Thursday, October 18, 2012

Hope for New Scholas

As a founding director of a parish choir, I’ve experienced the usual ups and downs of any parish program. We started small and grew fast with a great deal of excitement and energy. But not everyone was in it for the long haul. Some people moved. Some people became bored. Others just had more pressing obligations. Over time, membership stabilized and then started to fall.

This is where the test begins. If not every part is covered, the richer and more robust polyphony becomes inaccessible. Repertoire choices are more limited. If attendance to rehearsals is spotty, the music becomes simpler still. The sound is not as impressive and you lose parishioner support. Also, parishioners start to take the group for granted, no longer regarding the choir as an unusual and special gift.

The holidays are always a challenge because people go out of town, having family obligations, or are otherwise occupied with various goings on. Singing in the choir is a luxury that is seen as dispensable. Over time it can seem as if the weight is too heavy to carry. Only one or two people are really committed to that weekly performance plus rehearsal time.

Other problems can appear. A new priest can be a challenge. The money, if there is any at all, is never enough to make it worth your time. There are a thousand reasons to become discouraged and take up some other hobby. This is why new scholas can sometimes thrive for a few years and then evaporate into thin air, leaving the status quo ante. The schola might as well have never existed!

My father, a lifetime music director (among many other things) once gave me interesting advice. First, he said to never enforce attendance because people will resent it and eventually just drop out. Second, he said to be genuinely grateful toward anyone’s time commitment, to the point that if a person drops out you can sincerely thank the person for all the time. Third, he said to never attempt to build a program but instead work only week by week to doing the best job you can for the next service you sing.

I’ve tried to follow those principles, as counterintuitive as they might seem. I’ve trusted his advice because I know first hand that he never took his own advice in this respect and, as a result, his church music job as a source of tremendous personal unhappiness on his part. He told me these words before he died, and I’ve always taken them seriously. Sometimes the best advice can flow from regret not living proof.

Well, there is a good update to this story. Over the last several weeks, our schola has enjoyed an enormous influx of members, more than anytime in its 12-year history. I have no theory as to why. It just happened, and it happened all at once. After years of struggling, we are suddenly flush with excellent singers who absolutely love the music, love the rigor, love the rehearsals, and take everything we do very seriously. This has infused our schola with new energy, reminding older members why they have been so fortunate to be part of such a lovely undertaking.

Why now? Again, I don’t know. But I do know that we’ve never given up and tried to face discouragement with some optimism and hope. The Lord has suddenly blessed us and done so precisely at a time when we least expected it.

I want to mention one member in particular who has been a surprising source of inspiration. She has perfect pitch. She sing beautifully. She has been extremely faithful so far. She gets that we are about more than music, that we are a liturgical choir with an obligation to the liturgy and the faith above all else. She remarkable thing is that she cannot see the music or the text because she is blinded. She uses a dog to help her find her way around. And yet there she is in schola with her recorder, learning all the parts and memorizing them faster than any of us. It is stunning.

In some ways, she is the only truly authentic traditional singer among us all. In the first thousand years of Christianity, there were no printed scores available for singers. The chant was passed on through audible learning techniques. The schola master was trained under another master who in turn trained under another master and so on. He taught the chants to the new generation, monastery by monastery, cathedral by cathedral.

It wasn’t until the year 1000 or so that anyone developed a system for passing on a chant melody and text with precision without the aid of a chant master. This amounted to a gigantic change in tradition. For the first time, the chant was democratized and set free for everyone. Even then, only the richest monasteries had printed music, and there was usually one score for the entire choir. It was huge and looked upon by all singers. It took another 500 plus years for singers themselves to have any hope of holding a book of chant.

Now we take it all for granted, and we attach ourselves to our printed scores (or ereader scores) like our lives depend on them. So here comes this blind singer into our group who cannot see any music and yet sings beautifully. Every note becomes part of who she is. The music is inside of her. It has to be.

This is an important reminder to us all. The task of singing sacred music is not about the page. It is not about the technique of reading notes. It is about putting the music into our hearts and then letting that music out again in praise of God. It is about letting our bodies and souls that God created become instruments in service of the faith itself.

God will bless all our work as we come closer to that realization. It is hard place to come to and there are many ups and downs along the way. Our job is not about administering a choir. It is not about building programs. Our job is to carry out the great privilege we’ve been given to contribute to the public liturgy of the Church.

We have to approach this task with gratitude for the opportunity we’ve been given and genuine humility in the face of the astonishing tradition we’ve been called to carry on in our lifetimes. In other words, we must bury the ego and give of ourselves. There is really nothing that we can do of our own power to make it all happen. We must decrease so that God may increase.