Thursday, June 05, 2008

Upgrading Musical knowledge

Over the next two weeks in Chicago, there will be massive efforts underway for musicians and teachers to come together to upgrade the quality of music in Catholic parishes. Some people are coming for a week-long chant intensive, studying neumes in detail and perfecting the art. Others will come for the full colloquium as hundreds prepare music for liturgical use and study under excellent conductors, singers, and musicologists. Most everyone there comes at his or her own expense, all driven by a crazy passion to unite the two greatest forces in the universe--faith and art--into one wonderful mix that can change the world.

Others, many many others, people working in full-time positions in parishes around the country, will stay home. They will do next week at Mass what they did last week, which is what they did last year, which is what they did ten years ago, and so on going back decades. This is the sad reality in parishes across the United States. Most musicians are content with status quo, and the status quo isn't very good.

There are major challenges that Catholic parishes face with regard to music. There are recalcitrant pastors, resistant people in the pews, a lack of resources, and much more. But among the challenges is the simple problem of inspiring Catholic musicians to upgrade their knowledge and abilities. It used to be believed that this was why one needed professionals who were well paid, so that they would be inspired to continue to grow musically. But it is a fact that paying someone to do something does not in any way guarantee that it will be done. In my experience so far, it seems to me that amateur musicians are just as likely to be inspired to improve. So professionalization does not necessarily strike me as the answer.

The question is what brings about the desire to go to the next level and make Catholic music conform to the demands of the Roman Rite as versus just be background music for a worship service? Sometimes it is a pastor who nudges folks into doing more and doing better. Sometimes it requires more than that, such as laypeople finally getting fed up and asking for change. Mostly it comes from within: the desire to take one's responsibilities seriously.

Part of the problem here is that Church music is much like software. Most people are happy with what they know and fear the unknown. You don't want the next version until it is pressed on you, and your happiness only arrives once the learning curve has been climbed. So too with chant and polyphony. It is more difficult than singing vernacular hymns, that much is true. And yet chant and polyphony remain the ideal. So the desire to upgrade requires the humility to admit that you are not yet doing what you should do and might be able to do. Then you need the openness to learn something new.

I seriously doubt that legislation is going to work here. Committees and law don't being about the kind of change we need. What is need it a continuing shift in the cultural ethos of parish life in this country. To bring that about requires exactly the kind of programming that we see taking place around the country today. It is just a beginning but a promising one. At some point, we will see the shift take on greater momentum and those who refuse anything but the status quo will realize that something has to be done. In the meantime, pastors can help. Do not be shy about talking to your musicians about the direction we need to go here!

Finally, a congratulations to all the many hundreds of musicians who are working so hard to bring a new standard of excellence to Catholic music. They are leading the way.

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