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A theorist, organist, and conductor, Jeff Ostrowski holds his B.M. in Music Theory from the University of Kansas (2004), and did graduate work in Musicology. He serves as choirmaster for the new FSSP parish in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and two children.
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“The cemeteries are full of people who thought they were indispensable.”
— Fr. Valentine Young, OFM (2007)

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Basic Steps To Improve Music At Your Parish — Part 6
published 20 July 2014 by Jeff Ostrowski

243 Sacred IRST, YOU MUST UNDERSTAND what Pope Benedict XVI meant when he talked about an “Unbelievably Big Kite.” Wait, isn’t that what UNBELIEBIGKEIT means?

Just kidding: Unbeliebigkeit means “unspontaneity,” but that’s an odd word, so I’ve replaced it with “lack of spontaneity” :

THE AUTHORITY OF THE POPE is not unlimited. It is at the service of Sacred Tradition. Still less is any kind of general “freedom” of manufacture, degenerating into spontaneous improvisation, compatible with the essence of faith and liturgy. The greatness of the liturgy depends—we shall have to repeat this frequently—on its lack of spontaneity.
— Pope Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2000): 166.


Believe it or not, Unbeliebigkeit is a positive thing! Without repeating what I’ve already said, the basic idea is that we should walk into Church knowing what to expect. We should know when we pray the Psalm, when we sing the Gloria, when the cantor sings such-and-such, when we join in the Refrain, and so on. We don’t have to worry about novelties and “surprises.” We know exactly what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. We know it’s not a performance. We have a basic understanding of what it means to pray the Scriptures at Mass: in other words, we’re not confused when we recite or sing excerpts of the Bible.

The opposite of Unbeliebigkeit is obvious. To give an example, there’s a Church in my city which features a full rock band on Sundays (with drums!), including a young singer who wears his hair long and has his hands in his pockets throughout Mass. After Communion, he “croons” a solo which has some vague connection to Religion (but is never the text assigned by the Church). Then, everyone applauds. While attending such liturgies, I ask myself: “What is this? What is happening right now? Is this some kind of concert?”


ECOND, to achieve Unbeliebigkeit, you must scrupulously adhere to a plan which was carefully formulated. I’ve spoken in the past about this here and here, but perhaps you don’t have time to read those articles, so here’s the cheat sheet:

      * *  PDF Download: “Cheat Sheet” — Example of a Catholic Mass Plan

The basic idea is that there must be variety, but not too much variety. I sometimes call it the BEAUTY AND THE BEAST MODEL. This classic Disney movie has a brilliant musical plan, at times recycling old themes and at other times introducing new melodies. Going far beyond the concept of leitmotif, it considers the entire event, asking the question, “At what times would the human brain welcome new melodies, and at what times does it require familiar tunes?”


HIRD, your vision must be clearly communicated to your priest. In my opinion, musicians cannot accomplish anything at all without priests who support them. Don’t be vague: be very specific. Show him your written-out plan, saying, “Father, each week we’ll employ simple-yet-dignified settings of the Responsorial Psalm that sound like this one.”   1

One possible model for the Gospel Acclamation would be to use no more than four (4) melodies. The first Sunday of the month will always have Tune A, the second will always have Tune B, and so forth. Click here for a complete book with one such melody. 2

Do the same with all the other parts of the Mass, like the Mass ordinaries. Choose only quality hymns, and don’t use too many. Send an Email to Mr. Edmund Murray and ask him for a recording of how the hymns sound at Atonement, or some other Church which understands how wonderful hymn-singing can be when only quality melodies are chosen.

If Watershed ever hosts some kind of symposium or colloquium, I won’t allow any musicians to attend unless they bring their parish priests with them. That may sound crazy, but I just don’t see how we can make any progress on the liturgical front without the support of our priests.


OURTH, be sensitive to the fact that good Catholics have been fed utter garbage for many decades. It might be difficult for them to understand why “we” desire to eliminate songs which they’ve enjoyed for years. They might not immediately understand that songs can be beautiful and emotional, yet are not suitable for liturgical use. My friends, these are really good people, and many are 100x holier than I’ll ever be … so proceed with care.


IFTH, realize that a handful of Catholics in the pews are jerks, and will stop at nothing to undermine you and make your life miserable. Trust me: sooner or later, you’re going to end up crying like a baby. I wish I could tell you that everybody in your parish “really does have a good heart” … but how can I help you if I lie to you?


IXTH, I would suggest prayer: and I’m not talking about two Hail Mary’s and one Glory Be. I have in mind some kind of prayer like this one:

      * *  PDF Download: A Church Musician’s Prayer — Jeff Ostrowski (2014)

I just composed that one today, and I’m not saying it’s perfect. (Maybe Fr. David Friel can look it over and make sure there’s no heresy!) But I like that prayer because it talks about SOUND involved with Pentecost and the Miracle of Luigi Comollo (Don Bosco’s friend). The basic idea is throwing yourself before God, and asking His assistance, which I think is very important.


7-part series:   “Basic Steps To Improve Music At Your Parish”

FIRST PART • Andrew Motyka

SECOND PART • Peter Kwasniewski

THIRD PART • Richard Clark

FOURTH PART • Veronica Brandt

FIFTH PART • Fr. David Friel

SIXTH PART • Jeff Ostrowski

SEVENTH PART • Aurelio Porfiri



NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:

1   An entire book of Responsorial Psalms you might consider can be downloaded here.

2   Of course there are many others as well.