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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The i(Pad) doesn't lie - funeral music

Being a parish musician is not, in terms of physical labor, a difficult job. Most of us who do it have chosen it freely, we do it because it's the kind of work we love. But that is not to say that it's always easy. For one thing, the concept of "weekend" that guides the rest of the free world like a commercial Polaris is a fiction. The worst kind of fiction: the kind that stands in the corner and laughs at you for imagining it. The universe's weekend is the parish musician's Monday. Parish musicians' weekend is whenever you can make it. Sure, we say "I'll take Monday and Thursday off this week," but if there is a funeral or two on Monday or Thursday, well, somebody's got to play it, and it is us.

Most weeks things work out OK, but it can be hard to stay sharp and "on" when, as happened yesterday, you have a funeral, two weddings, and a regularly scheduled evening mass to play. It can seem like you're never out of church, like this past week, when there was only one day that did not have a funeral come up, and with the holiday mass on Monday morning, the liturgical beat goes on. As the old Irish priest used to say, "It's a fine life if you don't weaken."

This can give the devil's workshop between the ears time to consider things like the possible number of times one has played "On Eagle's Wings" in thirty years of full-time music ministry. (Over a thousand, and I would be happy to play it another thousand, if I can remember the chords at 90.)

I was thinking the other day about the way that the iPad app ForScore keeps playlists might say something mildly interesting about funeral repertoireNow, one can keep a playlist with only the music for today's mass, or today's wedding or funeral or concert. But the way I chose to do funeral and wedding playlists when I started with the iPad (on approximately the day after the ForScore app was released) was to keep all the funeral music in a single playlist, and just move the songs to the top that I am using for today's liturgy. It struck me that, over time, the list would sort itself in such a way that the top twenty or so songs that are most consistently used would remain near the top, allowing for occasional anomalies where a family asks for a less-often used piece. After a few more funerals, that piece would be pushed down the playlist, and replaced with (mostly) more frequently used songs. 

The way we choose funeral music is probably very much like you do in your parish. I prepared a list of songs, both songs in our hymnal and songs from other liturgical resources, since the assemblies that gather for funerals are anything but homogeneous, which our bereavement ministers use when they sit with families and choose readings and songs, and collect notes for the homilist. This is done for every funeral. Our bereavement ministers know from me that the list, which has a hundred or so titles, is not meant to be exhaustive but might help people think about how to pray in their loss. People may, and often do, ask for songs that aren't on the list. As best we can, within the bounds of propriety to the extent that I'm able to discern them, we accommodate them.

So the photo to the right is a picture of the top of my funeral playlist after the funeral Saturday morning. What won't appear on the list are songs that I haven't scanned or purchased for the iPad, some of which we do with some frequency, like Thomas Dorsey's old standard, "Precious Lord, Take My Hand." But so that you can compare my list with what you do, here are the top 25 songs on the list.

How Great Thou Art
Shepherd Me, O God
Celtic Alleluia
Hosea
(Mass of Creation 2011)
On Eagle's Wings
Amazing Grace
Hold Me In Life
Ave Maria (Schubert)
Prayer of St. Francis
Here I Am, Lord (Schutte)
May the Angels Lead You into Paradise (Joncas)
Morning Has Broken
I Will Walk in the Presence of God (Ps. 116, Daigle)
New Jerusalem
Be Not Afraid
Taste and See (Moore)
I Am for You
Let There Be Peace on Earth
You Are Mine
We Remember
One Bread, One body
Sing with All the Saints in Glory (Ode to Joy)
Psalm 23 (Gelineau)
Just a Closer Walk with Thee
I Am the Bread of Life (Toolan)

I put the Celtic Alleluia in italics because I almost never do it at funerals. We usually do the Alleluia from O Filii et Filiae, to keep things in an Easter motif. But the most recent funeral requested the Celtic, and I knew that the cantors were altos, so I put it on my list in the key of G, because I only have it memorized in A. "I Will Walk (Ps. 116)" and "I Am for You" are in italics because they are anomalies, not generally used at funerals, but they have been used within the last couple of weeks, and so they appear on the list, not having been moved down far enough by "normal" songs yet.

Factoid: "Ave Maria" by Schubert actually appears on my iPad three times in the top 25, because I play it in different keys for different cantors. That says a little something about its popularity, I suppose!

There are another 30 or so songs in the iPad list that get played with some frequency, and another 10 or so at the bottom that I've used once or twice. "Danny Boy" is on there, and "You Raise Me Up" "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen" and "What a Wonderful World." I take it as a sign that, because church "rules" about music can be bent for the rich and famous (for instance, when at the cathedral "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" was played at Harry Carey's funeral during the final procession), they can be bent for the not-so-rich and otherwise-unknown when grief enters their houses as well. I resist, I expect that the funeral liturgy will proclaim the resurrection. Since the resurrection is such a surprise, and I have no idea what that means as well, I've had to decide that assuaging a family's grief by (rarely) playing a song "sacred" only to the memory of the deceased won't keep me or them out of heaven. And if it did, who needs a god like that?