Category Archives: Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum

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.

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.

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.

Music in Catholic Schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forward, Ever Forward!

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

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

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

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

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

Sound Does Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Silver Jubilee

“Pleasure and action make the hours seem short.” William Shakespeare

Yesterday marked a milestone of sorts—the 25th anniversary of the first time I played the organ for Holy Mass—Friday, October 2, 1992. I remember because it was the Feast of the Guardian Angels and I played a hymn related to the day, although for the life of me I couldn’t now tell you what it was. Here I am 25 years later thanking God for the life of the church musician, along with its joys and vicissitudes. It is wonderful now to look back and realize with what love God prepared me for this avocation, from being born into a devout Catholic family with a deep musical heritage to beings surrounded by pastors, teachers and wonderful friends along the way who have guided and mentored. Of course none of this would now be possible without my wife Katie, who takes the helm and navigates the family ship every Sunday morning while I busy myself with any myriad of things musical and liturgical.

Many things have changed over the last quarter of a century in the field of church music and thankfully most of them have been for the better. I distinctly remember my 8th grade year in school when I found my mother’s missal from her youth, which happened to contain a short Kyriale at the end in modern notation. She and my aunt recorded the Agnus Dei from Mass XVIII on a cassette and I listened to it and memorized it, enraptured with its beauty and thinking it was the most sublime thing I had ever heard (it would be years before I discovered the Kyrie from Mass IX). None of the young people then seems to care about it or for it, but how different things are today. Young people, parents, priests, religious and the un-churched alike are touched by the beauty of the rich treasury of sacred music, one of the greatest gifts the Church has bequeathed to western civilization.

In many ways I feel blessed because I don’t have to work, I simply get paid to do what I love and the time has truly flown. Yesterday I went to Mass early in the morning at the local to give thanks for such a gift and I found myself repeating the words of Psalm 150… “O praise God in His holiness… Praise Him for His noble acts… Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord!”