F young people are to be instrumental in restoring and supporting truly beautiful, dignified sacred music in our churches, they need to learn more than just how to sing well. If you are blessed with any sort of youth/children’s choir program, or teach music in a Catholic school, make some time in your rehearsals or classes to go beyond the pedagogy and note learning. This can be difficult because it always seems like there’s so much music to learn, and so little time. But if we really want to develop not just future church singers and musicians, but also an informed laity who appreciate sacred music, we have to get beyond the “how” to the “why.”
In our Chorister program (which comprises about 80 students ages 6-18) we make a point to ensure that each student walks away with a solid grasp not only of the forms and types of music that fit the criteria of “good” sacred music as taught by the Church’s legislation on sacred music (e.g. chant, polyphony, traditional hymnody), but also the underlying reasons. We discuss Pope St. Pius X’s Tra le sollecitudini, and review the teachings of more recent church documents and popes. We listen to dozens of examples of music, both fitting and not fitting for the liturgy, and analyze what makes it appropriate or inappropriate for the Mass.
We give the students criteria to consider and questions to ask when assessing the fitness of a piece of music for the liturgy. First, we ask with St. Pius X: “how closely does it resemble Gregorian Chant?” Not that all church music has to sound like an imitation of Chant; but does it share that otherness which sets it apart for the worship of God? Does it flow in a way that orients the heart and mind to prayer, avoiding jarring and overly dramatic elements?
Next, we like to do a little experiment by asking the choristers to express the first thought or idea that comes to mind when they hear a piece of music. For example, I’ll play an excerpt of a “jazz Mass,” and often get a response like: “it sounds like a movie scene in a smoky bar.” Or I’ll play one of the folk-style songs played by a guitar group, and they respond: “it sounds like the music grandpa listens to on the radio!” Then maybe I’ll play a bit of Palestrina’s Missae Papae Marcelli, and we finally arrive at: “it sounds like Church,” or even: “it’s like what the Angels would sing in Heaven!” It usually only takes a few seconds of listening to determine whether a piece of music calls to mind Heavenly things or earthly things, and even the youngest choristers can tell the difference. This, of course, is not a fool-proof measure of the fitness of music, as it certainly involves subjective elements, and is impacted by experience and conditioning. But it’s a good starting point to get them asking the right questions.
Finally, we break it down into three criteria: 1) Style: is the style of the music holy and sacred? That is: is it truly set apart for worship of God, or does it imitate secular, popular styles?; 2) Content: are the words truly sacred and doctrinally sound, oriented upward to the worship of God rather than downward toward man and worldly things?; and 3) Delivery: is the musician or choir presenting the piece in a dignified manner, accurately, skillfully, and oriented toward God’s glory? Is the instrumentation appropriate?
By asking these questions and encouraging the choristers to think critically about the qualities of the music we sing at Mass, we hope to send them off to adulthood not only with improved singing skills, but also with a heightened awareness of what makes sacred music “sacred,” and why it matters. It may take a little time away from rehearsal, but it’s time well spent.