By Lourdes R. Policarpio
I have been serving my parish as a musician for some 27 years now and I wonder: can I really be called a “church musician”? My reservations about the term “church musician” arise from the experiences I had on what it takes to be a church musician. Being such, I discovered, entails certain changes in your values and outlook in music. A musician, as an artist, is usually motivated by his love for his craft, his art. Excellence is a driving force. But as a church musician, you sometimes have to tame your musicality , that passion for beautiful music, and let it die temporarily to serve the higher needs of working within the framework of liturgy. Oftentimes, you have to make do with limited musical resources and have to turn a deaf ear to substandard music. You learn the meaning of humility and perseverance in service. It could be difficult and painful!
When I was still single and not yet in the service of the church, I had a dream which somehow influenced me in the choice of pieces for my future young singers. In the dream, I was entering a circular church holding a baby boy. Then a majestic voice, which I deduced was that of the Lord Jesus, told me that He did not like the rock musicale “Jesus Christ Superstar”. I dismissed the dream but later, things turned out as depicted. My first child was a boy (Arthur, who also writes for this magazine and is likewise a church organist now) and our parish church was constructed to be circular in shape.
An incident further reinforced my belief that the dream was meant to give me direction. One day, just a month after my husband and I organized a children’s choir for the parish, we were practicing the Hosanna for the Palm Sunday rite when a priest came to me and said, “Why don’t you teach the children the Hosanna in Jesus Christ Superstar”? I was dumbfounded as I remembered my dream where the Lord Jesus said He did not like the rock musicale “Jesus Christ Superstar”. I looked around for the script, studied it and concluded it was really something the Lord would not like. Despite the priest’s suggestion (he did not realize the irreverent lyrics of the song), I did not teach that particular Hosanna.
But this incident was like a guidepost. In choosing songs, especially for the young, we musicians should be careful. Indeed, from the mouths of children and infants God should find perfect praise (Matthew: 21:16).
In conservatories and schools, when a choir is organized, you know right away that the purpose of the group is to sing beautifully. In the church setting, you can be reprimanded for that (“concertizing” is the usual rebuke) by those who do not recognize music as an art. I have heard it said oftentimes that the church choir is there “not to concertize but to lead the people in community singing”. As a musician I can say that this attitude, taken to extremes, can stifle the choirs’ artistry and musicianship.
I must confess that I did not appreciate from the start the mandate for community singing. Why should I vocalize the choir, teach them their various parts (soprano,alto, tenor, and bass) – and let the people drown out their singing anyway?
But although I could be unflinching in my belief that we should not expel beautiful choral music from church services, I somehow believed that such a song as Ama Namin really belonged to the whole congregation. One day, somebody told me how moving the Ama Namin in our Mass was. I discovered only then that when the people were singing, they would close their eyes, their fervor seen so plainly in their faces. I knew that, somehow, they were moved by the song! The music was able to bring forth from them the gist of the prayer - that heartfelt plea to the Father in heaven.
While we musicians are instructed to make our music fit for community singing, the deeper objective is that our task in making the people sing is for us to bring forth the beautiful emotions that music is so capable of doing. When you see the people closing their eyes in fervor when they sing – you have succeeded as a church musician. You have enkindled the religious fervor of people - using music. What a noble accomplishment that is!
Over the years, I have learned to balance community singing and choral music in the Mass. In ordinary weekday Masses, we sing simple songs. On Sundays, when choirs are available, we accommodate choral singing especially during Communion. But on special occasions, to bring out the majesty and dignity of the High Mass, we assemble a big choir – capable of the twin objectives of leading the people in community singing and singing choral arrangements.
I once heard a musically-inclined Bishop say that “music is the soul of the liturgy”. Does this not put too much importance on our music? I contemplated this statement and realized it is with a grain of truth. It is music which sets the tone of the Mass; it is music which gives life to the liturgy; it is music which sets the mood and spirit. Can you imagine what it would be like if we sing sad songs for the Christmas Midnight Mass – or lively, upbeat songs for the Good Friday rites? Can you imagine the Simbanggabi Dawn Masses without the poignant Advent songs or the Christmas Masses without the usual gay carols? On the other hand, when the choir sings that rousing Hallelujah by Handel during the Easter Vigil Mass, can you not imagine the grandeur and dignity of the Risen Lord?
Several years ago, after the Good Friday procession in our parish, some parishioners complained. No choir came to sing during the procession and an enterprising matron took the mike and started singing. Obviously, singing was not her forte, and the people said they could not help but laugh and be amused. See what bad music can do? It can destroy the solemnity of the rites! As likewise would be the case if a choir sang the Hosanna from “Jesus Christ Superstar” for the Palm Sunday rites.
These words from Charles Kingsley (historian, writer, and priest of the Church of England) underscore the power and potential of music.
There is something very wonderful in music. Words are wonderful enough, but music is even more wonderful. It speaks not to our thoughts as words do; it speaks straight to our hearts and spirits, to the very core and root of our souls. Music soothes us, stirs us up; it puts noble feelings in us; it melts us to tears, we know not how: - it is a language by itself, just as perfect, in its way, as speech, as words; just as divine, just as blessed…Music has been called the speech of angels; I will go further, and call it the speech of God himself.
It is so sad that sometimes musicians are not understood. People don’t understand that when we get hold of a beautiful song, we yearn for that lovely song to be sung the way we hear it in our mind and spirit. We practice to be able to do justice to a certain song. Not because we want the applause but because of that inner fire in us which aspires for the beautiful. It can be both fulfilling and frustrating. And yet when we think deeply, it is the Divine Master Himself who put the spark in us – otherwise where would the celestial music on earth be?
Charles Landon, in the book “The Gift of Music” said this aptly:
Music is God’s best gift to man, the only art of heaven given to earth, the only art of earth that we take to heaven. But music, like all our gifts, is given us in the germ. It is for us to unfold and develop it by instruction and cultivation.
Thus, we spend hours practicing. Once a priest told me that what the choirs simply know is “singing and singing”. You don’t know the gospel, he said. You don’t know the Bible. Yes, I grudgingly realized we should not simply be musicians – we should be learned Catholics as well, adept in the Gospels and in the liturgy. After all, the music is not an isolated component but an integral part of the liturgy. And since we are in the active ministry, we are supposed to know our faith more than the ordinary Mass-goers. (It is so comforting that I learned later that majority of the singers in our parish are likewise members of other religious organizations where they have their formation.)
There is one CD I treasure – the set of piano pieces (Lauds) played by pianist Fr. Arnel Aquino, SJ. When I first heard it, I was teary-eyed. I could play all the pieces by heart. Listening to the CD, it was like my life passed before me and I realized that all these 27 years, I had sat at the organ daily, serving in the Mass. And I told myself tearfully, recalling all the sacrifices, all I had to give up to make it to my daily Mass slot: surely, the Lord knows me.
There should be no regrets. There are no regrets. Let me quote Johann Sebastian Bach, the Master himself: “The aim and final reason of all music should be nothing else but the Glory of God and the refreshment of the spirit.”
I am thankful to the Lord for giving me a little place in the church. I know that, without me, the Mass can go on. It can be humbling to learn also that while we musicians listen only to the music, God sees our hearts as well. And yet, despite our inadequacies, the Lord has given us musicians a niche. What more, unlike the other servers (Eucharistic lay ministers, readers, etc.)
there is no limit to the number of singers in a Mass. The more, the better! And here it is that you have a great potential for drawing the youth (so endangered in these times) closer to the church.
These days, although I still play a little Chopin, Mozart, or Beethoven, I invariably find myself getting tired of the classics and resorting to the simple religious pieces I have played over these years. It gives me a lot of peace and serenity.
How I wish many accomplished musicians would serve the Mass. While it entails a lot of humility and giving up of one’s own musical standards, God knows how to reward His servants. When our choir sings for the Christmas Midnight and Easter Vigil Masses, I oftentimes feel such joy and elation of the spirit which I feel is a foretaste, maybe a minuscule one, of what joy in Heaven can be.
I have read that there is a choir of angels in Heaven. That should be our goal as musicians. There the choir would be perfect, nary a discordant sound, a missed beat, a raspy voice.
In the meantime, let us persevere in our Mass slots, dear fellow musicians. Almighty God will surely be grateful.
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