Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Case for Sharing Singers

In normal times, it should be possible for singers in Churches of the same tradition to share singers. The repertoire would be the same, and because music requires some degree of expertise, not just anyone can step into the role should one need a part filled or a substitute cantor.

This is not often done in the Catholic Church today because not even parishes in the same community share the same basic material. It's not that singers can't handle the material. It is that traditions are now hyper-localized and singers fear that they can't really get a handle on it or it is not worth trying just for one Mass.

Actually the situation is even stranger for the Catholic Church today. Even within parishes, singers are typically attached to a single Mass time and do not venture out of it to sing another one. This is a matter of keeping the peace, but it is also a matter of taste and competence. Singers are hyper-specialized one Mass to the next, one parish to the next.

This creates a serious problem that we don't often think about simply because we are not the habit of substituting for each other. Quite simply, it is hard to find replacements during absences for vacations or sicknesses. Priests do this all the time but not so with singers and instrumentalists. They repertoire is just so different and the the practices are so varied. We end up being isolated in our liturgical performance techniques.

So let me explain why I'm bringing this up, a subject that had never really occurred to me before. I received a call from a priest in medium-sized town where there are five parishes with seven priests, all of whom are friends.

This priest told me that his experience with the Simple English Propers has been mind blowing. For many, many years he has wanted to implement chant in his parish but he could never find the singers who could start and inspire stability in a chant group. But now the SEP has made all the difference. The singers spend the same time in rehearsal as they did before but now they have the rewarding experience of singing the liturgical text itself plus singing chant in the way they all know, in their hearts, they are supposed to sing.

And much to this pastor's astonishment, he has been able to implement this book at all the Masses in his parish - finally providing blessed relief from the "stodgy" Mass where they sing 19th century classics, the hip youth Mass where experimental garage bands try out their wares, and the single-cantor Mass where the singer fumbles around looking for the right note for an hour. Now, within his parish, any singer can sing at any Mass, and each is glad to do so because the experience is so rewarding.

He now has a glimmer of hope that at least the communion chant from the Graduale Romanum can actually make an appearance in time, and, from there, it is straight up into the normative chant propers of the Roman Rite.

So lately, all the pastors in this community have talking about strategies for implementing the new edition of the Roman Missal. They all talked about how they love, love the SEP, and how this book holds out the prospect of finally doing something about the music problem in their parishes.

Now to the really cool idea: they have all decided to implement the SEP as the standard music of all five parishes. And then one of them hit on the key idea here. This means that they can share singers! Obviously all the singers live within quick driving distance of each other. They can put together a database of them with contact information and this way the director of music can easily call for substitutes when one is needed.

There would be no need for an additional meeting or a rehearsal even. They can just show up and sing because they will already know the music. It will be the same music that the singer will have sung in the prior Mass or the same music that will be sung at a later Mass.

This also has advantages for the priests, so that they are not alarmed at the puzzling selections of music when they are substituting for the friend across town.

These are the advantages of standardization. We get to pool resources within a single parish and now within a single town. This improves the programs of everybody, and we even get to experience that thing that everyone talks about but hardly anyone really experiences: unity. And unity in form should surely be a feature of the Roman Rite.

Just as importantly, the Simple English Propers help to form people in how to sing, which permits us to begin to build up the musical capital that is a first step toward instituting solid music programs in our parishes. The children can hear them and aspire to sing them. New singers will be recruited from among the adult population. The celebrants will begin to have a higher respect for music and its contribution to the liturgical life of the parish.

To me, this is just a brilliant scheme, and a testimony to the appeal of chant across everyone demographic. Instead of fighting over the radio dial, they all agree to turn it off and make universal and completely different music themselves. Instead of being competitors or even enemies, the musicians can cooperate together and be friends, working together in the great project.

The Missal chants, which aspire to be the fundamentum of the liturgical repertoire, also help here. Everyone can count on these chants as the core on which everything else is built. If there is ever a question about what to sing, the answer can come easy: sing what is in the Missal. And now to add to that, the answer concerning what else to sing no longer inspires fist fights and ignorant statements about how toe-tapping something is. The answer is the Simple English Propers.

Even for parishioners, this is a blessing. Choosing a Mass to attend is no longer a dangerous undertaking fraught with fears of aesthetic shock and awe. It is simply a matter of finding out the Mass times and attending.

It’s remarkable to think that one book can make such a difference, but it underscores a point I’ve made many times. We cannot solve our problems until we have the tools to solve our problems.