Time to stop digging?

Arguments heard:

  • my musician’s training must be recognized financially,
  • My musician’s time must be recognized financially,
  • quality of amateur singing/playing is bad
  • instrumentalists = singers when it comes to training/finance
  • Organ vs. other instruments
  • Do professional and volunteer musicians compete?
  • Volunteer time is abused without some money guardrails,
  • Secular music training accepted as qualification
  • Liturgy > music
  • Non catholics leading the congregation towards the liturgy, no catechesis
  • selling a performance/sound vs. selling training (infomercial)
  • Copyrights : do we need them in Church?
  • Intellectual property vs. teaching and passing on a tradition
  • Conclusion: growing gap between a secular attendance in the pews, but rich enough to buy professional music and pretend they still have faith. The music providers in between lose their faith (Dennis Fitzpatrick, cantor’s decision : God or Mammon?)
  • Nobody said non-Catholics are bad people. Just do not insult Catholics by taking advantage of their needs.

Five years ago, the Sunday mass at a small retirement home for missionaries needed a cantor. One priest asked me if I’d be interested. Then as now, if available, I am happy to volunteer singing and leading liturgical chant: I offered to introduce the proper of the Mass (Introit, Offertory, Communion), in English, to the community. The reply from the leadership was no, they preferred to pay a cantor $100 per mass, but the music had to be from the yearly-subscription hymnal in the pews. They cost a lot. So does the license to the copyrighted hymns. The boss wanted a strong singer interested in $100-per-mass to help amortize hymnals that his congregation was not able to sing from. Chant needed not apply.

Later, I had been teaching a Catholic Elementary School choir to sing the proper of the Mass for their Friday morning school Mass for about a year. I had volunteered to keep the choir going when the paid teacher had quit. By then, the pastor had noticed a change in their sound: smoother, less shouty. A new school director, however, wanted the children to learn to sing from a similar yearly-subscription hymnal they were using at the parish’s 9:30AM Sunday Mass. Hymns were more “mainstream”, the director argued. My suggestion was that if I could volunteer to teach chant to children, surely he could find another volunteer to teach them the more “mainstream” hymns. He could not.

Over the years, I have become used to these setbacks. No matter how consistently the Church documents recommend Gregorian chant to foster active participation in the liturgy, I understood that decision-makers had other immediate priorities than reading liturgy documents. Paying singers was not seen as a problem. On the contrary, the rationale was that if people in the pews like a certain style of music, and if such music is done professionally at mass, then the collection baskets fill with gratitude. One may say that the piano bar logic applies in church too: happy listeners give good tips. (Note: if you listen to the daily mass livestream from the L.A. Cathedral, you will see where the piano bar analogy comes from…). Congregational singing? Well, with good amplification, or a loud organ, the appearance of “active participation” is there anyway. The “Full active participation” requested by the council fathers would be loud too, wouldn’t it? (Sacrosanctum Concilium ❡41)

Then came COVID. Collections fell to a tiny portion of what they were before the pandemic. Parishes could no longer pay many musicians. Unless the financial situation changes very quickly, a new era of volunteer singing is upon us. Now, one could hope that decades of interaction between professional musicians and parishioners would have left a group of well-trained volunteer singers in every parish. Unfortunately, the anecdotic evidence I saw does not support that hope. Happy listeners are not singers. How about choir members? If there was a choir, years of leaning on the instrumental sound, often as a crutch, did not train the singers’ breath to sustain a tone. On the contrary, over time, such sing-along shallows the breath support necessary to any healthy singing. Muscle memory matters. Singing-along makes the voice dependent on the instrument. It does not train self-reliant singers able to lead a congregation. But are not the former staff singers still around? In general, no. The loss of weekly income can be a hard blow, but other factors test the faith even more. Money is a tangible sign of respect for the skills of a singer, but in a musical environment where the taste of donors trumps the tradition of the Church, an unpaid skilled singer’s taste may not align with the donors’. When the traditional hierarchy of liturgical music was abandoned, so was the tradition of valorizing the vocal training inherent to it. After paying them to be entertainers, it will take time to convince skilled singers that their sacrifice in training (askesis) is fruitful and has pride of place in the Catholic liturgy. Catholic singers are Catholic first, but we just spent a few decades telling them otherwise

So are we starting from scratch? Unless we discover in our congregations some breath support skills that I have personally not seen or heard, the answer seems to be “yes”. Please don’t shoot the messenger!

Is chant the only way to build breath support? No, there are other ways. But chant does carve a singer’s voice and its simplicity of form (breath, words) makes it ideal to teach basic vocal technique to large groups. Also, chant notation (square notes) offers an easy and intuitive path to sight-read music. The six intervals representing the proportionality between five notes (do-re-mi-fa-sol), if practiced and mastered, will give a singer access to a large repertoire of Gregorian Chant. It can take a few months or two years, depending on the level of individual practice. From there, music theory and more intervals can be learned. That is the correct order. The historic one. Learning to sing should come before music theory. When the reverse is done, it is to accommodate the teachers, not the students.

For the past 50 years, the Church adopted the prevalent secular music business model to don the appearance of “full active participation”. It has turned parishioners into consumers, not singers. Now, after COVID, Church music is seeing the hole it is in. Let’s stop digging! Let us learn how to sing again. It starts with breath support. Chant can help us do that.

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