Liturgical music ministry is more than performing the right notes
SPOKANE, Wash. (Inland Register) - Back in the day, not that long ago, few Catholic parishes had paid musicians on staff. Today, however, more parishes hire a full- or part-time musician to see that music and the liturgy are integrated in ways that suit both the nature of liturgical rituals and the spiritual needs of parish communities. If music was once thought of as nice but not essential to the Mass and other liturgical celebrations, today, official teachings of the church reflect a different perspective.
The Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (n.112) speaks of the "ministerial" rather than incidental function of music. A 1972 document by the U.S. Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy, "Music in Catholic Worship," speaks of the importance of singing acclamations, processional songs, responsorial psalms, and chants. It also highlights the importance of congregational song, rather than the past emphasis placed on chants by the priest. Many parishes rely on volunteer musicians to oversee the music that is so integral to parish liturgies, especially Sunday Masses, and the IR will address the contributions of these volunteers in a future article. The focus here is on salaried, professional parish musicians in the Diocese of Spokane - people who generally have the title of either Music Director or Music Coordinator. These are men and women with academic degrees in music and, not infrequently, considerable experience as professional musicians before they accepted the call of a parish community to focus their efforts on liturgical music. -Steve Schaubel has been full-time Music Director at Spokane's St. Aloysius Parish for going on six years. Prior to that he worked in musical theater in Portland, Oregon, and Minneapolis. "I left musical theater and began working for the church, in St. Paul, Minn., in 1992," Schaubel says with a grin, "believe it or not, because the church was paying more money." Of course, like all liturgical musicians, while Schaubel isn't getting rich, working in church music offers rewards that can't be measured in dollars and cents. Schaubel earned a master's degree in pastoral ministry with a focus on liturgy from St. Thomas University in St. Paul, which together with his background in music qualified him for the position he now holds. In a nutshell, Schaubel says, "I'm here to support the assembly's song. It's not the role of musicians or a liturgical music ensemble or choir to give a performance at Mass." Neither is it their job to do what the assembly as a whole is supposed to do. "I'm constantly trying to get the assembly to sing," Schaubel says. "I'm trying to support the assembly in their role, which is to sing." - Fred Williams is, technically, part-time in his position as Music Director at Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Spokane. He has ministered there for 12 years. "Six or 60 hours," he says, "you do what needs to be done until the job is done." Williams isn't on the parish payroll; rather, he works as an independent contractor. He also has his own business as a financial planner. Planning all the music for all the weekend Masses keeps Williams occupied and then some. Williams earned a master's degree from the Julliard School of Music in New York City. He sang for 15years with the San Diego Opera. Williams views the question of liturgical musicians as performers as "a mixed bag. In order to provide the assembly/community/congregation with good music, to a degree, you have to look at it as a performance. That's a word that is shunned by the clergy, but unless you rehearse, unless you have a level of excellence that you want to attain it's just a sham. "If the cantor is off pitch," Williams continues, "if the choir can't sing, does that lend anything to the worship service? No. Your obligation is to lead the congregation in prayer through music, but that means the music should be good and should be applicable to the Mass readings for the day. There is a degree of performance involved, there has to be." - Diane Chamberlain is the half-time Music Coordinator for Walla Walla's Assumption Parish and the half-time music teacher at Assumption Catholic School. She is also responsible for the music for a weekly Mass at DeSales High School. Her role as parish Music Coordinator goes back about three years; her teaching position in the school, to 2000. In addition to a college degree in music, for several years Chamberlain worked as a professional opera singer. "That was performance-oriented, of course," she says, "while what I do now is more of an invitation to the congregation to pray." The biggest adjustment Chamberlain has had to make, coming from a performance background, she says, is shifting to a stance of singing in a way that invites and encourages the congregation to sing as a way of praying. "I've tried really hard to get my choir to understand that, too," she says. "We're not there to perform a bunch of music. The whole idea is to get the congregation to sing more - and they have, they really have, through the years." - Jim Tevenan is Director of Music at Spokane's St. Augustine Parish, where he has been on staff three-quarter time for almost 11 years. He originally is from San Francisco. There, he taught for 20 years in the public schools; for 10 of those years, he taught part-time in a Catholic high school as well. He and his family moved to Spokane when he applied for and was offered the position he now holds. On the side, two Tuesday evenings each month Tevenan hosts a program on KPBX , one of Spokane's public radio stations. The program, titled Vox Humana, presents recordings of choral music. Tevenan shares the conviction that the primary role of the liturgical music group, whatever form it takes, is "to lead, to enable the song of the entire assembly, knowing when to step up and be heard and knowing when to pull back and just become part of the fabric. That said, however, there are very legitimate times for whatever the group is to be its own thing and do it on their own." - For 10 years now, Harry Lewis has been responsible for the liturgical music for all weekend and special liturgies at St. Peter Parish in Spokane. He received a music degree from Gonzaga University, then retired after working for many years in the university's book store. Our Lady of Fatima's Fred Williams thinks that when it comes to selecting music, "you have to listen to the voice of the community; at the same time, you have to, in essence, educate them. One of the things that a lot of parishes tend to do is that they lead away from the traditional classic hymnody, which has been a foundation of Catholicism for centuries. If you go too far to the left, I guess it might be, then there are parishes that don't even have a familiarity with some of the old standards. By the same token, you incorporate into your worship music all of the best of any genre." - Music Director at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes, Spokane, since 2002, is Max Mendez. Prior to that, for two years he was the head cantor for the cathedral. He is primarily a vocalist and holds a master's degree in conducting from Eastern Washington University. His position at the cathedral is part-time, varying from 20 to 30 hours per week, depending on the needs of the particular liturgical season. He also holds a full-time faculty position at North Idaho College. Mendez summarizes his perspective on liturgical music thus: "The role of music within the liturgy is to enhance what is going on at the altar. I believe that a good music program is about balance; not every piece that you have is a showcase piece for the ensemble that is helping serve there. But on the other hand, there are times that are more reflective, for the congregation to meditate on the word, where the primary role of an ensemble can really help that to happen. There are many different ways to do it. Here at the cathedral, when the choir is in the choir loft, sometimes being able to hear can reinforce reflection and meditation. But when the choir isn't up front there isn't that visual focus, the focus is as it should be, on the altar and on the Eucharist." According to Schaubel, "The music shouldn't be the focus of attention. The music should always be pointing away from itself toward Christ. If the music does draw attention to itself, then as a parish musician I've probably failed on some level." Is it absolutely necessary for a person to have a graduate degree in music or liturgy in order to be responsible for a parish's liturgical music? Schaubel doesn't think so. "Still, you have to be willing to learn," he said. "You can read. You can join professional organizations. You can't just step into it knowing nothing." Williams thinks that any music is liturgically acceptable, within limits. "If it can be said as a prayer or has prayerful connotations, then it's appropriate. We don't do the 'Theme from the Godfather,' we don't do that Barbra Streisand song, 'Evergreen,' and we don't do 'Here Comes the Bride.' We try and keep it basically sacred, but 'sacred' today accepts many genres - anything from praise, which can be somewhat raucous, to the traditional 'Ave Maria.'" Catholic parishes today tend to welcome a wide variety of musical instruments, from strings to brass, from woodwinds to synthesizers, and both acoustic and electric instruments. Still, it comes down to the congregation participating. "I don't care whether you think you can sing or not," says Schaubel, "I want you to sing. Every single assembly sounds different, and it needs to have somebody that doesn't know how to sing to make it sing. I think we're dealing with a lot of history of Catholics not singing, but every once in a while you get beyond it, and that's really great. I just think it's really criminal the way the church did not catechize us well about any of this stuff after the Second Vatican Council. I think the new pope is kind of hip to that." The cathedral's Max Mendez says that singing is one of the ways that the assembly becomes a community. "But that's not the only way it happens. Unfortunately, I sometimes believe that people put too much emphasis on the music. As a musician, I'm not saying that music isn't that important. It is important. But it's like spokes in a wheel, and the center of the wheel is the Eucharist, whether you're a lector, or a Eucharistic minister, or a musician, our focus is on the Eucharist. My job as a musician who plans music is to find music that enhances that experience. I certainly believe that congregational singing is getting better and better, and encouraging and fostering that is important." Walla Walla's Diane Chamberlain agrees. "I wish that parishioners really understood how important their part is. It's not like going to any kind of show. Everyone needs to participate and sing if the Mass is going to be what it's supposed to be." "The primary music ensemble at every liturgy," said Schaubel, "is the assembly."
Republished with permission by Catholic Online from the Inland Register (www.dioceseofspokane.org), official publication of the Diocese of Spokane (Wash.).