View from the choir

I am a Catholic layperson and Secular Franciscan with a sense of humor. After years in the back pew watching, I have moved into the choir. It's nice to see faces instead of the backs of heads. But I still maintain God has a sense of humor - and that we are created in God's image.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Singing is praying twice - if they'll let you

My friend Todd (catholicsensibility) has been running a series of pieces about an America article on the St. Louis Jesuits. He has been using it as a jumping off point for some reflections about liturgical music.

He got me reflecting about my own experiences as a liturgical musician.

In particular, I've been thinking about what led me to quit one parish and its music ministry and to join another parish's choir.

In the fall of 2003, I was attending a small suburban parish on the city's border. The parish was facing hard times: declining attendance, decreasing Sunday collections.

One thing that I thought might help would be improving the Sunday liturgies.

The pastor and the parish deacon both gave the sense that they were really celebrating when carrying out their liturgical duties. That was a good start.

However, the preaching was inconsistent. The deacon was better than the pastor, but they were both acceptable. On the other hand, the visiting priest, the sister, and the female staff member who also preached generally left me studying the hymnal or scribbling notes for haiku and limericks.

And the music? Let me say it was "sincere."

I'd been involved in liturgical music from the late 1970s, when I played guitar and sang in the campus ministry "folk group." From roughly 1981-91, I was involved in music groups at a vibrant parish that encouraged music (the same parish Todd has cited). My musical highpoints came in 1986 when our group was honored at a liturgical musicians' conference for the quality of our music, and in 1989 when I was invited by the Sisters of Mercy to be part of the chorus for the Peter, Paul and Mary holiday show at the Eastman Theatre.

I left the music groups and the parish in the early 1990s for a number of personal and theological reasons (the congregation is now a breakaway church!), and stayed out of liturgical music for more than a decade. I confined my playing and singing to performances for children (I’m a children’s entertainer), and busking (playing on street corners, outside events, etc. for money.)

I had been itching to get involved again when in the fall of 2003 I saw a notice in the bulletin of that struggling parish I was attending asking for musicians to help form a contemporary music group.

I called the parish office and left a message with the music director. After a couple of calls, he got back to me and referred me to two teenage girls who were trying to get the group started.


I called them. They responded right away (good girls). We talked about possibilities - even joking around that I was old enough to be their father. They said they would call when they were ready to get started.

They never called.

Maybe I shouldn't have brought up that "father" thing.

I called the parish music director again. Several times. When he got back to me, he referred me to the youth minister, who was apparently in charge of getting the group going.

I called him a couple of times and left messages.

I never mentioned that "father " thing.

Still, he never called.

In the spring of 2004, I spotted the music director at Mass and approached him. I said I would at least be interested in joining the choir. He said he'd meant to call me. The youth-based group was not happening, but he knew of another musician in the parish who wanted to get an adult group going. I said I'd be happy to try something with the other musician.

In the fall of 2004, the music director called and set up a time for us to meet.

I arrived expecting to find the beginnings of a group. The director introduced me to the other musician, then said he had to leave to take care of some other things.

The other fellow and I started talking about some songs to play, then got out our guitars. He could barely play. I had to show him some basic chords. He couldn't keep up on a number of the songs.

But we agreed to meet on a weekly basis. The music director came back and said he would put a notice in the bulletin and recruit some singers to join us.

He never did. No one else joined us. The music director said he would sing with us, but never practiced with us.

The one time we did get to play was January 2, 2005, with part of the parish choir. I asked to practice with the group beforehand to see how we blended together and if there were any adjustments we had to make, but the director told me there wasn't going to be a practice except right before the Mass.

We showed up. My partner did not feel ready to play guitar in public yet - so it was just me on guitar.

They placed me next to the piano.

With a mic that we had no time to test.

No one could hear anything out of me for the entire Mass.

The practices continued for a few more weeks with the music director promising again he would put a notice in the bulletin, and that he would sing with us, but he did neither. The other guitarist was improving, but still had to struggle to keep up at times.

Then the deacon announced he was retiring - so I was losing one of the few reasons I had to stay at that parish.

One Sunday, my wife and I had to go to an early Mass at another parish. They had a very good choir.

We attended the other parish again the next Sunday. The choir continued to impress.

The parish also had good preaching and priests who really celebrated Mass.

After a few Sundays, I quit the other parish and joined my current one. When I approached the music director at this new parish about joining the choir, she enthusiastically said I would be welcome, and told me when the next practice was. When I arrived for the practice, there was a folder waiting for me with all the music for the next few weeks.


So for now, I'm content to just be a bass in the choir. I hope to attend a vocal workshop this summer to help improve my singing.

I'll save my guitar playing for children's shows and busking.

Maybe I'll even go play in front of the parish I quit.


Blogger Steve Bogner said...

That's a great story Lee. You were more persistent than I would have been.

We have a friend who is a free-lance children's musician in Ohio. He goes to various schools for 2-week 'artist in residence' gigs, helping kids write songs and perform them. It's a great thing to expose kids to music in this way - listening to the songs they co-write is a great joy.

6:59 AM  
Blogger Lee Strong said...

I was pesistent in part because I REALLY wanted to get back into music, and I wanted to help the parish with what little talent I have. My experiences in the new parish and its choir have been great. I look forward to Sunday Mass even more now.

8:48 AM  
Blogger ~m2~ said...

this cracked me up!!!

first of all, i sit in the back left pew when i am not reading or serving as EM, so i understand where you are coming from.

and your humor is wonderful.

i am glad you found a parish you are happy in. my hub and i church hop on weekends when we aren't scheduled to serve and it's really cool to see how others celebrate the mass. it's the same mass, but oh-so-different. unique.

good on you for singing in the choir. my husband said he'd like to sing low that nobody'd be able to hear him.


9:50 AM  

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