space in which to contemplate the WORD because there was no silence, no quiet, no stillness. The pastor and I were friends, so he left the sanctuary to ask me what I thought. What ensued was a short conversation about the nature of the Sacred Liturgy and its twofold purpose of worship and sanctification. We spoke of the difference between the Catholic Mass and a Protestant worship service, the former by necessity sung as the Church’s eternal hymn of praise, while the latter is almost entirely spoken due to its over emphasis on the written word of God to the exclusion of the Word of God.

The sung Liturgy is much less attached to the microphone due to the repetitive nature of the Ordinary of the Mass and the natural resonance of the singing. Plus, the gift of silence offers one the priceless pearl of contemplation. Ask any mother what she would like after a day at home with the young ones and I guarantee you she won’t ask for more noise. Perhaps Christians share the same boat. They are simply tired of the noise.

I don’t know if my conversation with Father was the catalyst, but I noticed later that when the new sound system arrived, the speakers were mounted in numerous indirect locations to the congregation, replicating a pleasing and natural resonance. It was perfect!

On the other hand, most church musicians  follow the Rolling Stones amplification model of QUANTITY over quality. I watch in amusement as some church bands practically caress the microphones as they get tooled up (do I hear strains of Preciousssssss……) and later as they perform. Quite frankly it’s exhausting to listen to and practically douses any warm strains of congregational singing with the iciest of waters.

I felt somewhat vindicated recently when a good friend and far greater intellect (Dr. Kevin Vogt, Director of Music at St. Michael the Archangel in Leawood, KS) posted a New York Times article on Facebook entitled Dear Architects: Sound Matters—a wonderful read about acoustics and the forgotten ingredient in architecture–sound.

Vogt commented by way of a forward to the article that “while many people appreciate the beauty and reverence of our celebrations at St. Michael, many others feel it is lacking affective appeal. There are a lot of reasons why this might be, but those of us who experience and think about this every day believe that while our sound system is excellent, the scale of the room and the lack of early sound reflections make any unamplified sound very quiet and isolated…”

Chant and polyphony (and even congregational hymnody) developed before electrical amplification and I firmly believe that proper acoustics are essential to their success (I will spare you a long tangent about the overtone series). As Dr. Vogt recognizes, “As Catholics, we believe that Christ is truly present in the assembly of the baptized, when it prays and sing, and so the very sound of the Church praying and singing is ‘sacramental.'” The Church’s music loses much of its sacramental power when its natural voice is destroyed. Imagine the difference between chant sung in a carpeted bungalow as opposed to a Gothic cathedral (or even a humble country church from the 19th century for that matter).

Dear Architects: Sound Matters rightly makes the connection between sound (not just the amount, but the very quality of it) and the fittingness of a building (does it do what it is supposed to). For example, “an expensive, solid wood door sounds better than an inexpensive hollow one, partly because its heavy clunk reassures us that the door is a true barrier, corresponding to the task it serves.” In another place the author writes “If only subliminally, we also know, by contrast, when sound spoils architecture because it fails to correspond to funtion. The bygone Shea Stadium in Queens was joyless partly because the design of its low, wide semicircle dissipated the sound of a cheering crowd into Flushing Bay. Fenway Park in Boston is the reverse; it concentrates hometown joy.” Such a dichotomy is an apt description for many of our churches.

What good is it training choirs to praise God beautifully and to communicate the Gospel effectively if at the end of the day the congregation feels isolated by cold and emotionless music? I realize it is “right and just” to give God what He deserves whether people feel good about it or not, but in today’s climate the church musician is under fire from a thousand different voices shouting at him through more than microphones to be relevant. What musician would continue to offer such an invitation to serial martyrdom when no matter how well he does his job, the acoustical devil spits his work back in his face Sunday after Sunday. Maybe the first step is to slowly ween congregations from amplified sound (this Sunday perhaps), or if amplification is necessary, to convince one’s parish to invest in a high quality system that delivers necessary but understated amplification effectively. That would make a fantastic Resolution!