The Role of the Choir

Fr Anthony Ruff posts a comment-worthy essay at PrayTell here. I offered a few brief comments there. But the whole piece sparked some personal reflection on my part. My parish’s music ministry has hit the winter doldrums. It could be many things.

  • I was moderately demanding at Christmas with a new piece (another was withdrawn) and polishing an oldie or two they seemed not to remember well. I recognize fatigue at rehearsals and I tend to go with it rather than fight it.
  • Many people are sick this year, not just my elderly members.
  • Others have family commitments on rehearsal nights and weekends, especially with children and grandchildren.

I observe Fr Ruff serves in a nearly optimal environment, the intersection of a major abbey with a university. The potential of his community outstrips 99.9% of the church’s faith communities. He has access to monks and students who operate on a daily schedule, not a parish’s weekly cycles. When he promotes choir meditation pieces, he can produce them weekly, most likely. When I have all hands on deck, I might manage a polished piece with harmony every three or four weeks.

The PrayTell commentators have good comments too. Some in agreement with the author. Others differing a bit. Most everybody there serves or lives in one of the five percent of communities that benefit from a full-time pro at the music helm. The rest of the church has never had an experienced and forward-looking music director. It’s not that such communities lack quality or aspiration to excellence. Some lack leadership. And in some, music is undervalued by the existing leaders.

Whether a choir spends all its time polishing anthems or just half a rehearsal or less depends on a lot of things.

  • Are the singers good? Some people have a natural instinct for music and learn it quickly even if they can’t read notes.
  • Do the singers learn? I’ve had choir members who needed reinforcement on songs they’ve sung for years. They function as part of a whole. But they don’t internalize the music. Last year’s special piece falls apart at last week’s rehearsal.
  • Does parish leadership support music? Or do they expect to interrupt a prelude with an announcement about car lights on in the parking lot?
  • Is there a budget? And if not, does the director know where to go for free choral music online?

The last rehearsals before Lent for my people were yesterday. We had about 50% attendance. The piece from a few years ago we’ve been polishing for six weeks is nowhere near ready. I was still drilling parts. My people have had a full-time director for over twenty years. And God love them, there are days when it doesn’t sound like it. My second predecessor, now retired, recently visited and confirmed it is as it was.

I could not operate with Fr Ruff’s priorities, even if I bought into it a hundred percent. I have good people, earnest, loyal, prayerful, and committed. But I don’t have monks or college students. I don’t hire section leaders. And I think I judge pretty well what my people are capable of singing.

What is the role of the choir? It depends on the community. The Church gives us broad leeway to operate music ministry according to the rites. This is a good thing. But each faith community must determine for itself what is the best way to minister through a choir’s music. There is no one-size-fits-all. There is not even a common goal we can share. It depends on a lot of things. And that’s probably a good thing.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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