Good music pays for itself
Music ministry is a vocation, a challenge and a career. Each week a dozen or more NCR classified ads seek liturgical musicians. The content of the advertisements lays out the dimensions of the career and its goals and hopes.
In Eden Prairie, Minn., the Pax Christi Catholic Community of 4,000 households committed to the principles of Vatican II seeks a co-director familiar with a wide variety of contemporary music. A Union County, N.J., parish wants a full-time organist/music director, salary commensurate with experience while St. Joseph Church in Palm Bay, Fla., wants a director for a parish committed to expanding the existing program and the shift toward a unified and more contemporary varied music and liturgy program.
Who are some of the people who make church music their ministry and career? NCR talked to three from around the nation, all of whom attended the July meeting of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians.
James Savage has a disarming reason parishes should have a vibrant music ministry: A successful music program, said the music ministries director at Seattles St. James Cathedral, brings in money.
A former pastor used to say to me, Is the choir doing something grand at offertory this week? And it took me a while to catch on, said Savage, with a chuckle. What hed figured out was that if we did something amazing at the offertory, the collection was higher.
Savage, son of a conservative Baptist preacher -- he played gospel piano at his fathers services from the time he was 8 -- was making a finer point. The pastor, as a steward of money, needs to understand that a well done music program -- it doesnt have to be huge -- ends up paying for itself. Good music increases attendance, as the 20-year story of Savage at St. James reveals.
When Savage arrived at St. James two decades ago, the cathedral had something most downtown churches dont -- its own oil well, a bequest from a parishioner. It also had 600 elderly parishioners spread across six weekend Masses, no choir, a 1907 Heinz-LaFarge designed Italian Renaissance building on the outside with, on the inside, wall-to-wall carpeting and acoustical tile, and a minus two-second reverberation. The carpeting and tile sucked the sound dead the moment the organ uttered a note.
Fortunately, there was that steady trickle of oil funds (the well has since run dry) to begin building a music ministry, plus a bishop, Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, and a pastor, Fr. William Gallagher, as determined as Savage it would succeed.
By 1990, said Savage, there was a new pastor, Fr. Michael Ryan, a superb musician, a wonderful organist with perfect pitch, and a new bishop, Thomas Murphy. The miracle is both of them are also committed.
Ryan, Savage said, encourages new compositions and commissions and the exploration of how medieval and earlier music can be used in our time.
In 1994, the cathedral underwent a highly acclaimed complete renovation -- as did the congregation: We made a commitment to the people singing the Mass, rather than singing at Mass, Savage said.
With the exception of Lord I am not worthy, there are some Masses, said Savage, where the congregation sings every time they open their mouths.
Theres no organ accompaniment and no cantors waving their hands for any of the dialogues, he added. We say our major choir is our 10 oclock Mass with a thousand people.
With 2,300 households registered, the Sunday average now is 3,500 to 4,000 people attending five Masses.
But what do churches without an oil well do to kick-start a compelling music program into life? It occurred to me that a cathedral choir could no longer model to any other parish in the diocese, so I started a choir of women, 12 to 14 women who -- aside from the cantor -- are not trained. All I ask, he said, is that theyre willing to sing and pray together.
We sing in unison, occasionally two-part -- a couple dont match pitches very well -- but we do a lot of chant, some American folk music, real folk music, 18th and 19th century, and some British Tudor music. But all in unison, emphasized Savage. Any parish, I mean any parish, can do that. And the attendance at that Mass -- it used to be a guitar Mass -- has gone up and up, the biggest increase is among people under 35. Its now our second-largest Mass, he said.
As for the organist who grew up in the preachers house, he has a masters in church music from the University of Oregon, did doctoral work at Tübingen and the degree itself at the University of Washington. And hes a Catholic.
God and I knew I was a Catholic back in my teens, he said.
Joanne Johnson wants the congregation to sing. At the same time, as a cantor she doesnt want to be a one-person musical performance. Her prescriptions are commonsense, if not always easy to achieve.
If people know what theyre singing, if they are instructed in the text and why we sing it where we sing it, and why its selected -- so they understand the importance of it -- then, said Johnson, theyre more likely to sing.
That is the first step in Johnsons approach to the music she helps make and direct at St. Marys parish in Tampa, Fla., where she also serves on the St. Petersburg diocesan music commission.
In her role as cantor, Johnson studiously avoids becoming a performer, for the second thing I do, she said, is to assist the assembly in their song. Not as a performer but to encourage the assembly to sing.
There are many ways to do that as cantor and choir, insisted Johnson, who was raised in the Dutch Reformed church and became a Catholic because I knew my husband would not convert to Dutch Reformed!
You make the music such that the assembly feels comfortable joining in. Then its not a performance. Its your frame of mind, she said. If youre praying the text, praying the psalms and fully involved, that makes the big difference.
But Johnson isnt necessarily about to spoon-feed easy music to the congregants. At one level, she said, theyre open to what I offer -- a wide variety, Latin, English, Spanish, contemporary -- and at another level, they dont have any choice. I dont try to find things that necessarily appeal to them. I want to teach them something. They amaze me when they do things I think are difficult.
The same is true with the childrens choir, she said, when it tackles words and phrases that are so old, and weve been singing for so long. How could children possibly understand, O Come O Come Emanuel, and ransom captive Israel. I have to explain every word in that. But they like it once they understand it. Before that, its just another boring hymn.
Navy wife Johnson came to cantoring and choir leading a decade ago when her children started making their sacraments and pulled me back into active participation. There was a need for music ministry in the local parish, St. Timothys, and I knew I could sing. At the diocesan level the commission works on music guidelines, so our pastors have a better idea how to hire, pay scales, that sort of thing. Last year the commission surveyed every parish on their musicians needs and then sat around Johnsons kitchen table to design educational programs.
The commission is also developing a musical program for the parish director who doesnt know what to do with that Sunday night Mass. There is ongoing cantor training, and the diocese brings in National Association of Pastoral Musicians schools to help educate. Johnson was the regions first local director for the association. The association develops networks, and we can learn from one another, she said.
We tackle education programs for musicians called on to direct youth-oriented or contemporary or Life Teen groups, because a lot of times the musicians dont have liturgical experience, she said. They just sang in a band. We make those Masses as liturgically sound as possible.
Theres a pervasive notion that Catholic youth are more attracted to music they might hear in a Protestant setting than in a Catholic setting. Johnson, asked if that was her experience, said, I think a lot of people believe that. But I dont think it necessarily has to be that way. Catholics have such a wealth of music, I think it just has to be presented to youth with a little more confidence.
Asked if she listens to the music teens listen to, Johnson replied, Only when I absolutely have to. But as shes now forming a youth choir, Im realizing Im going to have to have an open mind. And thats going to be a challenge for me -- because I personally dont like it. But that doesnt mean its not good music.
Johnson looks ahead to the time when the idea of a youth Mass, a Spanish Mass, the family Mass, the childrens Mass, will have ceased to exist and that children, youth, adults and elderly would all feel comfortable, whatever liturgy theyre at.
She believes American Catholic music is now just starting to evolve into a new musical form. I hope it will be very welcoming of all cultures. I see diversity and culture becoming more and more a part of the music.
When jazz drummer Alex Wyatt went off to New Yorks New School this summer to begin his jazz and contemporary music studies, St. Frances Cabrini didnt just lose its principal timpanist. It said goodbye to the last of the musical Wyatt kids who, for more than a decade, have been part and parcel of their musical parents ministry at the parish.
The parents, Dan (organist and pianist) and Judith (pianist, flutist, vocalist) Wyatt were high school sweethearts in suburban New Jersey. And after Dan graduated from DeSales University in Allentown, Pa., music ministry was where, in the mid-1970s, he anchored his ambitions.
Unbelievable as it sounds, he said, there were prospects for work. Though not for getting wealthy. In my experience, said Wyatt, the rate of pay for most church work is about 75 to 80 percent of what youd get in the public market. Just as Catholic teachers make 75 to 80 percent of what public schoolteachers make, so do Catholic musicians.
After 10 years at St. Pauls Parish in Allentown, the Wyatts, by then a family of five, moved to Peoria, Ill., where Dan directed the diocesan office of worship and music under Bishop Edward ORourke. We were trying to give comfort, encouragement and training to parish musicians in a very rural diocese. Thats a lot of semi-trained volunteers, Wyatt said. And a lot of being on the road.
In 1990 the Wyatts arrived in Littleton, Colo. Fr. Richard Ling, the pastor, is a liturgist of note, said Wyatt. He had a great vision. There was a new church on the drawing board. I was promised a new church and a new organ. I got it three pastors and 10 years later, he said, merrily.
When Wyatt took over the music at St. Frances Cabrini Church, it was a 10-voice choir in a multipurpose school cafeteria, part gym, part carpeted living space, schizophrenic worship space -- an awful acoustical environment with a terrible set of instruments.
I guess one of my vocational directions is that this is all missionary work, Wyatt said. But Id been assured the talent was there to be tapped. And correct that was. I put out appeals, and the people came, trained ones and committed people. Ten voices to 40 voices to a 65-voice choir. The parish bought a new piano.
Now theres a new church that supports a singing congregation, altar smack in the middle. It has shaped the congregation and confirmed to me how important an impact architecture can have on the worshiping community, he said.
It takes 10 years to build a parish music program, he said. The most miserable places are those where theres either an incompetent person in charge, or a series of incompetent people -- or even competent people who keep changing the program.
Wyatt, looking around the American Catholic music scene, said, You know, weve only been at this for 35 years with a whole new repertoire. Were getting there. Good music and good liturgical planning always uses an integrated approach -- much more so than in the past. I like David Haas term. He thinks of the music as liturgical glue. The music weaves in and out of all the principal parts to highlight text or add some element of solemnity or emotional impact.
Wyatt himself likes playing more than planning. Thats my preference, he said, Im a performer. (Judith Wyatt maintains her musical interests, but works at The Childrens Hospital nearby). Music is a family trait. Madeleine, 22, University of Michigan graduate in musical theater, flutist, singer and dancer, is testing her skills in New York. Paul, 19, is a clarinetist, singer and dancer in the same Michigan program.
And from the start, all three junior Wyatts have participated in the various music ministries, from childrens choir on up. Not precisely the Von Trapp Family Singers, but a very modern American Catholic musical counterpart.
National Catholic Reporter, August 24, 2001