Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Style Wars at our Schools-What to do?

This thread came up at Musica Sacra Forum the other day. A poster wrote:
The teachers at my school are complaining a bit about the music at Mass---too hard to sing, students aren't singing it, Kindergarteners can't read the hymnal, etc---and I've written a letter to my principal about the principles that motivate me. Teachers at a meeting today were suggesting Exalt, whatever that is, and other praise-chorus type stuff.The priest is (sic) no foolishness and backs me 100%, but I want to minimize grumbling among the staff. I want to make sure I make the case well for sacred music. To which another poster replied: "At my job I play for school Masses and the teachers take turns "planning" the liturgy. I get the list of songs each week that I am to play, and they are such classics as "This Little Light of Mine," "Shine Jesus, Shine" and "Table of Plenty." I pick my battles and this isn't one that I've bothered to fight yet."
If there’s one thing you can get liturgical conservatives to agree upon instantly, it’s that progressive improvement, or “brick by brick,” is best applied when towards the children and young people. As much as I, the choral director, take greatest pleasure in the ability to sing Palestrina or Tallis at a moment’s notice, the most important aspect of my “job” is to prepare our parochial kids, the RE kids (as much as I only interact with them directly one or two times per year) and the children attending Sunday Masses to become “singing Catholics.” However, in keeping with my “fail to plan” maxim, a school music teacher, assuming we’re talking primarily general music (singing/music reading) and choral classes, should be mindful of creating a very deliberate scaffolding of goals and strategies that accommodate the grade level learning skills of a K-8 school AND which also reinforce not just the attributes of “how to read, how to sing,” but also “what kind of music is worthy to be sung” and knowing the ritual moments which those music’s accompany. Happily I took advantage three curricular years ago to thoroughly examine and teach the elementary level kids (roughly 3rd-6th) the musical attributes of the three primary forms of music the church uses: chant, hymn and song. I don’t need to ruminate further upon that other than to say that they systematically had to identify those types when learning new material to be used at weekly Mass. So, when the third edition of the English Missal was coming, I was provided a platform to teach them Gloria XV in chant, which has paid dividends for the last three years every red day or Holy Day Mass. For Ordinary settings, I have chosen one unified setting specifically arranged for that broad grade level, with some aspects of easy acquisition for novice readers, and even Greek/Latin in non-chanted settings so they can make connections later on to Latin terms and chants in upper grades. For example, I took a Natalie Sleeth ecumenical Mass and “catholicized” it, using a very sweet descending 5-1 motif with “Agnus Dei, Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi, Lamb of God, Lamb of God, have mercy on us.” From the 8th grade Bell choir to the kindergarten wee ones, full participation was not only possible, but achieved consistently. Make the Mass Ordinary, in whatever style you choose, geared towards beauty and worthiness as well as the didactic music skills you’re trying to reinforce in real practice. Don’t place so much worry about the style wars. But, if you’re under pressure to be inclusive towards music you would otherwise shun, take some time to find melodies and texts that have true merit. “Table of Plenty” isn’t the most banal of songs that has entered our repertoire, truth be told. Neither is it a truly beautiful work such as Whitaker’s “In every age.” But compared to the pedantic early works of the Baltimore and NALR composers (not the SLJ’s) it was much worse back in the 70’s, take my word. But, if one scours, literally combs through the OCP Breaking Bread and (I suppose) Gather hymnals one can find chant emulative songs like Barbara Bridge’s “We Walk by Faith/In Times of Trouble,” or Hurd’s “Ubi caritas,” you can find songs that systematically teach concepts like syncopation like the Manibusan/Hart “Give us your peace,” or the plaintive, repetitive motive found in Tom Booth’s “Sacred Silence.” And identifying a clear body of “decent” modern songs (including texts that pass theological muster) shows to the general faculty and administration, as well as pastors, that you aren’t mired in someone else’s concept of blending orthopraxis with music curriculum that needs to be taught and learned by the kids systematically. And, of course, whether you use Ward Method, your method or Words with Wings method, be very creative and enthusiastic in your strategies that will bring the kids a sense of spirit, of more precisely “inspiration” as they learn the subtleties of chanting our sacred texts.

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