WAS RAISED a cradle Catholic. I joined my first children’s choir at Holy Cross Catholic church in Singapore at the age of 8, sang in (and eventually directed) the National University of Singapore’s Catholic Students’ Society Music Ministry in college, sang with the Saint Ann University Parish choir when I pursued my Bachelors in Music at the Berklee College of Music (Boston, Massachusetts), and held my first job in church as a church pianist at OUR LADY OF PEACE CATHOLIC CHURCH in North Hills (California) for twelve years.
80% From Breaking Bread • I watched and learned from the six choirmasters that helmed each choir. I observed them conducting their choirs; I was privy to their process of rehearsals and their selection of hymns and songs for the liturgy. I felt privileged to have had a ‘front row seat’, learning what worked and didn’t work for them. For most of those twelve years, 80% of the music that those six choir directors chose for the Masses came from one source: the annual ‘Breaking Bread’ missal published by OCP.
Eagles’ Wings Worn Out • I saw those paperback hymnals tossed in the garbage and replaced every year, with different artwork on their covers, but very little content changed. The repertoire for the choirs circled around songs like ‘On Eagles Wings’ and ‘Supper of the Lord’ and ‘Table of Plenty.’ The songs and hymns were pleasantly familiar in their chord structure, their ‘pop music song’ structure—dare I say, to the point of vanilla banality—to the point where after those twelve years, I could play, by heart, pretty much every song in that ‘Breaking Bread’ hymnal.
Silence Frowned Upon • Every available silent space was filled with a song. Even when no music was being sung, I was called upon to underscore every single moment of silence with instrumental music. The choir directors would call out song after song during Communion—depending on how long the communion line was—and many times, the Communion hymns focused not on the mysteries of the BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST, but more on the sense of our ‘community’, and on our being ‘one body in Christ’. One popular bilingual song in the BREAKING BREAD MISSALETTE (titled Behold the Body of Christ) ends its refrain with the lyrics: “We are the Body of Christ.” But we are not the Creator or the Redeemer! That’s JESUS CHRIST.1 As Hymn #10 (A Solis Ortus Cardine) in the Brébeuf Hymnal correctly says: ‘The blessed Creator of the world assumed a servile body, that, freeing flesh by His flesh, He might not lose those whom He created.’ I was asked to help record the rehearsal video for that hymn, and here’s how it came out:
Something Amiss • The music at these Masses started to feel more like community ‘sing-alongs’. Something didn’t seem quite right. But what? I read something recently in Pope Benedict XVI’s book THE SPIRIT OF THE LITURGY that spoke to me. It gave words to what I had experienced in terms of the music I had encountered in my first twelve years as a church pianist and musician:
“The people cannot cope with the invisible, remote, and mysterious God. They want to bring him down into their own world, into what they see and understand. Worship is no longer going up to God, but drawing God down into one’s own world.”
(Ratzinger, THE SPIRIT OF THE LITURGY pg. 22)
I could finally put my finger on why ‘something didn’t seem quite right’. In the context of the music we sang at Mass during those twelve years, we had somehow sung our way out of a sense of the Fear of God, of His Awesome Mystery, and replaced it with ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’—to the point that we had made God in OUR image, into something familiar, something we could call down upon, like a mascot.
2017: A Change! • I encountered the Traditional Mass (a.k.a. ‘Extraordinary Form’) for the first time in 2017, and that totally changed my perception of Sacred Music and Liturgy. My first experience of the Latin Mass was at Saint Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Reseda, California. It was a Low Mass. The words were whispered softly and there was this mysterious silence that permeated everything. I was mystified, intrigued, puzzled, a little bored, and yet … I was drawn to find out more. I hunted around for a High Mass, as I had read that the High Mass was where one could hear the singing of Gregorian Chant and Sacred Music. I wanted to experience the Mass that had spiritually fed the saints like Saint Therese of Liseux and Saint Padre Pio. I found it at a little parish in Hollywood, of all places! Saint Victor Catholic Church in Hollywood, California, where I soon discovered that the priests of the FRATERNITY OF SAINT PETER (FSSP) celebrated the Latin Mass every Sunday evening at 7:00PM. It was a beautiful, life-changing encounter.
‘Beauty So Ancient, Yet So New’ • The Silence! The mysterious silence permeated the space. There was that silence in which to pray, to think, to feel, to allow God the space to talk. But even more thrilling was my encounter with the music! The choir sang music that touched the depths of my soul. The pipe organ soared through music that was majestic as well as music that inspired melancholic introspection. I had never before encountered the otherworldliness of that modal scale of music from centuries before; the non-metered, timelessness of the flow of Gregorian chant; the mystery of the Latin words; the beauty of the hymnody and the polyphony from masters like Palestrina and Guerrero! I felt as if I had stepped from a black and white world, into a full-coloured one. It almost reminded me of a quote by Saint Augustine: ‘Late, late have I loved Thee, O Beauty so ancient and yet so new.’ Providentially, I would eventually be allowed to sing with that FSSP choir—and here’s a recording with me as soloist literally a few hours before I stepped on a plane to fly back home to Singapore:
Walking Up Those Steps • The Beauty of the Mass was tangible and palpable. The reverence given to the Holy Body and Blood of Christ was utterly moving. The Awesome Mystery of God and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass became even more real to me. I was drawn into that space and time where the ETERNAL NOW was present and all-encompassing. Chronos gave way to Kairos. After a couple of weeks soaking in the Mass and the music, I walked up the steps to the choir loft where I had first heard the beautiful sounds of polyphony, chant and hymns being so exquisitely and reverently sung by the choir. I hounded the choir director and was allowed to sing with the choir on those occasions when my family was visiting the United States. [As I’ve mentioned, I live with my husband and daughter in Singapore.]
Watching Mr. Ostrowski • While in the United States, I’ve become friends with so many of the good people who attend SAINT VITUS, the FSSP parish in Los Angeles. I press ‘record’ on my iPhone during rehearsals, to bring ideas with me to Singapore, where I direct my own choir. I enjoy seeing the choirmaster, Jeff Ostrowski, work with amateur singers. None of them are paid, yet they have good pitch. Although I have been blessed throughout my career to sing as soloist in front of entire stadiums, I have learned even from the warmup excercises, where Mr. Ostrowski does not allow the choir to go to the next chord until every vowel is perfect, and the sound is evenly balanced.
What I Never Knew • I’ve learnt that our Catholic Church has a rich treasury of music that goes back over 1000 years! I’ve learnt there is so much beauty and sacredness in this music … and I’m only just beginning to discover it! I’m learning about my faith, even as I’m singing hymns, beautifully collated in the Saint Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal, written by saints and holy men and women all through the ages. The Brébeuf hymns were composed by luminaries like Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Alphonsus Ligouri, Saint John Henry Newman, with beautiful humble lyrics that are like sung prayers; lyrics such as the last line of the verse in ‘Panis Angelicus’ (written in 1264AD) by Saint Thomas Aquinas: the poor, the servant, the lowly feeds upon his Lord.
Guest Conductor? • I have even been allowed to ‘guest conduct’ the FSSP choir. Here’s Hymn #300, which comes from the 4th century, as I conducted it with Mr. Ostrowski on the organ:
Something I’ll Remember • I noticed how Mr. Ostrowski sneaks in little polyphonic snippets in an unobtrusive way, and I can do this at the Ordinary Form Masses I direct. For instance, when the ‘Asperges Me’ repeats, Mr. Ostrowski’s choir sings a brief polyphonic snippet. He also did this at the CREDO, where we sang the ‘Et Incarnatus Est’ in polyphony. And before the Gospel, he often used a brief polyphonic ‘Alleluia’. Such items will not overwhelm a congregation unfamiliar with polyphony. Furthermore, those brief snippets allow the choir to ‘reset’ if they get off track, which can easily happen with volunteer musicians. Even with hymns, Mr. Ostrowski frequently alternated each verse between unison and SATB. I was also allowed to conduct the alphabetical hymn by COELIUS SEDULIUS, a Catholic poet alive during the 5th century. It contains a beautiful line: ‘Cruel Herod, why dost thou fear the coming of the Divine King? He taketh not away earthly kingdoms, Who bestoweth heavenly ones.’ While Mr. Ostrowski played the organ, I conducted:
Robbed Of My Inheritance? • I found myself wondering: “Where were these hymns when I was growing up? Did people forget these hymns existed? Have we been trying to contemporize our experience of church music all these years so as to ‘bring God down to the level of the people’, rather than raise the people towards the splendor and ineffable mystery of God?”
My New Assignment • Recently, I was asked to be a choir director for a Sunday evening NOVUS ORDO Mass, for the newly-restored Saint Joseph Church (Victoria Street) in Singapore; a church that was founded by the Portuguese Missionaries back in the 1800s. The first thing I did to prepare for my new role, was to sign up for the Sacred Music Symposium held by the FSSP back in June 2022; I wanted to soak up as much wisdom and repertoire and learning resources and be as well-prepared as I could for this new role as a choir director.
Sacrificing My Clothing • The next essential thing I did, was to order a whole bunch of Saint Jean de Brébeuf Hymnals and Choral Supplements. These are the hymnals used at the FSSP parish in Los Angeles. I’ve been moved by the richness of the hymns, the richness of the theology embedded within the lyrics of the hymns and the beauty of the melodies. I wanted the richness of this treasury of authentically Catholic music and hymns to feed the congregation and the choir at Saint Joseph Church in Singapore. I ordered about 15 hymnals and 6 choral supplements. It was all I could carry back with me from Los Angeles to Singapore in my luggage space. I had my quota of 2 luggage bags, each with 23 kg max allocated by the airline. I sacrificed toiletries and extra clothes in order to stuff as many hymnals as I could into the luggage bags. Thank God I managed to get all the books to fit! So I carted these hymnals back to Singapore:
What They Love • It was hands-down, the best decision I have made in my new role as choir director. I am seeing, in my choir members, the spiritual fruit from the use of these beautiful hymn books. My choir members have praised the fact that, in the SATB choral supplements, they can read the verses very easily alongside the music that is printed right above each verse. It makes their job singing SATB that much easier.
No Choice For My Husband • My husband is a professional music engineer who’s worked on major films in Singapore and the United States. I’ve cajoled him into joining my Singapore choir, and subsequently he has frequently woken up from sleep with a Brébeuf hymn melody in his head, because the melodies are so memorable. I’ve delighted in being able to have access to numerous rehearsal videos in the Brébeuf Portal, (many in SATB individual voice rehearsal videos) for the hymns in the Brébeuf hymnal. I send these to my choir members so that, even if they can’t sight-read music, they can learn their parts at home, by listening to the videos even before they get to rehearsal. I was pleased to help record individual voice parts for Hymn #399 in the Brébeuf Hymnal:
Just One Example • I’ve been able to pray the lyrics of the hymns along with my choir, and we’ve been learning more about our faith, from the lyrics of these hymns. These are hymns that celebrate the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, hymns that teach about Mary’s Immaculate conception, her Glorious Assumption, the Mystery of the Cross and more! Take for example this selection of beautiful hymns that we sang on the eve of the Feast of the Assumption, all taken from the Brébeuf Hymnal, many of them, amazingly, written by the saints themselves:
M Entrance Hymn:
M The Assumption of Our Lady
M written in 1595AD by Saint Robert Southwell, Martyr
M Ave Maris Stella from the 7th century
M (Plainchant with drone)
M Panis Angelicus
M written in 1264AD by Saint Thomas Aquinas
M O Sanctíssima, O piíssima
M (hymn to the Blessed Virgin)
M Immaculate Mary, Thy Praises we sing.
And here’s a link to that Mass that we sang at.
Sacred Silence • Another essential element that I’ve incorporated, is to increase the possibility of SACRED SILENCE. Hence, after singing the communion antiphon, the whole choir stays silent while the people start receiving the Holy Eucharist. We do not launch into song until all the choir members have received Our Lord in the Eucharist, and after we’ve had some time to pray in silence with the Blessed Sacrament within our bodies and our hearts. By this time, at least half of the congregation would have received the Holy Eucharist in SILENCE and thus, hopefully, Our Lord is allowed to speak in the silence of their hearts without any interruption or distraction. Then—and only then—do we start singing our communion hymn.
Congregational Feedback • Choir members have been stopped outside the church after Mass, on numerous occasions, by clergy and lay people, who have come up to say that the music at Mass helped them to pray better and to celebrate the Mass better. I credit the beautiful hymns found in the Brébeuf Hymnal that I have used every week thus far, for the past almost three months, in helping me to do my job as a choir director better. Bonus: With the help of the Brebéuf Hymnal Organ Accompaniments, I’m able to direct the choir even as I’m playing from the organ! As my choir sings these hymns, we are better able to represent the angelic chorus, and to pray our faith in song and music, and to sing the Mass, each and every week. These authentically rich hymns are a treasury for all. I do hope and pray that more and more people will discover this beautiful and very sacred music. And that in turn, their hearts will be led closer and closer to God so as to love Him more and more!
Saint Cecilia, Saint Jean De Brébeuf, Saint Joseph, Mary and the hosts of Heaven, pray for us!
* Our Website • Immaculate Heart of Mary Choir
—143 Victoria St, Singapore 188020
Photo credit: Adrian Tee for pixelmusica.com.
1 It is indisputable that Saint Paul said (Colossians 1:24): ‘In this mortal frame of mine, I help to pay off the debt which the afflictions of Christ still leave to be paid, for the sake of His body, the Church.’ I know that metaphorically the Church is called the ‘Bride of Christ’ and we also refer to the Church as our ‘Mother’. Yet, somehow those songs seem to minimize the teaching that the EUCHARIST is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of JESUS CHRIST, the Second Person of the Divine Trinity. The songs I’m referring to seem to gloss over, or even deny, that Christ is God and we are creatures. The ancient hymn VEXILLA REGIS PRODEUNT talks about quo carne carnis Conditor—JESUS, the Creator of mankind. The ancient Christmas hymn JESU REDEMPTOR OMNIUM says in its third verse: ‘Remember, O Creator of the world, that in being born Thou didst once assume the form of our body from the sacred womb of a Virgin’. As one blunt high school teacher put it: ‘Fact #1: There is a God. Fact #2: You’re not Him.’