About this blogger:
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 resides with his wife and children.
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When you consider that the greatest hymns ever written—the plainchant hymns—are pushing the age of eight hundred and that the noble chorale hymn tunes of Bach date from the early eighteenth century, then what is the significance of the word “old” applied to “Mother at Thy Feet Is Kneeling”? Most of the old St. Basil hymns date from the Victorian era, particularly the 1870s and 1880s.
— Paul Hume (1956)

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“Ten Commandments” • for the Choirmaster
published 9 January 2017 by Jeff Ostrowski

485 Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty HERE’S AN OLD SAYING: “The truth is stranger than fiction.” For instance, did you know Jefferson Davis eventually went into the insurance business? How does one transition from leading the Confederacy to selling insurance?

Take another example: A brutal Nazi officer named Colonel Herbert Kappler terrorized Rome, but after WWII spent many years in prison—until his wife helped him escape (August 1977) by carrying him inside a suitcase! 1 Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, a WWII hero who saved about 6,000 lives, regularly visited Kappler in prison. This was done in spite of the horrific cruelty Kappler had shown to O’Flaherty’s dear friends. Month after month O’Flaherty came to see him, discussing literature and religion—and eventually received Kappler into the Catholic Church. Truth is stranger than fiction.

At the very bottom, I explain how this adage relates to a CHURCH MUSICIAN’S DECALOGUE:

(1) Don’t get angry, no matter what.

The life of a church musician is filled with frustration. Many times, surprises will tempt you to become filled with rage. No matter what, always remain calm. I cannot tell you the amount of times I’ve had to learn this lesson.

(2) Sing, sing, sing.

We’re choirmasters, so we love music—and we love talking about music. That’s normal, but rehearsal time is precious. Remind yourself over and over: sing, sing, sing. Don’t describe the sound you want; demonstrate it. Make them repeat. Don’t talk about your plans for the choir, because that’s not what the volunteers came to hear. Occasionally, if you want to mention a fact about music theory, that’s fine—but keep it extremely short, so you can get back to singing.

(3) You get no credit for prep.

As choirmasters, planning is one of the most important things we do. We plan the music, the chair locations, the binder page turns, and so forth. You will never get any credit for this—but don’t let that discourage you. Moreover, you must formulate PLAN B, in case Frank doesn’t show up. And you need PLAN C, in case Susie doesn’t show up. And you need PLAN D, in case Susie and Frank don’t show up. Do you understand what I’m getting at? People will be sick. People will be absent. Plan for this!

(4) Time is your friend vis-à-vis problems.

Sometimes there are problems. Perhaps a choir member is behaving badly, or someone consistently messes something up. Your impulse will be to address the problem immediately; but don’t, because choir is a “long-term” thing. (We must remember that.) Problems tend to work themselves out. For instance, people who act inappropriately frequently never return—so that problem has already solved itself without you doing anything! Moreover, sometimes the circumstances that caused the issues disappear—which eliminates the problem. The choir landscape is something alive, teeming with change. Every Sunday is different, even when it’s the same people at the same church!

(5) Father Valentine’s maxim.

As a young boy, I’d complain to Fr. Valentine about the choir members who didn’t show up, who failed to prepare, and who constantly made mistakes. Fr. Valentine would always repeat: “Jeff, when you’re working with volunteers, you must be careful.” You will be tempted to get angry at members who show up late or need special help. You must not become angry. Remember Father’s rule, because it’s excellent. Moreover, do everything you possibly can for your volunteers so rehearsal time can be spent rehearsing. If that means spending hours sorting out their binders, so be it. Rehearsal time is precious.

(6) Not too fast, buddy.

Don’t be overly anxious to add new repertoire. We choirmasters have been obsessed with music forever, but not everyone is like us. It often takes amateurs months to really digest a piece of music.

(7) Expect attack.

After Vatican II, it became popular among elites to disparage “traditional” church music (in quite a supercilious way). Those who favored a so-called “Eurocentric” repertory were looked down upon, and we were told to embrace eclecticism. However, something remarkable has happened. For fifty years, those pushing this agenda have been too embarrassed to put forth examples they’re proud of. You, on the other hand, want to do something positive and beautiful. Expect to be attacked—but when people attack, ask them what specific piece they think is better than (for example) Tomás Luis de Victoria.

(8) Who’s in charge?

Choir members love to make suggestions. They’re just trying to be helpful, not realizing that thirty-six choir members making two suggestions per week equals 3,744 suggestions! On very rare occasions, I’ve had to dismiss choir members because they refused to stop making suggestions—but I don’t like doing that. Under normal circumstances, I give a gentle reminder: “My expectation is that choir members come and sing; making excessive suggestions is not what I’m looking for in a choir member.” At the end of the day, if somebody isn’t happy with how you’re directing, that person should leave. Full stop.

(9) Recruiting must be constant.

People get sick. People move away. People give birth. Because of this, you must be constantly recruiting—and this constitutes the hardest work you’ll do. Moreover, you must treat your members as humans. That is, you must develop a personal relationship with them.

(10) Beware the internet.

I’m sure there are wonderful people who type on the internet, but I come across much that is problematic. To put it bluntly, harmful statements are made—forcefully and dogmatically—by people who have never stood in front of a choir. Examine the credentials of those giving advice and listen to their recordings. Remember that any fool can publish lengthy internet articles, but building an excellent choir requires hard work and perseverance.

I limited myself to ten rules, but hundreds more could be added!

EARLIER, WE SPOKE ABOUT that proverb: “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Some of my rules might sound strange. After all, I didn’t tell you to go read Mocquereau’s Le Nombre Musical Grégorien. Nor did I tell you to watch online conducting videos. Nor did I tell you to study ancient manuscripts. Nor did I tell you to purchase every Josef Hofmann recording ever made (although that is a fantastic idea). Even if my suggestions sound “strange,” I promise you they’re 100% a posteriori. And they’re all true.

Since we’ve been speaking of choirs, I must tell you how thrilled I am with the progress made by the FSSP.la choir. Last Sunday, for example, we had about thirty singers—and their choral sound was marvelous.



NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:

1   Speaking of brutal Nazi officers, a cruel man named Karl Wolff—after serving just four years in prison after WWII ended—eventually became an advertising firm executive (pardon the pun). How does one transition from being a high-ranking Nazi leader to the field of advertising?