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A + B = C: Bilingual Homilies

A + B = C: Bilingual Homilies

A Look at the Challenges and Mechanics of Effective Bilingual Preaching

When it comes to delivery of spoken text, whether proclamation of the Word, the homily, or even the Sunday announcements, how these moments are treated shapes the overall experience of prayer and welcome for the community gathered. Because it’s the part of the mass that is ritually unscripted —and typically of some substantial duration—, we’ll talk here about the homily. 

The Wholesale Approach

In a bilingual mass, there’s a few schools of thought as to how best to deliver a homily in different languages. One frequently-used approach is for the homilist to deliver their homily first in one language completely, then the other — the thinking being that in order for “each side” to get a “full share” of the preaching, the whole thing needs to be repeated in both idioms. There are merits to this approach, as it guarantees a dutiful, meticulous delivery of content. Yet as a listener, I’m often disenchanted by the tediousness of “doing it twice.” The repetition of an already-elongated component of the liturgy is often a detracting factor from even stellar content. While functional, I’m hesitant to call the approach enjoyable. Granted, I’m a bilingual listener, so to hear the homilist’s entire message again can feel like a bit like deja vu (cue collective eye roll and sigh as one language finishes and the whole homily is queued up again in the other language). Additionally, when unfolded in real time, there’s an unavoidable span of time wherein the single-language listener cannot help but feel excluded and disengaged from the homilist. Couple that with the element of “who gets their turn first” in each period of “linguistic recognition” while the other side waits it out — another reason why I’m not completely satisfied with this method. That being said, for monolingual listeners the “repeat in the other language” model can be admittedly helpful and appreciated. 

Taking into account the pastoral wisdom of the moment and setting, along with the homilist’s own linguistic comfort level, if indeed the wholesale repeating of texts in one language then the other is the most apt solution, its effectiveness can have much to do with the delivery. Lest the homily become unduly drawn out and disconnected from large swaths of the assembly, the homilist should take care to be clear, engaging, and expedient in delivering the text. 

Bishop Emeritus Ricardo Ramirez, C.S.B., delivers a bilingual homily. Photo by J. David McNamara

“Story at 11”

Perhaps a useful study can be found in the news industry. Newscasters inherently pride themselves on efficiency and clarity in delivery, with ratings and careers hyper-dependent on such factors. In the news business, delivery is crucial because of the timed nature of each segment of a broadcast, and the speaker is expected to deliver their script within the prescribed time.

I live in the border city of El Paso, Texas, where it’s common —even expected— for local news reporters to be bilingual. As such, many of these journalists are adept at interviewing a person in Spanish and English simultaneously. Their questions might be stated in both languages, for the benefit of the responder and the viewer, but it’s always delivered quickly and succinctly so that there is not disproportionate emphasis on the interviewer. If you’ve ever seen someone like Jorge Ramos from Univision or journalist Mariana Atencio dialoging with an interviewee bilingually, you’ll get the idea of how speed and clarity make a difference. In finding a parallel with a bilingual homily, it’s not a far stretch to understand the importance of these very factors.

This brings to mind, most curiously, the bonus material on the DVD for Mel Brook’s comedic movie, “Young Frankenstein” (weird connection, I know!). One of the bonus features is a segment where the main actor Gene Wilder and his co-stars are interviewed —in English and Spanish (!)— by a Mexican reporter who is quite skilled at bilingual delivery. While I cannot figure out the Spanish-language connection to the 1977 film’s promo agenda, it impressed me that this interviewer was so adept at a smooth bilingual delivery that the actors could respond naturally and remain unphased by what could have become a linguistic (and mental) barrier. (Given the comedic nature of the film, they even have a bit of fun with the language angle.)

All this to say, when delivering a “repeated” text, if the homilist is efficient, engaged and animated, even the non-understanding listener can at least feel “drawn in” to the spirit of the message until their own language is heard. And for all my apparent critique of wholesale repetition, there is something to be said, curiously enough, for repetition in musical forms; after all, litanies are built upon this very premise. Repetition can pave the way for “steeping” our souls in a particular message (think, in particular, of the mantras and ostinato refrains employed in the Taizé tradition and just how powerful a means to prayer they are). So, in spite of petulance on the part of this listener for having to endure a double dose of preaching, I readily acknowledge what a privilege it can be to hear “twice” God’s Word broken open. It’s not unlike wanting to see a good movie again while it’s still in the theater!

Intertwined Approach

Now a different approach to bilingual preaching might be for the homilist to weave together shorter portions or narratives that keep the listener engaged, even in periods of non-comprehension, through more frequent linguistic “installments.” These portions don’t necessarily have to be verbatim repetitions of each other, but rather threads that keep the momentum moving. For example, in a bilingual English-Spanish homily, the various fragments or portions in English amount to a thread of its own, while what is said in Spanish also constitutes its own mini-thread; and together, the aggregate of both “threads” comprise a cohesive homily. Formulaically, this interwoven technique might look like this: A + B = C, whereby A and B are each stand-alone narratives in opposing languages, and the sum C is the full result of the two intertwined. With either A or B both yielding a cohesive and satisfying result, I note the wording used by the Church in regards to the “total presence of the Lord Jesus Christ whether … under one form or … both kinds” (in reference, of course, to reception of holy communion under both species) as an interesting analogy here in the breaking open of his holy Word via different languages.

Bishop Ramirez addresses an assembly of Spanish and English speakers. Photo by J. David McNamara

This “toggling” between languages is indeed a developed skill, because it involves language facility and story-telling creativity. Persons who are naturally bilingual can often hone this craft, taking this method of bilingual homiletics to great heights. I think specifically of Bishop Emeritus Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, who in each of his homilies, takes the listener on an enthralling spiritual journey as his narratives unfold in either language. The languages are mixed so naturally and seamlessly that the listener can forget that they don’t understand all of what’s being said, but is fed enough of a preached meal that they feel satisfied by the end, as if having indulged in a banquet.

In Conclusion

There are other approaches beyond those explored here, including more adventuresome ones involving audio and visual technology, simultaneous interpretation, projected texts, or printed medium like prepared bulletins or worship aids. When formulated and executed with the listener in mind, these all have potential to effectively convey the homilist’s content across multiple languages. 

It’s important to stress that as a member of the laity, I am not a homilist; these observations are purely from the pew perspective and admittedly and comfortably removed from the stresses and pressures homilists undoubtedly face each time they prepare to preach, in one language let alone two. Nevertheless, I do find myself in a fair share of situations where I must speak to an audience bilingually. I know well the immense challenges posed by such scenarios —from timing to effective conveyance of content—, but also recognize and cherish the incredible gift of a “Pentecost moment” to address the gathered Body of Christ. Those of us entrusted with pastoral speaking are in a unique position to transform, regardless of language, through each encounter.

Fr. Maurice Hayes, OFM Conv., preaches at Our Lady of the Valley Church in El Paso, TX

Secondly, to my ordained friends reading this, I don’t mean to oversimplify or otherwise presume my suggestions constitute some kind of instant formula for cultural success or magical solution to the difficulties of bilingual preaching. I commend your commitment to the ever-constant call to break open the Word of God for us, the faithful, in relevant and meaningful ways while simultaneously addressing multiple cultures. As your listener, I thank you and continue to learn from your collective efforts in this new linguistic reality.

We’ll explore other moments of the mass and their texts in future posts. For now I hope you’ve enjoyed giving some thought to (and discovered a newfound appreciation for) the mechanics behind bilingual preaching, whether from behind the ambo or in the pew. 

¡Que cantemos amén! Let the church sing Amen!

Cover image: Fr. Michael Lewis of the Diocese of El Paso preaches at Mundelein Seminary. Photo courtesy of Mundelein Seminary,

In Memoriam: Dr. Leo C. Nestor

In Memoriam: Dr. Leo C. Nestor

In a binder on a bookshelf in my basement, I have about a three-inch-thick stack of psalms, Gospel verses, and new plainsong settings from my years singing with the Choir of the National Shrine under Leo Nestor. On any given Sunday, he would dash off these one-off pieces of music in his elegant and mostly-legible manuscript, and hand them to the choir and cantors. We were lucky to get a single read-through before we had to sing them for liturgy, and it was expected to be perfect—not just notes and words, but musicality and phrasing and good breath support. These were added to the two anthems and choral Ordinary we sang every Sunday. There was one rehearsal during the week, a warm-up on Sunday, and little repeated repertoire throughout the year. My first month with that chorus was the most extreme sight-reading boot camp I could have imagined. However good I thought I was when I got there, I quickly realized how high the bar could actually be. 

And over time, surrounded by some of the most gifted musicians I have ever had the privilege of singing with, under the baton of a gifted and committed shepherd, I learned how to rise to that bar. That rehearsal space became my first real classroom for learning about the skill and art of choral music, the marriage of craft and love and intense focus, the glory that could be created by a group of people all working together to create beauty.

The Shrine was my classroom; Leo was our teacher. He was director, composer, conductor, martinet, dispenser of the most eloquently crafted criticisms I had ever known before or since, theologian…others can add to the list, which could go on for pages. But first and foremost, and years before professorship was officially conferred on him by Catholic University, he was my professor, my teacher, and that is how I remember him.

When I started undergraduate studies at Catholic University as a piano major, I had no idea that “professional choral singer” was even a Thing. I knew I loved to sing, and I knew I could sight read, but my high school choral experience had been…well, we’ll just say it was pretty negative and leave it at that. But for whatever reason, I decided to audition for the choir of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception right next to the music school. (At the time, it was not a Basilica yet.)  I was incredibly young, incredibly green, and I knew almost nothing. I remember, when I went in for my audition, that Dr. Nestor was nothing like I thought he would be, and I remember that I was terrified. I remember he was younger than I’d expected (I had of course assumed he would be ancient, because choir directors in cathedrals were always ancient, at least in the mind of a 17-year-old), and that he had the razor-sharp look in his eyes that you sometimes see in the eyes of your best professors, the ones who don’t miss a thing. I remember that he was basically very kind to a terrified freshman who had no idea what she was doing there. He handed me I think a Palestrina motet and told me to sing the alto part, while he sat at the piano and played the other three parts. I made a mistake in the first few bars, stopped and apologized, and assumed we would stop and go back…but he just kept playing. I jumped back in and finished the piece with him. Once I forgot to be terrified and just read what was on the page, I did fine. I guess. In any case, he let me into the group.

Over the next four years that choir was the primary locus for my musical growth. I say that not to diminish what I was also learning next door in the actual educational institution I was enrolled in, but this was where I got to experience what I was learning in real life—when I studied renaissance counterpoint in class, I came to Leo’s choir and sang Palestrina and Marenzio and Morales and Hassler…when I studied the Well-Tempered Clavier in my lessons, I would at the same time be singing movements from Bach cantatas or motets. That ensemble was better than any history of choral music literature course I could ever have taken.  (And, as I have said, all the music-making was at an extremely high level, from the first downbeat. If one dared to make a mistake even on the read-through, one quickly learned to stop the wrong note before it actually came out, or preemptively silence the misplaced consonant. If one dared to make a mistake on the second or third time through, then God help one.)

But most of all, this choir was where I first discovered the art and craft of the choral conductor—it was the first time in my life I got to sing under a musician who took it as a given that we knew what we were doing, and who saw his role as infinitely more than a traffic cop or time keeper; he gathered up the music inside of him, his mind and heart and inner ear, and let it flow out of his body to his ensemble, and received our singing back through himself to those who were listening. It was the first time it occurred to me that a conductor’s “communication” could be more than a system of direct signs expressing a distinct reality about when to start and when to stop and how loud or soft or smooth or articulated we should sing–rather than communication, what Leo gave us was communion, hearts and minds and brains moving and making music together. It was when I realized that one could catch a suspension with a pinky finger and stretch it gently to resolution over the bar line, or that an isolated syncopation in the tenor part could be carried in the tiniest twitch of a shoulder or collar bone. And it was where I realized, with a surety I rarely felt before or since, that that was what I wanted to do. 

I have been reading some lovely tributes to Leo over the past few days, memories and stories and accountings of many of the amazing things he accomplished in his life. The man was brilliant—not just musically, but in a whole-brain sort of way. His command of language was sharp as a scalpel and often wicked. Even when he was dressing down a choir—some might say, especially then—he put words together with an elegance and verbal acuity the like of which I have never encountered before or since.  Most who know of his musicianship know him as a composer, and he leaves behind a body of work that I hope will remain in the repertoire and continue to be sung, early and often. And obviously most of those tributes come from the many who knew him much better than I did, on many levels. I had already left Washington for Chicago when he began teaching at Catholic University; I never got to know Leo the professor, or watch him grow into and live that identity. But those of us who sang for him, especially over time and years, knew a part of him that could never be communicated another way. There is a vulnerability, an intimacy, when you stand in front of a group of singers and generate music-making, in which you let yourself be known and seen, and Leo taught me that too.

I am a conductor now, and a teacher of conductors. My gestures, which for so many years looked a lot like Leo’s, have settled into their own shape and style, though I still occasionally feel my pinky finger catch hold of a particularly lovely 4-3 suspension or become aware of myself choosing from among the dozen or more options I picked up from him for indicating a cut-off or release. My gratitude for all the wonderful teachers I have worked with in the years since Leo helped me with my first grad school auditions (I basically followed him around like an eager puppy and asked endless questions until I think he started giving me unofficial 5-10 minute conducting technique lessons in self-defense) is immense, and I have been incredibly fortunate. But my first and most important conductor-learning came from him.

Monday morning on my Facebook page, I posted the following:

Many of us, if we were lucky, had a First Teacher, the one who opened that first window, who let us feel that first breeze, smell the air for the first time, who pointed us to the door and handed us a key and said, “Go on, there’s stuff for you to do out here.” And smiled as they watched you open it, step out, and take flight.

We lost mine yesterday. Ruhe sanft, Leo.💔

Eternal rest grant your servant, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.


What stops do I use? Part 2

What stops do I use? Part 2

  • The Principal Chorus (If you can register one of these, you can get by!)
  • Principals, Strings, Flutes, how/when to use each (and stay away from the reeds for now)

The easy part about this post is that there’s so much good information out there, and I can just point you in the right direction. The above bullets are points that Jennifer Budziak recommended that I talk about, for people who would like to learn more about registering the organ. So I’ll talk mostly about the basic sound groups on the organ in this post and leave the reeds for later.

In many ways the organ has similarities to an orchestra, with sounds that are named for, and sound like, orchestral instruments. The strings and flutes and reeds, for example, are built to sound as much like their orchestral counterpart as is lovely and right according to the organbuilder’s concept of the instrument. However, the foundation of the organ itself is built on an entire set of ranks called the principal chorus. (And here let me clarify that a rank refers to an entire row of pipes on the keyboard or pedalboard, so a Principal 8′, with 61 pipes, comprises one rank of pipes. A Principal 16′ in the pedal would have 32 pipes, one for each pedal.)

Here is a good explanation of principal stops, by Patrick J. Murphy and Associates Organbuilders. Once you can identify what the principal stops are on the instrument you are using, then you know how to pull out the principal chorus, which basically means one of each pitch level drawn and used together. Since the principal stops are the core of the instrument, then pulling them all together is the intention for certain kinds of repertoire, frequently in Baroque music, especially in Bach and Buxtehude. It is most common for a large pipe organ to have, on the Great, a Principal 16′, Principal 8′, Octave 4′, Quint 2 2’3, Octave 2′ and Mixture. Pulling all these stops at once is the principal chorus, also called the plenum, or organo pleno. Depending on the sound and volume you are after, you might not use the 16′, or the 2 2/3, so using the 8′, 4′, 2′ and Mixture is also acceptable.

If you are sitting at a console and aren’t sure which are the principals, there are two easy ways to figure it out. First, you can use your phone to Google the stop names in front of you to see what family of pipes they fall into. Second, stop tabs are always put in a certain order. When the stop tabs are in a row under the music rack, then from left to right the principals are first, followed by flutes and strings. Then that same order starts over at the next pitch level. On an instrument with stops that are vertical, on either side of the console rather than horizontal (such as the photo at the head of this post), the principals will be at the bottom, and the next row up will be a flute, then a string, and then it will start over. In that formation stops are placed in two or three rows, but if you look at the order carefully, you will see that they are laid out in such a way that it is easy to figure out the order. Keep in mind there can be exceptions, so when all else fails, Ask a Question!

The next main manual, the Swell, will also have a principal chorus. The Swell will start with a Principal 8′, and will (usually) have a 4′, a 2′ and a Mixture, depending on how much room is available in the organ chamber.

The next manual, if there is one, is the Choir or Positiv, and it will usually not have a Principal 8′ but will start with a Principal 4′. That means that the 8′ foundation pitches used in the Choir will be Flutes or lighter String stops.

But, all of this is subject to the available space in the church or hall, and the artistic vision of the organbuilder. For now, if you know that the Principal Chorus is made up of members of the same pipe family, and you learn how to use them together and how to mix them with other pipes, that’s a good start. In general, using the entire chorus together is for Baroque pieces that call for the entire plenum, but a skilled organbuilder also knows how to voice the principals so they can be used alone and in various combinations and in all kinds of repertoire.

The flute stops come in a lot of varieties, and are among the sweetest and loveliest stops available. Some of them are for ensemble use, and some make good solo stops. When accompanying a choir it’s good to combine various 8′ flute stops with some sprinkling of light string 8′ stops, which I will talk about next. A future post will describe how to combine stops from different manuals, but here I’m just talking basically about what the stops are and how you use them.

Read here for a definition of string pipes in general. Then, there are the strings, which produce a shimmering sound, much like the sound of a section of violins playing together. For this sound the builder takes one of the string ranks, most frequently in the Swell, and uses another rank of pipes next to it (which is not used for anything else) and tunes it slightly sharp. (It is called a celeste.) When you draw both stops at the same time the beat between the ranks causes a lovely, undulating sound. On bigger organs a flute stop may also have its own celeste. The celeste should not be drawn for anything else other than its partner rank, but that other rank can be used alone or in other combinations.

For more information on organ pipes, see John-Paul Buzard’s post on Organ Construction. Stop back for my next post, a discussion about Couplers – What They Are and When to Use Them!

What stops do I use? Part 1

What stops do I use? Part 1

This is one of the questions most of us have, whether or not we studied the organ in college, privately, or are just interested in how it all works. I happen to be married to someone who sees all those knobs and buttons as a delightful opportunity to experiment. (Kind of like playing with LEGOs.) I, however, see all the knobs and buttons and I promptly go out for coffee while he figures out the organ and how to register it. When we were playing duet concerts we would walk in to a new church to start registering our pieces and he would sit down and joyfully get started. I saw that as my cue to tiptoe ever so quietly away and slink back an hour or two later. (Most of the time he wasn’t even aware that I had left.) Over the years I have learned to be less intimidated by the process, and even to be more daring and experimental, but it doesn’t come naturally. My goal here is to give you enough information to answer some basic questions, and to encourage you to read more in-depth information if you want to learn more about the organ. Most organbuilders have good, helpful information on their sites, and as usual, Google is a great place to start on your search.

The American Guild of Organists has videos on how to register the organ, and there is other information out there if you search for Organ Registration, but let’s start with some really great questions and subjects, suggested by a dear colleague and friend who shall remain nameless, but whose initials spell Jennifer Kerr Budziak. (Oops!) Jennifer’s questions will be spread out over the next six blog posts. If you have any additional questions, or think I’ve missed anything, please don’t hesitate to email me at Ask a Question.

What’s with the numbers? (8 and 4 and 2 and please don’t mess with the fractions just now.) Organ stop knobs have numbers on them, such as Principal 8′, Octave 4′, Doublette 2′, Oboe 8′, etc, to let you know at what pitch level the pipe will sound. An 8′ stop tells you that the lowest note on the keyboard, a C, plays a pipe that is 8′ long. From that 8′ long pipe the ascending pipes get smaller as you play up the keyboard. Any 8′ stop you choose on an organ will sound at the pitch that corresponds to the piano keyboard. There are, however, times when the length of the pipe is not what I just described. Stopped flutes are another example, as they start at 4′ length rather than 8′, but sound at the same pitch as an 8′ stop. Here is an explanation of how that works:

“Stopped flutes, (Bourdon, Gedeckt, Lieblich Gedeckt, Stopped Diapason, Flute d’ Amour) can be made of wood or metal. The stopper is inserted into the top of the pipe and forces the air column to return down the length of the pipe to create a distance twice as long as the physical length of the pipe.” (For more information on flute stops in general, visit the site this quote came from, Patrick J. Murphy, Organbuilders.)

A 4′ stop will sound an octave higher than the 8′, and thus a 2′ will sound two octaves above the piano pitch. Therefore, a 16′ pipe will sound an octave below, so the lowest C plays from a pipe that is 16′ long. Combining different pitch levels, along with different combinations of pipes (flutes, reeds, principals), will produce a fuller sound than a piano, more like an orchestra, where multiple instruments blend together. It also is an artificial way to produce more of the octaves found in the harmonic series.

Swell vs. Great vs. Choir. Each keyboard has a different name. Let’s get started with the easy one, the pedalboard. It’s always called the pedalboard, and it’s always in the same place! Organs have anywhere from one to five manual keyboards, and they usually go in a certain order. The first one is the Great manual, called so because it used to be the main stand-alone organ, centuries ago, before organs were all put together into one console. Before that practical invention, churches would have more than one organ, such as the Great, for loud sounds, and a smaller, more portable chamber organ to accompany soloists or the choir. Once somebody got the brilliant idea to put all the keyboards together in one console, it saved the organist a lot of running around, and also enabled more keyboards to be added, with more divisions (basically, more sets of pipes).

When there are two keyboards, the second manual will always be above the Great, and it is called the Swell. The Swell is usually enclosed in a chamber with shutters you can open and close with your foot (affecting how loud the pipes sound in the room), using a pedal that looks much like a car’s accelerator pedal. When there are three keyboards, the third manual is usually called the Choir, and will be placed below the Great, and usually is also enclosed in a chamber (sometimes that manual is called a Positiv).

These are the most common manuals organbuilders use, and they are generally used in that order unless the organ is historically reproducing something from France or Germany, but you don’t need to know that at this point.

Basically, the Great manual stops will be the loudest, used for full organ and thus for hymn registrations and repertoire that calls for more sound. The Swell will have a range of sounds from a smaller, lighter version of the Great manual to including more stops with color and bite, like the reed stops. The Choir manual can have a range of colors and sounds and frequently will include stops that are suitable for accompanying the choir, (usually Swell and Choir are mixed together for choir accompaniments) as well as more interesting solo stops.

I hope this brief tutorial will begin to explain some of the mysteries of organ sounds and registration, and that you will keep reading!

Coming next! Information on the Principal Chorus, Strings, and Flutes.

¡Cantemos Amén!–A Conversation with Peter Kolar (Sing Amen! The Podcast, episode 21)

¡Cantemos Amén!–A Conversation with Peter Kolar (Sing Amen! The Podcast, episode 21)

This past summer, GIA welcomed our new Editor for Spanish and Bilingual Resources, Mr. Peter Kolar. Today’s podcast is a conversation with him about his life and work and his reflections on his experiences of music ministry within bilingual and multicultural communities. He was one of the directors for the GIA Showcase at NPM last summer, and he’s been active in NPM conferences for years, giving workshops on bilingual and Spanish music. He is a composer in his own right, and he has his own blog here on the Sing Amen site, called ¡Cantemos Amén!, so please look for his voice to keep adding to the conversation here at

Shortly after he started at GIA, Peter and I sat down and recorded this podcast interview, which we’re sharing with you today. Obviously this conversation happened well before the tragic terrorist attacks in El Paso last month, which Peter wrote about in his last blog post, so if you have not read it, please do; it’s a beautiful reflection on the strength and love of a rich and faith-filled community, and it can be found here.

I’ve known Peter Kolar for more than 20 years, and he’s one of my favorite people, so just sitting down with him to talk about life and ministry and everything was a treat for me, and getting to hear snippets of recordings from his days directing a youth marimba ensemble in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood is a special bonus! I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.

Music Heard on today’s Podcast:

—”Chiapas” (Mexican traditional) and “Invention in A minor” (J. S. Bach), performed by the Marimba Ensemble of Holy Cross-Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish, Chicago, IL.

—”Improvisation on ENGELBERG,” ©2019 Peter M. Kolar

Sing Amen! the Podcast, with Jennifer Kerr Budziak
Sound by Jim Bogdanich

Sing Amen! opening music: Promenade, by Bob Moore (from Let Every Instrument Be Tuned for Praise, CD-491, from Liturgical Suite #4, G-4789 ©GIA Publications, Inc).
Sing Amen! closing music: Amen, (from More Sublime Chant, CD-459, The Cathedral Singers, Richard Proulx, conductor. ©GIA Publications, Inc.)

Let’s be Capricious, shall we?

Let’s be Capricious, shall we?

Well, ok, I’ll admit, I’m not quite sure how being capricious fits in with organ music, but I’m looking to attract your attention.

It’s my hope to transmit my love of the organ and its repertoire to you, with the idea that you will become so smitten you will try it, too! The mighty organ, often called the King of Instruments, has of late become associated with music that is out of date and no longer in the mainstream of church music. It’s also often associated with scary movies and Halloween, but that’s fun and who would discourage that? But, I’m hoping to present a balance of good organ music that will delight you as the player, and your congregation as the listener. So, let’s have some fun, shall we?

First, just look at this picture of Louis-Nicolas Clérambault (1676–1749). He’s looking at us with a bit of a smirk, and his nose is crooked. Too many fights as a child? Certainly his music would be interesting, yes? Plus, he was from Paris. Need I go on? Clérambault was an organist and composer who wrote an amazing amount of music for the church, remembered today mostly for his organ music. His first Livre d’orgue (Organ Book) contains two suites of multiple movements, and our piece of the day, the Caprice sur les Grands Jeux, is the last movement of the second suite.

The practice of the time was for the title of the movement to tell the performer about the texture and the registration of the piece, hence titles like Fugue, Duo, Trio, or Plein Jeu, Flutes, or our movement, Caprice sur les Grands Jeux. French organs of the Classical period were very ornate, and the organ stops were colorful and the way to combine them was prescribed quite exactly. Thus, the organist would see the movement title and know what to draw on their instrument. For the Caprice, the Grand Jeux would have called for just what it sounds like, a large, grand registration with specific stops drawn. Today’s organs are more eclectic and it’s not always possible to get the same kind of sounds that the French composers were asking for. Still, it’s helpful to know the basics so that you can interpret the piece more or less in the style.

It’s amazing to be able to find answers to questions on the internet, and here is a good explanation of the Plein Jeu and Grand Jeu, as well as the difference between a Plein Jeu and Grand Jeu registration combination.

It makes my job so much easier to give you these links, and especially to send you to performances like this one. This is an authentic French instrument, so the sound is what Clérambault would have been expecting, plus the video of the organ case itself is great to watch. It’s faster than I would play it for worship, but it gives you one interpretation. Here’s another, the tempo of which I prefer, and the video is great because you can watch the organists’ hands, which tells you a lot about the articulation to use when playing it (fairly detached throughout). And here is a third performance, which demonstrates the use of notes inégales (basically, the practice of playing notes slightly unevenly, to effect a more elegant interpretation).

So, now that you’ve learned a bit about authentic performance practice for this piece by Clérambault, what does this mean for you as a musician for a Catholic liturgy or Protestant service? Well, my advice is to use it as a postlude, and draw a fairly full registration on your instrument, something like this: on the Great manual, a 16′ Principal if you have one, a Principal 8′, 4′, 2 and 2/3, 2′, and any Great reeds you might have, and any other mutation stops to add color. But if you’re playing a small organ with limited color, just draw what sounds good to you, like Principal 8′, 4′, 2 2/3, 2′, Mixture and Great Trumpet (or couple in a reed or two from the Swell manual). And if that doesn’t give you good ideas, just open the crescendo pedal until it sounds good!

So, I hope you give this piece a try. I’ve done two editions for free download. One is the original for organ, the other eliminates the pedal and makes it playable on manuals only or the piano. And if you have questions, email me and ask, please! I hope you play this piece! (and….let me know if you do, okay?)

Choir Membership: Open to All, or Auditioned?

Choir Membership: Open to All, or Auditioned?

On the one hand, we are ministers, singing in the church choir is not like concert performance, and we want to be hospitable and welcoming to those who feel called to serve. Shouldn’t everyone who wants to sing be able to join the choir?

On the other hand, what if someone who feels called to serve is unable to match pitch, or sings perpetually flat, or sticks out of the texture with a loud and wide vibrato?

For many of us, it’s the start of the choir season right about now, and most of us have at some point in our life as ministers needed to address the potential conflict inherent in the two questions above in some way. For some, it’s easy, and the answer is self-evident; we don’t even have to think about which direction we go with this question. Perhaps, if we are honest with ourselves, we may have harbored a little judgment in our hearts about those different from us who fall in the other direction? (Maybe not. 😉 )

For myself, as with many things, my preference is to take a both-and or middle-of-the-road kind of approach to choir membership. The word “audition” can feel threatening or loaded, filled as it is with the inevitable framing of the end result: do you make it in, or not? Are you good enough, or not? On the other hand, I learned many years ago that it wasn’t good for anyone when I just invited people to show up, and dropped them into the choir immediately without knowing anything about their experience, skills, voice type, ears, and so on.

So when someone new steps forward wishing to join the choir, I do not have an “audition” per se, or rather, I don’t call it that. I invite them to come in for a few minutes so I can “hear their voice and get a sense for where they will fit best.” Essentially, I want to know who they are, what they sound like, and whether they will be able to handle the demands of the ensemble–demands established not by me, but by the members themselves and the rhythm they have been happy to settle into over the years. I have been fortunate enough to direct choirs whose singers, while they love ministry, also come because they love music and singing and being part of an ensemble that can challenge them to do the kind of singing they can’t do in the rest of their lives. Rehearsals tend to move pretty quickly, and we spend our time well and efficiently.

When I do a “voice check” (what I informally call the not-audition meeting) with a new singer, I generally begin just by asking them to tell me about themselves, where they came from and what kind of singing they have done in the past and why they enjoy being part of a choir. I ask them if they have any experience reading music, reinforcing that this is not a deal-breaker at all and that many choir members are not strong readers, but that it’s good for me to know. I ask what voice part they usually sing. Then I will vocalize the singer up and down the scale: I start sort of mid-range and take them down into the lower register first, and then up into the higher register. Fairly frequently I’ll hear an “alto” whose vocal color suggests that they might actually be a soprano, but they are not comfortable with higher pitches; a little voice work and vocal tech to help them open up and lift the soft palate often works wonders, even in just a few minutes.

I also often invite them to sing something they like–any hymn or song, just so I can hear their natural voice. (I tell them about this beforehand, so I don’t catch them off guard.) And then I teach them a refrain or a verse of some piece we are working on–this gives me a chance to see how quickly they pick up something new, whether by reading or by ear. If they can sing it with confidence along with my voice and the piano, I stop singing and see if they can sing independently with the piano; if they can do that without difficulty, I’ll try harmonizing the alto part along with them to see if they can be independent even with another voice part going next to them. The idea is to just give them a little time to make music, just a two people singing together.

The whole process generally takes maybe 15-20 minutes, and it’s actually kind of fun. (Well, it’s fun for me; the level of relaxation and enjoyment the singer gets out of it seems to vary.) And it’s enough to give me a solid sense of who the person is and what kind of sound they have–beyond “you’re in the choir/you’re not in the choir,” going a little deeper. I get to to know them a little as people rather than just as “a voice,” and I get to learn what section they should be in, where they should stand, whether they will go high or low if a part splits…It helps me figure out what voices might be good to pair with theirs, whether they are the voice to put next to the less strong voices or whether they will need to stand next to someone who is really solid on their part in order to be confident.

And occasionally…it tells me that this person is simply not ready for this ensemble. And those are the tough ones. Because if they are not ready, they are not ready. And they should probably not join.

I can hear a few people drawing up to argue with me here, to call me exclusionary, to tell me that music and ministry are for everyone–and in a way they are right, everyone should have the opportunity to raise their voices and sing praise to God with a joyful new song…

But…hear me out. Yes, we are ministers, and we are hospitable, and we are pastoral. But sometimes a kind and loving “I do not think this would be good for you right now” is the most hospitable response we can give. For a lot of reasons.

First: Ultimately, the parish musical leadership has a responsibility to one another and to the assembly, to be able to lead them in making music. If the leadership is not solid, then not only does their music suffer, but so does that of the entire assembly. This is not about creating a “better musical performance”–not at all. This is about solid leadership, and making sure those who stand wherever they stand and support the assembly’s singing are fully able to do this–or at the very least, have the potential to learn to do it and not impede the overall leadership ability of the choir as they do their own growing.

Second: If the liturgical ministries of the parish are true to their mission of raising up the voice of the body of Christ, helping bring them to full, active, and conscious participation, then those in the pews are singing as well. There should be no sense that suggesting that the choir may not be the place for this new singer means that they are not to sing–on the contrary, if every person in our parish who could carry a tune was in the choir, there would be no assembly.  (Yes. I firmly believe this.) If no one but the choir sings for your parish liturgies, that is the sign of a problem that goes much much deeper than whether this individual is ready to join the parish music ministry.

Third: if an ensemble of music-makers has found its rhythm, its speed, its style, and its way of working, and a new member comes in who is not equipped for it, it’s not just a question of disrupting that flow for those who are already in the group–the new member will invariably sense it too, know that they are not keeping up, know that they are not succeeding. And this can quickly become stressful and toxic–to the individual, to the ensemble, and to you as leader. This is no way to approach song and singing. We need to set our singers up for success, all the time. To say “yes” in the name of hospitality, knowing in advance that it sets up not only your existing group of singers but the new members themselves for something that is not success–this is, in the end, doing all of them, and the assembly you and they serve, a disservice.

It’s not an easy conversation, to be sure.  Often I suggest to the hopeful chorister that they consider a voice class or voice lessons, just to get a better sense of how their vocal instrument works, and get more comfortable with making and tuning their vocal sounds…if they have pleasant voices but as yet lack the ability to pick up new music quickly, I always have the name and number of a director of a local community chorus to give them–a group responsible for one concert of music every few months, rather than a Mass every single week. If they are just on the edge of being able to be successful but not quite…I might invite them to join the choir for Christmas Eve, which is when we have a body of set repertoire that we get more extended time to work on, with specific rehearsal days and times. Sometimes I give the new singers themselves this choice, and say, “This feels like a big step for you to take right now, since things in the Sunday group are moving so fast, but I don’t want to discourage you or send you away–how would you feel about maybe joining our Christmas choir now, and seeing how that feels; if you like it and feel comfortable, then maybe you would want to step into the weekly choir come January?”

All of that said–most often, those who step forward wishing to join the music ministry in most places I have ministered are capable, and once they get past the early learning curve of picking up the music the larger group already knows, they are absolutely fine. If a non-reader (or even a reader, for that matter) wishes to join the group, I always warn them that we will pretty much never rehearse the well-known hymns and/or service music, and not to worry about it–I say, just do your best to keep up and be assured that those who have sung these pieces 284 times have got your back, and you will pick it up; a few years ago, they were the ones who didn’t know the music and they leaned on the solidity of the veterans while they learned it, and that’s how the church choir works. I suggest that they sing “under the radar” for the first few weeks until they learn to read the unspoken signals and assumptions, of which there are many, and which I will doubtless not remember to warn them about. I reassure them that the other members of the group will help them learn the ropes, and to not ever fear to ask questions, either of me or of their singing colleagues. I make sure I check in with new members a few weeks in, and then a few weeks after that, to see how they are doing and if they are getting more comfortable. And if it brings them joy.

We are ministers. Singing in the church choir is not like concert performance, it is a ministry of servant leadership, and it requires time and preparation. And we must always be hospitable and welcoming to those who feel called to serve.

How does this work in your parishes? I’d love to hear from others how they view this process, and what your method is in your own ministry–so please leave a comment!

Healing for a Wounded Community

Healing for a Wounded Community

Today marks three weeks since the mass shooting in El Paso, TX, where twenty-two innocent lives were taken at a Walmart store and dozens more wounded.

In the days since the shooting, prayer vigils, gatherings, rallies, events, fundraisers, and, most importantly, funerals have all taken place as the dead have now been laid to rest. Victims’ families continue to mourn their losses, and the entire city simultaneously grapples with a commitment to remember and a will to move on.

The community’s wounds are still fresh, but there’s a sense that we need to carry on with our lives, lest we fall victim to the perpetrator’s intent to instill fear and fundamentally alter that basic tenant of humanity. No, that will not be the case. Life will go on. And love will go on. As heard many times in Gospel proclamations, homilies, and speeches, it is love and only love that can overcome such hatred. Defiant, intentional love in the face of evil. In love, we encounter God’s grace to lead us through this dark valley.

A new bond now permeates life here in El Paso, even if never spoken or overtly acknowledged: In being collectively violated and made vulnerable through this person’s act of hate, there has also been a universal exposing our true selves, the inner self in all of us that simply wants peace and harmony. All other pretense has been stripped away. The “what if” factor each of us feels has forced us to come to grips with what really matters. (My new mantra: “Hug those closest to you profoundly and profusely”!) And as if this community weren’t already close enough by virtue of its familial underpinning, this vulnerability has just further cemented a spirit of kinship among complete strangers. It’s like the Body of Christ is actually recognizable out on the streets!

The open wounds start to heal, at least a little. The community is returning to regular life, and there’s moments when all seems “back to normal” — those undefined, mundane, semi-hazed flashes —walking in a parking lot, shopping for groceries, unloading a shopping cart— where the routine and rote-playing of daily motions are as if nothing remarkable had ever taken place here. But then the memory hits. The brain resets and you instantly bring it all back into focus. Something is different and will always be different going forward. The road to healing will be a long and winding one, for sure.

As life sputters and struggles to return to a sense of normalcy for the majority of us in El Paso, lingering concern remains for the forty-six families who were thrust into the middle of this tragedy because of complete happenstance the morning of August 3: twenty-two families who’ve had to bury loved ones, stripped of their earthly lives in a blazing instant at the hands of hatred and fear; another twenty-four families whose loved ones are forced to cope with the permanent effects of bullets that pierced their bodies.

Victims’ Memorial outside Walmart

Prayer Transcending Borders and Time

Particularly heartbreaking is the fact that twenty-two funerals have since taken place. The aftermath and its liturgical implications were extraordinary. In just ten days, all victims were laid to rest in masses or services held in El Paso and in Ciudad Juarez. Recall that several of the victims were from Mexico, their bodies returned to their families in Mexico for burial there. One of the “Mexicans” was actually a German native, retired from the German Air Force after serving at Fort Bliss U.S. Army Base and residing in Juarez with his Mexican wife. In virtually every case, families of the victims spanned either side of the border, and certainly the community’s outpouring from either side was not impeded by any wall or physical barrier.

Because of the number of funerals held all within a relatively short span and in different locations around the region, the individual liturgies formed part of an aggregate communal prayer. In the same way the Paschal Triduum constitutes a single liturgy across three days, these funerals were like a unified, multi-part celebration commending these twenty-two souls to heaven. It was an extended litany of new life, with precisely twenty-two invocations. At any given funeral mass, there was a sense of something more than just the liturgy at hand — you were actually taking part in a days-long, multi-movement symphony of redemption and reception into paradise. 

“Ministerial First Responders”

In all, I assisted with five of the funeral masses, planning, playing and leading the music. Like many El Pasoans, I had been wanting to make a meaningful contribution to honor the lives of the victims and somehow assist the surviving families. I invited members of my diocesan choir to join me in this effort. I was overwhelmed by the impassioned and immediate response by so many. Choir members dropped everything to be part of not one, but four(!) different liturgies in one week — all at different locations and some even back-to-back on the same day.

Together, we became “ministerial first-responders” to the tragedy, assisting in the best way we knew how: through our ministry of music, liturgy and sung prayer. Though a miniscule contribution in the scheme of things, this was our way of applying a spiritual triage, treating the immediate needs of the suffering, tending to their earthly souls while at the same time commending the souls of the deceased to the divine. What a humbling privilege.

Members of the El Paso Diocesan Choir assist with the music ministry for victims’ funerals

And, as it turns out, in giving of ourselves, it was also a way to tend to our own self-healing. God’s grace is indeed found in all things.

Victims’ Masses

Funeral Mass for Angelina Englisbee, August 9, 2019 • St. Pius X Church, El Paso

On Friday, August 9, we sang for Angelina “Angie” Englisbee, age 86, whose funeral was held at St. Pius X church. It was an uplifting celebration of Angie’s life. Family, friends, parishioners and city leaders packed the church, and along with the full choir and instruments sang her from this earth to heaven’s gates.

Funeral Mass for Juan Velazquez, August 9, 2019 • Our Lady of the Light Church, El Paso

That same day was the funeral mass of Juan de Dios Velazquez, age 77, a naturalized U.S. citizen who had moved to El Paso to escape the violence of Juarez. It was a smaller, more intimate service, held at Our Lady of the Light church, a small parish in what’s known as the lower valley, close to the U.S.-Mexico border. There was a palpable grief among all those in the pews. Juan’s surviving wife, Nicolasa, also wounded in the attack, attended the funeral in a wheelchair, assisted by medical personnel and transported by ambulance. After the mass, which was entirely in Spanish, the pastor expressed his gratitude that we were there, because otherwise there would have been no music.

Funeral Mass for 15-year-old Javier Rodriguez, August 10, 2019 • Corpus Christi Church, El Paso

The following day, Saturday, August 10, the one-week anniversary of the massacre, our community laid to rest 15-year-old Javier Rodriguez, the youngest of the 22 killed. The bilingual funeral liturgy took place in the early morning at Corpus Christi church, which was filled to capacity. Going into this mass, we all had a sense that this would be a particularly emotional ordeal because of the age of the victim. Javier’s uncle, who was with him at the time of the shooting and himself was seriously wounded, was transported from the hospital to attend. During the mass, my daughter Chloe sang a solo reflection piece, “Deseo paz,” a plea for peace and end to senseless violence. It was a moving moment for all. Upon procession of Javier’s casket out of the church, the entire crowd waved white cloths above their heads in farewell to this beloved child of God.

Funeral Mass for Gloria Marquez, August 14, 2019 • St. Patrick Cathedral, El Paso

On Wednesday, August 14, I played at the Spanish-language funeral mass for Gloria Irma Marquez, age 61, of Ciudad Juarez. Her mass was held at St. Patrick Cathedral, attended heavily by family and friends from across the border, many of whom wore white in Gloria’s honor. I assisted the small cathedral Spanish choir on organ and piano and together we led well-known songs in Spanish to which all raised their voices. I was struck by the simple serenity that permeated the entire celebration.

Funeral Mass for Andre Anchondo, August 16, 2019 • St. Patrick Cathedral, El Paso

On Friday, August 16, the full diocesan choir sang for the funeral mass of 23-year-old Andre Anchondo, the young father who was killed, along with his wife Jordan, in the massacre. The recently married couple died protecting their two-month old son. A lot of media attention surrounded this particular story because of the heroics involved, the young age of the victims (both in their 20s), and the plight of their three children left behind. Bishop Mark Seitz presided the mass, offering a moving homily that comforted the grieving assembly and reminded all of Andre’s propensity for fun, laughter, and for “doing things big.” The choir, organ and trumpet led glorious music that lifted saddened hearts, compelling all to rise above our own grief so that we could in turn lift up Andre. “And I will raise you up, and I will raise you up on the last day” were the resounding words from Suzanne Toolan’s ever-timely hymn echoed by all.

Placing a cross by a candle for the victims

Life Remembered, Life to Live

The week after the tragedy, I took my daughters to see the victims’ memorial at the Cielo Vista Walmart where the shooting took place. In the weeks since the shooting, a makeshift shrine has grown organically into a beautiful, sprawling wall of crosses, flowers, candles, hand-written messages, photos, crafts and artwork to form a kind of urban coral reef, expanding each day in tribute to the victims. It is truly a sight to behold, simultaneously a communal proclamation of unity and outpouring of care from within and abroad. Even amidst the hundreds of daily visitors and driveways and streets around the area now being reopened to traffic, the atmosphere at the site remains solemn. Complete strangers hug and console each other in what becomes a more distant, yet ever-present grief.

That day, standing before the twenty-two crosses, we said a prayer as a family for the victims. 

And then, with sad but grateful hearts, and reminded that life must go on, we went shopping at our regular Walmart.

And so is it that we as the Body of Christ remember and honor those members who have been called to eternal life, just as we continue to live ours in joyful pursuit of the same heavenly reward.


Let the church sing Amen! ¡Que cantemos Amén!

Dancing with Buxtehude

Dancing with Buxtehude

Three years ago I was lucky enough to go on a tour of Germany with a group of organ enthusiasts. The theme was “In the footsteps of Bach,” and we visited many of the churches and towns where J.S. Bach served, or that were significant to his life. Our first stop was the famed Marienkirche (St. Mary’s Church) in Lübeck, Germany, where Dietrich Buxtehude (1637/39-1707) was the organist. Buxtehude was well known throughout Germany for his Abendmusik (Evening music) at the Marienkirche, and in 1705 the twenty-year-old J.S. Bach walked 250 miles to spend some time with Buxtehude and attend some of his performances, receiving a leave of absence from his church in Arnstadt.

I always wondered about that visit…the walking, the length of time that Bach was away (which was longer than his church granted him), plus the fact that he was gone over Christmas. I think of the schedule most of us have in our churches and just the thought of being gone over Christmas brings on panic­. But, he was young, he did it anyway, and he got into heaps of trouble when he got back. That visit made history, so there must be some kind of lesson to be learned from just doing what you know is right for you!

The organ loft at the Marienkirche was as inaccessible as any I have ever seen. There was a winding, slippery, cement staircase with no way of knowing how far it went up, and panic alcoves strategically placed along the way. (One person did use one of the alcoves, and promptly went back down, which was wise, as I discovered later.) Once we had gone up the many, many stairs, we found ourselves outside, on the roof! From there our guide led us into the attic, where we traversed a rickety wooden bridge that crossed over the entire roof of the Marienkirche (since we were in the attic, we weren’t out in the elements) through an itty-bitty door to the loft itself. Shades of Indiana Jones!

I have a fear of heights.

We got up to the loft and I immediately decided that I neither needed to look down over the rail, or sit at the console. I lasted a very few minutes only to decide that I had seen enough and I went back down the same way I came up (all alone, I might add) only to discover that a helpful docent had locked the door behind our group. And no cellphone service. In that small sacristy room I found the first person who had left us at the staircase, waiting at the same locked door.  Well, we stayed there for a few minutes until my husband, James Biery, appeared (was I ever glad to see him)! He had tried to play the organ, but discovered his legs were too long and his knees knocked on the lowest manual, so he gave up and went looking for me. He looked around that little area and found another door, with a key hidden on the side of it. He figured out how to unlock it and suddenly we could see outside into the square. (BREATHE!!) Somehow, and my memory is hazy on this, I was coerced into being nominated to be the person to walk around and look for help. After walking a city block to get back into the Marienkirche, I found the disbelieving docent (who spoke little English), who didn’t quite buy my story about having been locked in that room, separated from our group. I convinced him by pointing to the loft, where he could see the rest of the group, and he was gracious enough to unlock the door so the others could get out when they came down, and we were all reunited.

So I think of Buxtehude, going up to the loft to play the organ there, and I’m amazed. Plus, there was no electricity! (And where would the nearest bathroom be?) Did he dance a jig up the stairs? But, I digress, and it’s time to talk about his music. In particular, I’d like to share with you my love for his Gigue (Jig) Fugue, BuxWV 174 in C Major. Let’s dance with Buxtehude, shall we?

Most of Buxtehude’s organ compositions are either longer, sectional works, or chorale preludes. The Jig Fugue is one of the few shorter works, about three minutes long. I have made an arrangement of the fugue that is available for free download from GIA. There is a version for organ, and a version for organ or piano for keyboard only, no pedal. The score I based the arrangement on was taken from IMSLP and you can find it here.

There are a few YouTube performances available, and this is one I like for style and tempo. Several of the YouTube performances I listened to have an F-sharp as the last note of measure 6, but I prefer the version in IMSLP, which has an F-natural, which you will find in my edition.

I have used this piece many times in worship, and it is always well received. It is a great summer postlude, or sprightly prelude, or second recessional for a wedding.

The basic registration for the fugue is to start by drawing the main 8′ stop on the Great, which is usually called a Principal or Diapason, but you can identify it fairly easily because it should be the loudest 8′ stop on the Great, not including any reed/trumpet stop. Then add a 4′ stop, usually called Octave 4′. A 2′ comes next, flute or principal will work just fine, followed by anything that is called a Mixture. Draw similar but lighter-sounding stops on the Swell, meaning an 8′ Principal, possibly skipping the 4′ and going right to the 2′, then a lighter Mixture or Plein Jeu or whatever your Swell Mixture is called, or possibly just a 1 1/3 on the top instead of a Mixture, depending on what sounds right to you. Use any 16′ pedal stop, probably the Principal 16′, and the Great to Pedal coupler and you’re good to go. The score has places indicated where you leave the Great manual to go to the Swell and back again if you choose, or you can skip the Swell entirely and just play on the Great throughout. When you do go back to the Great, or if you just stay on the Great, you can add something in measure 50, either the Swell to Great or a Trumpet on the Great. Again, experiment and trust your ear.

The last beat of measure 64 is another place you can add something for either volume or brilliance, if you didn’t do so in measure 50. Since you aren’t playing with your feet at this point, you can set one of the pistons ahead of time, and hit the toe stud with your foot, or you can draw the knob with your hand, whichever is easier for you. You can add the Swell to Pedal at that point, and any 16′ reed in the pedal that will make the pedal line stand out. Measure 76 is a place where you can pause for effect and add a ponderous 16′ Reed stop to the pedal, if you have one, or couple something down from another manual. All organs are different, and what works on one instrument may or may not sound good on another, so experiment, experiment, experiment!

I have also heard this piece played on flutes only, either 8′ and 4′ or 8′ and 2′. While it is helpful to have a sense of what would be customary, it is also just fine to register it however works for your instrument, and for the occasion. The only thing to avoid is using the voix celeste, or as a general rule for the Baroque style, putting on more than one stop at each pitch level. Also, since it has a dance-like quality, full organ is probably not the best choice (until the last two measures, then have fun!).

Baroque performance practice calls for a piece like this to be played mostly detached, with an emphasis on the main beats. On the organ this is achieved by lingering on the strong beat a little, on the piano you can accent the note. This is where YouTube recordings are so helpful, as you can listen to a number of different interpretations and decide what works well for you on your instrument and in your acoustic. I’ve never played this piece on the piano, but after editing the last bars somewhat to eliminate the pedals, I think it would work just fine and be useful either on the piano or on an organ without pedals.

For those of you who are new to playing pedals, this is a great piece to get started with. Most organists wear organ shoes, but truly, it’s not going to be an issue in this piece and if you are jumping from keyboard to keyboard at your church for a liturgy, just walk from the piano over to the organ and either play in whatever you have on, or slip off your shoes for this piece. Personally, I like organ shoes because they have the right fit and feel, with a one-inch heel. Plus, wearing only organ shoes to play in will cut down on dirt, grit or mud/snow on the pedalboard from street shoes or puddles on the floor during winter or other inclement weather.

I have indicated pedaling for the end of the fugue, which ascends up a C-major scale and can be played all detached, as would have been the style. Pedalboards in Buxtehude’s day were not concave as they are on most organs today, and simply using the left foot for most of this ascending line would have been in the style. The arrow marking under the note indicates to play with the left foot, above the note indicates the right.

I do hope that you use and enjoy this piece, whatever version works for you, or perhaps both! If you have any questions, feel free to email me at the Ask a Question button on the main blog page. Enjoy dancing with Buxtehude!

Multi-Generational Music Ministry

Multi-Generational Music Ministry

On Thursday morning at the NPM Convention in Raleigh, NC, I was privileged to sit on a panel with some really wise and insightful people; the topic was multi-generational music ministry, and how it could work in our various parish situations. Probably the most exciting thing about this panel was how many people came to it—we had a full room, so clearly this is a topic that touches the ministerial lives of a lot of people. I would like to share a few thoughts here, particularly for those who were unable to be there last week.

One of the questions we addressed as a group was this: “We are in a time in history where people are often segmented from each other. What are the benefits to having a multigenerational vocal ensemble?”

Several of us spoke to address this question, but the overall gist seemed to center around the fact that each age group has something to learn from the others, that our different wisdoms enrich one another in a way that remaining separate cannot. Children learn faith from their elders—not by classroom learning, as one of the panelists said, but they “catch” faith from those around them; it’s contagious and it spreads. This whole question also resonates with the idea of the wholeness of the Body—the Body is many parts, but we are all together and all one. As Rahner says (though admittedly I will be mangling him in the paraphrase), we come together in Sunday liturgy to “rehearse” for the liturgy of the world, the great and grand liturgy we celebrate when we leave the walls of the church. If within the church we rehearse and experience and sing and celebrate the reality of everyone being one, this helps and creates the reality that oneness envisions. It’s too easy to let “them” be separate from “us”…but if we can come together and experience one another’s gifts and wisdom, we will all be better humans.

Another question spoke to the practical side of bringing together seniors, adults, teens, and children, the challenges involved and the question of who needs to be “on board” to make it happen. This was an interesting question, and one which I wished we’d had more time to dive into, because the answer, while fairly straightforward, can play out different ways. The obvious, no-brainer answer to who needs to be on-board is of course going to be, “the music ministry/music director.” But there are a lot of different kinds of music ministries, with different staffing models.

In my last parish, when I was full time there (a model which I am aware increasingly few churches are able to sustain), I directed all the choirs—adult, teen, and children. The parish before that, there were two of us; I had the adults and the older children, and a colleague (who was also a really good friend, and a super person to work with) had the youngest children and the teens. In both of these situations it was incredibly easy to have the groups work together, because there weren’t too many chefs in the kitchen or people to coordinate.

On the other hand, in a parish situation where there are different part time musicians leading the children, the teens, the adult Sunday morning choirs, and the Saturday afternoon contemporary ensemble, it gets trickier. Everyone is a little busier, every schedule is a little more crazy, and the likelihood of territorialism or drama begins to rise. It’s harder to find times to gather people, and unless all the players have over time developed an excellent working relationship and a solid basis of consistent repertoire, there may not be enough consistent repertoire to rely on. (That said, developing that consistent “Parish Top Ten” body of rep that everyone knows is a really good idea for helping your whole music ministry be more able to function in moments when varied groups come together.) Here there will need to be more planning, more coordination, and possibly more good-will across the board…but it is still possible, and very much worth the challenge.

My favorite set of questions on this topic came all sort of in a group: How often do musicians get an opportunity to reach people who might become regular members of your choirs? Musically, does a separate ensemble need to be organized to make this happen? Or, is there a chance that a few rehearsals can be called and people can commit to a very specific period of time?

In all frankness, questions about unity and spirituality and becoming what we believe aside, it is my belief that multi-generational special-event choirs are the single best recruiting tool any choir can ever have. Not everyone can commit to weekly rehearsals and choir membership—and someone who could do it five years ago maybe can’t do it now, but maybe they will again when their kids reach high school age. Life circles around and seasons change, but it is a tremendous gift to be able to stay connected with music-lovers at all stages of their lives.

Following are several potential multi-generational opportunities with incredible potential for recruitment and outreach:

  1. Thanksgiving Day

Many parishes have a “special” Thursday morning Thanksgiving Day celebration. These tend to be joyous and well-attended, and everyone who comes is there because they want to be there. This is the perfect opportunity to invite all of your choirs, of all ages, to come together, and to bring family members who might not already be in one of the groups. Sing music everyone is fairly familiar with, and hold one rehearsal a few days before the day (Wednesday night tends to lose anyone with family coming into town)—with snacks and plenty of social time. All of your age-groups of people get to make music together, and this one day provides an easy and low-stress opportunity for newcomers.

  1. Christmas (or Christmas Eve)

The biggest draw for this one, I have found, is the guarantee of the best seat in the house on the most crowded church day of the year. Invite a group to come together, adults and children, seed the group with a few of your solid part-singers (and their kids and/or grandkids), and sing familiar carols. Let your most advanced choir sing for Midnight Mass, but let the earlier “Family Mass” be relaxed and celebratory; alternatively, track down parishioners who love to sing but don’t want to brave the Christmas Eve crowds, and invite them to come back on Christmas morning. It’s a wonderful thing, and a happy day for all.

  1. Summer Choir

In last year’s book Gathering Gifts, Building a Program,there is an article by Michael Silhavy about his practice of forming a “Summer Choir” in his parish every year when the regular groups take a break. This is a wonderful opportunity to give the year-round choir a little time to relax and not be “on,” and to invite anyone of any age—families, adults, kids, teens—to come on a Sunday to Sunday basis as they are available. They can come an hour before Mass, learn an easy anthem (chosen for its flexibility, because of course in this model one doesn’t know exactly who or how many will be there), sing the hymns, have hospitality and donuts before Mass and get to know each other a little, and then sing. Some will very likely decide to stay into the fall, if their life permits.

  1. First Communion

This one is probably my favorite. In one of my former parishes, I would put out a sign-up sheet a few weeks before the parish First Communion celebrations and beg my choir members to sign up to sing one or both of our big Masses; it also went onto the Children’s Choir calendar back at the beginning of the season. Honestly, after the first year I didn’t have to beg; people had a wonderful time (and we gave them lunch)(Feel free to take note of how many of these suggestions involve food of some kind). The witness of that mix of adults and children, leading song and singing familiar music while the young Communicants came to the table for the first time, made, I think, a deep and lasting impression on everyone there. The celebration was not just about the children and their “special day,” isolated from the rest of their life as Christians, but rather it was in the midst of their community; the children were supported by not just their families but the whole parish. And we would invite to sing with us family members of those who were coming to the table as well, so we usually had at least a few people from neighboring parishes who sang in the choirs there, and we got to make connections from parish to parish and be welcoming and hospitable to new friends in our midst. It was wonderful.

Bottom line—if your parish has not explored the idea of pulling together a multi-generational choir, for special events or through a season…maybe this year is the time?

Deep thanks to Christopher Titko of J. W. Pepper and Berta Sabrio of NPM for convening this panel and making it possible!

UPDATE AND POSTSCRIPT: A few people have commented on the Facebook page that in their parish situations the diocesan guidelines for adults needing to take “safe environment” trainings and be certified to even be in the room with minors has made this entire proposition a lot more complicated than just going, “Let’s put us all together!” I am curious how people have found a way to make this work?