TOUTHEARTED. Readers of this blog know that anyone who stands in front of a choir in real life must be stouthearted. One must have the tenacity to master an instrument—or multiple instruments! With persistence one must spend years studying choral music. With unwavering determination one must do a very difficult thing: recruit singers! One must spend countless hours painstakingly preparing each rehearsal to tackle the hard work while still making sure each chorister has fun. If you can’t figure out how to teach your singers in a way they enjoy, you won’t have a choir for long.
Contemptible Creeps • Fulton J. Sheen once told a story about Abraham Lincoln. Someone bumped into him, yelling: “Get out of my way, you big ugly lummox!” Lincoln replied: “Young man, what’s troubling you on the inside?” As if your job as choirmaster were not difficult enough, you will encounter parishioners who attempt to make your life miserable. Not infrequently, such people are lonely and unhappy—therefore someone should ask them the same question: “What’s troubling you on the inside?” I shared some reflections vis-à-vis this topic the other day, so I won’t repeat myself.
“Hello” Retaliation • There’s something you can do to put these people in their place: Say “hello” to them. Smile and look them right between the eyes, too! By doing this, you will gain peace of soul. I have more to say about this subject (below) but first listen to this brief recording of “A solis ortus cardine,” a hymn from the 5th century:
Not Just One • Believe it or not, most ancient hymns don’t focus on just one MYSTERY of our Lord’s life such as the Nativity, Transfiguration, or Ascension. Rather, such hymns go through the entire life of JESUS CHRIST. The magnificent hymn we just listened to—the very first one included in the Brébeuf Catholic Hymnal—takes one through: the Wedding at Cana; Our Lord’s Baptism at the River Jordan; the Centurion; Peter walking on waves; the raising of Lazarus from the dead; the kiss of Judas Iscariot; and so forth. Consider this marvelous verse:
M The blessed Founder of the world
M puts on the body of a slave:
M that freeing their flesh with his flesh,
M he might not lose those whom he fashioned.
“No Servant Is Greater…” • Our Redeemer told us (Jn 13:16): “no servant is greater than his master.” Christians know that JESUS CHRIST made the ultimate sacrifice. As Canon Thomas à Kempis reminds us: “The whole life of Christ was a cross, and a martyrdom: and dost thou seek rest and joy?” The Brébeuf Hymnal contains a hymn (#690) written by Saint Thomas More, and this stanza echoes the same theme:
M Consider well, how foolish ’tis and vain,
M To look for heav’n through pleasure and delight,
M Since Christ, our leader and our sovereign,
M Ascended thither but by manly fight,
M And bitter passion: say, would it be right,
M Yourselves his faithful foll’wers to record,
M Yet stand on terms far better than your Lord?
Whenever we say the OUR FATHER, we say: forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. This is no easy task. Nevertheless, we should probably start doing this, wouldn’t you agree? A good first step would be—at a minimum—saying “hello” to the villain who lied about you, or tried to get you fired, or treated you unfairly. Even if it feels like it will kill us, we must do it! Let’s not forget our Lord’s warning (Mt 18:35): “So also shall my heavenly Father do to you, if you forgive not every one his brother from your hearts.” I don’t know a better example than Saint Isaac Jogues—whose feast day we celebrate today—because over and over again he forgave those who tortured him with unspeakable cruelty. He even laid down his life for them!
“Stouthearted” • More Reflections
Reprehensible Statement • Speaking on the phone with a priest, a sad situation was brought to my attention. It seems a certain musician published some personal reflections and confessed to feeling dismayed because he’d spent his entire life composing choral music but virtually nobody wanted to perform it. He declared: “I’ve never had the choral conductor’s luxury of having my own choir to write music for; I’ve never had the luxury of directing my own choir so I could have them perform my music.” What a reprehensible statement! First of all, a choir is not a plaything waiting to be fed garbage by its director. Choirmasters have a solemn duty to choose only the most excellent music for their ensembles. In other words, a composition should be selected based on merit—not because nobody else wants it! (If my choir sings something written by me, it’s because the composition fits perfectly what is needed by the choir for that particular Mass.)
A Luxury? No! • Second of all, there’s nothing “luxurious” about directing a choir; it’s extremely hard work! If one does a poor job, singers will vote with their feet. They will not spend their precious free time singing under a director who is lazy, arrogant, or unskilled. To direct a choir properly is 1,000 times more difficult than singing in a choir. I started directing circa 1998 and for years I was not paid … I was happy to gain experience! If the person mentioned in that telephone conversation had ever stood in front of a choir, he would have learned so much! One thing he would have learned is that voices singing in real life are not the same as notes played on a keyboard in the privacy of one’s home. Another thing he would have learned is that even singing a relatively “easy” piece—such as an SATB hymn—requires serious rehearsal if you want your ensemble to sound beautiful. Even when singing in English, there are certain ways individual words must be pronounced, and such ‘tricks’ make all the difference in the world.
Vladimir Horowitz • Directing a choir also requires what Vladimir Horowitz called “that which cannot be taught”—viz. the musically discerning ears resulting from thousands and thousands of hours of study. One must love music! One of my professors at the conservatory realized how hard it was to support a family as a musician. She often said: “Men should not pursue music as a career in music unless they can’t live without it.” The director should also know some music theory, so as to understand why a particular chord may sound out of tune. For instance, one should be able to instantly “diagnose” the mistake committed on this audio recording. (For the record, the third of the final chord sung there is slightly flat.) One must be able to instantly help singers correct the error, because the volunteer singers are busy people. They don’t have all day for the director to experiment with solutions. “Nemo dat quod not habet.”
Stouthearted • We said choirmasters must be “stouthearted”—and that’s so true! Artists naturally want to please; it’s what we do. Even criticism from a stranger who can’t find MIDDLE C is bothersome to most artists. A composer could be repeatedly assured by 1,000 colleagues that his composition was excellent. But perhaps a random stranger in the parking lot yells: “Your composition was horrible!” In spite of all the praise he received, in bed that night the composer will be asking himself: “Was that guy correct? Was my piece was horrible?” Broadly speaking, the worst places to seek advice for your choral program are internet forums, blog comboxes, and facebook threads. That’s because the nature of the internet is to elevate bored people who have never accomplished anything and (not infrequently) lead disordered lives. Almost without exception, the “internet loudmouth” who pontificates with dogmatic advice is someone who has too much time on his hands; someone whose only source of pleasure is bloviating inside facebook comboxes. Beware of such trolls! If you want meaningful advice, the best course of action would be to observe conductors in real life who have praiseworthy programs you wish to emulate.
Give Up? • The advice I have attempted to give above is not meant to discourage. My intent was to encourage you to be stouthearted … and to see pessimistic trolls for what they are. Father Robert Skeris often said: “The life of a choirmaster is a life of sacrifice.” Our vocation is certainly no “walk in the park.” On the other hand, there is nothing as awesome as recruiting volunteers who have never sung before and teaching them the sublime music of the Catholic Church! Here is a piece my volunteer choir attempted for the first time yesterday:
* Mp3 Polyphony • “Asperges Me” (Guerrero)
—Live recording by a volunteer choir on 25 September 2022.
Several people in that recording have only been singing for a few months! (Click here to download that “Asperges Me” score for free.)
Conclusion • Wake up every morning and offer your day to Jesus Christ; hold your head high; say “hello” to your enemies; and say not the struggle nought availeth.