And All the People Played Amen

As music ministers we all struggle with participation of our congregations. Given the various locations of choir in the church, interests in different kinds music and musical ability, anyone trying to lead worship seems to have their hands full. There was a discussion started in the forum recently that really got me thinking about the challenge of participation from a different angle. I’m going to repost the entire entry here because I think there’s a lot of important context that would be lost by quoting, and I will also keep the forum discussion open and hope that others join in.  Thank you to Joette for her very personal and thought provoking post.

I’ll admit that I was taken aback initially when I first read the post – while I’m not against the idea of percussion in the congregation – the thought of instruments playing from the pews along really gave me pause.  It might be natural for a director to automatically dismiss ideas like this, but the more I reflect on Joette’s story, the more I realize that a knee jerk reaction is not adequate.  Her points about our role as music ministers being to lead all people in prayer are accurate.  I will be thinking about this for a while and I encourage others to carefully consider the thoughts posted below.

From Joette:
What has happened to liturgy being the prayer of the people of the parish? Why are we so often relegated to just singing in the pew? When I have asked about the emphasis on singing at an NPM convention, I was referred to the church document, Sing to the Lord, where it says: “Of all the sounds of which human beings, created in the image and likeness of God, are capable, voice is the most privileged and fundamental. Musical instruments in the liturgy are best understood as an extension of and support for the primary liturgical instrument, which is the human voice.”

Whoever wrote the above statement does not know what it is like to have difficulty singing. I have experienced a paralyzed vocal cord which left me unable to sing at all. It was repaired with surgery, but then I developed a tremor on my larynx from Parkinson’s disease. And someone is trying to tell me that the best way for me to pray is with my voice, when I know that the sound of my classical guitar playing a hymn is far more pleasing to anyone to hear than the sound of my voice trying to sing notes that are always too high? Why should everyone be expected to pray with a singing voice? I would like to see a parish where everyone is welcome to pray musically however they feel fit. That would include people bringing egg shakers or a small hand drum to mass with them. (Did you ever try to clap your hands when you have arthritis?) That also would include people joining the choir with whatever instrument they play. No one would be asked to sit out on any song, they would only be asked to adapt the sound of their instrument to the song. Trumpets can play softly with a mute. Guitars can strum softly or fingerpick and not be any louder than a singing voice.

Back in the 70’s, everyone who could play 4 or 5 chords on guitar was encouraged to join the music group at church. Sometimes the music was not the best, but people were participating in liturgy. Now we have gone from the extreme of letting everyone play an instrument at mass, to only letting the very best musicians play and telling everyone else to sing. I heard music directors at an NPM convention complain about the guitarists who want to play every song. The answer to this complaint by the leader of the workshop was to say the music ensemble at church should be compared to the school band, where not all the instruments play all the time. No, the instruments in a school concert band do not play all the time, but they do play every song.

I have been involved in music ministry consistently since 1971. In 2009 I moved to Florida’s Treasure Coast and music ministry is very different here. The pastors look for music directors that are great performers rather than ones with knowledge of liturgy or good ability to lead the congregation in sung prayer. My opinion is that they are trying to impress rich snowbirds. The pastors will argue that their very good professional musicians do lead the people in prayer, but I do not see it and I have found others to agree with me.

When you are used to playing guitar at mass every Sunday and holy day and now you are sometimes told to come to church without your guitar, it is very hard. I am used to praying with my guitar. I have done so since high school. Now that my singing voice has greatly declined due to medical problems, my guitar is even more important. Even if the arthritis in my hand is acting up, I can still get a pleasing sound from my guitar, unlike my singing voice that causes me to choke and cough when Parkinson’s disease makes my neck stiff. One holy day, I sat in the empty crying room and played along on the hymns from there. I am trying to get the nerve to play my guitar from a back pew whenever I am at a mass where I am not in the choir or music group.

At my old parish in Pennsylvania, where I played guitar at mass several times a week, someone once asked me if my guitar was an appendage, because I seemed to always have it with me. I like thinking of my guitar as an appendage. My guitar is a part of me. I think I should be just as welcome to softly pick on my guitar as to sing at any mass I go to, and I would like to see everyone made more welcome to pray with more than a singing voice.

It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praise to your name, Most High,
To proclaim your kindness at dawn and your faithfulness throughout the night, With 10 stringed instrument and lyre, with melody upon the harp. Psalm 92:2-4

Songwriting Challenge #3

I’m running late this month!

November is a time of remembrance and Thanksgiving. All Saints Day, All Souls Day, Veteran’s Day, and Thanksgiving all give us opportunity to remember loved ones and be thankful for what we have. Given the push these days to skip Thanksgiving altogether (at least it feels like that in the stores) it is up to us as Christians to buck the trends of commercialism and push for the values we deem important.

For this month, please submit any songs or lyrics you might have that involve thankfulness or remembrance. Also, don’t be afraid to post songs that still need some work. In the next months I am going to add a collaboration page to make it easier for everyone to contribute to songs in progress.

Songwriting Challenge #2

Thank you everyone for the incredible response to the first challenge.  Many of you are already accomplished songwriters which is great.  I’m looking forward to building this community and I hope that these “challenges” help to push everyone to be better songwriters.

This month I want to move away from building complete songs and work on the process.  There’s a book called Lyrics – Writing Better Words for Your Songs by Ricky Rooksby that I like a lot.  Maybe I like it because I’m a terrible lyricist 🙂

One of the first discussions in the book is about finding inspiration for songs.  The book recommends using anything and everything for inspiration – the newspaper, books, art, TV, media, conversations, the list goes on.  Sometimes I think that as Christian artist in general – we tend to stray from anything secular when writing.

So for October I’m proposing that we simply write down inspirations.  Simply comment on thoughts, experiences, scriptures, poems, stories, etc.  that you think would make good song material.  Given that its October, fall, and scripturally ordinary time – I think we have a lot to pull from.  Don’t worry about trying to put these into songs yet (of course unless you want to 🙂 ) but I’m hoping to pick several to use in future challenges.

Happy Inspirations!

Inagural Post – What is CME All About?

In the inaugural post for this blog, I’m just going to talk briefly about my  intentions for the Catholic Music Express and to list out what I hope the whole site will become.

  • First and foremost I want this site to be a home for Catholic musicians to meet and collaborate.   I’m always happy to hear comments and suggestions on my recordings and I encourage others who are recording at home to post their tracks and help each other out.  This is not a site limited to professionals or full-time musicians, but every musician that is inspired to write music that praises God!
  • Second, I want folks to talk about their own challenges – musically, in their parishes, with technology.  I don’t mind having some forum discussions that are anonymous.  Or I can be the voice to initiate discussions in this blog.  Music ministry can be very challenging and comes with endless frustrations.
  • Third, I want this site to be educational.  Personally, I hope to post about the little bit of music theory that I know and how to apply that to songwriting and recording. I became interested in building chords and theory in high school when I was first learning guitar. Even though I never majored in music, I took enough guitar lessons – both classical and jazz – in college to learn a fair amount of theory. What I’m finding out is that theory is elusive for many musicians, even trained ones! I hope that I can post some hints and tips that have helped me over the years.  I’ve also spent a lot of time playing with recording software.  Unfortunately I struggle with time management – so I’m looking again to have a community behind me to build out topics and provide education!
  • Fourth, I want the community to feel like this is an open place to express opinions in music. I played trombone and tuba all through college. I was not that good, but enjoyed it. It wasn’t until high school that I started playing guitar and my musicianship REALLY took off. I have some strong opinions on what music education has becomes and the sad shape of adult musicianship that exists today.  We have relegated the term amateur to mean BAD and it does not.
  • Fifth, I want to continue to support the artists that are making CDs and need to get their music out to a broader audience.  This has always been a cornerstone of CME and despite opening the site up to a broader audience, I don’t want that mission to be lost.  In fact I hope that even more people are encouraged to write songs, record, and distribute those songs.  We live in an age where musicians can easily produce and sell their own albums, but on the flip side capturing an audience is harder than ever.

At the end of the day, I just want this site to be fun, interesting, and educational.  I want opinions and comments about the different recordings and what gets posted.   I want to hear from others – whether you are a home recording artist, music minister playing in a church group once a week,  or simply someone who enjoys music.

I am an amateur. I don’t do music full time, but I am very passionate about it. I think we as a society have lost the idea of amateur music and amateur musicians – I want to proudly declare that I do music on the side, I have a day job, I was NOT a music major, and I still enjoy every minute of it!

Songwriting Challenge #1

Its September and fall is upon us.  With school starting and the weather cooling, its a great time to start new projects.  And what better project than songwriting!  If you’re like me, you have wanted to write music for a long time.  Maybe you’ve even written a few pieces for specific readings, or written a Responsorial Psalm.  Maybe you have pieces of songs all over the place that just need finishing.

This community is for you!  In order to get this community started, I think its important to start writing and recording SOMETHING.  And that’s our first challenge.  Record yourself playing or singing something.  This challenge is meant to allow us to start introducing ourselves to each other and get some of the technical challenges of recording and sharing out of the way.  If you can’t come up with something, record yourself performing a cover of another song.  Record 30 seconds on an instrument.  Just start by recording something.

There are a lot of tools out there to help with recording and plenty of websites to describe the process.  I will be posting some links in the forums and I encourage others to post their own tools and sites.

Feel free to post links to your recording in the comments section.  There are many ways to share links to recordings.  You might look into Soundcloud or Reverbnation to start.

This challenge will close on September 30th.  Happy recording!