Monday, January 31, 2005

Liturgical Music

R.P. Burke recommended this essay, and I'd recommend it for anyone's reading. Professor Jeffery astutely analyzes classical music forms, swings and mostly misses with his take on popular music, but comes to many of my conclusions about the need for parishes to commit to musical liturgy of a high quality.

I'd like to treat some of the conclusion of the essay in a little detail. I share absolute agreement for the need for music education: education for clergy, music professionals, parish music volunteers, and students. Jeffery touches on the issue of just remuneration.

The untrained amateurs who are often given the unpaid role of leading congregational singing should be educated to take their rightful place back in the congregation, where their willingness to sing out will do a lot more good.

Maybe. Something might be said for the need to invest in training these people. An unwillingness to improve could be a signal that a congregational position is more worthy. But many of us got our start as liturgical musicians as untrained amateurs. If well-supervised students of music have no place leading liturgical prayer, I would seriously question it.

Liturgists, liturgiologists, and theologians who write about liturgy, and those who educate pastors, need to be educated to discuss their thinking about liturgical music with musical scholars -- musicologists, ethnomusicologists, etc. This is because virtually all of theologians/liturgists are utterly innocent of musical scholarship -- indeed of the fact that it even exists -- and imagine that music as a discipline consists entirely of training performers (sometimes called "applied music").

Some are. But the blanket assumption is troubling, and overlooks important talented people who have indeed managed to combine the disciplines of theology and music.

Today, Amy Welborn has been inundated on two liturgy posts. In the second, people take aim at liturgical music (and Mr Burke recommends the essay referenced above). Music of any kind, and involvement in music in any way: these are long-term endeavors. If you have taken only a year or two to rise from the depths of musical inanity to the summit of earthly experience, I want your recipe, and I'll come and get it myself; don't bother with e-mail.

Complainers often seem to think because they have the backing of the liturgical documents, EWTN, or their favorite Eastern music professor, they will be listened to, and every recommendation will be immediately put into place. Why would they think that? I get a letter, usually anonymous, about every monthg or two at my parish. Someone hates the "folk group." Somebody else dislikes a particular hymn. Another person prefers to sing "old time music," which, without a definition of the term, has meant anything from the Beatles to plainsong.

I have a difficult suggestion for people who really want to nudge their parish. Join a choir and get involved. Sadly, if you are profoundly alienated from the repertoire of your choir or parish, you will have to sing a lot of things you don't like and don't want to sing. I'm not sympathetic, unless you realize I've been in those shoes for a very long time myself. I find that once people trust me as a person who is not out to dismantle the "folk group," scuttle the choir "traditions," or otherwise get them to sing satanist ditties backward, they trust my nudging of them to new or better directions. I've known many colleagues who came into their parish with a wrecking ball on a crane, a vacuum cleaner, and the best intentions. I can tell you that each one of those parishes and colleagues was impoverished by the experience.

One particular bugaboo is the market-driven liturgical music press. I have good news. If you think it's bad for Catholics, you should see the state of Protestant/Evangelical choir music. Nobody says a parish has to use a missalette. Or a disposable music resource. Do you realize why these choices are made? They're easy. Most pastors and many music directors devote their energies elsewhere, so having a hymnal, or a missalette subscription is a worthwhile investment of their money, so time saved can be applied elsewhere. I admit it. I've always used these items. Only once was I able to convince a parish to print their own supplement of music, but we still had a contemporary hymnal for 90% of the repertoire.

I posted at Amy's that good music takes time, effort, and money. Trust me: take me at my word on this one. It takes a long time for a beginner to become a good musician. Talent and hard work will make for less time than a person of lesser talent or laziness, but it still takes years. Do people honestly believe that their parish can go from crappy music and poor leadership to angelic inspiration in substantially less time than it takes a person to go from first lesson to conservatory?

Effort is worth a second look, especially given our American milieu of instant gratification. Digging a parish music ministry out of the depths is going to take hard work no matter how uch money and time is devoted to it. Some of that effort will be spiritual: praying, discerning, crying and grief, but celebration, too. Some of the effort will involve trial and error. Good music will be emotionally demanding on those who are involved. And if you want to sing better, you will simply need to attend to the physical aspect of producing better sound.

Money. Nobody seems to want to spend it. I will concede that in some exceptional places, unpaid volunteers with great ability will produce great music from people on sheer time and effort. I wouldn't want to close the door on that possibility. But if your music leadership doesn't get or doesn't want remuneration, the parish and pastor have a responsibility for the proper care of such people. I've known many fine volunteers in parishes who did everything Father asked, and did it well. When such people have to attend to broken marriages, trouble with children or health or work, and begin to break down from the strain ... when these people quit the month before Easter, don't scratch your heads about it.

That's enough for today. I'll probably have more to write later.

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