VERY FAITHFUL READER of Corpus Christi Watershed would agree that what we do as church musicians is special. This applies whether you’re part of a massive music program or have only a three-person skeleton crew; whether church music is part of your livelihood or you volunteer your time and talent (thank you!); and whether you’re back at full strength after COVID or still prevented from singing (like me).
But I’ve found that it’s not always easy to share with strangers what I do. It’s not that I’m embarrassed; it’s just that it takes a bit of explaining. Tell someone you’re a musician, and they’ll probably ask, “Oh, are you in a band?” And then you’ll have to explain that you mean real music. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Doctors and lawyers don’t have this problem. Besides asking them what kind of medicine or law they practice, people will typically accept their answers at face value.
Of course, I have an alternative: since I’m also a freelance writer, I can tell strangers about that and not mention the musical part of my life. Of course, then I’ll get the inevitable follow-up question: “Oh, do you write for the newspaper?”
Perhaps I should be more open about my music—not just because it’s slightly less awkward than talking about my writing, but because the world needs it. And although I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions, let’s just say I’ll be working on this in 2021.
It all stems from something that happened to me on a recent trip.
Did This Brief Encounter Change Someone’s Life?
My family and I spent Thanksgiving week visiting my mother-in-law in Fresno, California. We tend to make that trip every year because it’s the one major holiday that’s thoroughly secular, which means I don’t have to be home to sing a Mass.
While in Fresno, I read an article by my CCW colleague, Lucas Tappan, entitled Inspiration for Organ Improvisation. (I highly recommend this article to anyone who, like me, is relatively new to the organ but hungry to get better.) Lucas provided a link to some free resources published by German-born organist Ronny Krippner, Organist and Director of Choral Music at Croydon Minster and Whitgift School in London.
Once I saw the exercises, I couldn’t simply wait until I got home on Saturday. I had to print them out immediately so that I could practice them on my mother-in-law’s upright piano. Realizing that I lacked the cables to connect my laptop to the only printer in the house, I uploaded the PDFs to a nearby FedEx Office location.
When I arrived to pick up my printouts, an energetic young man named Kyle retrieved them for me. He urged me to flip through them to ensure they had printed to my satisfaction. He watched me intently.
“I couldn’t help but notice that there’s some music in there,” Kyle began. “Are you a musician?”
“Yes,” I said. I almost stopped there but then continued, “I’m a church choir director, and I’m also learning the organ. These are some exercises to help me.”
His face lit up. “A choir director? That’s amazing! I used to sing in my high school choir.”
Kyle then spent the next several minutes telling me all about his inspiring choir director, the challenging repertoire they sang, and the performances he remembered best. As he continued, he became visibly emotional—keeping it together but clearly longing for days gone by.
He needed to get this out. I listened. Finally, I asked, “Do you still sing?”
Kyle’s face fell. “No. Once high school ended, I started going to college part-time and working. I wanted to find somewhere else to sing, but….”
Of course, I had nothing to offer Kyle by way of musical opportunities because my choir is in Sacramento. But I urged him to find a new place to sing. I told him that I could tell that music was a part of him and that it would bring him great fulfillment to sing again. He already knew these things, of course, but I hope that hearing it from a choir director was the push he needed to find a community or church choir to join.
Let’s Do This
I have no way of knowing if Kyle has joined a choir. But that’s not the point of my story. By being open about what we do, we can make good liturgical music seem less weird and more like a vital part of our culture, which, of course, it is.
Believe it or not, now is an ideal time to recruit people for our choirs. We can gripe all we want about how COVID has curtailed our music programs. But I’ve had more interest from potential choir members during the pandemic than I’ve had in any other year—even though our choir has been mostly sidelined.
When good music—especially sacred music—goes missing from people’s lives, they notice, and they try to get it back. In many cases, they’re waiting for someone to invite them to participate. That someone could be you or me. I hope you’ll join me in looking for opportunities to reach out in 2021.