S SOMEONE CONNECTED with many other music directors, there is a relatively common phenomenon that I witness, especially from those trying to make positive liturgical and musical changes in their parishes. I too often see music directors shooting themselves in the foot by being unyielding in all things. I see this most often among young directors, mainly because the experienced ones have either leaned to avoid this trap or are already working in other fields. Here is an unfortunately common scenario:
A young director, let’s call him Greg, begins a job at a new parish. He is just out of school, and as such, in some of the best musically technical shape of his life. He is on fire for Jesus and His liturgy, and wants nothing but the best to offer to God and his Church. So far, so good. These are all great qualities in any director.
Greg takes a look at the music situation in his parish and cringes a bit. Most of what they have been singing is “contemporary” music (read: composed in the 80s). It is a fairly large parish with a good spread of ages, from children through seniors. Most people in positions of leadership are content with the way music was going with the previous director. No worries; the pastor of the parish (Father Xavier, or Father X) has a similar vision for music and liturgy to Greg’s, and the two meet regularly to discuss where the parish is going to meet the mind of the Church in matters musical.
About six months in, just after Christmas, several choir members drop out. He is simply using “too much Latin,” and they sing a lot of music that “the people don’t know.” Greg sighs. He has only introduced two new hymns since beginning, and the only Latin pieces he has used are very common hymns like Adoro te devote and Pange Lingua. Anything else in Latin has been a choir piece, with a translation provided for the congregation.
A few months later, the pastor calls Greg into his office to talk. Father X has been hearing complaints from people about the music at Mass, and he has been hearing that some of them want to leave the parish for the church across town. He asks Greg if it is possible to use some more “contemporary” music like the parish was using before. He still wants Greg to move the parish in a positive direction, but thinks that the current pace might have been a bit too traumatizing.
Greg feels very strongly against this. He vowed that he would never use the Mass of Creation in a parish, and would sooner be somewhere else than ever have to play some of the songs that were requested. He does handful of the requested literature, but far too soon phases these out. Greg starts looking for a new position a mere 2 years after he began. He doesn’t understand why his vision of the music that the Church asks for at liturgy has been so ineffective.
Here is the question that all directors need to ask themselves: what hill are you willing to die on? If you stand your ground firmly on every battle that comes along, I promise you that your tenure will be short. Now, I am not saying that you should not have a hill on which to die. You need principles, hard ones and soft ones. You need to know where you are willing to put your foot down and say No, and where a bit of flexibility is needed. Many times, this flexibility is only necessary in the short term. You need to gain the parish’s trust, and become a part of them before you can slowly guide them forward.
You also need to ask yourself which is worse: if you pack up and leave the parish immediately, will it quickly slide back into the situation it was in before you left? Have you been making any positive impact at all? Finally, especially newer directors need to understand that shifting the musical and liturgical life of a parish is a marathon, not a sprint. It has taken us nearly 50 years to make some of the musical messes we have today, and it will take quite some time to build it back up again.
There is, of course, a difference between just “going along to get along” and compromising for the greater good. If Greg is willing to sing “You Are Mine” every now and then, the congregation’s tolerance level for Byrd’s Ave Verum will be stronger next time. How is that a loss? If Father X were asking Greg to eliminate parts of the Mass, or sing Alleluias in Lent, it is quite different from throwing the occasional bone so that the overall trajectory of liturgical quality can increase.
This doesn’t mean that we abandon all ideals, or that we fail to recognize what is greater from what is lesser. You may want to start a capital campaign for a new pipe organ in your parish, but all you are offered right now is a digital organ. If all you have is a small piano or electric keyboard, isn’t this at least a step in the right direction? It isn’t ideal, and nothing is stopping you from reaching for that ideal in the long run, but not every struggle needs to be a job-ender. If we figure out for ourselves where we can bend so that we can do greater things overall, in the end the parish will be a better place.
If we pack up and leave every time something goes wrong, the only people left will be those for whom the status quo is fine. That’s not a win for anybody.