This week I am sharing some of my remarks from Notre Dame Vision’s inaugural Summer Conference for Liturgical Music Ministers. Today’s thoughts were part of a workshop on Accompanying Fellow Disciples.
If I had to choose one incident that sold me on becoming a musician, I might choose a moment from 6th-grade band. We were warming up independently, a cacophonous endeavor I still can’t believe our director encouraged, and I started playing a line from one of the pieces we were working on. The student next to me in the clarinet section started playing the same thing, and there we were, in unison, together among the noise and chaos. It felt remarkably intimate, and I felt close to someone – not a particular friend, just a stand partner – with an intensity that 11-year-olds rarely allow themselves.
Most singers and collaborative instrumentalists recognize this feeling. When everyone is tuned into each other, breathing together, anticipating each entrance together, you are united not just for unity’s sake but in pursuit of a creative goal.
My first cantoring job was at my childhood parish. The pastor wouldn’t let me sing until I was 18, to my dismay, but I started the Christmas of my first year of college and kept it up during breaks and summer for years after that. These were people I knew. They had taught me CCD and I had taught their kids at Bible School.
When I raised my “holy hand” to invite them to sing I was inviting a community that I truly loved. They’d always been a singing congregation so I couldn’t take credit for their response. I was blessed to have my first ministerial experience be in a community with whom I was already in relationship, because it showed me so clearly those lines of service and support that exist in ministry.
I regret to inform you that that parish, where I only sing but rarely now, has moved the cantor to the back, in the choir loft. You don’t need me to tell you that such a move can damage the relationship between music ministers and congregation. What was interesting is that the congregation didn’t need me to tell them either. Without any theological background other than the faith they live, they noticed that removing the relational element made it harder for all to sing together.
There are also those awkward situations when the relationship is truly broken or undeveloped. There are few feelings worse than when you raise that hand and no one sings – though one of those worse feelings is when you raise your hand, no one sings, and they all glare at you, like they can’t believe you are bothering them with your invitation to sing. During those moments I channel my mother’s best “you are going to do as I say” look, with a little “please don’t leave me hanging up here” mixed in. When it works, which occasionally it does, I don’t feel manipulative but ministerial.
My favorite experiences of liturgical music ministry are those when no one notices me. Throughout all my ministry I have focused on making it easier for people to pray. I recognized this goal first in youth ministry, but quickly realized it applied to music as well.
We get to know our assembly and figure out what they need, but then we get out of the way. If every decision we make is guided by the question “How can I unobtrusively create the environment that makes it easy to pray?” then relationship will be inherent in our ministry.
Are there any goals that guide your ministry?
Photo: Some of the beautiful religious art on the campus of Notre Dame.