Thursday, September 29, 2016

Occupational Hazards of Catholic Liturgical Music as a Profession

Saint Cecilia, presumably after a long weekend of music making at her parish,
as scuplted by Stefano Maderno (Church of St. Cecilia, Rome)
Each profession has its unique delights, drawbacks, and dangers. Teachers work exceptionally long hours during the year and deal with challenging situations, but enjoy ten weeks of uninterrupted summer vacation. Dentists can keep regular hours, but must deal with the painful intricacies of our teeth and mouths. Park rangers spend days enjoying natural wonders and wilderness, but may miss out on the companionship and stability of family and society. In some professions, workers are paid for risk, handling hazardous materials or managing dangerous situations. So, then, what are the unique challenges of Catholic Liturgical Music as a profession? And beyond "whining" about problems, are there solutions? Be sure to read to the end!

Let’s start with the unique professional challenges:

1. Generally speaking, the Catholic Church does not take into account experience and seniority for its musicians. If you stay in a parish for five years, ten years, or fifteen years, the parish budget will remain constant, and most likely, so will your salary. If you need better healthcare or a stronger salary to support your family, you will need to find a new job at a larger parish. There are no “senior music directors,” only music directors with more responsibility in larger parishes. This introduces a measure of instability to your career path, and also means you will sometimes need to leave lots of good work and friendships behind in order to provide for your family. These transitions are never easy, and most likely, your employer and parishioners will not understand your situation.

2. Wider disagreements and resulting instability surrounding liturgy and music can destroy years of work overnight, especially during a change of leadership. It takes a decade to build a good choir program and a day to destroy it. Be prepared for some disappointments.

3. Hiring practices vary widely from diocese to diocese and parish to parish. Even though the Catholic Church may seem like a large, modern corporation, in reality it runs like a medieval fiefdom. Young, inexperienced, and under-qualified musicians are sometimes appointed overnight to responsible and significant posts without a public job posting or search process, simply because they were the first ones willing to quit their current position and fill the vacancy. Inside hires are unfortunately quite common. While this manner of hiring may seem expedient to the pastor, it has a widespread demoralizing effect that extends well beyond the local church or diocese. It does little to foster musical excellence, loyalty, or stability. Granted, the show must go on, and parishes don’t have resources or time to mount a national search; but nonetheless, be prepared in this profession to feel discouraged and occasionally scandalized by a general lack of respect and professionalism surrounding hiring practices.

4. There's no senior executive “in your corner,” looking out for you and your career and thinking about how to help you grow, stick with it, and be successful in the long haul. There's rarely even someone looking at parish music and musicians from the diocesan perspective. If you expect a clear career path, with a step up the ladder every few years directly correlated to your education and experience, you’re set for disappointment.

5. Even in large parishes, most positions advertised today are calling for "bachelors degree in music" and "two to five years experience." In other words, your work will be considered entry level by your employers in most positions-- even if, frankly, it's not entry level, and you have years of experience, advanced degrees, and many other qualifications that are prerequisite for the successful implementation of the parish music program as defined in the job posting.

6. Your busiest times of year will be holidays like Christmas and Easter, when your family will inevitably miss you during dinners, family traditions, and gatherings at home. While most families understand and visits can happen at other times of the year, nonetheless holidays are special and you will likely miss significant portions of them due to work responsibilities.

Let’s also identify some common spiritual dangers:

1. Often a liturgical musician will hear the same homily and readings several times in a weekend. Poorly executed jokes, theological blunders, carelessness, clichés, emotions on cue, and generally speaking any repeated bumps in the road can make it easy to miss the substance.

2. Your musical literacy will always be higher than your congregation's, provided there aren't any disgruntled former music directors attending Mass at your parish! This musical ability is the reason they hired you--and hopefully a good measure of people skills, pastoral sense, and authentic spirituality! Understandably, congregational music needs to be approachable by the average parishioner. “Approachable,” however, can easily begin to feel cliché. Once you notice that “Sing to the Mountains” sounds just like the Indiana Jones soundtrack, or that “On Eagles Wings” uses chord progressions very similar to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album (close enough that they are interchangeable, measure for measure), or that Dan Schutte’s Mass of Christ the Savior is based on the My Little Ponies theme song, you can’t ignore it. Even good quality music can begin to feel worn out through repetition. I once worked for a pastor whose singing voice sounded just like Paul Simon. As much as I like both Paul Simon and the priest, I couldn't get the thought out of my head; and even when the priest was singing fluently and beautifully using complex ancient tones, I found myself chuckling, "methinks Paul Simon is chanting the preface today." Even in the best of circumstances, it can be easy to forget to pray. I don’t mean this as open criticism of popular Catholic songs or pastors with voices like Paul Simon. Rather, I confess that “familiarity breeds contempt.” This can happen especially when you feel you have capacity to offer better, when you want your prayers to be sincere and your music to be excellent. This can affect your morale, your feeling of personal investment and enjoyment, and even your prayers.

3. Your pastor is your boss, but he may also want to be your spiritual father. This is often a dangerous conflict of interests. As Catholic liturgical musicians, we need pastoral care, but we generally should seek it outside of our workplace. Just as a nurse wouldn’t seek medical care from the physician who offers him or her employment, we too seek pastoral care outside of our workplace. Pastors can find this confusing and even hurtful, that we don’t find complete spiritual fulfillment “in house.” It can be even more confusing if you seek spiritual nourishment in another parish which adheres to different liturgical practice than your workplace. Nonetheless, it's important to rest and to take care of your soul, and attending Mass at another parish for this purpose does not indicate any disloyalty to your pastor/employer or even a problem with your professional relationship.

4. In some circles, further study in music and theology (in other words, further job training) is not supported, and may even be met with suspicion. After all, if you rediscover the glories of the Renaissance or read Church Fathers, you may develop an appetite for things that don’t match well with current popular ecclesiology and pastoral practice. Pastors generally don’t want to make time to revisit these questions, and therefore they will usually not encourage you, financially or otherwise, to pursue further study. This can leave you feeling confused and miffed. Why is this incredible stuff from our Catholic heritage off-limits? “Formation is for priests,” we are told, or “that’s old church stuff.” None of the responses you will hear in this regard will actually address the substance. There are, of course, some notable exceptions, but by and large further job training will be at your own expense.

Are there solutions? I could suggest that Catholic liturgical musicians simply pray more, or “get over it.” Prayer is always good, but prayer and action are better. There are solutions! So I will be bold and speak plainly:

From the diocesan level all the way down to the parishes, we need standard hiring procedures for musicians that take into account experience, education, and qualifications. When hiring, larger parishes, basilicas, and cathedrals should not be seeking candidates with entry-level qualifications, but rather should seek candidates with ten or more years of proven experience, with masters or terminal degrees in music, and with evidence of substantial study of theology and sacred liturgy. After hiring, dioceses should consider strategies to retain qualified musicians and build trust and loyalty, including funded opportunities to pursue further formation and qualifications. Whether hiring or not, dioceses should offer pastoral care and formation specifically for their musicians, through workshops, retreats, and perhaps even a designated diocesan chaplain for parish musicians. Healthy spirituality and musical excellence are both essential. How is your diocese charting a path towards musical and liturgical literacy in all its members, and encouraging a lifetime of learning and dedication among parish musicians?

Bishops locally and bishops collectively (USCCB) should take the question of musicians and music selections more seriously. In addition to proper hiring practices, adequate consideration and oversight is needed for music resources. Lots of hymnals, psalm books, choral octavos, etc. are available, but what is being done in terms of quality control? Is the market driving our theology and liturgical practice, or are we being faithful to the gospel and offering our musical best? As parish musicians, we know that bishops allow a certain subsidiarity and flexibility for local customs, but even some occasional suggestions for improvement would help us know that our work is important to you and we are on the right track (or perhaps the wrong one; we can discuss that possibility, too).

Pastors and parish priests, you can help your musicians first of all by offering a liturgy obedient to the rite and free of “isms” and clichés. If you have a "signature style" of saying Mass which is different than the Roman Rite as outlined in the Missal, you can be certain it will wear thin rather quickly. The days of “the Lord IS with You,” "Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer," and other such innovations have long passed, and the faithful everywhere are saying “Thanks be to God.” Nobody misses these sorts of quirks, tics, improvisations, and aberrations, no matter how sincere or heartfelt they might have been at one time.  All true evangelism is rooted in the words of St. John the Baptist, "He must increase, I must decrease" (John 3:30), and accordingly we follow the rite and smooth out bumps in our liturgy so that Jesus can be the focus. A priest's faithful, devout, prayerful, and reverent celebration of the Mass is itself a sacramental (small "s") for the faithful and the skeptic observer alike. It draws us in and communicates the value and sanctity of the actions.  For the priest himself, reverence and obedience to the rite are the only way to be so grounded in Jesus Christ, so peacefully and strongly at rest in God, that the priest himself can also participate in the liturgy as a fellow worshipper and student in the school of grace. Trust God to act. This is not an insignificant detail. If there are aspects of the liturgy that regularly don't go smoothly or need more preparation, let's "prepare the way for the Lord, making straight his ways," so that minor details don't detract from our focus on Jesus. Usually all it takes is some advance planning and effort. We can do it.

Parish musicians, encourage one another! Experienced and trained musicians, be mentors! Share your resources and skills with the wider diocese, through workshops and friendships. Encourage collaboration, not competition; invite neighboring choirs to join your parish choir for feast days (with lots of advance preparation) and choose the best music within your reach. Be a professional. Put aside all gossip, shifting alliances, teams, and unhealthy rivalry. Every parish can have great music, not just yours. Share and help each other. Welcome newcomers. Invite even your rivals and enemies (hopefully you have none) to your workshops and events. Look for solutions, not problems; and seek opportunities for improvement, no matter how small. And don't forget to be honest and even assertive if there are problems.

Lastly, dear fellow parish musician, the most important solution is one you can offer to yourself: don’t forget to pray, even if it means attending your fifth or sixth mass for the weekend. At this last Mass, pray quietly and don’t help with the music. I find that a quiet Mass with no music is just the ticket at the end of a busy weekend. It helps me reconnect with God, whose love and generosity are the reason I got into sacred music in the first place. In my prayer at this last Mass, I release each challenge and success of my work to God, and then I go home and have dinner with my wife and family.

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