Have you ever stopped and pondered why you got into this line of work in the first place?
No, that’s not a hyperbolic question borne of my frustration over the “no singing” mandate in California. I’m actually suggesting that now is a great time for each of us to think back to how we got our start as a church musician. After retracing your steps, you may come away with a renewed sense of purpose and passion—just in time for choral activities to “open up” again (Deo volente).
I would say that my own path to the choir loft was a fantastic series of coincidences, but there are no coincidences with God. He uses who He wants and what He wants, when He wants, to get exactly the result He wants.
Opportunity Knocks, Literally
My story begins in 2000. I had just moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to start a new job as a marketing copywriter for a large software company. Young and single, I saw my little one-bedroom apartment as my sanctuary.
Though my apartment was in an enclosed building, bold salespeople still came knocking. I soon developed the habit of not answering the door—ever. If I heard a knock, I’d simply become a statue until I heard footsteps retreating down the hallway.
One evening, I made an exception. I had just gotten home from work when I heard a knock. Don’t answer. I opened the door. Why am I opening the door? Just as I had feared, it was a kid selling subscriptions to the local newspaper.
I listened to the kid’s pitch. I don’t want the newspaper. I signed up for a discounted subscription. Why?
Within days, the newspaper began to arrive at my door. And on lonely evenings in my apartment, I found myself flipping through it. One evening, I came across audition listings for local community theater productions. My eyes lit up. My younger brother had done some musical theater in college, and whenever I watched him perform, he seemed to be having more fun than I had had playing the clarinet.
Though I didn’t have much vocal training at that point, I knew I could sing on key. I decided to audition for a production of The Secret Garden at a very small theater in Point Richmond. I showed up and sang a sweet little art song. The people on the panel were very kind, and frankly, they were desperate for male actors. They cast me as Lieutenant Peter Wright—a “chorus” role, but one who got to speak a decent number of lines and be on stage for many key scenes.
A Friend’s Blunt Assessment Leads to Good Things
The Secret Garden soon took over my evenings and weekends. I got to sing, dance, wear makeup, and die of cholera. What I didn’t yet realize was the real reason I was there: to meet “Laurie,” the female lead.
No, this isn’t about to turn into a love story, though Laurie and I did become close friends almost immediately. But Laurie had a huge, well-trained voice, and I didn’t. One evening, after we had gotten to know each other, she and I were discussing singing during a rehearsal break.
“Keven,” she began gingerly, “I can tell you’re a really good musician. I mean, you always learn your parts right away for everything we sing. And you sound….OK. But there are certain things….certain vocal things that….well, I think if you had some training, you would really be a good singer.”
Laurie then proceeded to tell me about her voice teacher: Pam, the miracle worker who could unlock anyone’s true vocal potential.
At that point, I was just advanced enough to realize how much I didn’t know about singing. So I took Pam’s number and gave her a call. What followed was two and a half years of the best teacher I’ve ever had on any instrument. I showed up to Pam’s studio thinking I was a baritone. She made me a tenor and introduced me to the world of bel canto singing. By the time I left the Bay Area in 2003, Pam had given me the tools to function well as a singer in just about any environment. I moved down to Fresno to live near my almost-fiancee (now wife). And that’s when everything clicked.
Our Lady Takes the Reins
There’s nothing like a change in geography to trigger other major changes in one’s life. Up until then, I hadn’t felt very “fed” by any of the parishes I’d attended in the Bay Area. So I made up my mind that once I moved to Fresno, I was going to find the Latin Mass community and stick with it. I had a visceral sense that the beauty and mystery of the Latin Mass was what I needed to shake me out of my spiritual sloth.
My first couple of times at the Fresno Latin Mass, there was some organ playing but no singing. I was perplexed. Whenever I had visited the very small Latin Mass chapel my parents attended in northern California, there had been a sung Mass with a small schola. The director even recruited me to help sing whenever I was in town. Why no chanting in Fresno?
On my third Sunday in town, I asked the organist if they ever had sung Masses. She said, “No, but we do have a group of men who want to start a schola. They’re standing right over there. The guy in the blue shirt is David.”
I approached the men, introduced myself, and told them I was new in town. “I hear you’re thinking of starting a schola,” I continued. “I’m a well-trained singer. I’ve done some chanting, and I can read the notation. Are you looking for more singers?”
For several seconds, the men stared at me in stunned silence. Finally, David spoke:
“That’s interesting, Keven….because we’ve spent the last two weeks praying to Our Lady, asking her to send us a schola director.”
Why Now Is a Time for Reflection
I had no ambition to become a schola director. I had never directed anyone to do anything. But Our Lady left me no choice. So, for the next 10 years, I volunteered to direct the schola—and eventually, a girls’ choir—in Fresno. Finally, in 2014, I was hired as music director at St. Stephen the First Martyr Church in Sacramento.
My “how I got started” story is a good one, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I tend to forget about it for months at a time. It’s so easy to get caught up in the next Wednesday rehearsal, the next Sunday Mass, the preparations for Christmas, the plan for Holy Week—and of course, family life, my freelance writing business, and the endless ironing of church clothes.
Now is the perfect time for us all to stop and reflect on where we came from as church musicians. What was it that made each of us interested in singing, directing, or playing the organ? And how can we be more faithful to that first “yes” we gave to Our Lord and Our Lady? We may never have a better chance to reconnect with where we’ve come from and use it to guide where we’re headed next. I pray that we shall all soon return from this unrequested hiatus with renewed vigor for our work.