Thursday, July 9, 2009

Notes from the Choir, Vol. 1

I've decided to do a "theme post" on Thursdays, since Thursday is our choir practice day.

Ever since I became a choir member a couple of years ago, I've discovered a lot about how a choir operates. So much depends on whether the priest is musically inclined (and, if so, whether his musical taste is more traditional or more modern), on the congregation, on the choir director's knowledge and experience, and on the choir's abilities, that when people assume a choir director is single-handedly or unilaterally scheduling the less-desirable songs, they are often assuming incorrectly.

Our choir director is a friend; she also grew up in the Byzantine Rite, and became Roman Rite when she married. So her understanding of what is "traditional" has partly been formed by what has been in hymn-books since her adulthood--and yet, possibly because of the beauty of music in the Eastern tradition, she usually prefers the more reverent, more traditional, more solemn music, and we sing quite a bit of that.

If her preferences alone were all that was consulted, I think we'd rarely sing the worst of the modern stuff (though not all modern music is bad, of course). Yet one of those annoying pieces is scheduled for this week. Were I in the congregation, I'd consider this song one sour note among some lovely pieces, but I happen to know the "behind the scenes" story, which is: parishioners have requested this piece. They used to sing it all the time back when the music ministry was made up of well-meaning volunteers with little musical background, and it is missed.

I wonder how often that happens--how many times a choir director is in the position of doing a sort of "balancing act" between the desire for music to be solemn, majestic, appropriate, and the push from parishioners--or even a pastor--to sing things that are more current, familiar, upbeat, and the like. I suspect it happens more than we know, and that choir directors often take an unfair share of the blame for endless rounds of "Be Not Afraid" or "Eagle's Wings," let alone the much less palatable modern hymns, some of which are theologically deficient as well as musically lacking.

It really helps to have a pastor who understands sacred music. A former pastor of ours really did (and we miss him!). This week, we're singing one of his favorites:
Since it's public domain, I've attached a copy; click it to see it better.

And now, off to choir practice!


Lindsay said...

I must admit to skimming this post rather than reading it carefully at first, and for the life of me, I couldn't figure out why you didn't like "Jesus, My Lord, My God, My All." Glad to know you do. Me too.

Lindsay said...

Oh yes, and this reminds me of the story my former choir director told of the woman who called and left a message on her machine, "You RUINED my Palm Sunday. First, it RAINED. Then, we didn't sing 'The Palms.'" People really do expect them to work miracles.

Red Cardigan said...

Lindsay, LOL on both counts!

Yes, I love "Jesus, My Lord, My God, My All." The song which has been scheduled for this week which I don't much like is modern, and calls itself "bilingual." Which can be a bit tricky for a choir without native speakers...


Rebecca said...

I love this hymn; sing my kids to sleep with it often!

Anonymous said...

That is a beautiful hymn--one of my favorites too. It sounds like you have a nice choir.

Our choir director's taste is very eclectic, to say the least. She sometimes picks just beautiful pieces (like Ave Verum Corpus), and then the next Sunday we'll sing a bunch of Marty Haugen hymns so obscure that I never even heard them as a kid in the 80's. Can't figure it out at all. But I try to stick with it and encourage the really good stuff when I can.

--Elizabeth B.

entropy said...

I grew up with "Be Not Afraid" and "Eagle's Wings." They're probably two of my mom's favorite songs.

I've seen a lot of references in blogs about how bad these songs are but not much explaining. Can you say why they're so bad? (And please explain as to someone with no musical talent!)

NancyP said...

You are so a former choir director and as a choir member for the better part of the last 37 years (!), I can assure you that circus tightrope walkers and test pilots have easier jobs than do choir directors. (Or pastors, I might add!)

Pastor's taste has immense influence. One of my Protestant choir director friends worked on a Navy base and the chaplain made the choir sing the Navy Hymn every single Sunday. And on Christmas. And on Easter. It's a beautiful hymn, but...I'm just saying.

Catholic pastors try to strike a balance, in my experience. Often this is done by creating "traditional," "contemporary" and "youth" music groups...our "folk" group is not really folk at all - we do everything from "How Great Thou Art" (a personal favorite) to "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" as well as "Be Not Afraid" and other SLJ faves. When the "traditional" choir members come to our Mass, they are usually pleasantly surprised to learn that we don't sing John Denver tunes.

Thanks, Erin, for your insight. Truly, it's not fair to criticize the choir director without discussing one's concerns politely first. Often, the director has been told by (insert name, rank or committee title here) to use particular songs on specific Sundays.

I saw a bumper sticker in Canada last week that said, "Wag more, bark less." If Catholics praised the music that inspired them more often, they would probably hear said songs more frequently, IMHO.

Might I suggest "How Great Thou Art"?