How we get stuck.

Music ministry as described in the “Talent and Participation” page can lead a dedicated minister to sight read his/her way around the Roman Gradual in three to five years. But most choirs we have witnessed in Southern California follow a different model.
Why? In short, we get stuck when we make a collective decision to throw money at that “active participation in the Liturgy thing”, rather than read the Liturgy documents and implement them.
Musical competence, dedication and goodwill abound among Church music directors and in volunteer parish choirs. Yet, many choirs “get stuck” and never seem to get anywhere near being able of celebrating Solemn Mass as described by the Vatican II Fathers in Musicam Sacram (paragraphs 7, 28)
The only goal of the caricature below is to help us identify whether the decision process in our Music ministry has the Solemnity of Liturgy as its ultimate goal, or something else. The below does not describe any particular choir. It is a composite sketch.
  • Rather than rely on volunteers willing to educate themselves, a parish may choose to hire (a) professional musician(s) to lead their music ministry, usually starting with an instrumentalist as “music director”. An instrument can’t sing. Some instrumentalists can. If they can’t, paid singers may also be hired.
  • To foster participation, this music director (and pro singers if any) would first have to convince the parishioners that they can sing. The latter may think otherwise if they hired (a) professional singer(s). They are also likely to feel they have already done their part in music ministry by contributing to a musician’s stipend. Lack of motivation compounds then the lack of self-confidence. Not a good place to start.
  • To prevent demotivation of volunteers, the pay to professional singers may be secret. The pro singer is invited to pretend his/her “ministry” is not just a paid gig, and that he/she is not just attending Mass for the money. Take the money away to test which it is.
  • In any case, the “Pro” musician(s) must succeed on the job. Success may go through obvious first steps:
    • Challenging volunteer singers to improve their choral skills, so they keep coming to rehearsals. Singing polyphony for the first time feels really good. With a volunteer choir, the director might then have the Kyrie, Sanctus, Gloria and/or Agnus Dei sung in polyphonic arrangements, rehearsed every week until sung in tune. Unlike Proper or hymns, these pieces can be sung every Sunday, and repetition helps the return on the time investment of teaching each vocal line separately.
    • Lead the congregation from the amplified keyboard in easy to join rhythmic hymns. Rhythm is easier to assimilate and imitate than melodies. 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4,…
    • Both examples above make necessary the reading of music in “modern notation” vs. “chant notation” (see Reading Music)
But these steps put the music ministry off path already:
  • the proper of the Mass are then sacrificed to hymn singing: the predictability that allows individual preparation (read here) is now gone. A volunteer singer willing to invest time in singing the Mass must now first ask the director about his plans. This is best accomplished at weekdays rehearsals, which cost money (someone will get paid: accompanist, staff singers,…).
  • The replaced Proper are typically the Introit, Offertory and Communion. The texts of these proper complement the Liturgy of the Word. Over one year, about 160 quotations from the Bible gets thus substituted by a few dozen hymns with texts written to follow a meter (1-2-3-4), not to follow the Bible. To make up for the loss in predictability (see above), we now “recycle” and repeat the same hymn over several Sundays. The “Proper” is proper to each Sunday. With hymns at Mass, 10 to 20 “popular hymns” replace 160 quotations from the Bible.
  • Congregational singing must happen first in the Kyriale, then in Hymn (see Musicam Sacram paragraphs 30-31), but that won’t happen if the Kyriale is polyphonic.
From a vocal and musical standpoint standpoint,
  • Some choir members who may be overreaching with polyphony end up getting into the habit of “singing with a crutch”, leaning their voice onto the organ, the keyboard, or the stronger singers. We singers have all done it when we are not as ready as we should. But if it becomes a habit, it becomes detrimental to both the individual’s and the group’s singing. On the other hand, chant carves the voice.
  • Chant music notation is more intuitive than modern music notation. For the Choir members who are new to both, the former would make them progress faster towards sight-reading.

Also, there are two non-uncommon risks:

  • after unsuccessful attempts, the “Pro(s)” may also give up altogether on  participation from the congregation, and do their own thing. We then end-up with the musical companion to clericalism, which could be dubbed church-gig-ism. The Mass may become a show featuring your “Pros”.
  • Publishers of copyrighted music may find a ally in your music director to sell their wares, and entice your music staff with perks (seminars, publishing new compositions,…). You may end up with a “patronage” system: money flows from donors to the Church to the publishing houses and the paid musicians, who in turn give the donors what they want to hear, no matter these donors’ training in liturgy.

Again, the above is a caricature. If dedication and goodwill is all we are looking for in our worship, we may already have it. But the happy feelings provided by the “Joyful noise” we make in Church should not prevent us from self-examination. Are we contributing to a more Solemn Liturgy? Are we getting closer to it every week? Or not?

Finally, please remember:

  • Chant scholas started by dedicated ministers (as described in”Talent and Participation“) can get stuck too, for many of the similar reasons described above. What matter is the time we put in, more than the choice of music. Chant simply has a better return in Liturgical Solemnity for the time invested in its practice than most other sacred music.
  • Professional musicians deserve every penny they earn. Rarely has a society rewarded so poorly the hard work of musical education as our own. Most musicians will acquit themselves competently of what you ask them to do. They need a clear job description. Should they bring their skills to better the Liturgy (read Chant and Money), or should they entertain you at Mass “between the talks”?

More questions about chant? click here

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