Friday, June 22, 2012

The Training of Church Musicians

In last two weeks, I’ve taught at two separate seminars on chant, attempting to get a new generation going on liturgical music. After some years of experience here, I’ve improved on my presentations and priorities.

These are the top things that people need to know.

1. Church music is vocal music. This reality is nearly lost on people today. People think that music is not possible without instruments, whether organ or guitar or piano. One would have no idea that for 1000 years, the voice was the basis of the whole of Christian song. The voice was the only instrument that created Gregorian chant, which retains first place at Mass. Instruments can and often do interfere with the proclamation of the word through song.

2. The text is the Word of God. For a very long time the proper of the Mass has been displaced by newly composed hymns. This has led musicians to believe that they are free to use any text they want as the basis of their music. The whole thing went nuts in the 1960s, when actual pop music became common but the problem really dates back to the preconciliar times when Low Mass became a vessel for any and all kind of sentimentalism.

3. The music of the Mass is given, not invented. Even now, most musicians in the Catholic Church have no idea that this is true. They have never been told that the text and music of the Mass has been largely stable since the 7th and 8th centuries, that there is a different piece of music assigned to every chant of every Mass during the Church year.

4. It is not a debate over style. I get so weary of these debates, such as that inspired by the hymn wars. We’ll never agree on what kind of music we like. Every person is different. The issue of Church music has nothing to do with this dispute about style. Chant is an ideal vessel for the Word, and the Word is primary. Chant then becomes a third option between those who want 1950s music vs. those who want 1970s music.

5. There is an embedded musical structure to the Roman rite. Most musicians show up week after week thinking that their only job is to pick four hymns, plus sing the Psalm from a major publisher. This is completely missing the boat. It’s actually rather difficult to explain this to people because picking four hymns is pretty much the sum total of what nearly all Catholic musicians have done for half a century.

All of these are important points. People are not used to using their voices alone to make music. People have a hard time realizing that the music of the ritual is a given and not something made up by GIA or OCP. And people love their endless and largely pointless debates about which hymn to sing and which style to use. All this has to be dealt with.

However, it’s this last point that I spend the time on, and this is for mostly practical reasons. If the musician has no idea what he is she is singing and how it fits with the liturgical structure, there can never really be much integration between the loft and the sanctuary. They will seem like they are running separate shows rather than praying as part of the same ritual.

This musical structure is what I hope people will take away from my lectures and seminars. Of course the idea is not mine. This is the main purpose of William Mahrt’s amazing book The Musical Shape of the Liturgy.

For years, I’ve had people come up to me and say, I need a book that explains what Catholic music is and how it relates to the liturgy. I’ve not really had a satisfactory answer until this book came out. Now, it is just a matter of citing one book. I can’t even describe to you how satisfying that is.

One major question keeps coming back to me at these events. People say to me: but isn’t the goal of the Catholic musician to get people to sing?

This is a fascinating statement. It reflects decades of malformation. This is what musicians have been told for so long, in conference after conference, essay after essay. And yet, look at the results. Stumble into the average parish on Sunday morning and you will likely discover a congregation that is largely silent except for the major dialogue chants and perhaps some of the ordinary. Otherwise, most people are happy to stand there and not sing.

What are the results? The musician feels like a failure. And the musician also blames the people. There develops a strange antagonistic relationship and the positions grow ever more entrenched.

Good congregational singing is not something you can force. It must emerge organically, as people come to appreciate and love the role of music in the ritual. Yelling and hectoring and waving your arms do not improve singing. It only causes people to become defiant.

What’s remarkable is that you can read every official document concerning music and not find a single statement anywhere that says: the goal of the music director is to get the people to sing. Not one statement anywhere. And yet this is the prevailing goal of most music directors.

Once it is explained to the musicians that this is not the goal, not the sole purpose of music leading, one can see the sense of relief come over the faces of the musicians. They realize that they have been focusing on the wrong goal the entire time. They need not feel despair! If they change their orientation toward using their talents to ennoble the liturgy, they also become happier people and more successful musicians. Ironically, one of the results is that people might begin to sing again!

We are starting to see very important voices and authorities in the Church today placing a new priority on chant and the sung liturgy. This is why we are seeing more and more events take place that are designed for total parish retraining. Whole diocseses are being re-catechized. The goal is to restore the fundamentals, to re-root our sensibilities in the core music of the Roman Rite.

What has been the response? The first is shock and alarm. People have been told something else for so long. It is hard to change. It’s always hard to change, especially when it means coming to terms with the reality that what has been done in the past is not really suitable. That’s a not message for people to deal with.

But part of all these seminars are Masses that actually use the music we are learning, mostly in the form of English chant. My general observation is that half the people are convinced following the first liturgy and the other half are convinced by the second liturgy. I’ve rarely found anyone, no matter their style preferences or theological views, who is not convinced of the stunning beauty, holiness, and universal voice of the plainchant that is an embedded feature of the Roman Rite.

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