Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Choirs, Fermatas, and Spiritual Warm Ups

Hello everyone. It is currently 78 degrees fahrenheit here in Franklin Park, Illinois. It is sunny and breezy, the kind of day that makes you want to sing to the Lord a song of praise and thanksgiving. Here is one of my favorites from the treasury of WLP songs. This is Praise God in His Holy Dwelling: Psalm 150, music by Jan Vermulst, text adapted by Omer Westendorf. You can find the octavo here.

Yesterday I raised the issue of choirs and microphones. I assume some of you "got" my intentional use of the word "mix" in the blog's title—Choirs and Microphones: A Good Mix? 

Today I'd like to raise another issue that has to do with choirs. When I left full-time parish ministry in 1999, I began working here at WLP. Since I was no longer working in a parish, I began to "shop around" for a good parish. I settled for awhile in one here in Chicago. At the Mass I usually attended, the parish's contemporary music ensemble ministered at the liturgy. They were a fine group of singers and instrumentalists. They had a beautiful blend and were obviously well trained pastoral musicians. I'll never forget what happened on the First Sunday of Advent. The song "My Soul In Stillness Waits" was the song sung during the Preparation of the Altar and Gifts. If you know the piece, you know that there is a fermata in the refrain. For those of you who are not musical out there, a fermata is a sign placed over a note that indicates the fact that you can hold on to that note longer than its ascribed value. So, for this particular piece, the fermata was placed over the note corresponding to the word "waits." It is a clever and appropriate use since those singing the piece hold onto the word "waits," in a way mirroring the kind of longing and waiting we do as we look forward to the coming of the Lord. Unfortunately, the music director decided to vary the length of time the choir sang that note each time the refrain came around. Totally oblivious to the assembly, the director, facing the choir, indicated in her directing style that they were to hold onto the word "wait" for as long or as short a time as she preferred. This approach threw the assembly into chaos, especially since the particular word ended with an "s." We sounded like a family of snakes who couldn't get their act together. I noticed many people, including me, who simply put the hymnals back into the racks. I have been in other parishes where this same kind of thing occurred. So, what's my point here? I guess I would urge choir directors to remember that there is a church full of people, most of whom want to sing, ready to raise their voices in sung prayer. The director really needs to pay closer attention to the assembly. After all, when the choir is singing something that the assembly sings, the choir is there primarily to support the assembly's song.

Now that I have that off my chest, I feel much better. Overall, I enjoy the ministry that choir directors perform in parishes. The thing I miss most about full-time parish ministry is that sense of satisfaction I received when the choir sang a piece that we had worked hard and long on. And when they sang it with all the shaping and coloring that we had worked so hard to perfect, it simply lifted my mind and heart to God. 

At my parish, we have a wonderful music director who has done wonders with our dedicated choir members. The shape of their sound is improving weekly. When they sing a piece themselves (usually in the Gospel tradition), my heart just sings. I appreciate the work that our director, and directors everywhere, do to create this kind of sound.

Speaking of choirs, did you know that WLP has a wonderful resource for praying with choirs at rehearsals? Blessed Are the Music Makers: Warm Ups for the Musician's Spirit is a great resource to help shape the spiritual lives of singers as you help shape their choral sound. You can find it on our web site here. Alan Hommerding is the author. Alan, who is senior liturgical publications editor here at WLP, is a bundle of talent. To close, I'd like to share a snippet of Alan's choral arrangement of  Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning. When I hear Alan's arrangements, his original music, and sing his wonderfully crafted texts, it urges me to say once again, "Gotta sing, gotta pray."

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