Listening – and Listening Outside Your Box

Laurie Riley is one of my favorite musicians – a great harpist, a multi-instrumentalist with roots in the 60s folk movement, a teacher, curriculum developer in therapeutic music, and then some.  Her most recent column on listening is worth a read whatever your own music endeavors or instrument. 

Why?  Because most of us have lost the ability to buckle down and do absolutely nothing but listen to music.  We’re busy – we have journals to read, smartphones crying out for our attention, children to mind, dishes to do, bills to sort.  All of which can be so easily done with a bit of background music.

Further, we all know what music we like – and that’s what we listen to.  However, Laurie suggests ways in which focused listening – and listening outside your own specialty – can move you forward.

Of course, if you have no need for improvement, you can skip all of this!  (Just kidding, of course.)

Taking it slow – Ensemble Organum and the Salve Regina

Marcel Peres’ ensemble is always showing us the relationship between the Byzantine and the Roman – something that both sides of that equation would often prefer to forget.  While we modern interpreters of chant, following in the Solesmes’ tradition, flow and float through the Salve Regina, here’s a very different take.  Is it “more correct,” more “historically accurate”?  I’ll just stick with “different.”  However, we should always remember that all our researches and reconstructions are only that – research and reconstruction.  The music has a life of its own.

Small Church, Singing Church

Last Sunday I was in the mountains of North Carolina, Ashe County to be precise.  The Catholic church in Jefferson was founded in 1963.  When I was in this county as a child, there weren’t any Catholics.  

The population was, to paraphrase John Belushi, Baptist, Baptist, Baptist, Methodist.  Well, times have changed.  There has been an influx of both Anglo and Hispanic Catholics.  And St. Francis of Assisi is the result.

It’s a small church building that runs down a hillside with a fellowship hall, etc.  (My bet is that it was probably Presbyterian before because of the neat little cup holders on the pew backs.)  The choir had three members – 2 male, 1 female.  The organist labored mightily.  The missalette was Celebramos, but the hymns were quite traditional.  The Mass setting was unknown to me, but clearly known to everyone else.  The priest was young and orthodox. And they had a splendid wooden crucifix over the altar.

EVERYONE SANG!  All ages, all sorts and conditions of men (and women, of course) sang the hymns and responses – maybe with more enthusiasm than accuracy, but with great spirit.  The parish is getting ready for an anniversary celebration-potluck.  They had raised the funds for a cochlear implant for a child in the parish.  And they’re fund-raising for stained glass windows. They re-roofed the bell tower and now they’re starting on the main building, which they will do themselves. There was a spirit and warmth in that place.  (And no, you can relax, I won’t start singing “There’s a sweet sweet spirit in this place.”)

My experience as a wandering Catholic with a musical background is that small parishes are best.  Small buildings let each person know that his/her contribution to the worship is important.  Was the liturgy a splendid array of chant and polyphony?  No, but it was splendid in its humility. 

Memory Eternal

Dark days for so many this week – Washington, Nairobi, Pakistan, Iraq.  Here is the closing hymn of the Russian funeral liturgy in a setting by Chesnokov and sung by the monks’ choir of Valaam.  The only words are “Eternal memory.”  There’s a lengthy introduction by an amazing bass deacon and views of the glorious churches of this collection of island monasteries.  May all these souls, torn from life so unexpectedly, rest in peace!

A Thought from The Bulletproof Musician – A Facebook Diet!

“Be More Confident at Your Next Audition by Going on a Facebook Diet” is the title of a recent post over at The Bulletproof Musician.  While none of us may be auditioning for first oboe with the symphony, there is a point here.  It’s all about the disabling effect of external comparisons.

It’s wonderful to see how well everyone else’s choir is doing or that a new organ has been installed.  We do rejoice at the progress being made in developing children’s choirs and scholas. 

And then we look at our own circumstances.  And sometimes they’re just not that great.  The only tenor who could count and hold his part has a job transfer across the country.  You don’t even have an old organ and the pastor’s burning desire is for a new Steinway grand. The choir that comes to rehearsal on Wednesday evening forgets to show up for the 11 a.m. Mass on Sunday.

What’s a suffering church musician to do?  Well, the Facebook Diet could be a start.  Comparisons can be invidious. Then do a little reality checking.  While your current situation may not be great, has it improved?  Are your choir, equipment, or personal setbacks just temporary blips in the landscape?  Maybe you need a new strategy, but one that’s actually possible – not wishing that you were the titular organist of a large church in Paris or suddenly called to remedy the problems of the Sistine Chapel choir.

Then give yourself a break. And remember we’re all working on a bigger project than ourselves. 

Lastly, here’s a little video from the Trappistine monastery of Valserena, Italy.  Five nuns from this monastery now live in a foundation in Aleppo, Syria.  Our troubles seem small indeed.

Fantastic in Flatbush! Organ Restoration at Our Lady of Refuge

What Joe Vitacco has done at Our Lady of Refuge (OLR) in Flatbush, Brooklyn, NY is little short of miraculous and certainly way past amazing.

Here’s the place to go for the full story and then some: Our Lady of Refuge Church Pipe Organ

The following is just to pique your interest:

Our Lady of Refuge is a poor parish with immigrant parishioners whose priorities are more focused on survival and a pastor who has to care for them and keep an aging church building intact.  Not much of a chance for a broken-down pipe organ here, right?

Wrong!  Joe Vitacco heard this 1933 organ as a small child.  In fact, it was the amazing sound of a pipe organ that lead to his developing a company that focused on producing high-quality recordings of great organ music.

Over the years, like many organs, neglect and environmental disasters (aka water) did their work to silence this historic instrument.  When Vitacco approached the pastor, Fr. Perry said, “Do what you can.”  And he did.  And it was more than fixing a few pipes or replacing some leather.  There were major structural issues that turned up as well.

Money was raised through social media, through Vitacco’s connections in the organ world, through parish barbeques, and the traditional “sponsor a pipe.”  A background in sales and marketing didn’t hurt either. Vimeo clips and lots of local press got the word out in every direction.  They raised over $250,000 from more than 1,500 individuals.  And remember this is money being raised in the midst of a global economic recession.  Talk about bull-dog determination!  (Of course, the organ was originally purchased and installed in the Great Depression, so maybe that’s fitting.)

The instrument is back in place and the dedication concert will be played on October 18th by Olivier Latry, the titular organist of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.  Recordings and concerts are planned.  And the people of the parish will have an instrument that will enrich Masses and all their sacramental life.

Wow! Read all about it, listen to the clips, make a donation, buy a ticket!

Invite the Cherubim!

After I became a Latin Rite Catholic, I used to dream of bringing some of the beautiful music I loved into the Western church. The Orthodox Churches have a rich treasury of music and poetry.  However, much of it is so bound to the Liturgies of Sts. John Chrysostom and Basil that it is difficult to “import” it into the Novus Ordo.  (Obviously, since it’s not in Latin, I never worried about the Extraordinary Form.)

Musicians and worshippers often lament the somewhat lackluster offertory section of the Mass.  The Propers aren’t an option in many parishes and even if they are, the offertories that are simplified end rather quickly.  Or should the congregation sing a hymn sitting down, while writing their checks or digging in their wallets?   Or is the choir going to sing an anthem or motet?

Invite the cherubim!  Of course, they are already there, but the Cherubic Hymn joins the voices of the choir to that invisible host of angels that wait to welcome the Lord.  Here’s the text:

“We, who mystically represent the Cherubim,

And chant the thrice-holy hymn to the Life-giving Trinity,

Let us set aside the cares of life

That we may receive the King of all,

Who comes invisibly escorted by the Divine Hosts.”

You don’t need a masterful choir that can sing the Rachmaninoff Vespers.  Most Russian Orthodox churches have modest choirs and there is a wealth of arrangements of this work.  In the Orthodox liturgy, the hymn is interrupted by the Great Entrance.  In a Latin Rite context (or in concert), there is no interruption.

Where do you find this?  Well, more on that next time.  And in the meantime, why not enjoy this?  An English choir singing in Poland.



The Congregations Gets It!

I recently had a conversation with a church musician friend about her parish.  She is a Protestant cantor in a Catholic church.  At one point she exclaimed, “I don’t know what’s the matter with most of those people.  They sing all the Mass parts, but they won’t touch the hymnals.”

Lacking time for a detailed review of liturgy and history, I just said, “It’s a Catholic thing.”  I guess I’ll catch her up later on the integral role of the ordinary parts of the Mass.

Beautiful and Accessible – The Angelus – Say it, Sing it!

How often we complain about the sad state of the Liturgy of the Hours?  How it never quite made it out into the parishes as planned.  How little enthusiasm people have for it.  Why the laity (present company included) don’t embrace it in their daily lives.  We worry, wonder, and fuss. We feel like liturgical failures because we don’t pray 7 times a day like the Benedictines or even 5 times a day like the Muslims.    

Well, here’s one answer to the “why.”  For most lay people with jobs, families, studies, and all the cares the flesh is heir to – the Liturgy of the Hours is just too much!

However, here’s a lovely alternative that sits right in front of us – and which many of us hear rung out regularly on the electronic carillon:  The Angelus.

6 a.m., Noon, 6 p.m. – and if that doesn’t work for you, morning, lunch, and evening will work just fine.  Easily memorized, no books or ribbons required.

Beginning with the recitation of three Hail Marys at evening and later popularized in the 13th century by those tireless evangelizers of the laity, the Franciscans, it’s perfect for the overwhelmed believer in the 21st century.  And it honors the moment in history that changed everything!

And if you want to chant it, just sing along with this Latin version or translate the same into English for greater acceptance and wider distribution.


Report on the 2012 Tournemire Conference at Duquesne

The current issue of The American Organist, the AGO house magazine, has a lengthy article on this conference that drew Tournemire performers, scholars, and admirers to Duquesne.  “To Transcribe the Timeless: A Student Perspective on the Music of Charles Tournemire” by Stephanie Sloan and Rebecca Marie Yoder is quite readable – even for those of us who don’t fall into the aforementioned categories.

There is also a quite excellent photo of Sr. Marie Agatha Ozah, HHCJ and the Duquesne University Schola Cantorum Gregorianum (including Dr. Ann Labounsky) for you to enjoy.

If you belong to the AGO, head for page 62 of the September 2013 issue.  If you don’t, ankle over to the university library or wherever and look it up.

Sounds like it was a smashing three days!