Category Archives: Choir Schools

Chorister Vocal Training at the Regensburg Cathedral Choir School

If a picture is worth a thousand words a video is worth ten thousand. Some day I would love nothing better than to create a series of videos that systematically deals with training voices of children, both individually and within the choral setting. I feel this is a true need for many of our church musicians who want to train the youth of their parishes, but who feel utterly overwhelmed by the prospect. Unfortunately my ability to navigate technology is at about the same level as my ability to sing in 4 part harmony simultaneously, so the project will have to wait for more favorable times. However, I would like to share a video with our readers for the interim.

Here you will find a fine documentary (2009) produced about the Regensburger Domspatzen, the choir of men and boys at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Regensburg, Germany, which has filled the ancient city and cathedral with glorious music for more than a millennia. At the heart of the choir is its choir school, where boys have been formed year after year into one of the great choirs of the world. Pope Benedict’s brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, directed the choir for 30 years and marked the choir’s 1000th anniversary during his tenure.

The documentary is in German (unfortunately without subtitles), but the sections I have listed below provide a glimpse into how the choristers are trained and can generally be followed without any knowledge of the German language. I hope they provide a glimpse into the great tradition of training children our treasury of sacred music.

Video 1: (02:02) This section shows the choir’s vocal instructor giving group vocal lessons to new recruits. She leads them through vocal sirens, which place the voice in the head voice and develop resonance.

Video 2: (00:48-03:25) More of the above, but with added work on the chest voice. The German choir, in my opinion, place a greater stress on developing the chest voice than their counterparts in England.

Video 3: (00:01-01:05) This video continues to show the development of the head and chest voices with the addition of proper vowel formation. You will notice how each chorister learns to shape his mouth and lips to create a tall, open space for tone production. (06:29-end): Here the choristers sing parts of the round (that isn’t really a round) Das Orchester (here in English), in which each voice, or part, imitates one of the instruments in an orchestra. This song is great in that it can be used to teach many things, including singing in parts, legato and staccato, high and low, head voice and chest voice (as well as blending both together), etc.

Video 4: (04:27-06:23) This clip shows the voice trail to determine which choirs the new boys will be placed in. One item to note is that these boys are vetted vocally before they ever arrive at the school. If you are just beginning such a children’s choir, you will not have the luxury of being so choosy. (08:13-end) Here is the first rehearsal in choir for the new boys.

Video 5: (01:11-02:40) Here we see Sister measuring the new boys for cassocks and surplices. (02:45-04:15) This video provides a look at a full choir rehearsal. The Domspatzen (which literally means “cathedral sparrows”) relies upon the German tradition of using high school boys whose voices have changed to sing tenor and bass. Note the different sound they make as opposed to the English tradition, which relies upon professional male singers whose voices have fully matured. (08:10-09:20) This clip shows the full choir singing together in the cathedral. This is not the primary cathedral choir, but a training choir. You will notice the difference in quality between this and other parts of the documentary which show the main choir singing. Unfortunately the choir routinely sings for Mass standing in front of the original main altar.

Video 6: (01:18-02:00) Here we see students in individual instrument practice, especially piano practice. There is not a choir school I know if that doesn’t provide its choristers individual piano lessons, which are essential to a fuller understanding of theory and music in general, especially how individual lines of music work together. (04:37-05:36) Finally, we see in video 6 the importance of learning solfege.

Video 7: (04:37-05:32) Along with individual piano lessons, most choir schools now provide a weekly voice lesson for each chorister. It is not uncommon for the vocal coach to routinely visit choir rehearsals and even lead warm-ups from time to time in order to form healthy vocal habits in choristers.

Video 8: (00:00-01:52) This video shows auditions for the main choir cathedral choir. Notice that the vocal coach as well as another choir director sit in. This provides the director additional input and feed back and helps makes the decision much more impartial. (03:29-06:15) First we see a boy singing a the German Lieder. I have noticed that the German choir schools place a greater emphasis on the entire German vocal tradition rather than simply on sacred music. I feel this is one reason for the different sound produced by German choirs, which makes more use of vibrato and a healthy inclusion of the chest voice, what is commonly referred to as the continental sound. Lastly, we see Dr. Buchner (head of the cathedral choir) workng with the new boys to creating the choral sound he desires. This is critical. Such fundamentals must be practiced on a regular basis, which I find is one of the hardest things for choristers to do (they just want to sing!), but a great choir is not possible without this.

Video 10: (01:03-end) Here we see the result of so much hard work, the main choir singing in the cathedral.

 

The Fully Sung Mass

In the wake of the 50th anniversary of Musicam sacram earlier this month, sacred music seems to have enjoyed a small (and probably short lived) bit of interest on the international horizon, especially following Pope Francis’ words to mark the occasion. I find the Church is rather good at waxing eloquently on principals, writing a document here or there of encouragement, and then promptly moving on to the more important matter of forgetting about them. However, if St. Augustine was right and cantare amantis est (singing belongs to the one who loves), then it behooves us to once again learn to love and thereby take up the Church’s eternal hymn of praise.

Of course, this begs us answer the question, will the Church come alive in the West simply by singing Her Sacred Liturgy? I believe Augustine answered properly when he wrote that “singing belongs to the one who loves,” as opposed to “love belongs to the one who sings.” Nevertheless, loves seems to require the gift of music. If that is true, then Holy Mass would require it, too, in its fullest expression. This seems to have been the goal of the Second Vatican Council, the fully (and beautifully) sung Roman Liturgy. I would argue this has been the goal of CC Watershed as well and I am happy to be a part of that, and in this vein, I would like to offer a piece of practical advice to priests and musicians alike.

I find in general that priests and musicians focus the majority of their energy on Sunday Masses, which as a principle is sound and worthy (although it carries with it the assumption that the spoken Mass, used on a daily basis, is the base line standard for the celebration of Mass instead of being an impoverishment of the greatest act of worship man can offer to God). However, we find ourselves in an odd era where the majority of those attending Sunday Mass are no longer what we might call practicing disciples. Their goal is to be entertained while getting in and out as quickly as possible, which bodes ill for any worthy celebration of Mass.

On the other hand, the children in your Catholic school are still very impressionable and are actually being formed by what they experience at Mass, rather than reacting to it. Why not gradually implement the fully sung Mass with them? They will soon consider it normal (your battle will be with others) and you will have skipped the Sunday battle at least for a while. For priests who are afraid that chanting adds three extra minutes onto the Mass, just cut a few minutes off of your 10 minute daily homily in the spirit of Pope Francis.

In all honesty, you will never be able to avoid all liturgical conflict. At the same time, you do have parishioners who are longing for a fuller expression of the Sacred Liturgy and you might be starving their spiritual lives the longer you hold off. I would also like to offer a few websites you should know of that will be an enormous help in the process of establishing the Sung Mass.

Chants from the Roman Missal: This website is maintained by ICEL and contains the music (modern notation) for all of the chants in the Roman Missal. There are also a number of accompaniments for congregational chants. (I would, however, caution against using the Missal’s English Chant Ordinary. It is based upon the Missa Iubilate Deo, and is very confusing for those who already know the setting in Latin, a larger number than one might think.)

Free Settings of the Mass Ordinary: CC Watershed offers a number of free plainsong settings of the Mass Ordinary for immediate download and with accompanying practice videos.

If you are a pastor, you will ultimately need to hire a competent church musician (at a competent wage) to assist you in this work. While the above sites offer easy ways for you to begin the Sung Mass in your parish today today, they present only a base line standard. Strive for greatness!

Music and the Imagination

Over the weekend I attended the second annual Prairie Troubadour symposium in Fr. Scott, KS, on the topic of The Restoration of the Imagination. The conference included a great line-up of speakers including Christopher Check, Dale Alquist and Anthony Esolen (among others) and finished with an evening of cigars and whiskey with the speakers and a host of great old friends (and now some new ones). As Belloc once wrote, “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!” How delightfully true!

With the symposium fresh on my mind, I thought today I would take up the topic of the imagination again and its relation to sacred music, especially since most of our readers are engaged in the work of liturgical music, whether as a professional or as the true amateur.

In an article entitled The Importance of the Imagination, Laura Birquist notes that “[t]he old adage ‘You are what you eat’ could be changed truthfully to say, ‘You are what you see and hear’… If the soul has in it good, true, beautiful, noble, and heroic images, it will be disposed to become like those things. For as St. Thomas says, ‘The beautiful and the good are the same in subject because they are founded on the same thing, namely the form’ (Ia, q.5, a.4).”

Of course, the opposite could also be said. If the soul has in it evil, lies, ugly and base images, it will be disposed to become like those things, and therein lies the great problem of modern culture–we are inundated with people who find the good things repulsive, the true things nothing more than the demagogue’s opinion, the beautiful things mere tools for propaganda and noble and heroic ideals the notions of extremists. This could all be said equally of ugly music (I won’t call it ugly sacred music, for there is no such thing).

“Nay,” the church musician shouts. “Just give the congregation Gregorian chant and everyone will love it! They will recognize how beautiful it is.” Oh, if only that were true. When those in the congregation have weaned their imaginations at the breasts of pop culture and its cult of the material and sensual, they will have no inner receptivity to the beautiful and sublime treasury of sacred music, whether the ancient sound of chant or the modern sound of Part and Taverner. The question becomes how to form the imaginations of our young people in such a way as to attune their hearts to music that will ultimately lift them to heavenly realities. This process begins at home. The music a child hears and sings around the family hearth, surrounded by loved ones, will have a greater bearing on his receptivity to Palestrina and Messiaen than teaching him classes on sacred music (although this will be important later). In the same way, the music he sings in his Catholic school and in his school Masses will form his adult ideas about music and ultimately about God (be sure to read The Casualties of Bad Church Music). This is no unimportant topic.

If you want your children to know, love and serve God, it is up to you as parents to guide them along that path, and I would caution you to make good music an important part of the way. Do you yourself, especially you fathers, sing good music on a daily basis? Do you listen to good music? Make sure that true folk music forms the basis of what you sing and listen to. If your music comes primarily from the radio, just realize that such music is not “popular” or “folk” music in the classical sense. It does not come from the shared experiences of a people who have come together striving to live the good life, and therefore you will be shooting your efforts in the foot. There is plenty in the line of Anglo/Irish/Scotch/American folk music. If your ancestors come from other areas learn a few songs from that tradition. Include great hymns in the repertoire and consider ending your family night prayers by singing the proper Marian antiphon for the season. Your children will easily pick these up. Or, as one speaker at the symposium commented, teach your children how to dance and hold community dances. When you form your children in such a manner, exposing them to REAL music (nothing mass produced), they will naturally cross the bridge to an appreciate of the sublime beauty in the Church’s treasury of sacred music. Along the via pulchritudinis (the way of beauty) they will come to know Him 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

Chorister Training Pitfalls

I would like to point the reader to a helpful article that appears in the latest edition of The American Organist magazine (January 2017) by Sarah MacDonald, director of the Ely Cathedral Girls Choir (Ely, England). Mrs. MacDonald writes a monthly UK Report, sharing her extensive knowledge of the English Cathedral music tradition and the training of child choristers and chapel organists. She brings a professionalism to the discussion of training children in the art of sacred music that is often lacking due to a misguided belief that the quality of our liturgical music should be sacrificed on the altar of good intentions. In her current article she tackles 4 pitfalls she feels entrap choral directors working with grade school and junior high children: range, vocal sound, quality of literature (both musically and textually) and finally sight-singing. I would like to briefly touch on each of these.

Mrs. MacDonald believes the greatest concern when working with children is choosing music in the child’s range (Eb 4 to Ab 5 in terms of the piano keyboard) and tessitura (around D 5), which can be difficult when most of the church music in hymnals is pitched lower than it was in previous eras. This is also compounded by the natural desire of children to imitate the so called “pop-music” they hear on a daily basis. Children might resist singing in their head voices simply because they have never experienced the sensation before, but it is worth the effort, both for the health of their voices and for the increase of enjoyment of their singing.

The second problem MacDonald identifies is a lack of any quality in vocal sound and choral blend. I find such artistry is often sacrifice in the director’s drive to “get the notes correct.” If the director had chosen easier music, especially simple music in unison, this would have provided more time to pursue a beauty in presentation that possesses the power to move the heart of the listener (I accuse myself of this often).

Third, Mrs. MacDonald stresses the need to chose choral literature of high quality both musically and textually. She writes “Avoid platitudinous or patronizing poetry–children can (and should) be taught to read and understand sophisticated texts as well as any adults. Teach them to have good taste in well-crafted repertoire.” I think more than enough electronic ink has been spilled attacking the ongoing problem of bad music and bad lyrics in church (I think of my experience as a child singing Great things happen when God mixes with us from the Glory and Praise hymnal in my Catholic grade school) so I will say no more.

Finally, she makes a plea to choir directors to teach children how to read music. She reasons that teaching children to know only a few concepts by rote is unacceptable in any other school subject, so why should it be so in music. Why should children be shackled to the unfortunate circumstance of only being able to sing a few good pieces of music because that is all they ever learned by rote? The earlier music teachers and directors lay a good foundation in sight-singing, the easier it will be for children to learn.

If I might be permitted to add my two cents to end this discussion, I think we as Catholics have an incomparable advantage in the Roman Rite in the possession of Gregorian chant (not withstanding the challenges of actually using it in the Ordinary Form). The repertoire is large enough to encompass any vocal range (and can be pitched accordingly), is very moving when sung in a beautiful, free vocal tone, contains music and text of the highest artistry and the simpler hymns and antiphons can be read at sight after the child is proficient in the use of solfege. Thankfully, even if your parish is stuck at Ground Zero, musically speaking, the number of pastors who would squelch even the occasional Gregorian hymn sung beautifully by a children’s choir is fast diminishing.

 

 

 

When to Teach Children to Sight-Read Gregorian Chant

I have heard it stated several times by those who love chant that teaching children to read plainsong is easier than teaching them to read tonal music, however, experience has shown me that this position is dubious at best. Examples given of easy pieces to teach children have included the Kyrie from Mass XVI or the Salve Regina, which ARE easy if the goal is to teach children by rote (especially considering these works are built upon the major scale and include large amounts of repetition in their melodies). I do not doubt that children can and should be taught Gregorian chant by hearing and repeating (after all, one learns one’s native tongue in the same manner), but this binds them to singing only what they have already memorized. I want to find the best way and time to teach them to sight read chant as well, otherwise, the Propers will always be out of reach of my choristers.

At the end of each rehearsal we close by singing either the Salve Regina, the Alma Redemptoris Mater or the Regina coeli (we will eventually add the Ave Regina Coelorum) depending on the season. The Senior Choristers also love singing the Missa cum Iubilo (who can blame them), but teaching them to sight read chant on a daily basis was a process. Beginning last fall the high school boys joined the men singing the Communion antiphon each Sunday, which has been more successful than not,  so I would like to share with you some of the insights I have gained along the way with the hope that they might prove useful.

Firstly, I taught them the Gregorian antiphons as opposed to simplified English versions based upon an experience I had several years ago when I first introduced the Communion antiphons to our adult choir. After several months of singing mainstream English versions of the antiphons I had to confront an undercurrent of rebellion (and this is not a generalization). The few who could already read chant preferred singing the real ones (the Gregorian versions), while those who knew nothing about chant thought the English versions were boring (and I had to agree). After switching to the Gregorian antiphons there were still members who didn’t care to expend the energy learning them, but two or three mentioned to me that at least the Gregorian ones were beautiful to listen to.

Secondly, I had to realize that even though there were only two clefs in chant and no key signatures to confront, the sounds of the scales were completely different. Even though there were no accidentals to speak of, with the exception of flatting the Ti, the boys frequently encountered intervals that they didn’t often sing. Even though there were only four lines instead of five and I didn’t have to teach quarters, halves and whole notes, the music looked different and was therefore a hurdle that had to be overcome for every singer. Thankfully, the boys had heard these antiphons sung every Sunday for the last several years, so they were familiar with the sound of the Communion antiphon. They had sung quite a bit of Latin motets so they at least had a general idea of how to pronounce the words and even recognized a few.  These might seem like little hurdles, but put together, they were a formidable wall to scale for those new to chant.

I started with a simple explanation of the two clefs so the boys could find Do (they were already familiar with solfege) and then pitch the other intervals. Also, I explained that the notes were read left to right, bottom to top. I didn’t mention any exceptions until we faced them in the music. The first rehearsal I had them sight-read the chants on solfege very slowly, phrase by phrase, until they were comfortable with each one. This was often all we tackled  in the first rehearsal of each antiphon. The second rehearsal began the same way, after which I had them switch to the Latin text and gave them a brief explanation of its meaning, especially of the important words. They knew from their years in the choir that I was more concerned that they “sing the text” than “sing the notes,” so the fact that the melody didn’t move in a strict meter didn’t bother them. As they became familiar with the process of reading neumes and the sound of the modes, I explained more and more, both musically and liturgically. To be honest, about 2/3 of the boys are thrilled about the chants and the other 1/3 don’t like them at all, with no middle ground. I pray that time will soften a few hearts.

Six months later, some of the boys have become contributing singers to our small chant choir, while the others continue to grow. I know that next year will be easier as we go through the same chants for the second time. If any of our readers have suggestions for improving the learning process, I would be happy to hear them. At the same time, I would caution the new choir master, or the choir master new to a parish that diving into the murky waters of teaching young people to read chant before they can read tonal music could prove to be a very taxing process that would be better left to the future. I say this because my goal of introducing all of the Propers back into at least one of our Sunday Masses is a process not unlike building a new home, and if I don’t lay a good foundation and build upon that foundation in a methodical way, the home might very easily collapse. I wish you the best as you build your programs of sacred music.

A Late Gift for Nicholasmas

As the saying goes, better late than never. Already we find ourselves on the Feast of St. Lucy, a full week after the Feast of St. Nicholas, but nevertheless, I thought I would share with you a wonderful repository of all things St. Nicholas, that like the wise Virgins, you might find yourselves prepared for the feast next year.

If you aren’t already familiar with it, St. Nicholas Center is a website dedicated to the holy man of Myra, and a must see. There are wonderful articles on the events in the life of St. Nicholas, the legends surrounding his personage, descriptions of how he became Santa Claus, Kris Kringle and various other gift givers and why St. Nicholas, who points to the crib instead of replacing it, is simply better.

There are several sections of the website especially dear to me, such as its liturgical resources and musical resources. It contains prayers and collects from the saint’s feast, as well as the order of service used for the Enthronement of the Boy Bishop at Westminster Cathedral in London, English translations of Medieval miracle plays (here for the story of St. Nicholas and the Virgins) and many St. Nicholas carols from throughout the world.

Unfortunately we live in a society in which parents can no longer allow the culture to help form their children, and in most instances are forced to fight such and un-cultural laviathon. As St. Nicholas made so bold as to punch the heretic Arius, I doubt he would have sat idly by as Christ was barred from His own birthday celebration. This website provides a wealth of materials for parents to help fight the commercialization of Christmas (and the loss of Advent altogether) and more importantly, once again put their children on the path to the Manger in Bethlehem.

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!

Liturgical Musicians and Pastors: Are We Really Working Together?

Last month Catholic News Service reported that Msgr. Marini, the papal MC, spoke on October 21 to a group of musicians in Italy as part of a choral festival.. The good monsignor outlined five important aspects of the sacred liturgy and how the choir is called to serve each aspect. While I think his points were extremely valuable for us to ponder (the topic of next week’s post), it was an “uncomfotable, practical question” asked by a woman in the audience afterward, followed by Marini’s response, that caught the attention of most.

“Many times, in our parishes, the priest wants the choir to perform songs that are inappropriate, both because of the text” and because of the moment the song is to be performed during the service, she said. “In these situations, must the choir master follow the wishes of the priest even with the knowledge that by doing so, the choir is no longer serving the liturgy, but the priest?” she said to applause.

Asked for his advice, Msgr. Marini smiled, cast his eyes upward and rubbed his chin signaling his awareness that it was a hot-button topic. He said he felt “sandwiched” “between two fires, between priests and choirs.” Acknowledging the difficulty of such a situation, he said he sided with the priest.

There are situations where priests may not be giving completely correct guidance, he said, and there are directors that could be doing better. But in either case, conflict and division should be avoided and “humility and communion be truly safeguarded,” he said.

This, like with all disagreements, he said, requires that all sides be very patient with each other, sit down and talk, and explain the reasons behind their positions.

But if no conclusion or final point is reached, then “perhaps it is better also to come out of it momentarily defeated and wait for a better time rather than generate divisions and conflict that do no good,” he said to applause.

If the truth be told, this woman’s question resonated more those present than Marini’s previous five points simply because it touched upon a deep wound–the tension so often felt between the priest (who should be the chief liturgist of his parish) and the choir director (who is often designated as the liturgist) at the majority of parishes in Anytown, USA.

To make matters worse, over the last 50 years progressives have so successfully pushed a false view of what the essence of the sacred liturgy is in the classical sense (and I would argue as it is presented in Sacrosanctum Concilium) that there is no common ground between progressives (clergy or lay) and those who wish to see an authentic implementation of the Second Vatican Council (again, clergy or lay).

I realize there are many good priests and music directors in the world today who are in love with Christ and His Church and who want to see the liturgy “worked” in all of its beauty, both for the Glory of God and for the edification of all the faithful, but unfortunately, the union of the two rarely takes place in the parish. Speaking on behalf of liturgical musicians worthy of the name, they often submit as a result of the pastor’s sheer force rather than out of respect for at least being heard.

I am blessed to work for a very orthodox pastor who at at the same time truthfully acknowledges that he doesn’t always understand my insistence on the sacred liturgy being celebrated in the way that I do. But the key is that both of us have an openness to the each other and to the truth and this makes submission on my part much easier (and while I might stretch him liturgical, it is only fair to note that he has stretched me in many areas of the Faith extra-liturgical). If that weren’t the case, I would have no other course of action than to submit to him by turning in my resignation. As I have explained to priests before who seek to understand the church musician, I feel called by God to this work and understand it to be part of my path to holiness. As such I have to be faithful to what the Church asks me to do, whether I like it or not (this is incredibly freeing). I have spent large amounts of time (time often away from my family), money and energy to learn the skills necessary to follow this avocation (I don’t see it as a job). Priests need to realize that for me to do less than what the Church asks of me would be like an athlete showing daily to practice and being told by the coach that he wasn’t really interested in the sport and quite frankly didn’t care to be. Such a coach wouldn’t have a team, and I dare say many priests haven’t been much more successful in procuring and retaining great musicians.

If I had the chance to speak with Marini in person, I would like to share with him that while what he says is true, it is equally true that if the Church is going to call musicians to this vocation, She has a duty to form pastors who will respect and nourish such a vocation (which means forming priests in an authentic ars celebrandi). Charity is never one sided. To be fair, I am sure the good monsignor feels the same way, but I think it is time that we honestly address both sides.

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!