The Compleat Music Director

I’m having an interesting side discussion on one of the threads at the MusicaSacra Forum discussion site. One commentator there objected to my suggestion the ideal music director for a Catholic parish be versatile and well-rounded.

Admittedly, I have high standards. I don’t measure up to all of them, which is why I’m more happy as a parish liturgist who does some parish music. But these would be the minimum proficiencies I would expect for a full-time music director in a Catholic faith community:

1. Singing and vocal pedagogy are the most essential musical skills. The Catholic Church still sees vocal music as the foundation of the sacred repertoire. And the song of the assembly is at the top of the list. A music director has to be a good singer to model for choristers and cantors. A music director must be a good enough vocal pedagogue to diagnose the problems of volunteers and correct them, either as single voices or in a choir of any size.

2. A parish usually benefits more from a music director being a conductor than an organist. The choir is the measuring stone for every Sunday and holy day Mass. It is still easier to find a good accompanist than a conductor of any skill. It makes sense for the parish to hire the hard-to-find skill above the more common. This assumes a musician is not pressed into service as both accompanist and conductor. I know it happens a lot. I know some people who are relatively skilled at doing both at the same time. But it’s not an ideal.

3. A music director needs to be skilled on an instrument, preferably more than one, and preferably accompanying instruments. Additionally, any serious church musician needs to be well-versed in many musical genres, including, but not exhausting these: plainsong, polyphony, the organ/choral repertoire of the various classical periods, hymnody of various cultures (not just German and British), authentic folk music, gospel and jazz, plus contemporary styles. The more the better. Additionally, a good musician must transcend the tendency to dismiss some musical styles on the basis of personal taste. Assuming a common denominator of quality music, a good church musician should play and sing any piece, any style, as if it were a personal favorite. Reason? It is likely somebody’s favorite.

3a. Is an organist the best choice for a parish music director? I don’t know. It depends on the person. Keep in mind that in the Catholic view, the human voice trumps all other instruments.

4. Any good church musician must be prepared to integrate various instrumentalists in a parish music ministry. To do that, a basic familiarity with woodwinds, brass, strings, and percussion instruments–pretty much all of them–is needed. Additionally, a music director must know how to fit the various instruments into interactions from duets to small orchestras.

5. Other skills are important and helpful: composing, improvising, arranging (and re-arranging), electronics, sight-reading, acoustics, to name a few. You can’t overlook the social skills of motivation, diplomacy, teaching, mentoring, listening (apart from the musical ability to listen).

Any others I’m missing?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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4 Responses to The Compleat Music Director

  1. Well outlined and stated. I, for one, concur. It’s worked for me for 40 years.

  2. Copernicus says:

    Excellent post. I agree in the main, but where’s “knowledge of the liturgy” in your list? A raft of musical and interpersonal skills will make for a good choral director, but for a church choral director it’s a sine qua non that the director knows the principles and the documents inside out. Perhaps you took that for granted.

    Not sure about this one: Reason? It is likely somebody’s favorite. That seems to me a fairly weak reason for making musical selections, at least taken by itself. For me the crucial question is does this piece of music kindle prayer?

    This of course is every bit as subjective as the simple question of ‘what’s your favourite piece of music’, but there’s a deeper underpinning to it, and it makes for a genuine criterion for judging a piece worthy of the liturgy.

  3. Gavin says:

    1. Agreed, but I think it goes beyond that. One also has to be an overall musical pedagogue, and work with the other team members to develop musicianship. ESPECIALLY with young people. I gave a young cantor a lecture, saying “now up to this point, you’ve worked in groups; for example your whole choir had to be good musicians. But now it’s on YOU; I can’t force you to be a good musician…” and went on to explain the importance of practice, getting rehearsal time, seeking advice, etc. You need to not only tell the errant cantor why he’s wrong, but work with him to gain the skills to improve.

    2. As an organist who also conducts, I disagree. Having separate conductor and accompanist is for parishes with some serious money. I have yet to work for one. And as for 3a, this is why it’s essential to have an organist as opposed to any other musician; organists are trained to conduct and play.

    3. Agreed, but the issue of dismissing styles is not so simple as “never say never”. I’ve worked for priests who have said, of perfectly good music, “I don’t like that, so I don’t want it ever played in my presence.” That’s unfortunate, and I know PLENTY of musicians who think in those terms. On the other hand is a direct and individual judgment about the usability of available resources. This judgment is a must.

    4. Agreed, and I’d go farther to say the MD must also do everything to encourage such instrumentalists.

    5. I suspect administrative skills are infinitely more important than musical skills.

    I’d like to add that one thing I’m slowly learning is that what matters at the end is that on Sunday (or any day) you sat down in the loft and made music for the Mass. You can get so caught up in building a program or personal battles or getting your ideology believed over some other than simply doing the music gets lost. One of the best models of this is at the local EF Mass I sing for. The organist takes who’s present, gives skill-appropriate music, and we sing. The successful MD has to be able to put aside the other BS and stand up and do the music for an hour. Everything else is just gravy.

  4. Jimmy Mac says:

    My parish’s MD is a former priest and his knowledge of liturgy makes his ability to integrate appropriate music with the readings, the flavor of the particular occasion being celebrated (even Ordinary Sundays), and his ability to know when too much is too much are all invaluable to our superlative music program and the fact that our congregation is known far and wide for our willingness and ability to participate fully in the music presentations.

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