Thursday, December 18, 2008

Pay for Training, Not Music

A few weeks ago, thousands of Catholic parishes hurled into the trash bins hundreds of pounds of liturgical materials, missalette/hymnals that apply to 2008, to replace them 2009 copies of the same thing, which will also be hurled into the garbage next year. What a symbol: disposable liturgy. Everyone feels squeamish about this, and for good reason.

That's only the beginning of the expense—and waste—that most parishes undertake to sustain and improve their music programs. Go to the music closet of just about any Catholic church, and you will see massive quantities of books and sheet music for every occasion, plus accompaniment books for organ and guitar and every instrument.

Just to acquire the choral parts to the hymns in the missalettes requires at least three separate books from one publisher, and as many as 20 copies of each, plus endless supplements and binders for all kinds of instruments and ensembles. Then there are Mass settings and octavo editions of songs and settings of every sort for every occasion, thousands of them, representing massive expenditures.

Parishes spend and spend and spend on all these items, but notice: the music in average Catholic Churches is not generally improving. In many cases, it is worse and worse. How can this be? There is a truth that many parish administrators need to face: paying for music is not necessarily going to translate into better music, anymore than paying for health-club memberships is going to make you thin and beautiful.

What's missing here is the essential step: training. This is what parishes should be paying for. Training provides new skills and new inspiration. (And when people are properly trained and have skill, they should receive a salary for providing for the musical component of the Roman Rite.)

When you look at the budget, keep in mind that all the music applicable to the Roman Rite and given primacy by the Second Vatican Council is free online at Every last bit of it. That is true too of thousands upon thousands of motets at It is even true of Psalms in English. You can choose among many styles at Chabanel Psalms. If you still need a readings book, you can get that from World Library Publications for as little as $1.85 per book for the entire liturgical year. Or you can print the readings in the weekly program.

In other words, with a few courageous administrative decisions, you can cut your music budget down to a fraction of what it is. Instead of throwing away $15,000 per year, you can spend one-tenth that amount, and instead send your organists, pianists, and singers to events that will actually train them to do what the Church is asking.

How do you test to see if your musicians are really ready to sing or play at Mass? Show them a simple chant such as Rorate Caeli. Ask them to sing it. If they can't or they protest, you have a problem. I would estimate that 80 or 90 percent of parishes have this problem. The point isn't to embarrass anyone; it is only to see if they are up to the job they have been assigned.

Do you let illiterates read the scriptures? If a deacon can't form sentences, do you still let him preach? If a layperson is clumsy and tends to trip and fall, do you still let him carry forward the gifts at offertory? If the sound technician can't get the mics to work right, do you keep him on contract or look for someone else?

Why, then, should we continue to tolerate musicians who know nothing of Catholic music? If they are willing, most any Catholic musician can be trained to sing chant, and organists can be trained to inspire choirs to sing polyphony. It is being done all over the country. After only four days of a chant intensive, singers are ready to sing and even lead scholas, and inspire others to join the effort.

This expense of time and money will pay huge returns, starting immediately. From that point forward, they can download all the music they need or the parish can get the Parish Book of Chant, and be set for decades. The savings over the years is unthinkably huge.

If your musicians do not have the training, they will continue to spin their wheels week after week doing the same old thing. And they will grow ever more defensive as the chant movement makes progress, knowing in their hearts that the attachment to bad hymnody is really just a cover for their inability to do anything else. They will argue and argue about how chant doesn't really work for this parish, when in fact they are just finding rationales for the status quo.

Pastors, know that it is not as easy as flipping a switch to make the transition from One Bread to Adoremus in Aeternum. People need to learn. They need to study under people who are ready and willing to train them. They need to have colleagues who share their anxieties and fears, and have already worked through them. They need to encounter examples of success. They need to be part of a community. A training intensive or sacred music colloquium will provide all these things.

It is not only technical training they need. They need a vision of the ideal, something to inspire them as a goal going forward. The music of the Roman Rite provides this very ideal. It is nearly impossible to achieve. There are too many chants that require too much rehearsal time. The height of the polyphonic tradition is too elaborate for most parishes to achieve. But there are also many proximate goals, week to week, many things that can be sung that count as progress. This sense of going somewhere is essential for any team effort. Otherwise people grow tired and demoralized, and wonder what the point is.

With chant, the schola has a raison d'etre and can sense that they are artistically progressing. Right now, many musicians in the Catholic Church are demoralized, and no amount of spending, no accumulation of expensive resources, will fix that. What they need is the inspiration and direction that sacred music can provide.

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