Category Archives: Music

Words that need a vacation…

Here’s a short list of words and phrases that I believe need a vacation.  Or we need the vacation and the words/phrases can hang around with each other:

  1. Vibrant – particularly in connection with parishes, arts centers, or community get-togethers
  2. Nurturing – any use whatsosever
  3. Ironic, irony – high-toned expression of superiority
  4. Transformative – huh?
  5. Our youth – whatever happened to “boys and girls” or “young men and women”
  6. Joining the conversation – I have no idea what this really means, but I believe it has to do with agreeing with your intellectual and/or ethical adversaries to your disadvantage (their idea of a conversation) or having a self-affirmation festival with people who think just like you do
  7. Anything that I find myself saying and realize I’ve turned into an unpaid commercial for a product or ideology

Are there other words and phrases that should join the planned round-the-world cruise?  Your additions are welcome.

Cimbalom Playing at a Paprika Festival

Sometimes you just need to lighten up.  And what better way than listening to music at a Paprika Festival.  You have to hang in there until the cimbalom player strolls in, sits down, and starts wailing away on his instrument.  There’s a charming casual air to the video since everyone keeps walking in from on the camera, carrying little cups of who-knows-what.

The cimbalom is the distinguished European ancestor of my hammered dulcimer, even if it rather looks like a piano with the top removed and features dampers.

You’ll have to go find your own goulash to accompany the music!  Or plan on getting to the next festival.

What Do We Say? What Do We Sing?

In the last week or so, I’ve seen tragedy up close and at a distance.  The latter was the dreadful killings in Aurora, Colorado.  The former was a memorial service for a 22-year-old who had committed suicide a week before graduation from college and with no prior indication of distress or depression.

What do we have to say in the face of the tragic and inexplicable?  These are moments for deep truth and deep ritual, not platitudes and syrupy hymns.  What did I hear at Sunday’s Mass about my fears and worries, about personal tragdy and cultural disintegration?  A homily where God was described as “a little night light to keep us from being frightened.”

Let’s take a hard look at the way we act in these moments and what we offer to the dead and the grieving.

What do our rituals say about what we profess to believe?  Are we more than puppies that fall asleep?  Do we live on somewhere other than in the memory of those who love us?  And what about those whom no one loved?  Is there a judgment or do we all head for our own personal versions of Valhalla?   We have over 2,000 years of Scripture, Church teachings, and music. Trite phrases and a four-hymn sandwich are thin gruel inded.

St. Ambrose Recommending the Psalms

“The Apostle admonishes women to be silent in church,

yet they do well to join in a psalm; this is gratifying for all ages and fitting for both sexes. 

 Old men ignore the stiffness of age to sing [a psalm], and melancholy veterans echo it in the joy of their hearts;

young men sing one without the bane of lust, as do adolescents without threat from their insecure age or the temptation of sensual pleasure;

 even young women sing psalms with no loss of wifely decency, and girls sing a hymn to God with sweet and supple voice

 while maintaining decorum and suffering no lapse of modesty. 

 Youth is eager to understand [a psalm], and the child who refuses to learn other things takes pleasure in contemplating it;

it is kind of play, productive of more learning than that which is dispensed with stern discipline.”

St. Ambrose, On Psalm 1



Dynamic or Dreary? What Brings Chant to Life?

Yesterday I listened to a recording of the monks of Glenstal Abbey singing the Lenten hymn Attende Domine.  It was a revelation!  Instead of the usual dirge-like style I associate with this hymn (well heck, it’s supposed to make you feel penitential, isn’t it?), there was a wonderful hopeful quality to the singing.  The chant rolled forward with assurance.  And thinking about it later, that seems quite right since we all know that Easter comes every year after Lent.

When people learn that I focus on chant, they often look stricken – as though I’d announced a chronic medical condition.  They murmur sympathetically that it’s dreary, gloomy, boring, slow, leaden, whiney, depressing.  You probably get the drift.  And as I hear chant in some churches that I visit in my travels, I understand where they’re coming from.  It sounds as though the singers are dragging themselves through the music, earnestly slogging from neume to neume.  There is an almost audible sigh of relief from the congregation when the suffering ends.

What’s missing?  Familiarity and love – that’s what! 

If the singers don’t really know the piece, they’re bogged down in simply securing the right notes, coordinating the words, and hoping for the best.  There is no space for communication with the Almighty in this process.  Everyone’s just “staying alive.”  Under-rehearsed singing is the enemy of beauty, confirming everyone’s worst suspicions about chant.  If a particular chant isn’t ready, don’t do it!  If it’s “feast-specific” and that means you’ll have to wait a year, then substitute something you can do well and wait. 

More importantly, it is love that brings the grace to chant.  Many people sing chant with a sense of duty or because they dislike contemporary church music.  Their chant may be well-rehearsed and accurate, but will it really live? 

Here’s an experiment. Find a single chant and fall in love with it.  With the text and the music. You may have to try a few to find the one for you.  And you may need only a phrase.   Roll around in it as a musical lectio. See what the chant can show you when it’s more than getting from beginning to end with a minimum of errors or exercising your powers of chant theory. 

Love makes music spring like a fountain from within the singer. Love knows the object of her song and moves eagerly to the encounter with the beloved.  Without love, there is no music – just organized sound.

(Where did I hear the recording from Glenstal Abbey?  Pray-As-You-Go  – the wonderful mp3 music, reading, and meditation brought to you by the English Jesuits.  An excellent way for the flighty and busy to turn commute time or early morning into something better than checking Facebook.) 






After the Colloquium, Now What?

This year’s annual CMAA Summer Colloquium was a wonderful range of experiences:  chant courses ranging for total beginners through advanced sessions on semiology, polyphonic choirs with offerings ranging from Lassus through Elgar, six splendid Masses in the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms, up to and including a Solemn High Mass for the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul celebrated by Msgr. Andrew Wadsworth, Secretary of ICEL.  Not to mention some excellent homilies in the course of those liturgies. Along the way, there were other events – an organ crawl around Temple Square, a concert by the spectacular choir of trebles and men of the Cathedral of Madeleine, a Solemn Vespers in the Extraordinary Form,  lectures, dinners, and enough time to talk with old friends and meet new.  And the breathtakingly beautiful Cathedral of Madeleine was another star!

The resulting effect is a retreat cum conservatory workshop cum family reunion – with the charming exception that the “family” in question keeps growing.  Definitely a wonderful week – a week of promise, spiritual and musical exaltation, and singularly lacking in the rancor that can poison the sacred music world.

But then there’s always “coming home.”  Anyone who’s ever arrived back from a retreat filled with a zeal for sainthood, resolutions of charity and kindness, daily Mass attendance, etc. knows how easy it is to find yourself right back where you started.  A colloquium can engender the same discouragement – so many things to do, so much music to be revived and presented to generations that have never heard it, so many ways in which one’s own choir could shine brighter.  But then you bump into the old reality. Whether it’s a new coffee stain on the carpet or a lackluster liturgy, the effect can be quite discouraging.  The temptation to shrug my shoulders, sigh, and do nothing new is overwhelming.  My visions seem no more accessible than the angels on the vault of the Cathedral.

After all, many of us live surrounded by indifference.  Indifference is pernicious and ennervating. It is harder to resist than active hostility because there’s nothing to push back against.  Whether the indifference is to our faith, our vision of music and liturgy, our zeal to show beauty as a path to truth – it doesn’t matter.  Most people have nothing against your pursuing whatever crackpot scheme (in their view) you have in mind.  Just do it quietly, please.

Well, maybe not this year.  Sifting over the past week’s experiences, I think I shall isolate one single thing – one project, one piece, one arena, one “whatever” – and follow through.  Stay tuned.  And if you were there in Salt Lake City, I encourage you to join me in this endeavor.

Musical Delights Enjoyed and Anticipated

The last two days have been lovely – an evening event at Tolomato Cemetery in St. Augustine allowed me to wander through the 18th century on my harp.  “Permanent residents” of the historic cemetery include Irish priests and workers, English and Scottish, Menorcans and Spanish.  So there was room for Carolan, Handel, Robert Burns, The Grenedier and the Lady, Green Bushes, Avon Water, the Arran Boat Song, and She Moved Through the Fair, to name a few.  Also my advantageous position near a citronella torch kept most gnats at bay.

This morning I taught a workshop on Singing the Psalms at the new Villa Flora-Brown Hall Renewal Center, run by my dear Sisters of St. Joseph of St. Augustine.  We had about 14 in attendance.  After the brief history of the psalms and chant, they put their feet on the floor, took a deep breath and began to sing.  From a single-note recto tono, they worked their way up to a nice chant on Tone 8g (antiphon stayed on straight tone) in two choirs.   What a delight!

After enjoying some musket fire at the Battle of Bloody Mose, I have started the final preparations for my Colloquium trek.  And so looking forward to it!

Switching Things Around

Another title for this post could be “How Hammered Dulcimer Messes with My Head.” 

1.  The hammer in your left hand is going to carry the melody more and more as you add accompaniment and ornaments.  This is contrary to the order of the universe if you’re a pianist, organist, or harpist, except for an occasional “put the melody in the left hand” variation.  Everyone knows that the right hand is “supposed” to play the melody.

2.  The pitches on the various strings are higher from right to left with the lowest notes found on the right.  Another opposite to the keyboard.

3.  The instrument is so darned beautiful.  Not only is the sound terrific, but my cranberry stain Sapelli wood Pioneer from Masterworks is musical eye candy.

4.  You absolutely have to know the music in your head because there’s no way to keep track of everything and look off at some printed stuff, thereby compelling playing by ear and rapid memorization.

5.  When driven mad by items 1,2, and 4, keep repeating item 3.

I’m taking comfort in the theory that doing this will prevent early senility.  It’s a theory for which I have no scientific proof.  It also makes the Celtic harp look like a walk in the park some days.