Practical Advice for Choirs and Parish Music Directors – a thanks to Jeffrey Tucker and the CMAA

Tonight we welcome Jeffrey Tucker to our weekly campus ministry dinner.  We are very privileged to have him with us; Mr. Tucker is the director of publications for the Church Music Association of America, editor for the New Liturgical Movement, founder of the Chant Cafe blog, and author of Sing Like a Catholic.  Those involved in liturgical music in America probably don’t need that little introduction, but for everyone else, it’s enough to know that Jeffrey Tucker has done quite a bit through his example, his writings and publications to forward the cause of sacred music in the Church today; at least in the Church in America, which is all I can really speak on from experience.

When I think of all we have to be grateful for in the sacred music world due to the work of Jeffrey Tucker and the people and organizations he is involved with, I cannot overstate the impact.  This includes the people over at the CMAA, Arlene Oost-Zimmer, Adam Bartlett, Richard Rice, and Corpus Christi Watershed.  There are many others, but these are the ones I am most familiar with.

I recall a time back when I first started to get involved in liturgical music.  I was a fairly new Catholic convert, and had no training at all in sacred music.  (I wouldn’t have even used the terms “liturgical music” or “sacred music” back then).  Not only had I not read the General Instruction to the Roman Missal, I didn’t even know such a thing existed.  (That’s sort of the “instruction manual” that tells you how Mass should be celebrated with the Roman Missal, and has quite a bit to say about music in the Mass).  I was doing my best to provide prayerful and inspiring music at Mass from the hymnals in the pews at the time.  I remember being very frustrated at the fact that part of the parish liked “traditional” music while others favored “contemporary” music.  I felt a weight of responsibility to pick songs each week that everyone would like.  At some point I realized that sacred music shouldn’t really be about what people liked or didn’t like.  Since the music was a part of the liturgy then surely the Church must have some sort of guidelines that people like me could use to select what to sing.  I stumbled around and eventually discovered the GIRM and the fact that there are in fact proper chants that belong to specific days and seasons, which are actually part of the text of the liturgy, and that this is what the Church is asking us to sing.

I acquired a copy of the Graduale Romanum, which is the official music book of the Roman Rite.  I quickly discovered, however, that the entire thing was in Latin.  Not just the chants, but the instructions, and even the table of contents!  While the book was great to have, it was also next to useless in terms of something I could practically use in the parish at that time.

I bought myself a copy of the Gregorian Missal, which was a step in the right direction.  It had all the Latin chants for Sundays and Solemnities, with English translations and English instructions.  But the music was written in this funny square note stuff that I couldn’t read.  Oh, dear.

I persevered.  I learned.  I got to the point where I could read those funny square notes.  I gradually introduced the use of proper antiphons in the parish, with the support of fellow choir members. One of the more daunting challenges we had to overcome was the expansive gap between Glory & Praise songs and Gregorian chant.  There wasn’t much available to help bridge that gap (or if there was, it was hard for me to find).  Making that transition took a long time and a lot of work, but it was worth it.

Contrast that to the situation today.  Thanks to the CMAA’s publication efforts and the hard work of individuals there and at Corpus Christi Watershed, we live in a different world. Imagine yourself as a music director at a small parish today.  You have read the GIRM (which now is available for free online) and discovered that the Church requires the chanting of proper liturgical antiphons at the Entrance, Offertory and Communion.  You want to do what the Church requires in the liturgy.  You want to sing the antiphons.  But you have little knowledge of Latin.  You have no experience singing chant.  You have a small choir with a few volunteers who also have no experience singing chant – or maybe you are on your own.  And your parish has zero budget to purchase new hymnals or other musical resources.  What do you do?

Because of the work of Jeffrey Tucker, the CMAA, Corpus Christi Watershed, and the others I mentioned and their promotion of authentic liturgical music, you could be singing the propers of the Mass next Sunday.  Seriously.

Here’s what you do.  First, download Simple English Propers from the CMAA web site.  This resource by Adam Bartlett has all the proper antiphons for Sundays and Solemnities, in English translation, arranged in a Gregorian chant-like style.  If you like the sound and character of chant, but want to use English instead of Latin, this is the resource to use.  The music is in square notes, so that may be an obstacle.  But if you are serious about sacred music, you really want to learn to read square note anyway.  There are instructions for reading square note in the book, and it is much easier than you might thing.  (I found square notes much easier to learn than modern musical notation).  This chant sounds good sung by a choir or schola in unison, or by a cantor alone.  And it is completely free and in the creative commons.  Feel free to use it, print it, and make copies to your heart’s content.

And bonus!  For many of the chants, there are free practice videos on YouTube.  For example, just at random, here is the Offertory antiphon for the Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Or, let’s say you have a small choir and prefer something that involves harmonies.  You can download the Simple Choral Gradual by Richard Rice.  This is another English language collection of antiphons for all Sundays and Solemnities, arranged in simple four part harmonies.  Whether you have a choir of four or forty, they can easily learn the melodies and start using this music immediately.  Seriously.  Even an amateur volunteer choir (which is what most parishes have) can start singing these antiphons with less than thirty minutes of practice.  And, it is also completely free and in the creative commons.

What about the Psalms?  Click on over to Corpus Christ Watershed.  They have online a collection of psalms for each Sunday of the year.  They have loads to choose from.  I like the ones that are included in the Vatican II hymnal; they are beautiful and dignified, and each one also has graphics for worship aides and a practice MP3 file.  But there are usually at least a half-dozen other options or more to choose from each Sunday.  And did I mention this was a completely free resource, in the creative commons?

What do you do with those old hymnals in the pews?  Select an old favorite to sing as a post-communion (which is allowed in the GIRM) or as a recessional hymn.  There is no need to eliminate hymns entirely to advance the cause of sacred music.  Just use them in their place, rather than as substitutes for the actual text of the Mass.

If you have access to the internet and a modicum of Google-fu skills, you can access these and other sacred music resources that can make the music in your parish so much more authentic to the liturgy.  And you can start singing this music right away.   We owe a great deal of gratitude to the people behind the CMAA and Corpus Christi Watershed; people like Jeffrey Tucker and the others I mentioned.