Storytime: The little music program that could
  • Hi everyone! Big fan of CMAA here (Thomas Ritchie from St. Mary's in West Chicago, IL), new to the forum but your musical resources have been a big guiding light for me! So thanks for that.

    I just thought some of you might want to hear our journey so far, bringing sacred music to two small (~80-200 people) weekend masses with a very supportive pastor, good-natured parishioners, and a budget of zero. I know this isn't everyone's situation, but read on if this interests you. :) And I'd love to hear any ideas.

    1. In the spring of 2015, we had an organist Sunday and a guitarist Saturday, mostly leading everyone in “Mass for a New World” and bouncy “Gather” hymns from ’70s-‘80s. One day, my pastor decided to phase in local talent and asked three musical parishioners: a) a golden-voiced nun from Columbia, b) a college-piano-major from the spanish mass, and c) an Anglican convert and Palestrina fan (that's me!), to take care of these two English masses. Though we had sharp ears and positive attitudes, we kept our goals very low, with zero dollars and 90 minutes/week to practice together. I had very little time at home to choose our music, and was absent two Sundays a month.

 We recycled hymns like crazy to save time, which led to the accidental discovery that the congregation liked singing the same hymns over and over. Who'd have guessed?

    Our initial changes were:
    a) We sang from the choir loft more and more often,
    b) I cut the few heretical hymns and slowly phased out the more awkward/trivial hymns,
    c) I chanted the 10-second antiphon from Bartlett’s “Simple English Propers” *after* each entrance, offertory, and communion hymn just to acclimate the congregation to the sound, and
    d) I invited musicians I knew, including a dozen children in the parish, to join us in the choir loft, and gave them CD's.

    It all went very smoothly. Occasionally a few kids would show up, and improved the music dramatically by joining Sister on melody, giving me the cover to sing bass and tenor parts. The kids usually hadn't rehearsed with us, but they knew all the hymns and ordinaries anyway since we were repeating them like crazy. Kids who hadn't practiced might just not sing the psalms and propers, or at least would back away from the choir mike, and everyone was happy.

    2. 2015-2016: We kept this up for about a year, using the Haugen/Hass masses that everyone knew (My only real desire was to please never hear that “ho-ho-ho-lyyy” in MfaNW till the day I died), and R&A psalms. We soon cut the second communion hymn, replacing it with the responses from the full Bartlett proper.

 In Lent and Advent, we taught everyone the latin Mass XVIII Sanctus and Agnus.

    We didn’t have time to change anything else, but I figured we were making progress, especially with the chanted propers soaking in. Sister was also starting to alternate the verses of the communion proper with me.

    3. In Summer of 2016 our (awesome) pastor took me and Sister to the Sacred Music Colloquium last summer, which was utterly exhilarating. To grasp the tradition of sacred music you must make relationships and assist at mass with people who carry that tradition. Books are not enough (I need to read some now though lol).

    Every lecture was riveting, and Jeff Tucker’s [EDIT: Matt Meloche's] breakout session on Parish implementation gave me some of the ideas for the rest of this (I keep a photo of the session notes in my laptop, and refer to them frequently)

    After the Colloquium, I looked for a chanted Gloria. I was very surprised, upon asking friends and family, that they all preferred the ICEL gloria to any of the more complex chants like these: They didn't find the ICEL a bit dull or monotonous. This reminded me for the 100th time that simpler is usually better. So we taught the congregation the ICEL Gloria, in call/response form. I was surprised how smoothly it went.

    (Other mass parts were from “Mass of Remembrance.” Everyone knew them and I liked them.)

    4. In Fall, I started offering to rehearse music with the parish’s homeschooled kids after every Thursday morning mass. Two kids consistently joined me, and I put them through a fast-paced run of the week’s hymns and propers, giving them feedback as we went and improving their ear and technique. Soon their mom told me this was a highlight of their week. :)

    At this point we had parish kids showing up in the loft more often. We also started getting occasional outside guests on Saturdays: my Baptist mother (alto), my lapsed-Catholic nephew (bari), and my anglican friend (tenor). (The latter two are now returning to confession/attending RCIA. Coincidence?)


Now that the choir was filling in, it was time for a communion motet! I chose Franck's “Panis Angelicus” in SATB, since it's good with 8 people or with 1 person (I usually didn't know who would show up on a given day). I typically sang Bass/Tenor while sister and children sang Soprano. We got moving feedback from the congregation.


(Meanwhile, throughout 2016, 5 young families started attending Sunday mass here. Coincidence?)

    5. For each week of Advent we’d sing a different 2 verses of “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” then alternate between “Savior of the Nations Come” and “On Jordan’s Bank” and for communion we kept singing the same Communion proper from Esguerra’s choral GS. After that we kept singing “Creator of the Stars of Night,” which we eventually learned to sing to Praetorius’ fantastic “Conditor" arrangement

    6. For Christmas season, I picked 4 carols for each weekend, and dusted off my high-school trumpet for which I barely had enough lip to play an intro and final verse for the entrance and recessional hymns (trumpet made a *huge* difference though!!! I’ll keep that for easter). The choir sang “Panis Angelicus” for christmas, and I sang the Bach “Ave Maria” on Jan 1. After Epiphany we’ll start singing Mozart’s “Ave Verum” during OT, since it works in SATB, S, SB, SA, etc. Meanwhile, 2 other high school kids have joined the choir, 2 homeschooled kids are learning string accompaniments to our motets, and their mother (getting more excited) promised to play the rehearsal tracks for the motets in the van for the kids.

    And here we are! I feel like we’ve got momentum now, and by now I’m spending 5+ hours a week choosing/arranging music.

    In advance of Lent, we're looking forward to learning Ostrowski's awesome Allegri-ripoff “Agnus Dei”, as well as this lenten motet: Then replace the Offertory Hymn. Then... maybe "If ye love me"...? Arcadelt's "Ave?" Maybe the sanctus from Carnevali’s “Rosa Mystica"...? maybe...?

    In summary:
    I have about 10 questions for you all, but this post is already WAY too long. To sum up (and I know you've heard some of this many times):

    a) Hi everyone!
    b) Thank you so much CMAA; we couldn't have done it without you.
    c) Slipping short chanted antiphons behind hymns will slowly, painlessly dissolve everyone's hymn-addiction.
    d) Congregations don't bore easily. Repeat your music. Again and again. Simple is usually best.
    e) Anyone can do sacred music. If you're strapped for time, stick to one or two classics (see "d)" above)
    f) You need personal guidance or you'll get stuck, lost, and discouraged.
    g) For good sacred music, you have to be willing to wait for years to get what you want, but then it almost always changes faster than you expected (his yoke is easy, his burden is light).
    h) Saint Cecilia is here to solve your problems.
    i) Parish children on melody can work magnificently if you can manage them (plus they are our future).
    j) Good sacred music really changes lives, and
    k) It's breaking out in unexpected places. ;)

    Deo Gratias!
    Lots of love.
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 8,956
    Great post.

    Just for the record, that breakout session was probably given by someone else: I don't think Jeff was scheduled to be on the colloquium faculty this time around. Or am I mistaken?
    Thanked by 2princehal WGS
  • SalieriSalieri
    Posts: 3,134
    He might have been referring to Meloche's session. (I don't think he'd mind being confused with Tucker, actually.)
    Thanked by 1princehal
  • You're right, it was Meloche. No idea how I got him mixed with Tucker :)
  • bhcordovabhcordova
    Posts: 1,103
    Thank you for this topic! It is very encouraging and inspirational!
    Thanked by 1princehal
  • Carl DCarl D
    Posts: 992
    This is phenomenally inspiring! Congratulations! The Spirit is clearly with you.
    Thanked by 1princehal
  • Fantastic.

    I'd add one more: You got results by working with what you have, plus the Holy Spirit.

    Some people in your situation would have wanted to wait for a non-retired organist or degree-holding music director. Those are both good things to have - but especially in small parishes they are rare. Time and time again I've seen God bless communities with "just enough" talent to worship, not with the grandeur of a cathedral, but with sincerity and genuine love for both God and God's people.
  • And with us all, Carl! Glory be to the Holy Spirit indeed.
    Oh and Mary too: did I mention that we prayed a Hail Mary before each mass and used a marian hymn for every recessional? :D It's very good to have her around.
  • donr
    Posts: 970
    Congratulations Princehal. I encourage you to keep going. Thanks be to God for your supportive priests and congregation.