20 December 2017

For whom do we sing?

One of the minor irritants that come with the high seasons (Christmas and Easter, mainly) is well meaning people coming up to me the days before the Big Mass and asking me if I will be singing this year.  The answer is always no, and for a simple reason: I have never been asked by the music director to do so.  He will be using the choir instead. They will then ask me why, and I will shrug.  Maybe that is true.  maybe there is no why.  I suspect there may be a reason, but I can't say for certain.  If I am right, it doesn't put any of us in a good light.

There is a reason why I am asked if I will be singing at the high feasts:  my 'fans', to use a terribly inappropriate word, believe me to be the better source of music.  If I may be forgiven my lack of seemly modesty, they are correct.  I am a bit better than any member of the choir.  I also have a more powerful voice than any of them, more powerful, in fact, than all of them put together- which is the first reason why I am not asked to sing on Christmas Eve. If I were to sing with them, I would simply drown them all out.  I used to reel my voice in, but it was ruining my voice.  My teacher is only now- now that I have strengthened my voice and repaired some of the damage and bad habits I acquired singing under poor music directors- beginning to teach me how to sing at less than full bore.

Alright then, is there not something I could do by myself?  Ah, here's the bigger rub.  What would I do?  They already have assigned themselves the roles that a choir performs at Mass.  If I were to do anything, I would be pushing one or all of them aside to do so.  Say I were to take the role of cantor and intone the psalm and the gospel acclamation- they already have someone who does that.  I would be stepping on some toes were I to do that, or the choir director would be if he were to ask me to do so. At another parish where I sang in choir for years we used to have joint choirs and soloists for the High Holy Days.  Everyone given something- and everyone convinced that the other guys got the better part.

Ideally, singers should be ready to step aside should someone better show up.  And most agree to this, in theory.  If, for example. Pavarotti- were he not dead- was to show up at a mass and offer his services, most choirs and cantors would Immediately state that they are not worthy, back away, and bask in the bliss of hearing Pavarotti sing, rather than feel slighted that they had been replaced, even if only for the one mass.

So, most singers would be willing to step aside for somebody so far above them, but would they step aside for someone who was merely twice the singer they are? or only fifty percent better? or ten?  Ideally, we should give the Lord our best, even if that means stepping aside and let someone who is better suited- even if they are only a little better suited- fill the role that was once ours. In reality, feelings and ego are involved.  We may not be willing to admit someone is better.  We may resent that someone is better, that we are asked to recognize their marginal superiority, and seeing that person fill the position that was once ours.  It begs the question: For whom are we singing?  Whose glory do we serve- Christ's, or our own?

Going the other way does not always help to avoid that problem.  Most Catholic churches don't but other denominations as a matter of policy replace singers if a better one shows up. There are several Anglican churches I know of where singers can be replaced or bumped down the pecking order any time someone better shows up.  Their sometimes bloody minded attitude towards music is a large part of the reason why singing in Anglican churches is so often superior to that of the Catholics. It does lead to some problems, however.  My mother used to tell me the story of an Irish Catholic priest who had a choir of well intentioned men and women doing their best every Sunday- and their best was close to wretched.  Their music was a penance to him.  He used to go in his civilian clothes (Irish priests used to avoid wearing their clericals in public for a long time- it could be very dangerous in the Protestant dominated areas.) to listen to the Anglicans sing whenever he could.  One day, he lingered a little after their performance, and watched the choir when they were not singing. What he saw shocked him.  They were petty, bitter, and vicious toward each other.  Their egos were on full display, and he realized they sang for themselves, not the Lord.  After that, he was grateful for his own wretched little choir.  As bad as they were, they gave their best for the Lord.

Should I sing on Christmas Eve? Should I make some waves and force the choir to recognize that I am better?  Whom would that serve, who benefit? Or should I leave them alone, untroubled, and if they are in error- well it's their error, and I may not be correcting them, but neither am I adding to it nor making it worse? It isn't a good situation, I admit.  But if I cannot fix it, the least I can do is not make it worse.  At the end of the day, there are few things that can split a parish faster than the music.

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