Category: Music

Downloadable Chant settings of the new translation

I received an email in response to my article informing me that the chant versions of the new translation are available for free to download.  You can find them at this website.

If chant is your “bag” as jazzers would say, then knock yourself out.

Interestingly enough, I’ve received a couple of different emails from both sides of the fence who took issue with my pragmatic approach.  The conservative side saying that I wasn’t recognizing the movement of the Church to a higher form of Liturgy and that I was trying to impose faulty Vatican II ideals on our new higher calling;  and the progressive side saying that I didn’t take a good hardlined stance against this injustice to our Liturgy.  (both my paraphrasing, I don’t mean to put words in people’s mouths just trying to sum up many different people’s views)

To all of these views I say this:  Our congregations need us to be leaders.  I firmly believe our job is to recognize the positive ideals in the new translation and make the music work for our congregations’ individual identities as best we can.  To me personally, that means avoiding hardlined stances on the subject.  That’s for theologians and Church leaders who are way above my paygrade.

follow up to “Sing a New Song”

As a follow up to my article “Sing a New Song” which was published in this month’s Today’s Parish regarding the impact that the new text will have on the musical life of the liturgy, I wanted to share some things that could not make it into the article.

In my conversation with Steven Janco, he brought up an excellent point on the musical introductions to the new settings of the Mass.  He found himself rewriting the introductions to current works like Mass of Angels and Saints, just to avoid confusion for the congregation.  If you heard the old introduction, you might be tempted to sing the old words.  I think if other composers choose to not rewrite the introduction, you as the musician might want to consider improvising a new introduction to avoid any confusion for your congregation.

In my conversation with Tim McManus, he pointed out the importance of teaching children the new words through song.  He felt like “school Masses”, which have been the liturgical “thorn in the side” for some musicians and liturgists, might be an excellent venue for introducing the text.  Maybe after the children learn it, the new found knowledge will trickle up to the parents. 

When I wrote the article, the use of Memorial Acclamation A (Christ Has Died…) was still being decided.  Since it now seems as though that text is not approved, begin using current Acclamations C and D. (When we eat this bread… or Lord by your cross and resurrection…) While the texts have minor adjustments in the new translation, at least there will be some familiarity with the Memorial Acclamation texts when it comes time to teach the new settings of the Mass. 

Even though it seems like Advent of 2011 is a long a way away.  Do not wait until then to begin conversations about this transition.  Do not even wait until then to start having workshops at your Church.  The more preparation we give our congregations, the easier it will be to make the switch!

In the end, it will be very important for pastors, musicians, religious education professionals, and church leaders to work together in a positive manner.  Let no divisiveness prevail, and instead figure out as a community how best to follow the spirit that is leading the Church at this time in our history. 

Liturgy is not a talk show; it’s an opera

La troupe de Carmen (Opéra de Budapest) by dalbera [Flickr]For a long time, I’ve had an image stuck in my head about Sunday liturgy. From the looks of things, it seems many liturgical leaders—probably unconsciously—think of Sunday Mass as a kind of prayerful talk show. Much of what goes on seems to mimic the format best popularized by the Tonight Show.

I don’t mean that liturgical leaders are irreverent. Quite the opposite. I think they are trying very hard to engage the parish assembly in the action of the liturgy. What I question is the model they are using to foster participation.

Jay Leno and folks like him are masters at improvisation, humor, and—most of all—engaging the audience. We see these men every night on every network working the crowd and creating a high level of interest in seemingly mundane, boring topics. It’s only natural that we would try to imitate them.

A cure for boring liturgy?

The talk show, however, the wrong model. First of all, you have to be Jay or Conan or Dave to make boring things interesting. It is a rare talent, and most people cannot do it. And the premise is wrong. Of course, we, the parish leaders, don’t think Mass is boring. But we often concede that the parishioners think so. And with that premise, we try to spice things up a little.

I don’t believe parishioners think the story we are telling in the Mass is boring. But I think they often find the telling of the story to be boring. That makes me think the analogy we should have in mind for the liturgy is opera. The stories that underlie famous operas are compelling. But badly performed opera is an exercise in watching paint dry.

If you are the director of an opera and your goal is to make the opera compelling, what do you do? Do you ask the tenor to make a quip to the orchestra, wink at the audience, and chat with the soprano who has just published a tell-all about her time in the chorus? Of course not. You would, instead, find people who have the talent to carry off their role and then rehearse them until they had mastered the dramatic flow of the story. You would work at making the opera more operatic.

Operatic liturgy

An opera is an art form. It is a dramatic work that combines theater, dance, and music. The dialogue is mostly sung. It think that describes Sunday Mass pretty well. Or it ought to. We have lost the sense of the Mass as a sung event, but that is what it is intended to be. One key to engaging the assembly is, instead of mimicking the talk show, make the liturgy more operatic. Introduce more sung dialogue. Some of the parts of the Mass that are not usually sung—but could be—include:

  • Greeting
  • Penitential rite
  • Opening Prayer
  • Gospel
  • Profession of faith
  • Intercessions
  • Prayer over the Gifts
  • Eucharistic Prayer
  • Lord’s Prayer
  • Blessing and Dismissal

Of course, this will require work. It will require change. It will be uncomfortable at first. You’re going to have to rehearse more. Badly performed liturgy is like badly performed opera—excruciating. To avoid bad performance, you’re going to have to risk more. Talk shows are not art, and they require little risk. Opera—and good liturgy—is art and requires dying to ourselves for the sake of the art.

Build engagement

If your assembly is not used to this much singing, I wouldn’t suggest unveiling a complete operatic revision next Sunday. But you could begin to introduce some more sung elements and build gradually. Try, for example, singing the blessing and dismissal for six Sundays in a row. See if that doesn’t change your sense of the dramatic power of the liturgy. I guarantee the assembly will be more engaged.

A Hymnal Supplement

One of the summer projects that we are considering is a hymnal supplement.  We have been printing new hymns in our weekly worship aid, and it has received mix reviews.  Everything from the print is too small to these are not our hymns why are we singing them?  Not wanting to give up my dream of expanding the congregation’s repertoire, I figured a hymnal supplement was the way to go, and in fact thought some of the positives of the project were worth writing about.

First, assembling the supplement could get the congregation interested in hymn singing.  Form a committee that’s responsible for researching possible hymns, discuss the merits of text and music, and invite people to learn more about hymn writing, history, maybe other cultures’ sacred music, and other denominations repertoire that may work well in a Catholic Liturgy.  The ownership that the congregation will take in forming their supplement could translate into better participation and their new found knowledge could spread to other people in the Church.  If you don’t involve people and do it on your own, your congregation will feel like its taking medicine, and nobody likes to take medicine.

Second, the church will feel like they have accomplished something in completing the task and having a book to call their own.  Anyone who has read my blog posts know I have a huge pet peeve when the organist and the musicians are separated from the congregation.  Implementing a task like this will forge new bonds between the musician and his or her congregation, and will give each something tangible.  You are the only Church that will have your supplement, it will contain your Church’s identity, and will be a testament to future generations and how much you cared about the liturgy and full and active participation.

Third it might give you an opportunity to tap into your talent.  We have people at our Church who like to write hymn texts.  With a supplement we can print the texts, use them in liturgy, and create an even stronger sense of Church identity.

I’m sure there are more, but these are the most useful to our situation.  Has anyone else tried this?   Did you find it a successful venture; if so why and if not what would you do differently?

A Question

I wish to pose a question:  is there an inverse relationship between how long one sits in Church, and how much grace one can receive?

I don’t mean the question to be blasphemous, or to claim God doesn’t have the power to restore our souls no matter what the circumstances are, but if someone is sitting in Church longer than they want to be there, is it really doing them any good?  And how much of a responsibility do we have to be sensitive to this phenomenon?  Or do we as ministers have an obligation to push the importance of Church and fight the ever-decreasing attention span of our members?

One example:  when I worked for St. Aloysius before moving to the Reformed Church of Bronxville, we always planned the Easter Vigil so it would be complete in 90 minutes.  We generally were very close, but to accomplish it we sacrificed the Old Testament scriptures, only proclaiming the minimum.  I remember feeling sad that we were missing half the story, but happy that our church gradually increased attendance each year.  Along those same lines, when I attended Easter Vigil at St. Francis Xavier in NewYork this year, it was over 2 hours long with every piece of the liturgy in tact, and the most beautiful Liturgy I think I’ve ever participated in.


O Antiphons

by Leo Reynolds [via Flickr]This week marks the start of the signing of the O Antiphons (Dec. 17-24). Are you doing anything creative in your parish with them? Please share your great ideas.

What a Jewish songwriter can teach us about vocation


I was at the final performance of Leonard Cohen’s 2009 U.S. tour, which concluded in San José, California. Cohen, who is now 75, has been an institution in North American popular music since the 1970s. Cohen has a reputation for writing lyrics and melodies that are dark—no doubt influenced by his life-long struggle with depression. He certainly upheld that reputation in his San José concert. Yet, overall, the concert was uplifting and joyful. Cohen literally skipped like a school boy as he entered and exited the stage for his two sets and three multi-song encores during the three-and-a-half hour show.

Tower of Song

There was one song that particularly struck me: “Tower of Song.” In the song, Cohen describes himself as a lonely old man:

Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play

And then he reflects on his talent in a way that implies his gift has imprisoned him in a “Tower of Song”:

I was born like this, I had no choice
I was born with the gift of a golden voice
And twenty-seven angels from the Great Beyond
They tied me to this table right here
In the Tower of Song

In parish ministry, we speak a lot about gifts. We are constantly discerning our own gifts as we attempt to answer the Lord’s call. And we try to discern the gifts in others in order to help them grow as disciples. We even speak of faith itself as a gift.

I wonder what it would be like to be so gifted that your gift required no discernment. What if your path was completely laid out for you in such a way that it was clear that no other choice was possible? Much of my prayer life is devoted to trying to discern the right path. But what if you always knew? Would that knowledge be a source of joy? Or would it feel like being imprisoned in a tower? Or maybe both.


A more well-known song of Cohen’s, “Hallelujah,” still manages to send the listener into the dark, despite the title. Yet, the conclusion of the song brings us to the flip side of staying true to our gift. Ultimately, truth does not imprison us. It frees us.

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Are you stressed? Well you are not alone!

My wife forwarded me this link.  Evidently being a music minister is one of the most stressful low-paying jobs in America.
(copy and paste the link it should work)

I feel a little vindicated by this.   How many times have you had this conversation?

  • Very nice and well meaning older lady:  So, what is your full-time job?
  • Exasperated music minister whose choir decided to stop paying attention to him/her during the anthem:  This is my full-time job.
  • Lady:  This is your full-time job?  Really?  What do you do all day?

Now, I prefer not to focus on the low-paying part.  That’s a different article.  I’d like to focus on the stressful part.  Is your job stressful and if so why?

When you read the article, it mentions that the stress comes from dealing with the people in the Church, calling them demanding clients.  This also supports something that I have said for a long time, and that admittedly many of my organist colleagues hate to hear me say:  Music Ministry is a people-person job

Personally, I don’t find my job terribly stressful, but I am a people person.  It goes beyond people not bothering me, I love people.  People are why I do what I do; whether it is encouraging my choir to do something they think they can’t do, or leading people in hymns.  My mind is constantly on the people element of my job.

If your stress is caused by the people you interact with, what will it take to improve your job satisfaction?  Is there healing that needs to be done?  It’s easy to immediately blame the “irrational Church-attendees” who could never understand where we come from or why we do what we do; but what could you do to reach out to people and meet them half-way?  Are you reaching out to the congregation as much as possible, or are you hiding behind the organ console?

Music in Christian Worship

This afternoon I would like to lift up an excellent book.  If you are not familiar with Music in Christian Worship edited by Charlotte Kroeker then you need to be.  This is an excellent resource of compiled essays on music and the liturgy that could be useful to both music ministers and Church leaders of all denominations.  While I hate to mention a book that is not a 23rd publication, this is truly an extraordinary compilation.

Quoting the jacket:  “The thesis of Music in Christian Worship is that music is sung prayer requiring faithful theology, quality music, and accessibility for parishioners.  As an academic field it is interdisciplinary, requiring astute theologians, knowledgeable and competent musicians, and pastoral sensitivities for working with congregations.”

Charlotte Kroeker. Ph.D., directs the church music initiative at the Institute for Church Life, University of Notre Dame.  Again, it is a collections of essays; selected authors include Wilma Ann Bailey, Frank Burch Brown, Michael Driscoll, Michael Joncas, and Don Saliers just to name a few.  Check it out and let us know what you think.

Breaking the Wall

When not careful, a music ministry program can become an impenetrable fort.  Generally, the more advanced the program, the harder it becomes for people to see themselves being involved.  I often hear excuses like: “Oh, I’m not a professional like the rest of your choir” or “I would do more harm than good.” Sometimes it’s true, but often it’s not.

We have to encourage people to focus on their potential, NOT their past experience.  Yes it is proven that people pick up musical concepts easier at younger ages, but that should never stop one of our parishioners from giving it a try.  We as ministers have to make sure the environment we create always encourages people to think outside of their own little “box.”  If you encourage people to focus on potential, your choir will grow as long as they are committed.  I generally find, the less experience they have, the more commitment they have to make, and I make this very clear to people in this situation.  It might include voice lessons, meeting with me personally, or rehearsing with a practice tape that I make.  I have also found that the people who make that commitment get more out of their ministry than others.

With that said some people feel they cannot sing.  How else can they get involved?

We have a woman in our Church who doesn’t sing but writes poetry.  She has become our resident hymn writer and as a result is very active in the artistic side of our congregational life.

We have another woman who cannot sing but is an excellent hostess who loves to coordinate our receptions after concerts.

There is PR to be done, a library to keep up; you do not have to sing to be involved.

In your music ministry program, are you doing everything you can to help people “find their voice?” Are there people you could encourage to do jobs related to music ministry even if they cannot sing?  Are you making these people feel vital to your ministry program?

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