On a Musical Mission

Like most music directors, I receive nice glossy packets soliciting me to bring my choir to Rome or other nice places. And I do love to travel, so these pilgrimages strike me as attractive. However, I’ve also heard from friends and colleagues who have gone on tour. In Rome especially, there is often the expectation that the liturgy itself will be tailored to streamline the worship experience. Case in point: a friend was once told to cancel an anthem his choir had prepared … unless he wanted to substitute it for the responsorial psalm. Omitting the psalm was okay? Sheesh.

I haven’t spent three decades in the trenches to travel thousands of miles overseas to go back a half-century to singing at the Mass (as opposed to singing the Mass) and other impoverished liturgical expressions. Some of my friends have reported they’ve taken a pragmatic approach. One the plus side, you get to see some great architecture, art, and immerse oneself in European Catholic culture. “I didn’t go for good liturgy,” my friend conceded. “I went to see Rome.” He’s a good liturgically-minded musician working in an environment here in the States where, I’m sure, the liturgy likely exceeds Roman norms in terms of beauty, quality, and attention to detail.

And anyway, if I were going to Rome, my first question would be: what do the people there sing? I would feel it was my obligation to tailor my choir’s program to do what we do every Sunday: lead the people in singing, not perform for them. Fortunately for my musicians and maybe for Rome, I’ve long felt a call elsewhere.

My long dream (much to my wife’s dismay) has been to go on pilgrimage to places off the main touring road. Africa. South Asia. Latin America. What interests me is a trip that involves more than musical performance. Primarily, I want to play with other musicians. Exchange ideas. Learn new music. Share my music. Build bridges. Express and explore our catholicity. Mutual enrichment.

So I’m excited that my friend John has embraced the idea of a service trip from our parish that would focus on music and liturgy. We’re talking about a visit next May. He’s described to me something of the musical situation in many churches. Outside of the major cities, there are no organs or pianos. Parish Masses are led by ensembles of guitars and related instruments. I can’t bring several pianos or even a few organettos with me to Honduras. But I can listen and work with ensembles and pass on ideas for musical arranging. John also suggested a regional workshop. Man, am I going to have to work on my Spanish!

My wife has finally softened up on her fears of my going off to the Third World. She herself isn’t interested in going, but the young miss is. This first trip, though, I’ve been told we’ll have room for a small group of musicians–four or five people. The young miss will have more time to work on her guitar playing–not to mention the fact I don’t think I would allow her to miss a week of school. There will be other opportunities in the future.

Meanwhile, it’s time to lay groundwork. Recruit students and resident parishioners for the effort. Learn about the musical repertoire of the people there. Assess what I could offer in a workshop format. Get up to speed in speaking Spanish. More importantly, developing the listening ear for comprehension. A week in Honduras seems rather flimsy compared to the possibliities. I can understand why my friend felt called to move to Honduras and be a lay missionary.

(Image credit above: John Donaghy)

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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