Friday, May 18, 2012

The Isolation of Musicians

The longer I spend within the world of Catholic sacred music, the more a serious problem presents itself. The musicians in the parish or cathedral are too often isolated on their own. Their issues and problems are considered unique and not shared by other sectors of Catholic life. They have their own organizations, their own publishing venues, their own special skills not shared by others, and their own internal cultures that other find impenetrable, even scary.

For example, I’m thinking of the Sacred Music Colloquium this year in Salt Lake City. This is an ideal place for training anyone interested in Catholic liturgy, anyone who desires improvement in parish music, anyone interested in the Pope’s hopes for the future of Catholic liturgy. And yet, just because the program has the word “music” in it, people who don’t have a background in musical training are nervous to look into coming.

Catholics have a sense that they have no more business intervening in the world of music than they have in telling the plumber how to fix the pipes or the roofer how to deal with the leaks. They believe it’s not their place, and many musicians are happy to have people think this way too.

Some of this is inevitable and normal given just how specialized music really is. But broaden the perspective out a bit, you can see that this creates a great deal of tension and difficulty. The music of the liturgy affects the work of everyone else in a profound way. It colors everything that goes on at the altar. It helps or hinders the prayer life of the people in the pews. It either contradicts or reinforces what goes on in the religious education classes.

Everyone has a stake in the music program of the parish, and yet hardly anyone other than musicians themselves sense that they have any control over the program itself. People have a sense that they have to take whatever the musicians dish out, whether good or bad. This creates a certain detachment and even resentment toward the musicians. The musicians respond with a culture of defensiveness, resenting anyone who dares comment on what they are doing much less introduce fundamental change.

As a result, the musicians development a kind of separatist mentality that completely contradicts the right ordering of the place of music in the life of Catholics. And this separatist outlet can make the musicians themselves ridiculously unwilling to be flexible when faced with the obvious need to adapt toward changing conditions.

The promulgation of the new Missal was a case in point. The musicians were utterly panicked over the changing of a few phrases of the text they would sing, and their primary interest in adapting to the new Missal was to find music that is as much as possible just like what they’ve sung for the past thirty years!

As for priests and pastors, there is no sector of parish life that terrifies them more than the music sector. They have a sense that they might want improvement, especially more integration between what goes on in the loft and what goes on in the sanctuary. But they wouldn’t know where to begin to explain this the musicians. They also worry about alienating them for fear that they won’t come back -- since the musicians are rarely there just for the money, of which there is usually very little.

As a result, a vast number of musicians in Catholic parishes wallow around for year after year in a self-satisfied ignorance about the musical structure of the Roman Rite and their obligations to it. This terrible judgement obviously does not describe all musicians. Many of the best are learning chant and integrating their art into the liturgy and working to expand their mission into other sectors of the parish. My estimate is that this “good musician” description applies to about 15%. The rest grow hardened and indifferent over time, unteachable and uninterested and even cynical.

What is to be done? Well, look back a century ago. There was a sector in Church life called the musicians but they were part of a larger liturgical movement that also concerned itself with church furnishings, the texts and rubrics of the Mass, the content of the educational programs, and the theology of the liturgy generally.

On the most practical level, the substantial difference between then and now comes down to this salient fact: music education was not isolated and sequestered off from the rest of parish life. It was part of the teaching mission of the church. Music was part of the Catholic school program. The CCD classes had everyone involved in singing. These same students sang in liturgy. In fact, people of all ages sang in liturgy.

Priests themselves were trained in music, not only how to sing but how to teach singing. The musicians were able to look to the priests for an understanding of the relationship between the rubrics and the musical art. Musical knowledge was not the exclusive purview of specialists but rather involved the whole community. It would have been unthinkable that the head of religious education anywhere, for example, had no say over and no knowledge of the musical dimension of the faith.

Today? I don’t need to rehearse what has happened. There is no more singing in classes. Priests have not been trained in music. Many parishes even have liturgy committees that have no musicians on them at all. Perhaps there will be a cautious request for this or that hymn coming from some other sector but, for the most part, the musicians are completely on their own.

My colleague Arlene Oost-Zinner is the one who drew my attention to this problem, which seems incredibly obvious to me now. There needs to be some way to begin breaking down the walls here. For example, it has usually always been assumed that the musical reform of the Roman Rite must begin with the retraining of the musicians themselves. That’s not a bad idea but what if the musicians don’t have any interest in learning something new or becoming part of a larger concern over liturgy and the sacramental life of the Church?

Her idea is extremely intriguing. She is working on a program that will begin the musical education not with the musicians but with the religious education sector of parish. What if the teachers in the classrooms where the children are become the main music teachers for the parish? This is exactly how things worked a century ago. That system slipped away over the last forty or fifty years. Maybe we can take some steps toward putting that system back together again, but with a modern and updated pedogogical method?

I find this idea extremely intriguing, even a breakthrough. I can happen. It also provides a way for the pastor to launch a musical reform in his parish without have to fight with recalcitrant musicians or harden liturgists. The people who teach the classes are some of the most dedication and selfless people in any parish. They might take to simple chants better than any group out there. If they could be trained in a one-day workshop, and then turned loose to teach the children, we might begin to see a reform that parents would accept and even by thrilled by.

In any case, regardless of how it happens, something has to give here. There can be no lasting progress in music without breaking down the walls the separate the music team from everyone else. Perhaps the musical energy of the parish can begin to grow from a place where people least expect it, so that way the chants of the Catholic faith can again be part of the lives of Catholics again, and music can cease to be reduced to a soundtrack that is heard only in the background for one hour per week.

There is something brilliant about this idea. I think it has a future.