Page 8, 14th March 2008

14th March 2008
Page 8
Page 8, 14th March 2008 — Can the Pope get Catholics to sing again?

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Organisations: Downtown Glee Club
Locations: London, New York


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Can the Pope get Catholics to sing again?

The word "amateur" means, literally, a "lover of" something. A musical amateur is a "music lover". There need be nothing pejorative in the term "musical amateur"; on the contrary — anyone would agree that enthusiastic musical amateurism is important. It could be said to sow seeds of future musical development. Non-professional musicians go to concerts, buy recordings, sheet music, and instruments, hire private teachers, and, as parents, expose children to music at a young age. From the environment amateur musicians create, enlightened musical patrons and future musical geniuses grow.

Singing is important in musical amateurism because it involves almost everyone. Many institutions have choirs — whether churches, schools, the branches of the military, or clubs — and it is nearly a given that everyone sings or has sung at one time or another. In the case of Catholic musical culture — and the music found in church — it would be quite desirable if a healthy amateur musical practice were to grow up among Catholics. It is not hard to imagine that, if Catholic people generally sang better. played instruments more. and knew more about fine art music, music in church would be held to higher standards and would be all the better for the musical skills of people coming to church.

To give an example of what amateur enthusiasm can accomplish — the family of Felix Mendelssohn were musical amateurs, hosting musical gatherings at their home on many weekends, and it was this musical environment that allowed the development of the young Felix — one of the most amazing child prodigies in music history.

In America, the Downtown Glee Club once existed not far from Wall Street in New York. This was a choral group founded in the 1920s by businessmen. They gave concerts, and at times could marshal over 900 singers, inviting the most prominent conductors of the day to lead them. The equivalent would exist today in London if several hundred City businessmen assembled a choir on their own, invited Simon Rattle to conduct them, and gave a televised concert from the Albert Hall, That would indeed be a most impressive display of the love of fine art music.

Much of church music is today maintained by volunteers and involves the participation of the congregation rather than a choir. Notwithstanding the good efforts of many people, Catholic music — especially outside of England — is not what it once was. Pope Benedict XVI (who is a literate musician: he reads music, knows the literature of music from Gregorian Chant to the Classics, and plays Mozart at the piano) has been calling for a restoration of high standards. His remarks on music make it clear that he believes that the touchstone for judging the appropriateness of sacred music is Gregorian Chant and sacred vocal polyphony. Cardinal Fran cis Arinze, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, has thus recently been making statements about music in the Church and asking for preparations for its reform.

In England there is an excellent practice of choral singing by official choirs. The flourishing of choral singing in England was largely encouraged by Cardinal Vaughan, the commissioning builder of Westminster Cathedral. The cultural memory of what he did for English music has generally faded, but a recent English doctoral thesis has brought back to light the process whereby Catholic and Anglican choral singing were re-born before the turn of the century — through the efforts of the cardinal. One marvellous fruit of his endeavour is still in evidence today: the famous boys' choir of Westminster Cathedral.

But implementing a major change in Catholic music today will involve both a strong will to make changes and a marshalling of resources to carry them out. There has been a hope among members of the Roman Curia that a "grass-roots" movement among parishioners will arise — in the same successful way that one helped to re-invigorate in some countries the practice of more frequent confession — and that this will help to bring about the needed changes in music.

A growth in enlightened musical amateurism might well provide some support for a grass-roots movement in music.

The English composer Gustav Hoist once said: "Music should be either done in a church or in someone's home." Through the turn of the last century it was considered an essential part of the education of a lady of breeding to be able to play the piano and sing. At parties. it was often a lady of the family who would play and the guests would sing from reading sheet music. Most educated men were able to sing, read music. improvise some vocal harmony, quartet or church-choir style, and at least throw in a bit of harmony at the end of a song. In our day these practices are mostly gone.

Since a healthy musical amateurism often involves singing. I propose to give here some hints on the technique of singing that anyone can use. I have written before encouraging the practice of private singing — singing to one's self for the purpose of inspiration and relief from monotony. Nothing I say here mitigates that; singing hymns or inspirational songs to one's self remains a wonderful way to combat the stress of modem life — especially where driving is involved. But here we will speak of the practice of singing for others to hear, and I will give the reader a few simple ways to get one's voice to sound good.

Paying attention to three things in singing can help anyone — even if that person never thought of his or herself as a good singer before. The first point involves being aware of one's breathing. A person takes in breath before each phrase of music and expends it during the phrase. If one can learn to draw in a deeper breath using the stomach first instead of the lungs, filling with air not just from the top of the lungs, but from lower down; this is an important start. This is done just before starting the first phrase of any music. Then, once the singer has a large breath of air stored and begins to sing, he or she should become aware that expending breath involves a certain pressure — against the diaphragm — as breath is released. If one can become aware of this, much progress in singing will result almost spontaneously.

A second help involves how one listens to one's self singing. Most people will be surprised at how they can evaluate their own singing — hearing whether or not they are singing well, and correcting what is wrong — all by themselves. First one must recognise that it is not easy for a person to immediately understand how he sounds when singing, because the sound is teaching his ear not only from outside, but also through the bones and air passageways of the head itself. To get a clear idea of the sound your voice is producing you may need to get near a wall and, facing it, cup your hands behind your ears to hear the true sound of your voice reflecting back to you . This is the same effect as singing in the shower — except the shower tends to amplify the voice as well. (The shower is actually a good place to sing.) A third help will be to think of the words you are singing and pronounce them very clearly. This is called diction in singing, and it is an art in itself. The vowels and consonants of words are really the "primary material" in singing.. In fact, it is said that the nature of a language spoken by a people may have a lot to do with whether that nation produces great singers. There may be something in Welsh that makes good singing, something else in Irish that lends itself to the development of the sweet sounding Irish lyric tenor, and something in English that allows boys' voices to excel.

One great hint that helps any singer is to be sure to emphasise the consonants in words. Further, following a few simple traditions of English diction in singing avoids unpleasant sounds: for example, the elimination of Rs that end words or that are found in diphthongs. (Thus you would sing, phonetically, for the word "greater", greatah. You will be understood and the nasal sound of an R avoided.) There is, of course, much more that can be said about singing. I have not mentioned the various registers within any voice. With the rising in pitch of the notes that one sings, there goes an equivalent change in the placement of where, in that person's voice, the higher notes are primarily produced. It is a remarkable thing to learn that the parts of the head (air passageways, bones, mouth) have an important role in producing the sound of high notes. But that is for later. The most important thing is to listen carefully to one's self, let singing be natural (don't force or push the voice), and prepare by breathing.

Then, just sing well for the sake of singing well. It doesn't matter where you do it. You could join a choir, or not. You can sing at Mass or sing at home. Sing good melodies and develop a taste for them. A healthy musical amateurism is not only a matter of performing music well; it also includes allowing one's mind to be improved. If the average person learns to perform music a little better, and improves in musical taste as well that constitutes important progress.

Experiencing the joys of good music are a blessing in themselves, and good musical experience may also inspire many people to contribute to the grass-roots movement hoped for by the Vatican.

Webster Young is a published nee-classical composer for opera, orchestra and piano (

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