Friday, March 30, 2012

Embrace the World of Sacred Music

Just about every Catholic I know is interested in this idea of re-introducing sacred music in their parish. The musical conventions are worn and tired, no longer fresh as they might have seemed when they came along decades ago. Meanwhile, there is all this vast amount of sacred music that has been sitting on the shelf, waiting to be incorporated into Mass. The trouble is finding the inspiration and means to make the change and doing so with some degree of competence and knowledge about what the change really means.

There really are no shortcuts to a thorough experience such as what the Sacred Music Colloquium provides. You can find out more at

This year it run June 25 through July 1. It is being held in Salt Lake City at this city’s stunning cathedral. It is a full week of teaching, lectures, training, socializing, and participating in a liturgical life that is hardly available anywhere else. All your questions will be answered. You will discover the theological rationale. You will learn to read and sing chant. You will discover how polyphonic music fits in with sacred music.

In some ways, it is like learning a new aesthetic language. This requires rethinking the purposes and culture of Catholic liturgy itself. This program makes doing so fun, enlightening, and even life changing.

This year we are trying something new. We are trying to make the conference a friendly environment for people who do not think of themselves as musicians. For those who don’t want to sing complex polyphonic Masses, they do not have to. There are several beginning classes on chant that face no pressure to perform at any point in the week. You can just be in the classes and learn.

A major advantage of the venue this year is that it is very family friendly. Spouses, even those without the slightest interest in singing, can come and enjoy large parts of the program, attending the lectures and events they want to attend and otherwise enjoying the amenities of this great city.

In the past, the colloquium did actually require a commitment to attending rehearsals all day. For those who want to do this, that’s great. Nothing has changed. But for others who want to attend chant classes just to gain an exposure, attend the day’s liturgy to experience something amazing, go to a dinner or an afternoon lecture, those are available without the expectation that it will be “all music, all the time.”

At the same time, we’ve changed the program so that professional musicians feel very much at home. They can come to be with colleagues, attend one of many break-out sessions on a topic of their choice, or go to concerts of the best performers. They can spend time with the top experts who make up the faculty. This change was made because we are ever more aware that a large community is developing now and it includes people who are very sophisticated and sing chant and sacred music every week.

It is no small feat to put on this program at all -- and the CMAA is a volunteer organization with a tiny and vulnerable budget (please support us: we need it!). It is even more of a trick to put together a program that serves beginners, professionals, and just interested attendees. But with much thought, time, and attention to lessons learned from past years, we think we have accomplished that this year.

As for the effectiveness of the program, it is beyond doubt. People are left changed by it. To live in and breath this culture for a solid week leaves a permanent mark. You come to realize just how remarkable the opportunity for beautiful liturgy really is. Every week when we forgo it in favor of something else is a week when sung prayer does not happen, and when, in a literal sense, an important part of the Church’s liturgy is left to languish. On the other hand, there is no one who cannot immediately understand the merit of true liturgical music upon hearing it.

There are many reasons why some people choose not to attend an event like this. There are those who think “I’m not a musician” and so they decline. This can no longer be an excuse. I’m thinking in particular of pastors and priests who are fascinated by the prospect of improved liturgy but don’t see how they fit into the picture. This time, they can come and learn so much and take this knowledge back with them to inspire change.

Also, there is often a confusion about the kind of people who inhabit the world of sacred music. The caricature is that we are snooty, stuffy, distant, dogmatic, and do nothing but sneer at popular music and every amateur attempt to do music at the parish level. This perception -- and I’m not even sure what it is based on -- is incredibly and wildly wrong.

Contrary to the caricature, the people who love this music are fun, warm, engaging people. There is no room for intellectual snobbery here because the chant itself is humbling -- and not one attendee or faculty member knows all that he or she should or could know. There is a real sense in which we are all discovering this wonderful music together.

Nor is there an entrenched loathing of popular music on display at this event. Most of the musicians have sung other styles. We’ve played in jazz bands, rock bands, and sung every kind of music one can imagine. What makes the difference is that we’ve come to to realize that liturgy itself requires something special and unique -- something “set apart.” The music especially suited for liturgy is unlike any other music in the world, with its own beautiful and own purpose. Once we discover that beauty and purpose, we fall in love with what could be, and we work hard to see it realized.

Once discovering chant, we don’t suddenly become stern and cold, disapproving of the state of the world and all that it is in. Sometimes the opposite happens. Sacred music is so fulfilling that we become more fun, more joyful about life, more liberally minded, more expansive in our outlook. To discover this music is like discovering a new sector of life itself, like learning philosophy or travelling to a new country that helps you see the whole world in a new way.

Another point here: it is not the case that an event like this preaches only one approach to music at liturgy. Every year the options grow. There are now so many varieties of chant, so many different ways to sing it, so many options for singing the liturgical text, so many beautiful choices that are presented before us. What makes the difference is that sacred music is using the actually liturgical texts and doing so in a balanced way that doesn’t exaggerate one truth (e.g., the people should participate in singing) at the expense of other truths (there really is an exclusive role for the choir!).

Many Catholic musicians I know (and actually this applies to many Catholics in general) are seeking inspiration and liturgical goals. We have a new translation of the Missal. What is next? Or is our experience at Mass just going to be the “same old” forever and ever? Sacred music provides a fresh start, something new and dazzling that helps us understand our faith and its liturgical presentation in a whole new way.

If you have ever considered coming to an event that deals with Catholic music, it is very likely that you are being called. Answer that call, and come to the Sacred Music Colloquium, June 25-July 1, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah. It is more exciting than any adventure you have ever experienced. This conference is for you, and it is only left to you to take that step.
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