Y BROTHER, who’s a fantastic musician, sent me a text message recently. As a result of info shared by him, I was able to discover a live recording from seventeen years ago, when I was still in high school. It was a recording of the audition I played, which awarded me a scholarship. Like most high schoolers, I had almost no money—and the thought of taking out a loan scared me. This 20-minute audition would change the course of my entire life!
Somehow I played the entire audition from memory. To be honest, there’s no way I could memorize a 5-voice fugue today. [The fugue begins at the 3:05 marker.]
It’s always terrifying to play on an instrument you’ve never played before. Indeed, I can still hear how nervous I was!
That audition included several other pieces, all played from memory:
* * Live Excerpt • BEETHOVEN SONATA (circa 1999)
* * Live Excerpt • CHOPIN ETUDE (circa 1999)
* * Live Excerpt • DEBUSSY PRELUDE (circa 1999)
As a result of the scholarships, I was able to attend a great music school that changed my life forever.
I SHARE THESE ITEMS because they relate to our work as church musicians. 1 For example, there was so much riding on that audition and the pressure was tremendous—I’m amazed I didn’t freak out! Yet, as a church musician we must “perform” every week, and as time goes on, we learn techniques that help this process. For example, a good choirmaster sooner or later learns to have the choir members sing sing sing whenever possible. Don’t talk at them! Choirmasters always want to talk and explain, but it’s better to drill over and over. Trust me: at Mass on Sunday, you’ll be glad you drilled them.
Another thing I learned is what I call the “middle pedal rule.” You see, most pianos have a middle pedal, and there are special ways pianists utilize the middle pedal. (I often used it for Medtner!) The problem is, you never know if the middle pedal will work, because some piano tuners don’t maintain it. After many years, one realizes that it’s better not to use the middle pedal, because all your work is wasted if the competition piano doesn’t have one that functions. Choirmasters must learn this same lesson, and be very pragmatic, not idealistic. What I’m trying to say is, you must be ruthless in your preparation, taking into consideration obstacles that may arise from absences, new acoustics, unfriendly celebrants, and so on.
While we’re speaking about directing a choir, I’ll share a tip with you: never become angry. I know about the frustrations of directing a volunteer choir—but no matter what, you must remain positive and upbeat. When the dust settles, you will always be glad you remained happy and positive, in spite of everything you were dealing with.
Another thing I will mention: make sure you never succumb to the “internet culture” so prevalent today. So many people (not just in the USA) publish online articles about “good liturgy.” They tell everyone they are “experts” and insist that we heed their advice. In reality, though, there’s no such thing as an “internet celebrity liturgist”—that’s a myth. The only thing that matters is what’s done on the parish level; and that’s the really hard work. Believe me, typing on the internet is 1,000 times easier than training choir members in real life, recruiting Catholics in real life, and dealing with the frustrations of parish life. Moreover, the choirmasters who have the very best choirs (and whose efforts please God the most) don’t possess hours of free time to spend typing on the internet. I often want to share insights gained by working with my volunteer choir, but when all my duties are finished I’m too tired—and that’s how it should be! 2
My happiest memories from youth are being an altar boy, and I served as Master of Ceremonies for many years. However, I must admit that directing a choir is 100x more difficult than serving, and let me explain why. I’ve observed complex liturgical ceremonies all over the world, and invariably the servers are doing last minute signals or even giving quiet verbal directions during the ceremony. Choirmasters do not have that luxury! We can’t whisper in choir members’ ears as Mass is going on, saying: “Okay, you’re a little flat. Okay, remember your vowel shape here. Okay, watch the director here.” For the choirmaster, everything must be rehearsed before Mass begins—or everyone in the church will hear.
I WOULD LIKE TO SHARE a few more thoughts, even though they don’t directly relate to directing a church choir. First of all, my Bach performance would probably be considered somewhat “romantic” today. I went on to study with various teachers, and even underwent a phase when I would renounce such a “romantic” approach. But as time has passed, I view things differently. Now I accept a variety of possibilities and approaches. Indeed, I now have scant patience for people who insist there’s only one “correct” way to play Bach. In other words, I now have an open mind—as long as the performance is musical and thoughtful.
In some of those audition pieces, I hit a few wrong notes. I’ve now become intolerant of wrong notes—I just can’t stand them! Yet, I’m glad the judges in 1999 were willing to forgive a few wrong notes from a very nervous high school boy. (By the way, for some reason, wrong notes by Fischer, Richter, or Cortot don’t bother me.)
Looking back on the Bach Prelude & Fugue, I now appreciate so much that I did not then: stretto, stepwise movement in the bass, overall contours (a.k.a. “grand phrase”), contrasting episodes, hidden entrances of the subject, intricacies of the double fugue, and so forth. Yet, I’m glad I didn’t wait until I understood these things perfectly to learn the piece! In other words, our choir members must be “plunged” into music that is, as Artur Schnabel said, “greater than it can be played.”
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 Frequently on this blog, I have mentioned that our profession is extremely difficult. Someday, I’d like to write a book which describes in detail all the various items which make our profession so hard—but this will have to wait for another day.
2 At the same time, there’s no question that the internet has made it possible for those of us who attend the Extraordinary Form to observe that others in the world also value certain liturgical traditions—and I’m grateful for this. This was not the case in the 1990s, when my family began attending the Traditional Latin Mass.