While NLM and I have some differences of opinions when it comes to what styles of music are appropriate for the Liturgy, I couldn’t agree more with their assessment of the quality of musicianship within the average Catholic parish.
Let alone the “hard stuff” like Sacred Polyphony and organ preludes, most choir directors aren’t qualified to do the contemporary styles that are so popular. I’m convinced that this is one of the reasons for the Traditionalists distaste for rock/pop styles- they tend not to have heard them done well or authentically. (C’mon people- clap on beat 2 and beat 4, not 1 and 3… is that so hard?!) I think a lot of progressives dislike “old, boring” music for the same reason. Badly performed Palestrina is not much worthier than badly perfomed Carey Landrey.
And I don’t think very many other progressive/modernists would dispute their assessment either.
Catholic musicians, even those of us who love the contemporary styles and work in parishes where that is the norm, should have a firm grounding in the traditional styles of Catholic music. Chant and polyphony form the basic foundation for all quality music in the Western world, even today’s pop. The musicianship, discipline, and ear for quality that one learns when studying “classical” music makes you a better musician, regardless of what style you plan to play in. That’s why Jazz students learn Bach.
That’s one of the reasons that, while I’m generally happy about the new music we have gained in the last 50 years, I’m intensely sad about the amount of old music we have lost. And I think that’s a sentiment even most liberals could get on board with.
So what’s to be done. Well, that’s tough, but I’m pretty sure here too, modernists (if they stopped chasing every new trend) and traditionalists (if they stopped sounding so angry) could come to some serious agreements on methodology and intent. Step one is for all of us join hands and voices and demand: better musicians. Stop hiring the first guitar-playing volunteer who shows up. Stop equating “able to play piano proficiently” with “able to lead a choir.”
From there, a host of individual steps need to be taken at the institutional and individual level.
Hiring preference should be given to those with a choral background (who can hire organists and pianists as needed), rather than to instrumentalists who don’t really know how to sing, conduct, or teach.
Seminaries should teach music skills, particularly critical listening. We don’t need to turn priests into performers, but they need to be able to tell good singing from bad singing. (That doesn’t just mean teaching them that this composer or work is good and that one is bad. That also means helping them identify the difference between mechanical precision and artistic beauty, between amateur proficiency and professional quality.)
As to parish music directors-
Stop having rehearsal in the sanctuary right before mass. That’s been bugging me since I was in elementary school. It interupts personal prayer and communal socializing, and it sends everyone the message that preparing music for liturgy is barely worth an extra 45 minutes of everyone’s time.
Organs may be too expensive and/or pastorally inappropriate for some parishes. But an out of tune spinet or a hum-n-strum guitarist is an insult, no matter what style of music you like. Invest at least in a decent grand piano. A used Yamaha baby grand in excellent condition is within range of most parish budgets, and people will give to a special collection if they have a concrete goal.
While we’re on the subject of instruments, synthesizers should be banned. I don’t say “banned” alot about church music, but they should be banned- for the same reason we shouldn’t allow fake flowers, moving spotlights, or those ridiculous electric flickering coin-op votives. There is no place for artificiality within the liturgy. None.
Most importantly, we need to look to the children. Scholarships are nice, but they don’t help much if there isn’t a love of music and the necessary discipline, and that must begin in childhood.
Children’s choirs need to be more than an opportunity for parents to see their kids onstage at Christmas. Children’s choirs should be an integral part of every parish, and they should follow the English chorister tradition. Children should learn to read music (I recommend Conversational Solfege), to sing correctly, and to become increasingly responsible for the leadership of their choir. It’s amazing how much children are capable of in this regard if we treat them like humans with musical and spiritual aspirations instead of like dogs who perform novelty tricks for treats.
Music directors, whether they play organ, piano, guitar, or hammer dulcimer need to make themselves available to give private lessons, especially to the kids who show an interest in church music particularly, and even more especially to those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford private lessons. As soon as they are competent, these kids need to have the opportunity to play for mass (in a way that doesn’t set them up for public embarasment or detract from the prayerful purpose of worship).
Musically active high school students should be given leadership opportunities: accompanying, conducting, writing descants, leading warm-ups. And they should be given the opportunity to attend workshops and conferences such as those given by the CMAA, NPM, and ACDA. Above all, it’s important for High School students to understand that church music is a viable career option.
And all of this should be grounded in high quality music choices. Yes, I think that includes some contemporary styles (I know you don’t all agree with that), but the bulk of the literature should be things like Gregorian Chant, Palestrina, Bach, Thomas Tallis, John Rutter, Richard Proulx- because that’s where you learn musicianship and technique. That music presents a challenge, and kids love challenges.
(And while we’re on “quality” literature: Let’s assume for a minute that I’m right in that contemporary styles and pop/rock/folk music are appropriate for Mass… it isn’t ALL appropriate for Mass. That piece in Spirit and Song that sounds like “Can you feel the love tonight” has got to go. And “Fill My Cup Lord” makes everyone giggle every single time because it sounds just like “Hello mudah, hello fadah, here I am at camp grenada.” License to do contemporary music should not mean you turn off your brain or ignore the snickering just because the text fits the readings.)
I believe very strongly that Modernist-Liberals and Traditionalist-Conservatives can come together, and agree on the need for quality and the methodology I’ve just outlined.
If everything I just suggested was suddenly implemented overnight, it would still take a generation before Catholic parish music is where it ought to be. That means we cannot delay, as there is so much work to be done. It also means that, while pastors and musicians on the front lines need to keep one eye on pastoral, budgetary, and (dare I say it) populist concerns, they need to keep their better eye on the future, and not exchange the hard work of moving onward and upward for convenience or expediency.
I must say, as I finish up, that I am sometimes deeply bothered by those who seem to obsess over music, liturgy, and ritual (even though I like them) because Jesus clearly was more concerned with things like feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, comforting the dying, visiting the imprisoned, and caring for orphans than He was with things like proper ritualism.
But, I think a certain amount of obsession, by those who are called to it, is actually quite worthwhile. It is in the public liturgy of the church that we come to understand the love of Christ which we are called to emulate. It is in the sacrifice of the Mass, dwelling in the sacrifice of Jesus, that we hear our calling to sacrifice ourselves. Recognizing Christ in the Eucharist, recognizing Christ in the assembled family of believers, gives us the eyes to recognize Christ in His “disturbing disguises” out in the world. We know how to clothe the naked because our God has clothed us in the garment of Baptism; we know how to feed the hungry because our God has fed us with His very body; we know how to comfort the dying because Our Lord has died in our midst; we know how to visit the imprisoned because God has visited us in the prison of our sin; we know how to care for orphans because our God has given us a spirit of adoption…
So, yes- what we do in Mass is important, rightly to be called the “source and summit” of our Christian lives. And we must take care to bring our best to it, and teach our children to do the same.
Finally, I believe with all my heart that all sincere Catholics, regardless of their liturgical/political/theological predilections, can also agree on the need for the most important tactic: fervent prayer. It was, afterall, Grace that hath led us safe thus far, and grace alone will lead us home.