Friday, September 12, 2008

Politics - of the Church Choir Variety

I've been in a lot of church choirs. Some good, some great, some sucktastic. But I've only been in one that didn't waste time with politics - and it isn't this one.

I hate church choir politics. It's ridiculous. We're all there to sing, to pray, to lead the congregation. We're a ministry, even if we're compensated, and we're there to add to the richness and the majesty of the Mass. In other words, we're not there to perform, and we're not there for personal accolades.

My current choir has just undergone a regime change. I admired the last director, and felt priveleged to work with him. But I didn't exactly like it. I'm not a professional singer, I'm not trained, and it was incredibly hard work to be part of Horst Buchholz's choir. Not only because of the choral pieces we did, but because he chose strange hymns and never rehearsed them, chose strange Mass parts and never rehearsed them, and expected us all to be concert-ready for every Sunday Mass. The congregation never sang along - I was going to Mass there before I was part of the choir, and the few people in the pews always looked bewildered when the organ started. It was a wonderful choir for hardcore musicians, and I'm sure Rome would have been pleased with the amount of Latin we sang, but I honestly don't feel we provided the service to the congregation that we were supposed to.

But Dr. Buchholz left, and the pastor appointed a new director. In the whopping two weeks since choir started back up after a summer hiatus, we've been without a regular organist and a grand total of 16 people (out of 40-something) have decided to show up to sing. We've been doing pretty standard English hymns, and Mass parts that everyone knows backwards. The congregation sings. We have short rehearsals. Our director is younger and less musically educated, but frankly? That lets me relax a little. I know I won't be reprimanded repeatedly for making mistakes while sight-reading Mozart.

And I'll admit: I'm totally biased. John Miller, our new director, worked with me at Ss. Simon and Jude in Phoenix - my one apolitical choir, where we all showed up, did our jobs (it was a fully professional choir), and didn't let our egos get in the way. We're used to a different style of sacred music and a different cathedral-level music program. I like leading the parishioners instead of performing every Sunday. And while I miss the Latin, I know that John has experience with the traditional forms of the Mass and the motets, and I know that once he gets into the swing of things, he'll be able to bring them back.

This, of course, is a tragedy of epic proportions for the old hands in the choir. Last night's rehearsal, which was led by a section leader since John was out of town for a funeral, culminated in people asking if we were only going to be doing this kind of music (English hymns), and wasn't there already a contemporary choir? (Despite the fact that we're singing nothing remotely "contemporary". I've been in contemp. choirs. "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee" is not contemporary.) One bass was all up-in-arms and said he was writing to the Archbishop about how we've stopped doing the traditional music and it's a travesty and blah blah blah.

Did I mention it's been two weeks that we've been in session? Two weeks. Two weeks without some ninety-page Mass to sight-read every week and all of a sudden we're having Mass in a field with tambourines? Please.

Like I said, I'm biased. I'm pretty pissed that no one seems to want to give John a chance. I know it's not the choir they started in, but most of them are volunteers (just like me), and if it's really that terrible, go find some other sparsely-attended church with a performance choir to join. I can't understand why we can't do both the traditional stuff and the stuff everyone knows - what's so terrible about a few "contemporary" hymns? (And I'm expecting some serious head explosions when we collaborate with the actual contemporary choir - if Beethoven gives these people hives, what will they do when faced with "Open The Eyes of My Heart" or "Shout To The Lord"?)

Maybe I'm political, too, bitching about it like this. But it's so frustrating to me that we're wasting time complaining to each other when we could just be enjoying singing for once. There's no shame in singing classic hymns well - especially when it forces us to be the ministry we're supposed to have been all along. I don't volunteer to perform: I volunteer to be part of a ministry, to be part of the Mass, to use the gift God gave me to His greater glory, not mine.

I just wish we could all focus on that and get on with it.

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