All posts by theart61_wp

A Model for Parish Revitalization (NO)

Last week George Weigel released an article entitled A Pastor in Full honoring Fr. Jay Scott Newman of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Greenville, SC, a priest who has influenced Weigel greatly over the years and who recently celebrated the silver jubilee of his ordination. Weigel writes about Fr. Newman’s parish:

“I know of none better than St. Mary’s in Greenville, where the entire parish is, as Pope Francis urges, “permanently in mission,” empowered by biblically-rich preaching, nurtured by a beautiful and prayerful liturgy that embodies Vatican II’s liturgical reform at its finest, and led by a pastor who makes evangelization a priority.

Weigel even released his work Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church at St. Mary’s. I decided to pop over to the parish’s website and found the following from Fr. Newman. “Being Evangelical Catholics requires that we know the Gospel, believe the Gospel, live the Gospel, and share the Gospel with others, and this begins and ends for us in the sacred liturgy, the source and summit of the Church’s life.” This struct me because its wisdom flies in the face of the commonest forms of evangelization promoted in the Church today. Fr. Newman claims, and rightly so, that evangelization begins and returns in the Sacred Liturgy, where we find Christ Himself. I cannot stress how important this is. If we  truly seek to evangelize, we must first receive before we can give. It is in the Sacred Liturgy, especially in the Holy Eucharist, where we receive Christ and through this gift are able to transform the world.

I would encourage everyone to visit the parish website and to see what can be done in a parish. Especially pay attention to Fr. Newman’s page about Evangelical Catholicism. Please share this website with those pastors you know who truly pray and work for the building up of the Mystical Body of Christ. It is refreshing to see the Gospel put forth in all of its beauty and glory. Otherwise the faithful get this.

The Sung Canon

Throughout my life I have been spared the ghastliest of liturgical abuses and aberrations within Mass and in most cases I can even write that these celebrations were both valid and licit, yet like most of my generation, such liturgies left me wondering if there was more to my Catholic Faith. Thanks to the wonderful teaching and example of my parents, this was never of question of doubt in God, or in His Goodness, Truth or Beauty, mind you, but rather a series of questions beginning with whyWhy is the God of the universe, Whom I know to be all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving presented to me as an effeminate man who willingly sacrifices all of his Goodness, Truth and Beauty and real charity in order to be niceWhy is holiness, intimate friendship with God, sacrificed for those greater “virtues” of tolerance and nicenessWhy is Heaven, our glorious patria, our eternal homeland, made present in a veiled manner at every Holy Mass, presented as a place of niceness (which to a boy of 13 and 14 is code for BORING)? I still remember the first time my family attended a Mass in the Extraordinary Form my freshman year in high school. The music was of no particular quality and I couldn’t relate a word of Father’s homily any more, but I do specifically remember it being awe-some in the deepest sense of the word—the very opposite of BORING. The fact that I asked the aforementioned questions was a particular grace of God. Unfortunately most of my schoolmates experienced BORING and simply left the Church. They never knew there was more—infinitely more.

If we hope to address this particular problem in the Ordinary Form, short of returning wholesale to the Extraordinary Form (which is another topic all together), we must work to restore a sense of mystery, transcendence and awe to the Sacred Liturgy. Otherwise we run the risk of lying to the faithful in the pew about Who God is and what He has done fore us.

I was fortunate enough to attend the Sacred Music Colloquium last month and experience the Ordinary Form celebrated in continuity with the Church’s great liturgical tradition, devoid of the mundane and banal, which so often paralyze the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the faithful. One particularly poignant moment I recall took place during the Canon of the Mass on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, when the priest, facing ad orientem and devoid of any amplification, chanted the Canon of the Mass. I was immediately struck by the awe-someness of the moment and my soul was filled with peace as its usual restlessness and fight against the BORING was banished. I have often attended Mass in the Ordinary Form celebrated ad orientem but have still struggled with the constant talking on the part of the priest at the most intimate moment of Mass, especially when a microphone is involved. Yet chanted, the words of the Canon take flight as prayer as opposed to mere talking, and when sung without the aid of a microphone, the words almost force the person in the pew to listen more intently. Prayer becomes natural as God is brought to the fore.

Since the Canon cannot be recited “silently” in the Ordinary Form, I wonder if chanting it might be one answer to the lack of transcendence we often encounter within Mass. Perhaps those priests who have personally tried this might offer advice based upon their experiences. Regardless, continue to turn toward the Lord in your heart and wait for Him in the silence of your interior room.

Impressions from the CMAA Sacred Music Colloquium 2018

In Catholic circles we often joke that not even God Himself knows how much money the Jesuits really have, the truth of which I witnessed on parade at the beautiful Loyal University waterfront campus in Chicago, host for the CMAA’s 2018 Sacred Music Colloquium last week. I thought today I would share with readers some of my impressions of the wonderful events that took place.

Holiness and Friendship: Saints tend to come in batches, one friend encouraging another, which I found no less true for those I met at the Colloquium. Men and women, priests and religious from all backgrounds and walks of life (my roommate was a priest from Nigeria!), arrived in Chicago, but all were animated by the common goal of Heaven. All were striving for holiness, a witness so important for the world today. Pope Benedict once mentioned that Beauty, especially in the lives of the saints would convert the world, and I was both edified and encouraged by the desire for holiness I saw in so many at the colloquium. This naturally resulted in the deepening of old friendships and the creation of new, lasting friendships built on and in Christ—friendships that will endure.

Beauty and Transcendence: If the Holy Eucharist truly is the source and summit of our Catholic Faith and if all we do as Christians and as musicians comes from and returns to the God the Father, through Christ and in the Holy Spirit in the Sacred Liturgy, then our worship of almighty God is of primary and paramount importance, and so it follows that how we pray affects how we believe, and how we believe affects how we act. The beauty and solemnity in the way the priests celebrated the Holy Masses and the Divine Office spoke not only to a hermeneutic of continuity with all the Church has taught and professed throughout Her 2000 year history, but also spoke to what they themselves believed about God. I found this both inspiring and challenging.

As an aside, it always strikes me that the more we try to make the Mass understandable, the more we try to bring it down to the level of “common humanity,” the harder time I have remembering that God is all holy and all powerful and that He loves me with a love so  deep that He willingly endured His Passion and Death in order to open the gates of Heaven to me. The beauty and transcendence of the Sacred Liturgies at the Colloquium reminded me of just how all powerful God is and how much He must have loved mankind to willingly step down from His thrown, so to speak, and do what He did. When God is presented and worshipped as if He were a cross between Ralph Nader and Maya Angelou (I think these are Peter Kreeft’s words) prayer becomes difficult for me, but the Masses and Divine Office of the Colloquium truly flooded my soul with peace, and yet challenged me to confront my sinfulness and open myself to God’s healing and Almighty Hand.

Awe for the Workers in God’s Vineyard: I was truly edified by those who work so hard in the field of Sacred Music. I met men and women who chose to attend the Colloquium because they wanted to learn how to make this music in order to transform their parishes and they realized the task fell to them alone to make that happen. I was also surprised and edified at the number of young men and women who are entering the field of Sacred Music professionally and who desire to be supremely competent in their craft. As we know, there is often a false dichotomy presented in the Church today between the professional musician and the faithful disciple, and many participants I met were living proof that professional competency and discipleship are both possible and necessary.

Hope: I realize there is a lot of confusion in the Church today, most of it self-inflicted, and while it is easy to become discouraged, don’t despair. I see so many reasons to hope for the future. At the same time, the musicians I met realized that this hope must be grounded in a healthy acknowledgment that the survival and ultimate flourishing of the Faith in the western world is by no means assured, only possible if we continue to pray and work and spend our lives in the service of God’s Holy Will for each of us. There is a healthy dose of very potent leaven in the world today, but it is up to us to kneed the dough and and bring to fruition the bread that God desires. Of course, this is only possible if we are grounded deeply in prayer, especially in the prayer of the Sacred Liturgy.

Fun: I confess wholeheartedly to being a musical geek and that the most fun I had at the Colloquium was on the last day when a number of folks had already left and the choirs needed extra male singers to fill the choral ranks. Mass was celebrated in the Extraordinary Form for the Commemoration of St. Paul and the choirs sang Palestrina’s Missa Aeteran Christi munera. I had never sung this Mass before, which meant sight-singing with no chance of a “do-over.” Scott Turkington joined the choir to my left and Peter Carter of St. John the Baptist Latin Mass Community joined to my right and the sound was glorious! I could have done that all day.

If you have never been I strongly encourage you to do so—you won’t regret it.

 

The Beauty of Dance

“So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obededom to the city of David with rejoicing… and David danced before the Lord with all his might.” II Samuel 6

I am amazed by the somewhat random and seemingly disconnected memories I tend to recall from childhood. For example, I could take you to the very spot, only blocks from Kansas’ only minor basilica, where I first realized at the age of 12 that one day I would die and that this life would pass by faster than I could possibly imagine. I can also vividly recall my parents playing polkas and waltzes on the piano and accordion after supper when we were very young, or dad and mom changing our vacation plans in Yellowstone National Park one year in order to make a 3 hour pilgrimage to attend the nearest Mass in next door Idaho for the Feast of the Assumption. I especially remember my father, who lacking any ego whatsoever was probably the man most comfortable in his own skin whom I have ever met. In particular, I recall one evening when he and my mother arrived home early from a presentation of of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker at St. Louis’ Fox Theatre. Dad’s workplace had provided the tickets as a Christmas gift and as those tickets provided my parents with a night away from us, they dutifully went. Being the eldest, I was put in charge in their absence, and somewhat surprised when they came home early. The house hadn’t burned and no one had died, so I asked mom what had happened. She smiled and said that dad had had enough of men in tights prancing around the stage for one evening. I couldn’t get that image out of my head years later when I attended The Nutcracker for the first time, although I enjoyed it as much as my father had disliked it.

I wonder what my father would have thought of liturgical dance, although I might hazard a guess, but thankfully he was spared the spectacle. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for myself since liturgical aberrations seem to find me wherever I am, but two instances in particular are worth mentioning here. The first took place at a talk given by a Dominican priest who was indistinguishable from the rest of us in his green pants and polo shirt, which were my first clues that the morning might prove interesting. Later, when a sexagenarian Benedictine sister in a floor length leotard, appropriately contrasted in color to her silvery hair, began dancing about the room sprinkling us (and the priest) with holy water, I judiciously held my laughter, as well as my contempt for the one who had forced my participation in the travesty.

My second memorable encounter with liturgical dance, albeit in secular surroundings, took place in graduate school, where a number of us were deemed unduly inexperienced in this particular liturgical art and made to overcome the deficiency. One of the young ladies in the class was organist at a local Latin Mass parish, and if Chesterton was correct to remark that “angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly,” she must have roared with laughter on the inside, because she made a glorious spectacle twirling her skirts into the air. Of course, harrowing trials are often the cause of deepened friendships among comrades, and she and I have remained good friend to this day. My wife and I were privileged when she and her husband asked us to be godparents for one of their daughters and I can write in all truth that we were not made to dance like harts in search of the proverbial water brooks as we made our way to the Font of Life on that happy day.

While I don’t pretend to love liturgical dance, I do love to pretend that I dance well and my wife and I go for the occasional twirl every now and again, for dance is a beautiful thing. President Washington considered himself to be little in the way of a musician, yet a master on the dance floor. He must have seen the beauty in it, too. A number of years ago a friend of mine married a young woman from Austria, whose family attended the wedding clad in the very best of their national costumes and readily took themselves to the dance floor. I will never forget the mother of the bride dancing the Viennese waltz. I stopped my own feeble attempts and stared at the sheer beauty of it, so simple and yet so elegant. There shall surely be dancing in Heaven.

I mention this because last Sunday most parishes in our nation celebrated the Feast of Corpus Christi, and I was struck again by the fact that Catholics, contrary to popular belief, really do have the most beautiful of what one might call sacred dance within the liturgy. Saturday morning I spent an hour and a half with eight altar boys rehearsing the steps of the procession and Benediction, whose intricate and graceful movements are but a shadow of the eternal dance we all hope to share in one day. At every moment, but I think especially on Corpus Christi, Christ issues His invitation to each soul to join Him, to take His hand to be lead by grace and to unite every step to Him Who is life itself. In order to follow His lead, we have to fasten our eyes and hearts upon Him, doing whatever He asks. This sacred dance is as far removed from “liturgical dance” as the waltz is from any form of what passes for dancing in most high schools and colleges today. Nevertheless, a dance it is. May we all accept the invitation of Christ to join Him, to be taken by Him, to love Him and be loved by Him in the Holy Eucharist, futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur. Alleluia.

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.