This morning in the Boston Globe was an opinion piece that got my blood boiling before I had even left the house. Jennifer Graham writes To revitalize the Church, let’s kill all the organs! While I appreciate her observation that the liturgical life of parishes is crucial to the revitalization of the Catholic Church, our points of agreement pretty much end there.
I encourage you to read the whole piece before reading on, but I’ll try to summarize: the organ is “scary”, no one has it on their iPod, she doesn’t like the music at her parish, and that’s why people don’t go to Mass.
“I cringe at the Responsorial Psalm, ancient and lovely words bleated in call-and-repeat fashion with all the auditory appeal of an electronic can opener in full swing.” I cringed myself at the thought of the cantor at her parish reading that. But I’ve been to parishes where the music disappointed me, too, so I’m not going to dismiss her criticism out of hand. Instead, I’ll offer my tips: Four things to do other than killing the organ
1. Encourage music education
I know lots of people who play the organ stunningly. They also play guitars, piano, they sing, whatever the situation calls for. Someone taught them along the way, and at least for those of my generation, some part of that education took place in schools, either public or private.
That’s also where people learn to listen. Even as a music major in college, it took me a long time to learn to listen to and appreciate music. By learning to listen well, we also learn about observation, description, and attention to detail. This is enriching in its own right.
2. Prioritize and support music in the parishes
Bach was, among other things, a genius. But perhaps equally important, he was a paid, full time church musician. Do you think he could have composed some of the most iconic music in history if he had been working four jobs to make ends meet? Knowing him, perhaps. But you get my point.
There is this myth out there that we music ministers should just donate our time because don’t we love Jesus and Church? But at the end of the day, you get what you pay for, and those of us who have invested in our education and training have trouble working at places that won’t invest in us.
Not every parish can fund a full-time music ministry program, but there are lots of ways to show that you have invested in the program. I have seen programs where the pastor criticizes everyone. I have seen programs run by tyrants. I have seen programs who play politics more than they play music. There’s lots of ways to do it wrong, but also lots of ways to do it right. Respect your musicians.
And if you’re sitting in the pews, that means sing with them. I guarantee the cantor the author of this op-ed derided for her Psalm stylings had her hand up hoping the assembly would sing along with her. If you don’t like it, drown it out.
3. Give people more
The author is right on the money that people want more. But she seems to think that it’s because of Bose speakers and YouTube. In a world of slick packaging and empty clarity, I think it is folly to think that they want more surface appeal. People want more. But they want more substance, not more style. Which leads me to my last point…
4. Let music come to life
“In an age in which we can experience the front row of a stirring live symphony while in the back seat of a 20-year-old pick-up, our tolerance for the banal, predictably, is waning.”
Does anyone who has been to symphony think that the experience can be recreated anywhere? To hear real sound coming from real instruments and real people, while surrounded by other real people, is an experience that cannot be duplicated.
I wrote this years ago about a trip to Symphony Hall to hear the Neruda Songs:
We are bodies, living in a world we can touch, feel, see, smell, hear. The sonic experience of orchestral forces in a live setting is incomparable, a fact of which I am reminded on every trip to the symphony. The magic of skill and intention forming sound waves that surround us is a perfect example of the blessings of our physical world. Add to that the power of a perfectly calibrated human voice – an example of every part of the human body working together perfectly, art truly incarnate – and you have a recipe for transformation…
A rich human voice, an orchestra, an emotive musical setting of sensual poetry created the perfect storm, tearing me away from the elite intellectualism honed over many years in the ivory tower. My brain was ripped out and I was only body, heart and blood and guts and skin.
This doesn’t happen every time you hear live music. But it can’t happen when you don’t. Live music can produce hits and misses, moments of catastrophe and moments of grace. But when it’s done right we come alive, together, surrounded by other people, truly in a moment that will never exist again.
So let’s not blame the organ, and let’s not burn it either. Let’s encourage real, gritty, honest music, and let ourselves be set aflame.