Category Archives: Organ

Forming the Next Generation of Church Musicians

Recently I stumbled across a fantastic read, a DMA document entitled The Choir School in the American Church: a study of the choir school and other current chorister training models in Episcopal and Anglican parishes, by Daniel McGrath (2005). I share it with readers today because McGrath is the first author I have found who systematically and succinctly describes the the nature of, as well as the various models of, the Anglican choral system (both in England and in the United States), a model I feel passionately about and one that I believe has the power to inaugurate a true renewal of sacred music.

There isn’t a church musician I know of who isn’t concerned about the state of church music in the western world, but rarely do I find one who knows what to do about it. Obviously our university system with its decline number of organ departments as well as choral conducting departments hasn’t provided the answer. Consider the current situation in music schools where students learn about Renaissance music for one semester and are assumed to have the skills necessary to tackle the repertoire. On the other hand, choristers in the English choral system begin singing large portions of the best of Renaissance music around the age of 9 or 10 and do it repeatedly for four and five years as sopranos. If they are boys they go through the same repertoire again as countertenors, tenors and basses during their time in the Oxbridge colleges. Which program do you think is more successful?

A number of these same students are already accompanying services on a regular basis at a young age. How many young organists in America are accompanying world class choirs and helping to train younger choristers in junior high. Which program do you think is more successful?

One might object that the English choral system is tied too closely to England and the Anglican community to present a model for Catholic parishes, but I would argue otherwise. Firstly, the English choral system grew out of  the monastic, collegiate and cathedral music foundations in existence long before the English Protestant Revolt. Secondly, the system is extremely diversified even among the English Cathedrals–there is no “one size fits all” way of executing it, and this diversity makes it extremely adaptable to other places. At the heart of this system is the development of a beautiful and natural vocal tone, musical literacy, and singing high quality liturgical music on a regular basis within the church service. There is nothing here that couldn’t be adapted to the people of Russia, South Africa, Argentina or the United States.

I would encourage those interested in the English choral tradition to read McGrath’s document and familiarize themselves with what actually constitutes a choral foundation and determine if this wouldn’t work for your parish.

Then read and learn about the three main forms of the English choral foundation. In its highest form is the true choir school, a boarding institution that educates only choristers. In reality, there are only two such institutions left in the world today, Westminster Abbey and St. Thomas, NY, and I doubt this avenue would be useful for most. The second form of choral foundation is the parochial school, usually a preparatory school of some kind, that educates both choristers and non-choristers, but makes the necessary allowances for the musical education of the former. This model is perfect for many Catholic parishes sporting an attached school. Lastly is the after-school model, where choristers are drawn from the surrounding schools and educated either before or after school. This construct might easily serve the school-less parish or the parish with a school music program that has not yet been put under the vision of a pastor who wants to implement the Modern Roman Rite in continuity with the Older Form and the hopes of the Second Vatican Council. The author also gives advice for implementing each of these options.

One last point McGrath makes is how important it is that choral foundations are properly supported. In England the force of tradition as well as that of the monarchy and parliament (many of these institutions are enshrined in law and supported by taxpayer money) ensure their continuation, but such is not the case in America. Instead he suggests that it is the the pastor (and I dare say the bishop) who must support the formation and continuation of good choral foundations. I believe that the more the clergy realize that such schools are important centers for Christians formation, the more they will support them.

I also hear complaints (well founded) that these institutions are not cheap, but restructuring the budget in 50% of parishes would probably do the trick. Lastly, I realize that there aren’t the musicians around to found such choir schools, but the more choral institutions are founded in the US, the more great musicians will be fostered.

I want to paint a picture of what such places could accomplish in the Church. There are currently almost 200 cathedrals in the United States. If each of these cathedrals were to found a choral institution of some kind, each graduating approximately 10 children per annum, that would mean 2000 young people receiving such a formation each year. Within one generation (20 years) 40,000 young people would have been formed in the Church’s vision for the Sacred Liturgy and music. That would be an absolute game changer. Until we start forming our youth in the Church’s treasury of sacred music we will continue contracepting our musical future to death.

Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord!

Perhaps it is due to the artistic temperament endowed to me by God, but among Truth, Goodness and Beauty, it is without doubt Beauty that speaks to my soul. To be sure, I love Truth and Goodness, but I love them because they are beautiful. God has called me to walk the via pulchritudinis along my earthly pilgrimage and I praise God for that!

At the same time, I acknowledge that the pilgrim way is not always as beautiful as one might hope. On a daily basis I am forced to confront the ugliness of my own sins, the hatred of God by some, the disdain shown for His creatures by many and a great apathy quietly professed by most in the world for anything heavenly. Unfortunately, the last of these plagues seems to be the modus operendi in too many celebrations of Holy Mass in the western world. As a society we have become completely exhausted with living; we are tired with everything and Mass is just another event to be endured and gotten through, another obligation. We no longer care. It is an irony supreme that in the face of a renewed focus on evangelizing in the Church today, we have ceased, in practice if not in belief, to care about the Church’s Sacred Liturgy. We no longer find it beautiful.

The celebration of Holy Mass should be the daily event in the life of the Church where the Christian worships the Lord, spends time with Him, receives Him, is renewed and strengthened by Him, where his love for God and neighbor is given new breadth and where he begins to live the life of the blessed in Heaven. But alas, no longer. Now the Mass is merely a filling station where the Christian hops in for a short time, inserts his coin into the basket and in return receives the Eucharist from whichever of the 20 vending machines (Eucharistic Ministers) is closest in physical proximity. He might even spend five minutes afterward in personal prayer where he tells God exactly what He needs to do so the day’s plans will be successful, after which the Christian can move on to the really important tasks of the day, which usually take place in the office.

This is in stark contrast to the view of so many saints who saw the celebration of Holy Mass as a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet (I am reminded of the text of the Ave verum corpus) where Christians were taken up, and if they allowed God, were formed more fully into His image and likeness to become like living tabernacles, sent out into the world to be other Christs. By sharing the joy of living as such, the saints thereby converted the world.

The former view, which we struggle with today, is an extremely utilitarian one, which uses the Mass as a tool to produce what the Christian needs. The second view, a very classical one, acknowledges the Mass to be a partaking in the Heavenly Liturgy, one which calls all of creation, the entire world, to enter into the worship and rest of God. To be honest, who is not tired of the modern world’s utilitarian view, which asks how useful a thing is. What is useful in a child’s laughter, or Thanksgiving dinner or in the worthy celebration of the Heavenly Liturgy. None of these things are useful in the eyes of the world and therefore we are exterminating each one by one. We abort our children, we cut short Thanksgiving dinner in order to shop on Black Friday (which has been transferred by our secular liturgists to Thursday afternoon) and we have given up anything more than the most banal celebration of Holy Mass.

I recently read the EU Report in my latest edition of The American Organist (March 2017) and was both fascinated and frustrated by Paulo Bottini’s article entitled The Organ and Organist in Italy. He writes “You can count on the fingers of one hand the musicians who, when asked the question, ‘What do you do for a living?’ could rightfully answer, ‘I am a church organist. This is because in the Catholic Church, singing and instrumental music are not considered constituent parts of the rite, but ultimately are optional (my emphasis). For this reason many pastors… prefer to rely on anyone to make do—preferably for free—clumsily accompanying the same few botched songs.” Unfortunately this is believed believed by most in the western world, including our clergy, which is why I was happy to see the recent publication of Cantate Domino Canticum Novum: A Statement on the Current Situation of Sacred Music on the 50th anniversary of Musicam sacram.

The first point made in Canticum Domino concerning the regrettable state of church music today is this, “There has been a loss of understanding of the ‘musical shape of the liturgy,’ that is, that music is an inherent part of the very essence of liturgy as public, formal, solemn worship of God“(my emphasis). I agree with the document’s authors–we must recover the biblical belief that all of creation is called to be caught up in “one triumphant hymn of praise” to the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit, what has been called the cosmic liturgy. This true (and ultimately beautiful) belief is indispensable if we hope to pull modern man out of himself and into eternity. I appeal to our bishops, pastors and seminarians, please re-orient the Church toward Heaven, to God. Do it first by re-orienting our worship, where Heaven truly meets earth. Give us churches that point to the reality of Heaven. Give us music that reminds us of the eternal hymn of praise sung by the angels, Give us homilies that inflame our hearts to love God and neighbor more deeply. Point us once again to God Who is Beauty Itself!

Singing for Cardinal Burke’s Pontifical Low Mass

Last Thursday, the Feast of St. Cyril of Alexandria, the Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum was blessed to sing for a Pontifical Low Mass celebrated by H.E. Raymond Cardinal Burke at the Church of St. Anthony-St. Mary in Kansas City, KS. This was the first time the choir sang for Holy Mass celebrated according to the Ancient Latin Rite, and to be honest, I was a bit nervous about what all the children would think. In the end, the choristers gave the Lord some of the best singing they have ever produced and the Mass prompted one of the choristers to ask last Sunday if they could use the Communion Rail in our own parish from now on to receive Holy Communion (I took a poll, and all the choristers save one wanted to continue the practice). We shall see what the future brings.

For my own part, I have sung for and lead numerous choirs singing sung Masses in the Extraordinary Form, but never Low Masses (this Mass being the first). The Schola Cantorum sang Tallis’ If Ye Love Me before Mass, Grieg’s Ave Maris Stella during the Offertory, the traditional chant Adorote devote, Messiaen’s O sacrum convivium and Mawby’s Ave verum corpus during Holy Communion and Holy God, We Praise Thy Name for the Recessional, immediately followed by Scarlatti’s Exultate Deo. While the choir sang everything very well, I have to admit that I missed singing the Ordinary and Propers of the Mass. It made me realize how much more I prefer singing the Mass instead of singing at the Mass, whether or not the Ordinary or Extraordinary Form. Nevertheless, I told Cardinal Burke that is was a blessing for us to sing for the Mass and assured him of our prayers. He graciously joined us for a picture, which I would like to share with everyone.

Schola with Cardinal Burke

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.