Confessions of a Rural Music Director

By Liese Peterson on August 19, 2020

Rural Outreach and Ministry

The first time I heard the choir sing at Our Lady of the Valley, I thought I was hearing angels, and after having spent four years as an alto with my high school choir and decades playing the piano at everything from weddings to beauty pageants to graduations and store openings, I thought the position of Music Director would be a dream come true. Sure, I knew they weren’t professional singers, but my rose-colored glasses stayed firmly on until the questions following my first Mass as choir director came out:

  • “Who picked that song?”
  • “Why are those women on the right singing so LOUDLY?”
  • “Why aren’t there more men in the choir?”
  • “Can we have a Christmas pageant this year?” (asked in March)
  • “Why don’t you wear choir robes?”
  • “Who picks the Mass setting (the expression musicians use for all the Mass parts which are sung, such as the “Gloria,” the gospel acclamation, etc.)? This one is too (insert a negative word).”
  • “Can you please sing more (old favorites, less modern music, fewer solos)?”
  • “I don’t want to sing along. That’s okay, isn’t it?”

Suffice it to say that I wasn’t searching for a pen with which to ink our agreement to do a Holiday Christmas Spectacular on the Today Show. On the other hand, I can genuinely say that I have been more touched – in fact, moved to tears of joy, several times – by the efforts of my typical parish choir than I can adequately express.

Let me begin by helping you understand a few things which will provide great answers to the above questions – because to be honest, I had some of the same questions myself when I was sitting in the pews and singing along. First, you should know that the hymns in most parishes are selected from a weekly predetermined list so that they coordinate well with the readings, the psalm, and the gospel, as well as the season of the year. Our church uses a publication called “Today’s Liturgy” (which is coordinated with the hymnals we use) and each week, I can pick from about ten-twelve hymns in each song category.

The same is true for the responsorial psalms. They all appear in a book which covers the entire church year, and we choir directors just pick the person to “cantor” them for you. Cantoring is not the same as singing but it usually requires someone with a good singing voice. Responsorial psalms are also notorious for having lots of archaic words in them, like “chasten” and “untilled.” It takes courage to cantor!

Why are those women on the right singing so LOUDLY?

Well, chances are they’re sopranos, who typically sing the melody, and they’re hoping you’ll hear them and join in! You don’t need previous choir experience to join the choirs as there are plenty of singers there to help if you’d like to join. As for why there aren’t more men in choirs, it’s because, strangely, there are fewer boys in school choirs. Most everyone who sings in a church choir (but not all) have been in a youth choir in school or college, but we love and welcome people with no experience (because we’ll train you).

How about a Christmas pageant this year?

What a lovely idea! The thought of corralling dozens of costumed grade schoolers carrying lighted candles around our new piano sounds wonderful! Sew the costumes, too? No problem! Write the script? Sure! Rehearse three or four times? Piece of cake! Punch and cookies for the intermission? (You get the idea. We need a battalion of people to volunteer). I still love this idea and it is dear to my heart. We may have a Christmas pageant in 2024….

We don’t wear choir robes for two reasons.

First, as a rural parish, we don’t have a budget for that. I know you understand. Second, it’s Nevada, and on two of the three Sundays this month the forecast high temperature was 110 degrees. Yes, we have air conditioning, but as someone who grew up in central Wisconsin, it’s kind of like saying “turn the heat up” when it’s minus 30 degrees outside. Eventually you resign yourself to the fact that it’s going to be cold. Or stifling.

Ah, the Mass setting!

These are the sung parts of the Mass that stay the same throughout the year, changing only during Lent. This is of course a sacred cow, because some of the existing ones are beloved and easy to sing, and well, some are not. We use one that was composed by our previous music director and we continue to sing it because it’s stunning, though I know visitors to our parish probably wonder where on earth it came from. It’s a good reason to come back to our parish – when we sing “Lamb of God,” wow, it’s heavenly.

We often get asked why we don’t sing more of the old favorites. The simple answer – sometimes – is that they might be too secular. To be fair, our Holy Church allows and encourages hymns from some of the world’s most incredible non-Catholic composers, including Martin Luther (“A Mighty Fortress”), Charles Wesley (“Christ the Lord is Risen Today”) and many other Christian musicians. Where we run into trouble, surprisingly, is at weddings and funerals. As a former Protestant, I played piano at an Air Force veteran’s memorial and was actually allowed by the minister to conclude the service with a piece the family adored – perhaps you’ve heard it? “Off We Go, into the Wild Blue Yonder?”

The problem is especially acute at weddings where popular, secular music might be lovely – but it’s not appropriate in the context of the Mass. It also happens – usually in Lent – that many incredibly popular country, western or gospel hits get requested. Some of these are LOVELY and do not in any way conflict with what we believe – but they simply aren’t on the appropriate-for-Mass lists, so we urge people to hear us play them in the fellowship hall while we’re biting the heads off chocolate Easter bunnies.

Is it okay if you don’t sing along?

Of course, and we know some people just aren’t comfortable doing it. Our goal as a choir is to help everyone achieve “full, active and conscious participation in the Mass.” So if singing is not your thing and you’re fully, actively and consciously participating, we understand. Don’t worry that people are listening only to you. You could even SAY the words quietly to yourself. We know that you are not Celine Dion or James Taylor, and we aren’t either. When you do sing, it’s very encouraging to the choir. And likely to God, who wants to hear YOUR voice in praise of Him, whether sung or whispered.

Finally, don’t be afraid to approach the choir after the Mass and say something positive, even if it’s only “I appreciate you being here for us.” We hold rehearsals every week, some of us sing at more than one Mass, and I estimate that members of my choir are now sufficiently familiar with over two hundred and fifty pieces of music that they could sing on short notice beautifully if needed. That’s a major time commitment and it says a lot about their faith. The fifth-century bishop, St. Augustine, said, ‘’Those who sing pray twice.” The words of our hymns are prayers, and when we sing them, we add to them a further dimension of honor and praise. So… please join us and sing to the Lord!

— Liese Peterson lives in Nevada with her husband and three swimming dogs. She is an international businesswoman and enjoys writing about her experiences as a convert to Catholicism.

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