Friday, August 2, 2013

How to endlessly talk about the wrong thing

Here is a roundtable discussion at the annual convention of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians. All four discussants are thoughtful people but they are all thinking about the wrong thing. That thing is that same obsession that has crippled serious work in sacred music for forty years.

It's the same old obsession: how to get people to sing. That's been the single-minded goal of music pundits for decades, and yet if you go into the average Catholic parish and see what's going on, you will find the completely predictable thing in case after case. You will find an enthusiastic music director trying to get people to sing and you will find the vast numbers of people in the pews sitting or standing and refusing to do more than utter a few random sounds from time to time -- and this is with very few exceptions. Among those exceptions are parishes with a solid musical structure in place and an enduring tradition that is not buffeted about by the latest offerings of the liturgical Top 40 producers.

I might suggest that this whole discussion is wrong headed. This goal -- pushed to the exclusion of every other consideration -- is superficial and wrong. If the goal is wrong, the means suitable for achieving that goal are likely to be contrary to the purposes of the liturgy itself.

Congregation singing is a result of liturgical coherence, not its sole and driving purpose. One must first focus on making the liturgy beautiful so that people have some sense of genuine personal inspiration to make their voices part of it. People will not be hectored, manipulated, pushed, rehearsed, badgered, or hornswaggled into raising their voices if the reason for doing is not apparent. Shuffling endlessly throughs strategies, tricks, and repertoire has not worked and will not work.

What we desperately need is discussion about the musical structure of the Roman Rite and the place of everyone and everything within that. That discussion is not here taking place.