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¡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.)

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!

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? 

Guide Our Song: An Adam Tice Sampler (Sing Amen! The Podcast, episode 20)

Guide Our Song: An Adam Tice Sampler (Sing Amen! The Podcast, episode 20)

One of the great gifts to the singing Church in more recent years has been the wonderful outpouring of new hymn texts by our modern poet-theologians–people like Delores Dufner, Mary Louise Bringle, Herman Steumpfle, Sylvia Dunstan…and over the past decade or so, Adam Tice. Adam’s texts are rich and challenging, addressing many of the challenges and darknesses facing our world today. His words are unflinching and yet full of hope, and it’s no wonder so many composers who encounter his texts are moved to set them to music.

This podcast, rather than being composer-based or genre-based like many others have been, will instead focus on the text-writer; here are ten songs set by a varied body of composers, all set to Adam’s texts. There are rather straightforward assembly-based hymns here, as well as choral pieces. Some of these selections are more “traditional” in style, while others lend themselves more to a contemporary ensemble’s sound–but all are lovely, and all give one much to think and pray about. (He’s also an incredibly nice guy.)

If you enjoy this, I highly recommend checking out his full collections of hymn texts: Woven Into Harmony, Stars Like Grace, A Greener Place to Grow, Claim the Mystery, and his latest, Pulse and Breath.

Peace to all!

Music Heard on this Podcast:

God of Music, Guide Our Song, G-8092 

by Daniel Kantor 

Text Author: Adam M. L. Tice

Beyond, G-8091

by Daniel Kantor 

Text Author: Adam M. L. Tice

God, Give Me Faith like a Child, G-8591

By Sally Ann Morris

Text Author: Adam M. L. Tice

As recorded on Walk in Peace, CD-908

In the Morning, in the Evening, G-9873

by Bex Gaunt 

Text Author: Adam M. L. Tice

As recorded on Womb and Tomb,CD-1061, and Show By Your Life, CD-1054

Away in a Manger, G-7765

by Blake R. Henson 

Text Author: Adam M. L. Tice

One Thing I Ask of You, O God, G-9835

by Gary Daigle 

Text Author: Adam M. L. Tice

As recorded on Way, Truth, and Life, CD-9866

For God So Loves the World, G-9201 

by Marty Haugen 

Text Author: Adam M. L. Tice

As recorded on Pilgrims and Companions, CD-1020

From the Waters I Will Rise, G-9859

by Marty Haugen 

Text Author: Adam M. L. Tice

As recorded on Choose to Hope, CD-1060

Glorify the Lord by Our Lives, G-8907 

by Tony Alonso 

Text Author: Adam M. L. Tice

As recorded on A House of Prayer, CD-968

Special Bonus Track:

Peace to You, My Loved Ones

From Pulse and Breath, G-9872

By Sally Ann Morris

Text Author: Adam M. L. Tice

(recorded live at Laurelville Music and Worship Leader’s retreat, an annual Mennonite event that takes place in western Pennsylvania. Click here for the video!)

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.)

First Communion Liturgies, Part II: “We’ve Always Done It This Way” (Pushing the Needle)

First Communion Liturgies, Part II: “We’ve Always Done It This Way” (Pushing the Needle)

In the first part of this piece (found here), we talked about the mission and vision at the core of our work with children preparing to receive their First Communion: we are there to form disciples. As a part of that vision, it is crucial that we begin to look beyond the beauty and specialness of the day itself–though of course we do not forget it. We look forward and within, into the life and worship of the parish community and the wider Church of God–their fellow disciples in the journey, whose company they are preparing to join. We visited the idea of working intentionally, through repertoire choices and other aspects of the day, to link the First Communion celebration with the week to week and season to season life of the larger community.*

It is a process that takes planning and consistency, and each time I’ve been part of the process of shaping evolving norms and ways of thinking at parishes where I’ve ministered, there has been a mountain of cultural history (most often voiced as “but this is the way we’ve always done it”) to work through. History takes a long time to shape, and it will of necessity take a correspondingly long time to begin to shift. (If you are in a parish where this is not an issue, blessed are you among musicians!)

So, let’s look at just one of those ingrained cultural moments we so often seem to run into: the opening procession.

(Let me preface this with a disclaimer and a caveat. As one writing publicly about liturgical formation, and as one with advanced degrees, and who has taught liturgical/musical studies at the graduate level, please be assured that I do know the documents, I am familiar with the rubrics as well as the deeper theological underpinnings of the various rites, and given the choice I definitely prefer to take those as the starting point from which all else flows. In fact, there is a nervous little part of me right now going, “Oh no, what if my wise liturgical colleagues read this and hear me suggesting things that don’t necessarily fall in the liturgical best practices envelope? What if they see me openly compromising my Educated Liturgical principles? Will they take away my liturgist card?” But I am also very well-acquainted with the reality that not everyone in leadership in every parish has read and studied said documents, and that saying “This is what the documents say, so this is right and the way you’ve always done it is wrong” would be not only hurtful to one’s colleagues, but also ineffective in actually, you know, producing growth in the life-giving direction of letting the rich symbolism of the liturgy speak as it is crafted to speak. Sometimes being together is more important than being right. Sometimes we need to begin in a place we did not choose–but always holding the end in mind, and slowly help our communities move there.

In other words: ultimately, we have to Make It Work. End of disclaimer.)

Back to the opening procession. Almost everywhere I have ever been, First Holy Communion has begun with an elaborate and lengthy procession of all the children in their beautiful clothing, carefully spaced to ensure optimal visibility (and photographability). Music has usually been entirely instrumental, or has had the children enter to an instrumental piece followed by a separate opening hymn as the liturgical procession follows them. I can understand this, at least. In this beautiful moment, parents want to see their children walking into church; if there was ever a time when being buried in a worship aid is not a valid expectation, this is it.

However, in most of the places I have ministered, the catechetical teams have tended to a tradition of the children entering to Pachelbel’s Canon in D or the Trumpet Voluntary of Jeremiah Clarke or something of that ilk—music I mostly know, as I am certain do most others, from playing it for weddings. 

Think of the imagery here: boys in suits and little girls in white dresses and veils processing into church to wedding processional music. Is this the image the Church calls us to in this moment? The Eucharist is its own powerful sacrament, one of the three sacraments of initiation; must we overlay it with such heavy imagery of another sacrament here in this moment? Are there other choices we might make, choices that would put the focus on the processional as the start of a wonderful and special eucharistic gathering, rather than as an “event” of itself?

For the moment, let’s assume that we do want an instrumental piece for the part of the procession where the children walk in (something I would not take as a given, and the documents certainly do not, but more on that later). What if we chose a piece of music that could automatically segue into a congregational piece, at the very least expressing in a concrete way that the children’s entry is part of the liturgical gathering?

Just as an example: for several years, at one parish, we played Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of man’s desiring” as the children processed in. (I am aware that this one also appears on many “Wedding Processional” lists in various places; in this parish, however, it was rarely used as such, and its relative cultural familiarity made it an acceptable substitute for the planners I was working with.) We then seamlessly segued into James Chepponis’s “Come to the Banquet”—a wonderful and lively song in G major compound time like the Bach–and all began singing together as the liturgical procession entered the church. Since this song was in our regular parish repertoire already, parents and children already knew its easily singable refrain by heart and could join in while the choir and cantors sang the verses.

I still kept thinking, though, of #31 in the Directory for Masses with Children, which reads: “The children’s entering in procession with the priest can serve to help them to experience a sense of the communion that is thus being created”–clearly an invitation to the children to enter not in a separate formal procession of their own, but with the ministers.

What if, instead of keeping these pieces separate, we instead blended the two pieces of music, shifting back and forth from “Jesu, Joy” to “Come to the Banquet” during the time the children were walking, slipping an instrumental verse and refrain of the Chepponis between statements of the Bach material? Musically as well as symbolically, this is far more aurally satisfying than simply playing through all of “Jesu Joy” three or four times in unceasing succession before shifting to the congregational song. (There were a lot of children.) While not perfect, and acknowledging that some people might be even more upset with disrupting the integrity of the Bach than the integrity of the should-be-sung opening of the liturgy, this solution honors the desire of those who hold onto “the way we always do this,” and at the same time achieves the sense of a unified procession linking the children, the ministers, and the Sunday liturgical experience. In future years, one might then consider singing those interpolated refrains…and then singing the verses…

It might take years to arrive where you are trying to go, but the final destination is worth it. Incremental shifts in practice like this one, over time, can continue pushing the needle further and further–in this case, from the original quasi-bridal procession of the children in pairs–with the goal of making this celebration feel like a joyful and celebratory eucharistic gathering of all the people of God, welcoming these little ones to the table for the first time.

I have also been in parishes where we did not assume that the opening piece had to be instrumental. One can have great success with a congregationally sung opening for First Communion, as long as it can be sung, by all, mostly from memory. A joyful Taizé ostinato like “Laudate Dominum” or “Let us Sing to the Lord!”—especially if they are already in the parish repertoire (and if they are not, it’s a good idea to get them there before introducing them at First Communion)—would be very easy to sing without programs, especially if a few minutes were taken at the beginning of the liturgy to teach the simple refrain to all those gathered and encourage them to take part in the singing. Consider “Uyai Mose/Come, All You People” in its new call-and-response setting arranged by Gary Daigle, a joyful song that can easily be sung by everyone without booklet in hand. It can be a wonderful thing for the children, who are often nervous as they enter the full church on this big day that they have been preparing for so long, to be surrounded and even embraced by the joyfully singing voices of their families, inviting them into the space on this day.**

Note too that choosing music from the regular Sunday liturgical repertoire, in addition to offering music that links the First Communion celebration to the Sunday liturgical practice of the community, renders unnecessary that most dreaded and love-of-music-killing phenomenon of many First Communion processes: the dreaded “Song Practice” where the children “learn their songs” for First Communion, and where the songs are often treated as another assignment or classroom-based lesson before they may come to the table. In a perfect world, Sunday Eucharist should be all the “song practice” they need. They, and we, are the same community–why would we choose music that obscures that beautiful reality?

One significant change that more and more parishes have begun to explore is to offer the option—or the norm—of having their children receive communion at the regular Sunday liturgies during the Easter season. In these communities, children might be scheduled for a specific day and time, maybe 6-10 per liturgy, and their reception at the table takes place literally within the Sunday community. Depending on how many children a parish is initiating, entire Easter season can become a time of welcome and celebration. This model bypasses many of the challenges presented by the separate First Communion liturgy on a Saturday, and it is a beautiful thing: this smaller group of children, with their parents and families all present (in this contexts we are not faced with “you can only bring as many family members as will fit in the pew” or ticket distributions to make sure everyone fits), can enter with the liturgical procession in the beginning of liturgy, and then can be be called up around the altar for the Eucharistic Prayer. They are welcomed to the table individually and by name, rather than as a whole “classroom” group. The logistics of planning and organizing, coordinating with catechists and clergy and music and liturgy departments, can be complicated especially early on, but once it settles into the rhythm of the community, it’s a truly lovely thing. (And, by the way, it also needs add no more than a minute or two to the total length of the liturgy.)

I have had the pleasure of witnessing and praying in this kind of within-Sunday-liturgy celebration several times. However, when I have tried bringing the idea back to the parishes I have served, it was generally met with horror and absolute resistance. A Sunday celebration, without all the children together, without the formal processional at the beginning and highly choreographed Communion procession–not to mention without the children’s group song at the end (a rant for another post)– represents a deep and countercultural departure from the way most of us (at least where I live) “have always done it.” The cultural history runs deep, and on some level we all instinctively know that to change the way we ritualize our most important life moments is to change who we are as a people. And that change cannot come until we are ready for it.

The opening procession is just one liturgical moment—but it is the first such moment in the gathering, and every moment is an opportunity. Every hymn or song we choose, every choice we make about sound or silence or movement, is going to speak volumes.

It is up to us to be awake and alert to what it is going to say.

I would love to hear about your creative approaches to First Eucharist in your parishes! Regardless of where you started and what traditions are firmly entrenched in your parish practice, how have you, through music, helped shift the needle toward a deeper connection with the ongoing life of the Christian community?


*An increasing number of dioceses in the United States are shifting to the restored order of the Sacraments, bestowing the Sacrament of Confirmation prior to First Eucharist; this would of course shift the dynamic of how these liturgies are celebrated and merits a post all of its own.

**In fact, this very concept is what I express to the families and guests when I teach the opening song before the children come in: “The children are excited, but they are also a little nervous; as we welcome them to the table with us for the first time, let’s surround them with our voices, so that as they walk into church and down the aisle, they can feel and hear our love and welcome surrounding them, and we can help transform that nervousness into happy anticipation.” People who normally would not want to sing will sing when they are singing for their kids.

Body Mapping: with Bridget Jankowski (Sing Amen! The Podcast, episode 19)

Body Mapping: with Bridget Jankowski (Sing Amen! The Podcast, episode 19)

When I look back over the past few decades, it feels as though I have spent a huge portion of my life as a professional musician dealing with tension, pain, stiff shoulders, tendinitis, and all kinds of bodily aches. Most of my colleagues would say the same, I expect. It never occurred to me to wonder if they were optional; I thought that was just part of being a musician.

            I had heard of Body Mapping, but I never seemed to find the opportunity to dig in and learn about it, or find out if it could help me. (I was too busy working, and practicing, and taking Advil for my aching joints and tension headaches.) Until last summer, when Bridget Jankowski, author of Body Mapping for Music Ministers, sat down with me one day during the 2018 NPM Convention in Baltimore, and taught me more about this remarkable practice.

            This podcast episode is essentially a distillation of that conversation. Bridget’s work, and her book, talks not only about Body Mapping as a vehicle to increased clarity and efficiency (and decreased pain!) for the musician’s body as we make music, but also about how this practice can help deepen our awareness and focus as we perform our work as ministers. Our conversation quite literally changed almost everything for me about the way I conduct, the way I sing, the way I teach, and the way I work with my own choruses; it is truly amazing—and I’ll leave it there and let you listen, since Bridget explains it all far better than I can!

            (And if this intrigues you even a little—Bridget herself will be speaking at the Raleigh NPM convention in a little over a week, giving one of the Mega-Breakouts. Please come see her in person and learn from a truly remarkable teacher!)

Music heard in today’s podcast:

One Is, G-3968

As recorded on Vision, CD-295


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.)



Show By Your Life: A Conversation with Lori True (Sing Amen! The Podcast: Episode 18)

Show By Your Life: A Conversation with Lori True (Sing Amen! The Podcast: Episode 18)

Okay, it’s been a while since our last podcast! It’s good to be back.

Part of the learning curve for me with this site has been realizing when the crunch times come, so I can be ready for them…I’m just coming out of one of those crunch times, because in Publisher World, there is a big push about 6 weeks before all the big conferences, when all the projects need to go to press for printing. NPM is next month in Raleigh, July 16-19—and if you haven’t registered to go yet, please do consider it, because it’s going to be a great week.

(By the way: I will be one of the retreat leaders during the Pre-Convention events, for a retreat day for women on Monday July 15, working with Lorraine Hess, ValLimar Jansen, Meredith Augustin, and Sarah Hart. It will be a day of music and prayer and reflection, and you won’t want to miss it—I know it’s filling up fast, so while they will take onsite registration if there is still space, I’d recommend registering early.)

Anyway, a lot of stuff has gone to press in the last few weeks! New collections, books, Revival 2, new wedding music, Volume 8 of Paul Tate’s “Seasons of Grace” collection, The Organist’s Craft (the newest volume of the “As Found in the GIA Quarterly” series, which I edit), and of course Lori True’s new collection Show By Your Life, inspired in great part by the writings and words of Pope Francis.

That edition is in fact hot off the presses as I write this, and so it seemed like the perfect moment to release this podcast episode of a conversation I had with Lori last fall at the GIA Fall Institute, when this collection was in its early stages of development. Lori had just given a workshop addressing the importance of singing about social justice and letting the words we sing as a community address the very real concerns of our world today. She was kind enough to sit down and talk with me about her writing process and how she got here. It was a wonderful conversation, and here it is interspersed with excerpts from some of the songs from the new collection, as well as a few old favorites.


Music heard in today’s podcast:

Show By Your Life, G-9980

As recorded on Show By Your Life, CD-1054

I Send You with the Grace of my Spirit, G-9985

As recorded on Show By Your Life, CD-1054

Who is the Alien? G-6711

As recorded on There is Room for Us All, CD-639

Prayers of the Faithful—Advent (from Cry Out With Joy, Year A, G-8481)

As recorded on Cry Out With Joy, Year A, CD-931

What Have We Done for the Poor Ones? G-6709

As recorded on There is Room for Us All, CD-639

My Favor Rests on You, G-9983

As recorded on Show By Your Life, CD-1054


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.)




First Communion Liturgies, Part I: Mission and Vision

First Communion Liturgies, Part I: Mission and Vision

When my daughter was born in early May about 14 years ago, I remember a brief moment of feeling a little luxurious that I suddenly, for the first time in decades, found myself not at church on that first Saturday in May. (It was a very small feeling of luxury; on that first Saturday in May had probably not gotten more than an hour of sleep at a stretch in days, and if you’ve never done it, let me make you aware that those first days and weeks after childbirth are no walk in the park for the human body. I’m not sure I could have gone for a walk in the park at that point anyway.) Of course, it was not long before I realized that this also meant that every year on the Saturday nearest my daughter’s birthday I would be spending a large amount of the day at church—celebrating multiple First Communion services, rather than staying home making pancakes or going on day trips to fun places or planning elaborate birthday parties at home.

(Birthday parties at home with a bunch of small children—also not a walk in the park, in case you were wondering.)

Even so, First Communion season is a part of my work as a music minister that I really enjoy. The joy, the festivity, the bright shining faces, the pride and teary eyes of the parents—it’s a beautiful thing.

Still…like all of our work and ministry, our shaping of these liturgies will enable them to be stronger and more effective if we are able to step back a little from time to time, try to shed our assumptions, and see what’s really happening. If we remember to peel back the layers of “we’ve always done it this way” and see what of those “always” things are helpful and life-giving, and whether perhaps some of them are in some way hindering the larger vision and mission.

And what is that larger vision and mission?

We are here to form disciples.

I’m going to say that again: Our mission is to form disciples. Our vision must focus on forming disciples.

At least, we hope that’s the vision and mission. If it doesn’t boil down in some way to this, then I’m not sure what we’re about. If we do not keep that in mind, at the forefront of our ministry and catechesis and planning and prayer and music, then we lose the heart of what we are there for.

I would submit that, where First Communion is concerned, we may sometimes lose sight of that mission and vision, perhaps replacing it with one that looks more like “to give the children a special day they will never forget.” Peeling back more layers, we may come to, “to give the children and their families a day they will never forget,” or even “to give the children and their families a day like the one their parents remember, that they will never forget just like their parents remember theirs.”

This is a perilous direction to go in. Not that we don’t want to make this day special and wonderful, and never to be forgotten, for children and adults alike, but that cannot be the core value we hold when we plan and prepare for the liturgies of this day.

For example, let’s look at the process of music selection for liturgies where First Communion is celebrated. Many places where I have ministered and worshiped have the tendency to select for this liturgy music drawn primarily from the school and religious education programs—essentially, music written expressly for small children. It’s an understandable choice, especially from the “make this a special day” perspective, to choose music that speaks expressly to those who are the focus of the day…

Except that the children are not the focus of the First Communion liturgy. Jesus is the focus, the Body of Christ is the focus, the children taking their place at the table is the focus.

Choose music from the parish repertoire, music they will hear on Sunday when they come back to church. Choose music they will connect with the wider community, and with their place in it in the years to come. Choose the music they have sung or heard sung during the Communion procession since they were old enough to hum along with familiar tunes even before they could read, and when the hymnal was too heavy to hold. Choose music their parents can sing with them, music their families visiting from other churches are likely to know as well, so that the sound of the adults’ voices around them can surround them with love and warmth and welcome.

This does not mean, of course, being oblivious in the planning process that this liturgy will have large numbers of children present and taking part, as well as guests and family members who may or may not all be active and practicing Catholics. This would not be a time when I would program “Lord, you give the great commission” or other of the wonderful but wordier strophic hymns that form such a rich part of our musical heritage. I would suggest looking to music with fairly contained tessitura and range, and leaning to more refrain-based songs and hymns. I can tell you that my own kids rarely went around the house during the week singing songs from their catechetical programs, but the regular songs from the Sunday liturgy would be discernable under their breath fairly frequently.

Remember too that this intermingled repertoire can work both ways. If there is a favorite song that has been used at First Communion for many years, even if it may be a little more child-like than the Sunday community would normally sing, consider using it on a few Sundays during the year in the months leading up to the First Communion celebration.

Obviously this whole line of reasoning is heading right back to that topic dearest to my heart, which I espouse over and over again whenever I have the opportunity: Plan your year’s liturgical music early, look at the year as a whole, and know what’s coming up.

It’s all connected.

(Part 2 of this series will look at some specific strategies and repertoire ideas…because no matter how well you plan, getting the assembly at First Communion liturgies can be a challenge…)

Tell the Whole Community of Music Ministers…

Tell the Whole Community of Music Ministers…

(I have posted this every year on Facebook for probably a decade, and I figured, this year I have a blog! So what better place? We all need a little levity, this week of all weeks…)

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt:

Tell the whole community of music ministers: On the night of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, with no time to cook, you must procure for your family a pizza, one per household unless you eat a lot in which case you might want two. You shall not order pepperoni, lest it give you heartburn during the Mandatum, or garlic, lest it offend your neighbor in ministry.

If a family is too small for a whole pizza, you shall stop at the drive-through for a burger in the evening twilight. This is how you are to eat it: with your vestments or professional blacks on, organ shoes on your feet and your baton in hand; you shall eat like those who are in flight.

It is the Passover of the LORD.

(Peace to all, and blessings for a grace-filled Triduum!)

Night Prayer (Sing Amen! the Podcast: Episode 17)

Night Prayer (Sing Amen! the Podcast: Episode 17)

Holy Week is upon us. I figured that at this precise moment in our musical lives no one listening here is looking particularly for new repertoire or deep thoughts or formational development—we are looking to get through the week with beauty and prayerfulness, we are creating folders and scripts and parts for the trumpet players and preparing for a level of intensity that is unlike anything else we do all year.

So instead…here is a calm, lovely Night Prayer service to listen to on your way home from rehearsals this week, or to help quiet down a busy brain after a long day. It’s from Ian Callanan’s collection As Nighttime Falls, a series of 15-20 minute Compline services for each day of the week. These are good for either individual prayer and listening in solitude, or communal or retreat type settings; if you like this, I’d encourage checking out the whole set, available in both audio and music collection form and with an assembly edition as well…

So—all prayers and good wishes to all of us out there this coming week! May you be blessed with choirs who show up on time, cantors who avoid illness, organs that never cipher, string instruments that hold their tune, staff meetings without stress, assemblies with open hearts and joyful spirits, and families who understand when you doze off over Easter dinner. Peace be with you!

Music heard in today’s podcast: from As Nighttime Falls: Hymns, Psalms and Prayers to End the Day, CD-1038 (Sunday Night Prayer)

1          Call to Prayer

2          As Nighttime Falls

3          Be with Me, Lord

4          Word of God

5          Short Responsory

6          Save Us, Lord / Let Your Servant Go / Save Us, Lord

7          Prayer

8          Blessing

9          Hail, Holy Queen


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.)

Why Do We Sing?

By: Diana Kodner Gokce

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