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Thursday, February 7, 2013

Is this any way to run a music program?

It's snowing this (Tuesday) morning. And it's choir practice day. More accurate a predictor of bad weather than Tom Skilling.

The homestead, probably a choir practice day, 2012
When the weather is lousy, like it often is in Chicago in the wintertime, we occasionally have less than what you might consider a "quorum" show up for choir practice. Maybe a dozen people (out of about 30.) Rehearsal night is also women's club night, so if there's a really good speaker at Women's Club, or food, a couple of the women might opt to go there instead of with us. My associate, G, is on the parish council, which also meets on Tuesday. Don't ask me to change to another night — they, all of them, are worse.

It's not so drastic all the time, not by any means. I don't have a policy about attendance, for instance, "if you don't come to rehearsal, don't come on Sunday." Some music directors have a policy like that, and I can understand why. Or, "if you miss three rehearsals a year, you're out of the choir." I understand why people do that, too. But that's not a policy I've ever pursued, not even with the children's choir. It's just not in the way I see my role, or the role of a choir in the life of a parish. On internet mailing lists for liturgy-music types, I hear exchanges among very talented musicians, much more credible than I, about their policies for rehearsal attendance, auditioning, ability, all the necessary qualities people have to have to be in their church choirs. I read about their concerts, their tours, their reviews, and frankly, sometimes I feel a little intimidated ("impostor's syndrome"?) Not only do I not have any of the qualities that make them terrific musicians and choir directors, I don't even aspire to them. I just have a different idea. It's not a better idea, or holier, or anything, it's just different.

Here's the thing: I see my role as the music director to be about coordinating the effort on Sunday at orchestrating the entire gathered "neighborhood," the dozen or so different zip codes who show up five different times a weekend, into what Bernard Huijbers called "a performing audience." The music that is going to be made on Sunday morning isn't music for them, it's music by them. The whole gathering, the assembly of the old and young, singles and marrieds, the garrulous and the crabby, introverts and extroverts, residents and visitors, ordained and lay, ministers and ministered-to, joiners and loners, all of us, all of us together are the choir and the object of my labors. Every song I choose, every note I write, every line I arrange, every choral accompaniment or cantor's part or drum groove, every decision is oriented toward the better involvement, the full, conscious, active participation of every person at the St. Anne's on Sunday. This is not about choir tours, or perfect intonation, or sight-reading, or anything else. It's about the entire music ministry's participation in the work of making music with non-musicians, making an energy that invites enthusiasm, sparking a conversation between faith and other life experience, and provoking a confrontation with value systems that compete with the gospel. We are trying to participate as liturgy tries to reshape the lens by which we view our life in the world.

Choir practice? Well, I expect that people who commit to it will make it a priority. But folks have a life at home, in the "domestic church", that sometimes has to take precedence. Sometimes it seems like parishes are trying to keep families from having time at home together. Monday night Women's club, Tuesday night rehearsal, Wednesday night religious education, Thursday meetings, Friday scouts, suddenly it's a weekend again. We try to see the parish's role as an enabler of family time. People who join the choir make a commitment to be consistent, but that doesn't mean they can (or should) always be at rehearsal. Same with the children. With all the demands on kids and parents, what point is there in punishing the kids for missing a rehearsal, when they have no control over transportation or, for that matter, saying whether or not they can be anywhere at a given time?

I try to see the choirs as small faith communities of a kind. The point of them isn't simply the task of learning new music; it's to create authentic worship in our lives. That means understanding what we say and sing, so that young and old can in their own time and way integrate their experience into their Christian lives. Part of rehearsal is liturgical catechesis, some of it preparatory, some of it mystagogical. Sometimes we do social things to build up our community: special Christmas parties, Mardi Gras parties, Easter parties, back-to-the-rehearsal schedule parties, occasionally birthday parties.

It's all part of being in a community, part of learning to care for each other, living the Christian way. The gifts given by the Holy Spirit are given for the sake of the whole body. God doesn't need our worship. We people need to worship. We need to give thanks, experience solidarity, think cosmically, find meaning, know the transcendent within the ordinariness of things, practice stepping outside ourselves, testing the unknown waters of ecstasy. The gift of music within the church isn't for itself, for advancing the art or enriching the artist. It is for the building up of the whole body. Decisions that I make about choir are based with that in mind. What will build up the church? What advances the notion that we belong to one Father and therefore are brothers and sisters to one another? What focuses our attention on the needs of a broad, suffering, heterogeneous world, reverencing the individual and family without divinizing them, helping us to better know ourselves as a people, beloved of God, and not just an assortment of individuals? Sometimes, after all is said and done, I still have to write the "Catholic guilt letter" that I write every couple of months, drawing on all my experience in Catholic schools, acknowledging everyone's busy schedule, but pleading that rehearsal get kicked up the food chain. I tell them something like this: if there are 15 things on the list today and you can only do 14, knock something other than choir practice off the list for a change. We need you, we need everyone, because we support one another with our gifts. Still, it's just choir. it's important, but it's just choir. I know you'll be here when you can, just don't forget us!

That's all it takes, a couple of times a year. No threats, no sob stories. Just tell the truth, and trust God and people to come through. Is this any way to run a music program? You bet it is. I wouldn't do it any other way.