The Liturgical Musician as Teacher

 "He called a child over, placed it in their midst, and said, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." (Mt 18:2-3)

Children are amazing. They begin knowing nothing except that they are needy, and over a remarkably short period of time, learn to eat, walk, talk, read, navigate relationships, dress themselves, memorize and repeat an astonishing quantity of information, and so on. For the most part, this is done simply by having things around for them to learn from, by being intentional in speaking to them, and by expecting them to participate to the best of their ability in every day life, correcting gently where necessary. No adult can possibly absorb as much as any average child - our crusty old brains still rely on the patterns acquired in infancy to process and integrate information.

Our Mother the Church treats us as the children we are: she places us in a prepared environment (a beautiful church), speaks to us intentionally (through the liturgy), and invites us to participate in Jesus Christ's act of perfect worship, which is the life of His body, the Church. We begin as infants, drawn by our need for God, and little by little, we mature almost unconsciously as the life of the church shapes us. We get to know the cycle of the church year; we become familiar with the often-repeated psalms. As we grow, we aid our littler brothers and sisters along their way by our example.

So, while the Liturgy is the life of the Church, it is also a carefully constructed lesson. As members of the congregation, we are to listen and reflect, but once we become more active participants, we must also consider our role as teachers. This is obvious in the case of, say, the lector: he must read the text he is given, clearly and with dignity. He doesn't get to decide that the people need to hear something else today, or to do the voice of Moses in a high squeaky voice and God in a deep gravelly bass so that the kids can hear the difference.

A sample page of the Ordo
It is the same with the music. The choir (or in the absence of a choir, the cantor) has a specific role, and that role is laid down already. "It is not in the heavens, that you should say, 'Who will go up to the heavens to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may do it?' Nor is it across the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross the sea to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may do it?” (Dt 30:12-13) No, I tell you, it is something near to you, written right there in the Missal. It is your duty as teacher to know what is the lesson you must be conveying to your brothers and sisters.

Practically speaking now, this means that you need to read the texts for the day before selecting music. Not just the Gospel! Look at the whole progression: Entrance antiphon, first reading, responsorial Psalm, second reading, Gospel, offertory, Communion antiphon. If that is not enough for you, consider purchasing an Ordo - a small volume specific to your diocese that gives the list of readings, proper liturgical color, and a brief summary of the theme of every day in the church year. 

And pray! At least before you begin your preparation for Mass, but every day, beg God and His Mother, who taught Jesus to say His daily prayers, for the graces to be a good teacher.

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