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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!

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!

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!

Strive for Excellence

The casual Reader might perhaps mistake me as a died-in-the-wool anglophile in the realm of sacred music, especially since I hold the English Choir School in such high regard, but let us face facts-the English cathedral system of forming church musicians works. I was reminded of this yesterday as I listened to an old BBC interview of Sir George Thalben-Ball describing how he landed the his position of 60 years as the organist and choirmaster at the Temple Church (named because of its original link to the Knights Templar) in London.

While studying at the Royal College of Music, Thalben-Ball was called upon to fill-in for the afternoon service. He arrived at the Temple Church to find an orchestral score of Bach’s Mass in B Minor at the organ with a note that 10 movements would be sung that afternoon and that Thalben-Ball would need to transpose them all down a “semitone” because the organ was tuned almost half a step sharp. Thalben-Ball chuckled in the interview saying he must have decently well, since no one accosted him after the service, although he admitted to playing (transposed down a half-step) from the choral score instead of the orchestral score.

If any parish were to call and ask me to fill in that afternoon for a Sunday concert featuring 10 movements of the B Minor Mass and as an aside mention that I would need to transpose the entire thing down a half-step, I would quickly dismiss the call as a prank or feign illness. I simply wouldn’t be able to do it. Had I been a choir boy and sung the Mass first as a chorister and then later as a choral scholar and had been playing and accompanying choirs to a high degree since I was in junior high I might have a chance, but that wasn’t the case. In that sense, I feel like a complete joke telling people that I am a competent church musician, much less one with a DMA. When it comes down to it, what do I really know?! Let’s face it, the English cathedrals know what they are doing and even on their worst days hit a mark of excellence that is simply beyond the reach of all but our best cathedral choirs in the US.

Let us imagine for a moment a different situation. What if each of the 193 Catholic cathedrals (Roman Rite) in the United States were to model the English Cathedrals with a choir of men and boys and a separate choir of men and girls (and remember that most of them also have an excellent mixed choir to boot), where the boys and girls constantly rehearsed and sang the greatest music to the highest standards, especially the music native to the Roman Rite (Gregorian chant), took voice and piano lessons and sang daily for Mass and Vespers for the 5 to 6 years they were in the choir. In high school the girls would continue doing the same, while the boys would settle into their new roles as tenors and basses while singing the same music, only as a tenor or bass. A child who showed talent would begin studying the organ and playing and accompanying for services. When he went off to the university, each organist would receive a scholarship for playing for services for his separate college within the university, under the direction of a phenomenal choirmaster. After graduation, he would then be hired by a cathedral as an assistant organist and begin training the new singers as well (and he could, since he had been through the system himself and would be overseen by the director of music). He wouldn’t have to get a Masters Degree or a Doctorate in either organ or choral directing because he would have been singing in a professional choir and accompanying the same choir long before he even thought about shaving! It is nothing but the old apprentice system at work. Now imagine that happened at all 193 Catholic Cathedrals as well as our Catholic colleges, too. That is roughly 25 boy choristers and 25 girl choristers at each institution in one year. At the cathedrals alone that would be almost 10,000 children annually at least learning what good sacred music should sound like and having his/her moral imagination formed at the same time. Obviously only a small majority of those would go on to work in the field of sacred music, but even if it were 1%, that would mean 100 future professional church musicians, organists and singers, would be in formation each year (we aren’t even counting Catholic colleges). The other 99% percent would probably be open to financially supporting such a system because of the benefits they had received. So far the Cathedral of the Madeleine and St. Paul’s, Harvard Square are the only two who have joined the cause.

I challenge every church musician today to begin forming our future musicians. It will change the face of church music in the US and will transform the lives and Faith of uncountable numbers of faithful. As Fr. Z says, just take the training wheels off and ride the damn bike!

The Theology of the Organ

Recently a generous family donated their late mother’s house organ to our parish, and last Saturday, my assistant, who works for an organ building company, and one of my recently graduated choristers and I took the newly acquired 3 ranks of lead plus wind chests to the organ shop for repair and maintenance. We hope to install the organ in our parish’s office chapel by the end of next month. As I pounded dents out of several pipes, it occurred to me that it might be useful to post on what I call the theology of the organ.

Most readers of Views from the Choir Loft believe in the primacy of the organ among instruments in the Roman Rite, but if asked to give reasons for why the organ should have such a primacy, I fear many could do little more than quote documents or defer to tradition–and we know how well that works. Unfortunately, most Catholics in the US today believe that tradition is bad a bad thing (at least in the Church), and anyway, if the organ became a tradition in the the Roman Rite, why couldn’t the guitar follow the same process of inculturation, they ask? Recourse to quoting ecclessiastical documents falls on deaf ears of Catholics, who view obedience as something medieval. Like high school teenagers, too many of our congregations are only pleased with the latest fads. Fortunately, there are good theological reasons and arguments for why the organ should one again enjoy pride of place in our worship. I don’t pretend that these reasons will convert your died-in-the-wool, anti-treasury-of-sacred-music types, but I have found that they open a door for dialogue with fellow Catholics who bear genuine good. Thankfully, Dr. Kevin Vogt, the Director of Music at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Leawood, KS, has written beautifully on the matter.

Dr. Vogt is the primary man responsible for bringing to fruition the magnificent Pasi, dual-temperament organ at the Cathedral of St. Cecilia in Omaha, NE, and he is truly one of the great minds of the age. He wrote his doctoral thesis on the organ project at St. Cecilia’s, but the document also contains a section on what I would describe as the Theology of the Organ, found here (specifically see chapter 2, pages 150-172). Some of it might be a little dense for the faint of heart, but it is ENTIRELY worth the read. He presents his insights (peppered liberally with Ratzinger quotes) within the context of Msgr. Francis Mannion’s call for a “renewal of the sacramental, heavenly, cosmic, glorious, catholic, paschal and traditional dimensions of the Roman Catholic liturgy.” Dr. Vogt proposes “that the organ could play an important role in this renewal, and [he constructs] a symbolic theology of the organ in terms of:
(1) Cosmology, concerning music and the created universe,
(2) Christology, concerning the doctrine of Jesus Christ as the incarnate Logos,
(3) Pneumatology, concerning the agency of the Holy Spirit, and
(4) Eschatology, concerning the heavenly liturgy of the New Jerusalem.

It really is beautiful stuff and I encourage everyone to study it, take it to heart, memorize it and then begin to share it. Let’s put the organ back on the pedestal it rightfully deserves.

Choosing Choral Music

This year I attempted something different as I began the process of choosing music for our next choral season. I spent a week going through all kinds of choral music and came up with a list of about 50 different motets for various liturgical seasons, ranging in style from the Renaissance to the 21st century (yes, there is very good modern music being written, even if most Catholics don’t experience it on a weekly basis), then I sent it out to my choir members and asked for their feedback. I must admit that I have enjoyed reading the responses from various singers and it will be nice knowing that most of the choral literature we sing throughout the next year will be generally liked by everyone. Anyway, I thought I would share with you some of my findings. Please remember that our parish celebrates the liturgy according to the Ordinary Form, in English, but generally very reverently (we rarely sing choral settings of the Ordinary, with the occasional exception of the Kyrie, so my list contains motets only). I hope those of you in similar circumstances might find this post helpful.

Firstly, there is a general apathy to much of Palestrina, although the music of a number of his contemporaries, especially Tallis and Victoria, is much loved. Two exceptions to this attitude are Palestrina’s Hodie Christus natus est and Jubilate Deo. In general, many of my choir members think of his music as “vanilla” and would rather sing something with a little more flavor. Other works from this era that bear the stamp of approval are Parsons’ Ave Maria, Gesualdo’s Tenebrae factae sunt (everyone likes this piece), Tallis’ O nata lux, Gibbons’ O clap your hands and Victoria’s O magnum mysterium and Improperia. Peter Philips’ music also fared generally well.

The Baroque period did not do as well as the Renaissance, although to be honest, I didn’t include as much music from this era. While Bach (and numerous other Germans) is obviously beautiful, our choir doesn’t usually sing in German. A couple of notable and well loved pieces from this time period are A. Scarlatti’s Exultate Deo and H. Hassler’s Cantate Domino (if you consider it as early Baroque).

The Classical period did about as well as the baroque period. Unfortunately, our parish isn’t in a position to sing the great Viennese Masses and there is only so much of Mozart’s Ave verum corpus that one person can handle (sorry to several readers I personally know who love this piece). Mozart’s Regina Coeli in C is generally well liked.

The Romantic era provided a number of well loved composers and works, especially Rheinberger and Bruckner. Rheinberger’s Abendlied is beautiful and especially appropriate for the Easter season. I would love to sing more of this German-ish repertoire (yes, this will push our group, as I wrote earlier, we don’t usually sing in German). As I understand it, the German countries traditionally had permission to sing in the vernacular at High Mass and a number of beautiful works came about as a result. Holst’s Ave Maria, scored for SSSSAAAA is also popular.

The modern era, if one were to include the early 20th century to the present time, proved to be, besides the Renaissance, the other popular progenitor of sacred music. Casals O vos omnes is one of my personal favorites, as well as a favorite of many others. Other well liked works are Stanford’s Beati quorum via, Poulenc’s Exultate Deo, H. Howell’s Haec dies, Parry’s I was glad, Whitacre’s Lux aurumque, Kverno’s Ave Maris Stella and Ave verum corpus, Part’s The Beautitudes and Nystedt’s Peace I Leave with You. Much to my surprise, many choir members want to sing Messiaen’s O sacrum convivium, although one alto wrote to me a one word description of the piece–“scary.” Oh well, we are going to sing it anyway.

I plan to do more of this in the future and I would recommend it to all others who direct any kind of church choir. While I still have final say over what we sing, I have found in the past that if a motet is well loved, rehearsals and moods tend to remain positive. If we sing great liturgical music and everyone is joy-filled, then our singing during Holy Mass tends to be joy-filled.

Expect the Best-And You Will Get It

Can you imagine the following?

This fall Pusillanimous University (PU for short) is starting up a new football team, named the Mediocre Mavericks, so that everybody can play football and feel included. Whether you want to spend hours practicing before the game or just show up for the game itself, this is the team for you. The Mediocre Mavericks are all about openness and inclusivity—we want everyone to play. We are also excited to announce that everyone will get a trophy simply for being a part of the team. These will be given out at the beginning of the year to insure no one feels any pressure to stay through the whole season. Call and join today!

Sadly, this is how many parishes run their youth music programs (often adult programs as well, but I am sticking with children today), although they wouldn’t see it that way. The thinking is that since the Catholic Church is open to everyone (which I don’t disagree with in the slightest) a parish should start a music program for children and let everyone in so that all, regardless of talent or ability, are able to participate. Everyone brings his own voice or instrument and away they go. In this way, everyone feels welcome and wants to lift up his voice to praise God, and as the song goes, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” This sounds great on paper in the current cultural climate, so I want to take a serious look at how this might play out in real life. I think the best way to do this is to compare paradigm to a sports team.

Firstly, there are so many activities going on and competing for people’s time in America that one can no longer expect children to join a music program if it doesn’t offer something of value. There are many reasons a child might join a sports team, but I think it comes down to value. To start with, parents believe sports to be important for their children’s development because sports teach lessons on teamwork, discipline, friendship, winning and loosing, etc. Children focus on value, too, but in a different way. They see their friends on the team and want to join too. They like winning and want to join a winning team. On the opposite hand, if a parish offers a program open to every child, with no demands, where children are never pushed to be their best, then parents and children perceive the choir to be valueless. Only trash is cheap, or one might say, “you get what you pay for.”

Now I would like to share my own experience with the Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum. If a child wishes to join the choir, I give a somewhat involved audition in order to discover where the child is musically and what potential he/she possess. In the end, I invite each child to join as long as he/she can match pitch and is free of any severe vocal issues. Parents are aware in advance that there is a chance, albeit ever so slight, that their child might not be asked to join the choir. The fact that there is an audition lets parents and children know that I have expectations. Secondly, there is a probationary year during which children learn about their voices, good habits of singing and reading music, and I get to learn how serious they are about singing in the choir. Even though it has been rare, I have recommended to parents before at the end of this year that the Schola Cantorum is not a good fit for their child. I explain that it isn’t just about me getting the voices I need, it is also important that the child enjoy the choir. It shouldn’t be agony.

When children become choristers and start singing weekly at Mass, I expect them to put forth their best effort. Some adults have asked me before if I am pushing too hard, but I point out that the same children exert far more energy and just as much drive on the sports field because their coach wants them to be their best. I kid you not, a response I have gotten before is, “Yes, but this (the choir) is for church.” I should have said that God believes in each child’s potential far more than the coach because He made them and knows what each is capable of. Therefore, they should give more at church!

It is also interesting to note that the choir continues to grow (we are more than 50 strong, and next year we will break 60). Off the top of my head, the only two groups for children in our parish (sports included) that are larger than the choir are the parish school and the religious education program for children enrolled in public schools. It stands to reason that parents must see some value in the choir.

Next year we will have enough children to break the choir into two groups, one an advanced group and one a general choir open to all (please note the irony). The general choir will be better than most other children choirs because they know that I expect their best as well. I was reminded of this yesterday in our rehearsal when almost every one of our top singers had to be gone for some reason or other. We were rehearsing Vaughan Williams’ Let all the world in every corner sing for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. My first thought was one of skepticism, but then those kids pulled it off, singing in a way that I would have been proud to have heard within Mass. I was having so much fun I pulled out Bruckner’s Locus iste (which they had never seen before) in the last five minutes of practice and asked them to read through it on a neutral syllable. They basically had it by the second time around. I understand this piece isn’t anything difficult, but I was still proud of those boys and girls!

I guess what I am trying to say is please set the bar high for the children in your parish. They will thrive on it. If you truly love the children of your parish, believe that they are worth the effort—they will thank you for it many years later. If you truly love the children of your parish, fight the elitism that says young children can’t sing or just can’t appreciate good music. Be the true egalitarian and give them the best our Church has to offer! This doesn’t even touch on the spiritual gifts you will impart to these children.

The Devil Gets in the Details

Last Sunday the Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum presented its annual Spring Concert, consisting of Pergolesi’s Stabat mater and Schubert’s Mass No. 2 in G Major. It was a wonderful concert—I knew beforehand it would be because the morning couldn’t have been a greater comedy of errors.

My plan was to wake up early and make my meditation before going to the local coffee shop in order to mentally prepare for the day and spend some time with the concert music. I made sure that the only Mass I had to provide music for that morning was the usual choir Mass at 11:30 a.m., and I didn’t have to meet the choristers until 10:00 a.m. It couldn’t have been better planned. Now enter the devil.

All night long our children made sure my wife and I were on a continual adventure, which included my having to drive giant, boy eating spiders out of my oldest son’s bed as he screamed, “Daddy, don’t let them get me!” After hitting random spots on the bed and assuring him he was safe I went back to bed, but it wasn’t long before the next child woke up. I spent several hours lying uncomfortably in a twin bed with him wondering how I was ever going to get up on time. Shortly after 7:00 a.m., long after my wake up call, I dragged my body out of bed and thanked God that everyone was still asleep and that I would be able to get out of the house before the daily commotion began. Right then I heard, “Good morning Daddy!” There was our youngest son standing with a big grin on his face ready to start the day. I knew if I didn’t leave right then my morning would be shot, yet I knew that on judgment day I would wish that I had spent this time with him. So I put him in the stroller and we went for a 30 minute stroll. It was in the upper 60s and the light played through the giant trees of our older neighborhood as we passed numerous people out on their porches enjoying a cup of coffee. I tried my best to enjoy it, knowing full well that my plans were shot. I finally got out of the house, but not before everyone was awake and I had given out hugs and kisses and well wishes for the day. It was now almost 9 a.m.

I should have skipped the coffee and gone straight to church and spent some quiet time with God, but instead I rationalized that I really needed that  cup of coffee, and anyway, I would still have time to get everything done, right. Not so. When I got to church I made a short list of things I needed to do, but realized it wasn’t as short as I had thought, so I had to skip the time in the chapel and just dive in. I was so flustered I kept forgetting things and had to made several trips between buildings retrieving items. When I got back to the practice room at 10:00 I didn’t find a single chorister. Where were they? Well, there was a mix up and they didn’t realized I had already unlocked the door to the building, so they were all standing outside. As I traipsed into the building I was hit by the furnace blowing full heat everywhere, even thought it was going to be in the 80s that day (and already was inside the building).

We dove into rehearsal and things were somewhat back to normal when I grabbed for my coffee, actually a large “Death by Chocolate” cafe mocha, sitting on the piano (I know, I know, I shouldn’t have put the coffee on the piano). As I took the cup and lifted it to my mouth, the lid popped of and in my surprise I squeezed the cup and my “Death by Chocolate” attacked—everything and everywhere. It was all over my good suit, my white shirt, one of my favorite ties–the piano, piles of music, the conductor’s stand and the floor. We tried to clean it up, but all we could find were those typical brown paper towels found in public restrooms, which barely work at drying hands, much less mopping up 20 oz. of coffee (and why does 20 oz. of liquid on the floor seem more like 2 gallons?). At this point I could only laugh and thank God that I hadn’t been wearing my suit jacket, which strategically worn would cover large blotches of coffee during the concert that afternoon (you guessed it, no time to go home and change between Mass and call time).

In a similar vein, as our choir prepared for our Rome pilgrimage last fall, I struggled for a month as everything in my life seemed to go wrong and I made myself physically sick with worry. Shortly before we left I went to spiritual direction and discussed this with my director, who after some discernment told me it really sounded like the devil was attacking something he didn’t want to happen. After that moment, the attack seemed to stop and the choir had a wonderful time in Rome. The same thing happened Sunday–God was giving me a chance to simply trust Him, so I did the best I could. Happily enough, the day ended on a wonderful note and everyone was pleased with a job well done. I am sure that each of you have similar experiences all the time. Just remember to laugh, thank the Good Lord and keep your coffee off of the piano!

A Musically Model Parish

I have written before about the serious need for church musicians to posses vision in order to create and maintain a great music program, so I thought today I would share some visioning ideas with the reader regarding music in the Ordinary Form parish.

The greatest visioning challenge I find is wedding the “objective” desires of the Church to the “subjective” needs of each individual parish and then creating a strategy for implementation. As for the desires of the Church, it would be redundant on this blog to rehash everything She has taught about sacred music over the last century, but in short remember that the Mass should be sung (which means the priest’s parts as well as the congregation’s)Gregorian chant, being the official music of the Latin Rite, should actually be used and not left sitting on a dusty shelf in our secular universities where professors with nothing better to do argue over the use of the ictus and finally, the treasury of sacred music should be used (and not left sitting on a dusty shelf…), and finally, all of this must be integrated into an individual parish within the context of a certain culture and period in time. At this point the faint of heart realize the impossibility of such a task and give up its ghost, but for those of us who love a challenge, let’s dive in.

First, you simply must convince your pastor to sing the Mass (and recourse to the documents is generally of no use in this point). Whether you have to beg, plead or bribe, it doesn’t matter, just get him singing (and don’t tell him your ultimate goal is that he sing the entire Mass, it will only give him a heart attack). If you work for a priest who simply won’t budge or even listen to you, you might want to find another job anyway! More often than not, however, the pastor simply doesn’t feel his voice is good enough and he is probably terrified of singing in front of 400 people. That means it is up to you to encourage him and build him up every chance you get. I generally ask our pastor to add something new to his singing responsibilities every year or two. Currently he (and our vicar) sings the Collect, the Prayer over the Gifts, the Preface Dialogue, the Preface, the Lord’s Prayer and the Prayer after Communion at all Sunday Masses. You will be amazed at what this alone will do to raise the sense of the sacred in your parish.

Secondly, integrate Gregorian chant into your Masses. I personally began with the Kyrie because of the repetitive nature of the chant, but singing the Agnus Dei is another good option. There are also lots of great Gregorian melodies whose texts have been translated into English and make a great introduction to chant for your congregation. The Adorote devote and Attende, Domine are two such hymns that I have found to be very popular with children. We have a youth camp in our archdiocese that annually hosts thousands of young people, and they make it a point to end every night at the camp by singing the Salve Regina. Every child who has attended the camp loves that particular antiphon. I will admit that it is going to be harder for your adults to accept the chant. One thing a number of adults in our parish have come to appreciate (and it took several years for this appreciation to develop) is the quiet and reflective nature of the sung Communio from the Roman Gradual, which several men of the choir sing for about the first 3-5 minutes of the Communion procession, after which the choir leads a congregational hymn.

The one thing I would caution other directors about is the tendency for chant to drag, especially when done a cappella. Not singing chant would be better than chant sung ploddingly. I have been to parishes and even cathedrals where chant is butchered this way and even I have to admit that it becomes a boring distraction. Don’t immediately assume that your parishioners hate chant when they tell you they think it is boring. Record your choir and make sure that your parishioners don’t have a valid point.

Thirdly, integrate a few of the Church’s great choral works into you choir’s repertoire. Even if you arrive at a new parish to take up the post of choir master and you find your choir can’t sing a cappella, start by teaching a simple chant (such as the Adorte) or a 4 part hymn a cappella for them to sing after Communion. These works, too, are part of the Sacred Treasury of music. If you begin in this way, within two years they will be ready to tackle Byrd’s Ave verum corpus and other such liturature.

Finally, one must integrate the Church’s teachings on sacred music into the time and place in which he lives. Merely adapting to the local culture won’t do! Remember that Gregorian chant and 16th century polyphony have a universal appeal and can be used everywhere. At the same time, we need to bring our own cultural offerings to the table. There are a number of fine composers in the English speaking world today as well as a strong tradition of hymnody. While I realize that there are no hymns to speak of in the Roman Rite of the Mass, the reality is that the music director in the Ordinary Form will be using them anyway, so why not look to some of the great English translations of Latin and Greek hymnody, such as Draw Nigh and Take the Body of the Lord. The hymn texts of Kathleen Pluth are great examples of modern American hymn texts, and don’t forget the many wonderful American hymn tunes, such as those from Southern Harmony. Lastly, we need to raise up a new generation of composers. This will only happen if we train our young people in the incredible art of Sacred Music, which is where I will end my ramblings by putting in a plug for the choir school. If your parish already has a school, all you need is a little vision and a capable musician, and you too, can have your very own choir school!

Learning Music and the Classical Trivium

Last week I had the pleasure of rereading Dorothy Sayer’s The Lost Tools of Learning, which is one of the most lucid and well written overviews of the Classical Trivium (part of the larger liberal, or free, arts) I have ever come across. For readers unfamiliar with it, the Classical Trivium consists of three stages of study (which happen to align with the natural learning stages of children), namely the grammar, logic (or dialectic) and rhetoric stages, which are necessary to be thoroughly grounded in before one is able to move to the study of “subjects,” especially the Classical Quadrivium. Sayer’s argument is that while young people today learn all kinds of subjects (and can therefore fill cogs in society’s wheels), they never arrive at Truth. Perhaps this only goes to show my ignorance, but after reading the essay, it finally hit me that the stages of music learning dovetail nicely with the Classical Trivium. By way of explanation I will give a brief description of each “tool,” or stage, of the Classical Trivium.

In the first stage, Classical Grammar (up to somewhere around the 4th grade), the child engages the mechanics of language, specifically learning an inflected language such as Latin or Greek. Only by learning the structure of language in general can one ever hope to understand and communicate effectively in any language. Children in the Grammar stage also excel in the use of their faculties of observation and memory.

In the second stage, Classical Logic, or Dialectic (somewhere around the grades of 5 and 6), the child learns the “logical construction of speech,” focusing especially on “the beauty and economy of a fine demonstration or a well turned argument.”

During the final stage, Classical Rhetoric (beginning around the 7th or 8th grade), the student learns how to communicate effectively himself. Only when he is able to do this should he be allowed to dive into the specialized learning of subjects, by which time he will have learned that all knowledge and Truth are one (or perhaps we could write One).

Now to the question of how this relates to the learning of music. I have found that at a young age, which we will term the Grammar Stage of Music, children love to sing all kinds of simple, but well constructed folk songs, hymns, chants, etc. Most of them can easily be trained to sing in the head voice and they find joy in learning about notes, rhythms, solfege and even singing simple two and three part rounds. The Kodaly method of teaching music works extremely well during this stage. Around the 4th grade children transition to what I will call the Dialectic Stage of Music, at which time they are ready to begin singing simple motets and anthems and have no difficulty analyzing this music, or even the works of the great composers. Children should also begin improvising their own short melodies and rhythms at this time. By the end of this stage they are capable of singing much of the intermediate four part repertoire (where children sing the upper two parts) of the Common Practice Period. When they enter junior high, which I will term the Rhetorical Stage of Music, they should be tackling the more difficult four to eight part music (again, where the children sing the upper parts) and delving into serious music composition. If you don’t believe this can be done, just look to the choir schools. I witnessed it myself at the Madeleine Choir School. Of course it is true that not every student, or even the majority of students, will be composing serious music by the age of 14 or even deciding to go into the field of church music. On the other hand, we will never inspire a new generation of great Catholic musicians, so sorely needed at this time, if we don’t open their eyes to the “Lost Tools of Learning Music” and point them to the One to Whose praises we hope to sing for ever in the Heavenly Jerusalem.