Sunday, August 09, 2009

How to Hire a Parish Musician

One of the most exciting trends in the Catholic Church today is the refurbishment of its liturgical music. At last, and after so many years of confusion, there is a growing awareness that Catholics must feature their native music or lose their artistic identity. When Vatican II said that chant must hold the primary place at Mass, it was only underscoring a point that the Mass and its music but be unified. Many young pastors are convince of the case, and are turning to the hiring process to fulfill the high ambitions of the Council.

What this means for the world of professional Church musicians is highly significant. Those deeply entrenched in parishes are seeking to upgrade their abilities by attending workshops and colloquia on chant and its stylistic descendants. At the same time, it is unrealistic to think that the reform of the reform can take place for liturgical music without some change in personnel. That means moving some people out who cannot or will not upgrade their knowledge and skills and also bringing new people in who take the job seriously.

Now the complications appear. If you need an accountant or an architect, you can look at education and credentials. That's the good these things provide. Credentials save search costs and do the necessary filtering. In the world of music, there might have been a time when you could look for someone with a degree in liturgical music or music from a Catholic university and trust that the person would come out well trained and ready.

Sorry to say that this is no longer true. In fact, the reverse might be true. A person with a resume that lists a degree in liturgy and music from a Catholic college actually might be the last person you want to hire. They might have been taught how horrible chant is and how ethnocentric polyphony is and how Catholicism has moved on from chant and how Vatican II doesn't really mean what it says. They might have attended a dozen workshops on how to whip up a congregation into a praise-and-worship frenzy and beat. It's my experience that people with these biases and agendas cannot be part of any kind of progress in a parish music program.

In fact, one must be wary of most all forms of certification out there today. Someone recently showed me the certification guidelines for cantors as presented by a national music organization with a Catholic focus. Every piece mentioned in the list was written in the last 30 years and was published and under copyright by one of the big name Catholic publishers. Not a single piece of chant or traditional Psalmody appears on the list. It was a list that can only have been designed out of ignorance or spite. Anyone who would submit to this list as a means toward certification has already proven a lack of any principled commitment to serious music.

Today's young pastors are not naive. They know of these problems. And they want to avoid inadvertently hiring people who are attached to some unworkable program of the past. Fortunately, there are ways around the problem. For the first round of hiring, it is enough to mention an interest in Gregorian chant. This magic phrase holds enormous power. It alerts the right people of a serious job opportunity and wards away the people who can't hack it. This alone might be enough in the first round, but a pastor who wanted to go further could mention phrases like "propers of the Mass" or "sung ordinary from the Kyriale."

In other words, there is no reason to advertise for someone "traditional" since that word means different things to different people. Just a handful of words from the Second Vatican Council are enough to separate wheat and chaff.

On a practical point, it is good for pastors to realize that serious Catholic musicians have been through a diaspora of sorts over the last decades, and many older musicians have deep scares from the experience. They have built programs in parishes only to be shown the door by the new pastor who happens to have peculiar aesthetic attachments and is determined to throw the parish back to the 1970s. These experiences can have devastating effects on a person, making him or her wary of any new position.

As a way around this, the pastor needs to be prepared to announce the job terms up front, as a signal of honesty, integrity, and transparency. A pastor in Florida recently announced an opening along with a specific salary: $75,000 plus benefits, which is a good floor for a medium to large sized parish. He made specific mention of chant and polyphony.

Because this was also an organ position, he also posted the type of organ the parish has and what it intends to do in the future - which is a sign of the stability that musicians look for. He received 17 applications by posting at the forum of the Church Music Association of America, and interview 6 of the 17, and made his decision in a matter of weeks, notifying everyone as soon as the decision was made.

This is a model of how to handle the hiring process. It was also very wise to seek a musician associated with the CMAA because these are the people with real experience in the progress of our times. One can be pretty sure that the person here is not stuck in the Age of Aquarius or fronting as a distributor of sheet music from an old-time commercial publishing house.

One point that a pastor needs to consider is whether to hire a combined organ and chor position or separate them. Many people believe that it is best to separate these positions, and I tend to agree with this. Moreoever, it is critical to remember that primacy of the human voice in liturgy. As valuable as organ talent is, an organist alone cannot make the music of the Mass happen. Singing is always and everywhere a primary consideration.

How can a pastor go about discovering the skill set of the applicant? I would say the ability to sing from the Parish Book of Chant, or some similar book, is critical. This would imply familiarity with the core repertoire and comfort with neumes, the notation of the music of the Church. You can't really be a parish musician without those skills. No matter how great otherwise, not knowing the basic people's music and sing from neumes mean no progress in the future.

The pastor also needs to see a demonstration of the musician's ability to inspire people and work with a range of personalities. A vast amount of the work comes down to dealing with people and volunteers. One must have an upbeat attitude, despite all the harrowing difficulties in the liturgical world today. Bitterness is common among good musicians but it just has no place in the parish that is progressing.

The musician must also know about and be able to use technology so as to employ the use of free online material, otherwise the parish will be spending vast amounts of money on inferior music. He or she needs to be able to make programs and be willing to act as the music library. Parishes need technological innovators, not people stuck in the world of expensive octavo editions or missalettes.

Finally, the person should be able to defend the case for sacred music from tradition and Church teaching. Any parish in transition is going to breed a hard-core of disgruntled parishioners who resent anything that smacks of true expressions of the Catholic faith. These people are out there and they must be dealt with. They can also have a poisonous influence on a parish. To forestall this, the musician must be willing to educate people during training sessions and teaching moments throughout the week. The person might also need to have a backbone in dealing with the truly violent opponents of sacred music (if you doubt such people exist, you should see my inbox).

The pastor needs to ask something like: "Are you willing to offer a class or two in the parish hall on the place of sacred music? If you were to offer this class, what would be your main message?"

There are growing opportunities for serious musicians in the Catholic Church today, and I'm confident that these will continue to expand. It is no longer the case that musicians are universally unwelcome in parishes. Many young pastors are seeking them out. Students: prepare for a future in Church work. In a matter of a few years, you might be thrilled at the job prospects.