Monthly Archives: September 2012

Sometimes, just be quiet and get out of the way

All church musicians, whether they admit it or not, have a bag of tricks they use just to make things sound a little different every once in a while. The other weekend, I took one of those tricks out of the bag, to pretty good results.

The nice part is that for this trick, I didn’t have to do anything. That’s because I stopped playing.

You can’t do this on the organ, for the most part. It’s a little too bothersome. But when you’re playing the piano or keyboard, it’s fairly simple.

The hymn, at Communion at my Sunday parish, was “Seek Ye First.”

There are two ways to do this hymn — one with a round of alleluias sung as part of each verse, or with the alleluias omitted or simply sung over the verses. The version we had did the former, so we’d sing the verse, then a round of alleluias. (The YouTube version is a weird hybrid of both.) Our version had three verses, so we sang those, then repeated verse 1.

I played quietly behind the repeat of verse 1, then totally dropped out for the round of alleluias, so that the cantor and I were leading them a cappella. And the people responded, singing the alleluias with gusto and reverence, because that’s totally possible.

But now that I’ve pulled it out of my bag of tricks, it’s gotta go back in for a long time. Something like that gets awfully tiresome if you do it often — and there are very few hymns that you could do that for, because it needs to be a hymn the congregation knows forwards and backwards. (Those are rare.) It can’t be the entrance or closing hymn. You need a strong cantor or choir who can play along.

In fact, there’s only one other hymn that I’ve ever used this for, and it’s a Spanish hymn everyone at those Masses knows, “Pescador de Hombres,” which most of us would know in English as “Lord, When You Came to the Seashore.”

Because everyone at Spanish Mass knows the refrain, especially, I can drop out on the last of the four verses. They don’t have a problem with it.

It’s a little different from what we normally do as accompanists. After all, our job is to lead in song, and we help the people find the right notes to praise God. But music at church isn’t about the musicians; it’s about enabling others to praise God in song. And sometimes, to accomplish that, the best thing to do is step aside and let them do it themselves.

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Breaking down a language barrier

Say hello to what I hope is the beginning of the end of a recurring issue.

Interestingly enough, I bought it through my employer. Well, sort of. We don’t get employee discounts, but it was on sale through the site.

I’ve written before about how I play the music for Spanish Mass without speaking a significant amount of Spanish. This was funny for a while. After all, it’s one of those “fish out of water” situations. People like the story. And, to be fair, I have picked up a limited amount of Spanish.

But I’ve been playing the music at Spanish Mass for nearly three years now. At some point, it stops being funny. At some point, it’s frustrating. Though most folks at Spanish Mass speak English as well, many don’t–and though they appreciate my attempts to stumble through a little Spanish, I still feel like I should do more, both for me and for them.

Problem is, I work a measly seven days a week. The best way to pick up another language is probably taking a class, but I don’t have time. And I work and live among predominantly English-only speakers, so I don’t have any real chance to practice during the week.

Enter Rosetta Stone.

Now, I’m not pushing or endorsing Rosetta Stone. I’ve had the box all of a few days and only started a couple lessons, so I have no idea whether I would recommend it. I hope it does. And some of the folks at church who are bilingual are more than willing to help me practice, which is something that is a necessity as well.

I’ll keep you posted.

The difference between a song and a hymn

I’ve noted before that Christian contemporary music (CCM) is largely unusable for Mass. A lot of that is because the music sucks, frankly; if you can tolerate “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” bully for you, but that song is indisputably awful. But I think there’s a key structural reason that makes it tough for even the good stuff to be usable at Mass.

Basically, a Christian song is not designed for a worship service, and certainly not designed for Mass. Let’s try something like this, Michael W. Smith’s “Secret Ambition”:

For Christian music standards (which ain’t high), this isn’t a bad song. (I heard it for the first time in seventh grade.) But it’s not a hymn, and it’s not usable at Mass. Let’s look at the lyrics:

Nobody knew His secret ambition
Nobody knew His claim to fame
He broke the old rules steeped in tradition
He tore the holy veil away
Questioning those in powerful position
Running to those who called His name
But nobody knew His secret ambition
Was to give His life away

Aside from being factually wrong (what, was Jesus warning people he was going to die for his own non-health?), it’s just not the type of language that translates well into Mass, where we use an elevated form of language.

So what is a hymn, then? I would define a hymn like this: It’s a religious song that  is acceptable and easily usable in a liturgical context. So all hymns are songs, but not vice versa.

But some Christian music songs can be converted to hymns. The aforementioned awful “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” which I’m refusing to do at Mass unless someone puts a gun to my head, is in at least two contemporary Catholic hymnals that I’m aware of. Our bilingual hymnal at my regular parish has Ike Ndolo’s “Awake, O Sleeper,” but not in the five-minute album version. Instead, the bridge is removed, as is a lot of the superfluous filler accompaniment, and it becomes a two-minute, power-packed Advent hymn that I can do on the organ.

Ndolo’s song also has the benefit of having lyrics that can easily be used in formal worship:

In the darkest times of life,
when our lights refuse to shine:
you are there, you are there.

When our hearts become like stone,
when we live without hope:
you are there, you are there.
Don’t let your hearts be troubled;
don’t let your hearts be troubled.

This (and even the words of “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever, much to my chagrin) is much better than songs that talk about standing in the checkout line (!) and look! there’s some person who’s suffering or songs that use way too many contractions or songs that basically remove you from the fact that you’re at Mass. There’s also no guarantee that what has been written is theologically close to right; CCM songwriters are not theologians, for the most part. Those types of songs can’t be converted, because their lyrics are just too far away from the purposes of Mass.

So when you’re trying to determine whether your CCM song can be used at Mass, presume that you can’t. Then set a high bar that the song has to clear. Can the lyrics translate into worship without taking people out of the context of Mass? Can the song be converted into something that doesn’t sprawl all over the place? Is the song relatively easy to sing — no wacky jumps, not too high, not too low? Is it playable on the organ, or that failing, the piano, and it still fills the church?

Chances are, your CCM song will fail these standards. You’re better off looking for contemporary hymns, specifically written for Mass. There are a growing number of those out there; it’s much wiser to go for those and save yourself the aggravation of figuring out whether your CCM song is usable.

A plea to priests: Tone it down on political races

When I was a journalist, I had to keep myself from expressing political opinions on Facebook or elsewhere. This wasn’t easy, of course, but it was necessary: the reputation of my employer could be affected by me expressing my opinion, since I wasn’t in a role where I was allowed to do so.

I’m reminded of that every time I see or hear a priest stepping out of what they know well (that is, Catholic stuff) and wade into discussing political races. Here are a few examples of what I would consider missteps: Continue reading