Thursday, April 8, 2010

Church Music

I spend between three and six hours each week at church. Most of this time I spend playing piano or organ for either my own Catholic church or, occasionally, for one of four churches located withn a few blocks of my church. Because of this, I have very definite opinions about religious music.This should hardly be surprising, because I have very definite opinions about most things, even when I know next to nothing about them.

My musical training has been almost entirely mired in the classics. My mother was my piano teacher until I was in sixth grade, at which time I began studying with a piano professor at a university not too far from my home. Classic hymns more closely resemble classical music than do more folksy or more modern hymns. Neither my mom nor my professor teacher ever said I could only play the works of the masters, but all the printed music lying around my house was of that genre. I've been able to play by ear since I was little, and since my dad is an aficionado of classic rock, he sometimes likes for me to play some of his favorite classic rock songs that don't suck too horribly when played on piano. Another time I will write about the parochial school Christmas program that I either single-handedly ruined or salvaged depending on whether you were the nun in charge of it or one of the tipsy Azores-Portuguese dairymen in attendance. But, again, I digress.

My opinion, and it is mine alone and does not represent the views of the parish for which I work or my parents or anyone else, is that mainline Protestant churches have the edge on Catholics, Evangelicals, and everyone else, where traditional hymns are concerned. Evangelical churches don't seem to use a whole lot of traditional hymns anymore; nearly all of them are using "praise music" now. Many mainline churches and some Catholic parishes are using "praise music" as well.

I've heard and played "praise music," and I'm not overly fond of it. Much of it seems to me to be "dumbed down," literarily, theologically, and musically. I don't want to cite specific examples because I don't know what the laws are about such things and don't wish to be sued in the event that a copyright holder stumbles onto my site and actually reads it (then again, that would be the first evidence that any person not related to me ever has read or ever will read anything here, so that might not be such a bad thing). I am, however, open-minded about what types of music should be used in church. If a congregation finds that "praise music" meets its needs, that congregation should by all means use "praise music." I would prefer not to be present when this happens, but I have no problem with others using the music that is most suited to their tastes.

The monsignor at my parish has eclectic tastes in music. He picks the hymns to be sung, and I chooses all the unsung music, including the prelude, postlude, offertory, and communion music. If the parish choir sings (everyone hopes they won't, sadly), I accompany them. I have no choice in what they sing. The monsignor is always asking me if I could play louder when the choir sings to cover up some of the really bad spots, but one can only do so much. The hymns the monsignor selects range from the newer Catholic stuff such as "Here I am, Lord" to the old favorites like "How Great Thou Art." He says he's trying to keep everyone happy. I'm just as happy not to have the task of selecting hymns to be sung, as keeping everyone happy in that regard would be a daunting task. Regarding my choices in instrumental selctions, the only person who ever complains is my mother. After I once played something that she considered especially inappropriate for an offertory (for the record, it was Lennon and McCartney's "Blackbird," which is not exactly "Highway to Hell" or the theme from "The Exorcist") she wanted to have me run everything by her. I refused. I told her I would quit the job if she wanted, but that if I was old enough to play music for church, I was too old to have my mommy telling me how to do the job.

My mother offered a compromise of having the monsignor approve all my music. The monsignor could not care any less what I play. He usually doesn't recognize any song I play because it is sanitzed or Muzaked or whatever by the time I play it on a pipe organ; even if I play it on the piano, I'm careful to make it sound reverent. Someone has to listen closely to tell what I'm actually playing. I never choose songs with sexually explicit or otherwise inappropriate-for-church lyrics, because even though the lyrics aren't being sung, if someone recognizes the tune, the person may say the lyrics in his or her head, and I wouldn't want to be a party to someone saying something inappropriate in his or her head in church. I've had many parishioners tell me that they like my choice of music or that their kids pay more attention in church so they can try to guess what I am playing.

My mother still complains. I've suggested to her that she might want to attend a mass where I'm not playing, but she won't usually go for that. My dad likes most of my selections; he even complains if I only play religious or classical stuff, but he doesn't voice his complaints where my mother can hear him. My creativity is limited to regular masses.For baptisms, weddings, or funerals, I only play what is standard or what is specifically requested. I plan to stay the course and continue playing the same sorts of music I'm playing until the monsignor says I need to change, or until he is reassigned.

I don't know if I will continue with my part-time occupation once I go off to college. Church music jobs may be more difficult to find in university cities; I don't really know. I'm in a university suburb right now. Even if I don't find work in college, I've already made enough from this job and from my high school choir accompanist job (two hours per day @ $25.68 per hour before taxes) to pay for a decent new car with considerably less than half the money I've saved. If I found a church I really wanted to work at in college, I could almost afford to play for free. Right now, however, I need to make money while I can.

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