Thursday, March 19, 2015

Music Ministry

A few weeks ago, I was part of a conversation where we discussed the "hymns" on which we would like to drop the ban hammer at church. Since I have been gathered in one too many times recently, I am struggling with what my status should be in regards to the music at Mass.

I grew up in a parish where I was absolutely appalled by the music. It was so bad and performed so poorly. I fell into the awful habit of snickering and smirking throughout Mass as we listened to warmed over hippy music on guitar sung by people who couldn't carry a tune in a bucket. My mother and I had many arguments over the music. My mother would object to my ill-concealed disgust. As I once again rolled my eyes at the assault on my ears, she would remind me that we didn't come to Mass for the music. This is true enough as far as it goes. She was right that, in my youth and immaturity, I was letting a superficiality trump true worship at Mass. In fact that superficiality obliterated most of my connection to the Church for years. I was wrong.

But I was not wrong about the music. It was bad. And I was not wrong that it was an affront for it to be sung so poorly. In my ignorance, I had no idea while growing up that the Church had a long history of chant which had been suppressed. I also had no idea the liturgy has been so recently and drastically altered. The only information I knew was that Mass used to be in Latin and now it wasn't. I assumed that was the only thing that changed. The art music settings of the Mass confused me. How could we say our parts with all that music playing? Total cultural disconnect. Here is what I did know: 1) Traditional hymns existed. 2) We did not sing them at church.

My current parish does not have the same degree of musical problems as my childhood parish. There is a mix of traditional hymns along with the newer dreck. The regular cantor at our early Mass is a gifted singer even if she might sometimes get carried away with a blues/gospel bent. The piano player is also quite good even though his first Communion meditation was Eric Clapton's Tears In Heaven. Seriously. I wish I were kidding. But that was a one-off event. I am sure someone spoke to him about it. The rest of the choir does a decent job harmonizing--something that was completely absent in my childhood--and following the lead of the cantor.

These things are well and good. The problem with the music in my parish is the depth of involvement by the parishioners at large. Our parish claims over six hundred families, but if you add up all the people involved with the music across the four Sunday Masses offered, you probably have around ten people. Definitely fewer than twenty. I am aggravated by the apathy.

When the above mentioned cantor and piano player are absent, the choir struggles mightily. There is no back-up piano player. The back-up cantor, bless his heart, tries hard, but his voice is terribly unpleasant. I am not sure he actually reads music. I don't know it for certain, but it is my educated guess from watching him through the years. I admire his attempts, but it makes me wonder why someone who so obviously cannot sing volunteers to do it week after week. When he is cantoring, the selected hymns are sure to be dreck. I guess he likes it or is more comfortable with it. I don't know.

The choir regularly asks and sometimes begs for additional members to volunteer, but no one ever seems to step forward. Not even me.

Even though I am a trained musician, I am not a singer. I can carry a tune and read notes and rhythms well enough, but my voice is thin and does not carry. My range is limited where fourth line D is the highest note I would ever feel comfortable performing in public even after thoroughly warming up. I am not at all a piano player. I would be comfortable singing in the choir, but I have no desire to cantor. More than that though, I have no desire to sing dreck. I struggle enough to refrain from rolling my eyes when the hymn board announces numbers from a certain range in the hymnal. There are a couple of frequent choices where the forefront thought in my head is, "What, exactly, is this song about?" I exchange knowing glances with Dave.

I sometimes feel guilty about my lack of involvement. There are probably not that many people with music degrees sitting in congregation. Me. My sister. My husband. None of us are in the choir. But then I think of the practical realities of my involvement and just don't think it is my time right now. The choir area is right up front next to the altar. There is no discreet way slip away when necessary. You can't just stop the action to say, "Excuse me, Father, don't mind me, the baby needs to nurse." Or worse to have to run for the bathroom to throw up while pregnant. No, this is not reasonable. I would have to take long hiatuses. Not to mention the time requirement of the rehearsal schedule. It is not strenuous, just one night a week, but I already feel overwhelmed and stretched most of the time. I don't see adding another weekly item to my plate.

I suppose an on-again, off-again membership in the choir would have been more helpful, but the truth is that I am not interested in joining unless I can move the music itself in a positive direction. To steer the selections away from the awfulness and towards more traditional pieces, and maybe some, gasp, chant. But I know this isn't possible without a long term commitment, especially given my age in relation to those currently in the choir.

So then I get irritated with my fellow parishioners. Why does no one step up? Is it because it's bad and nobody wants to sing bad music? Is it because nobody really cares? How can that be? I bristle at feeling like it shouldn't be my responsibility. At some level, though, it is my responsibility.

For now, my general contribution is to sing louder when I hear the backup cantor struggling with a rhythm he obviously can't read off the sheet music in order to give the people around me some guidance. Selective cantoring from the pew, perhaps? I do think it helps a little bit. But true confession: I never sing the dreck.

So what do you think? Should I buck up and join the choir? And which songs would you ban if it were up to you?


Jamie said...

Servant Song -- GONE.
The Summons -- AXED.
Gift of Finest Wheat -- NEVER AGAIN.

I'll be back.

Jeanie said...

I can never hear Gift of Finest Wheat without thinking of the words my oldest son heard when he was young: "You satisfy the hungry hog with gift of finest wheat." Made sense to him as a young boy!

Jenny said...

Alright yall, I probably haven't heard Gift of Finest Wheat in twenty years and now it has been stuck in my head for two days. Thanks for that! :P

Joy said...

Songs used in worship should not be selected merely based on their length or age but on the impact they have on worshipers. People should be taught to listen carefully to words- whether it's a chorus or verse.