What I’ve Learned (so far) This Holy Week

We’re almost at the end of Holy Week. Today is a Friday that feels like a Sunday (because I’ve been to church) and then tomorrow will feel like a weird day all day long, and then I’ll go to Easter Vigil Mass and wind up feeling like I’m supposed to be somewhere on Sunday, even though I have nowhere to go.

But I’ve learned a few things, this Holy Week. The pared-down version of the Holy Week Masses and services has meant that we carry less; we sing less; we pay attention more; we notice more. Most of the time, the pared-down version has been a good thing.

On Palm Sunday the blessed palms were available at the end of Mass as we left the church. There were no palms to hold during the entrance procession, but since we were using the simple entrance without the Gospel reading about the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, we didn’t need palms. This meant that we didn’t have palms to fiddle with, drop, or braid into crosses.

We also didn’t have hymnals (which, in our parish, contain the missal). Those are all locked away in the parish library, except a few in the choir area for the musician and cantor to use. On Palm Sunday when the Passion was read, no one had the readings available to proclaim the crowd parts. The lector read those along with the “any speaker except Jesus” parts. And that turned out to feel really odd. When the Passion is proclaimed at Mass and the assembly participates in a way that’s only done two days per year, saying the words “Crucify Him!” really brings home the message of our own participation in the burden of sin that Jesus died to take away.

It turned out to be a gift that I didn’t sing this year on Holy Thursday. We musicians have to pay attention in a focused sort of way, because we’re listening for cues (and sometimes on the special days the cues are very different from ordinary Sunday cues). But I was sitting with the assembly and I had the chance to just listen and not worry about being ready to start the next acclamation on time, because the musicians would cue me. And in all my years of attending the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper, I never noticed this:

On the day before he was to suffer
for our salvation and the salvation of all,
that is today,

(iBreviary; emphasis mine)

That sacrifice was happening right then and right there. Not only in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. Right here in New Jersey on Holy Thursday night in 2021. I’m not expressing this well. I don’t know how to express this well. But I think it means that the sacrifice was made once by Jesus but we are reliving it, and now I will need to go read the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1365-1369) and ponder that.

This Holy Thursday, the ritual of the washing of the feet was omitted. Of course, we heard about it in the Gospel, but the actual washing of feet did not happen. For me, that was a good thing because if I’m a musician I’m busy the whole time and if I’m not a musician I’m distracted by either the music (for good or for ill) or by my own thoughts about how I’d never want my feet washed because who would want to look at my awful feet?

In a way, it’s hard to strip much from Good Friday, because it’s already as stripped down as a liturgy can get. By this point in Holy Week I think the simplicity of it all had finally settled in for me. I didn’t spend the silent entrance procession sulking about the missed opportunity for a hymn. I was ready for the silence, and my soul was happy for it.

It seemed like a lot of people thought the same as I did about Palm Sunday, because when the Gospel was proclaimed for Good Friday, out came the smartphones and the missals and Magnificats that people had brought in with them. It wasn’t everybody, but it was enough that when the crowd had something to say, we could hear a good number of voices saying it.

Finally, on Good Friday this year we did not have individual veneration of the cross. Our deacon-in-training carried the cross from the back of church to the altar, proclaiming three times, “Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the salvation of the world. Come, let us adore.” Then our pastor asked everyone to stand and silently adore from our places. Again, this is a situation where I’m usually busy providing music while everyone in church stands up, lines up, venerates the cross, and returns to seats. It takes longer than Communion and it’s important to end the music the second the last person has been seated, so it’s a little stressful. And the musicians never get to venerate the cross. This time, we all just stood in our places. You could hear a pin drop in that church. It was powerful.

Holy Week 2021 has turned out to be very different from Holy Week 2019, our last normal Holy Week. It’s also turned out to be a million times better than Holy Week 2020.

Tomorrow night is the Easter Vigil, and we will make a joyful noise, in praise of the Resurrection and our return to Mass and seeing Mass attendance numbers creep up, little by little each week. We won’t have an Easter Fire, and that’s sad. But after Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, and Good Friday, I know that, whatever’s missing, there will be a lesson for me in it.

Copyright 2021 Barb Szyszkiewicz. All rights reserved.

The Words I Sing

I have a song stuck in my head. And it’s glorious.

It’s been quite a while since that’s happened. Actually, I think it’s been a year.

The weekend of March 21/22 last year was the first weekend our parish was closed to the public because of the coronavirus pandemic. It was a solid three months before public Masses resumed. We still can’t sing in groups here or invite the assembly to sing. The hymnals are still stacked on tables in the parish library, which is still closed to the public.

Music at Mass for the past nine months has basically been walking music: hymns for the entrance procession, preparation of the gifts, Communion, and recessional. And we sing the Gospel acclamation. We have a cantor and accompanist, and we’re singing behind plexiglass shields, far away from each other and anyone else.

We haven’t been singing the Responsorial Psalms. The lector simply reads those.

But starting at this year’s Easter Vigil, we’ll be singing the psalms again.

Psalms are a challenge for the cantor, because they’re a whole new song you basically sing as a solo (so you have to get it right, since there’s no one to cover your mistakes), and sometimes you won’t sing that particular one again for another three years. They’re not like a new hymn you’ll sing several times within a liturgical season and get to know quite well.

For some weird reason known only to the music director, whenever I’m one of the singers at the Easter Vigil, I’m assigned the Exodus 15 psalm: “Let us sing to the Lord; He has covered Himself in glory.” A couple of years ago we got the Spirit & Psalm arrangements for the psalms and learned those; they’re more guitar-friendly than Respond & Acclaim. Since we don’t have enough organists or pianists to cover all the Masses at our parish, that option is a welcome one.

Some psalms are more difficult to learn and sing than others. Sometimes there are a lot of syllables stuffed into a short musical space. That’s what happens in verse 4 of that psalm for the Easter Vigil:

You brought in the people you redeemed
and planted them on the mountain of your inheritance
the place where you made your seat, O LORD,
the sanctuary, LORD, which your hands established.
The LORD shall reign forever and ever.

Five lines, but only four musical phrases. That “mountain of your inheritance” seems pretty insurmountable when you’re tripping over the syllables. And the Easter Vigil is less than two weeks away.

On Saturday I had a rare opportunity to be alone in the house, so I grabbed my copy of the psalm and headed for my little keyboard, where I belted out the refrain and stumbled over the verses a few times, worrying because the Easter Vigil is less than two weeks away and I don’t want to mess this up.

I practiced it so much that, while I still don’t have it right, I do have it stuck in my head.

Sunday morning when I prayed Liturgy of the Hours, as soon as one of the psalms contained a word or phrase that’s also in the Exodus 15 responsorial, my brain immediately switched to Easter Vigil mode.

I had to keep dragging myself back to the right words.

As I prepared and ate my breakfast, Exodus 15 was running through my mind.

But I’m not irritated about it. I’m grateful.

My last Easter Vigil was two years ago. We had many musicians and singers, all there to make a joyful noise. We had a Baptism that year, so we did all the readings and all the psalms. We made so much joyful noise that our voices were tired before the Communion hymn. And most of us showed up the next day to do it all again.

It was good.

Last Easter our parish had livestream issues (the technology was still new and frequently hiccupped) so we didn’t even get to see the whole Mass; we finally were able to view the stream from a neighboring parish.

And here we are, a year later, slowly adding back music to Masses where we can’t invite the assembly to sing with us — because they have no hymnals (who knows when the bishop will let us bring those back?).

People wave at us on their way out as we seize the opportunity to sing more than one verse of something, flashing a thumbs-up since we can’t see them smiling behind their masks. Some have stopped us in the parking lot to thank us for providing even the little bit of music we have, because “it makes things feel normal.”

All that to say: it’s been a long time since I’ve had a psalm stuck in my head because I’m learning it for Sunday.

Easter is coming. Easter music is coming. More music is coming.

And there will be great rejoicing.


Copyright 2021 Barb Szyszkiewicz
Photos copyright 2021 Barb Szyszkiewicz, all rights reserved.
Main image created in Stencil Pro.

Read and Listen: “Fifteen Spirituals That Will Change Your Life”

stencil.cm-featured

Fifteen Spirituals That Will Change Your Life by guitarist and music critic Henry L. Carrigan Jr. is a book you’ll want to read with music by your side.

Fortunately, publisher Paraclete Press has assembled a playlist on Spotify of multiple versions of the 15 spirituals Carrigan highlights in this book. It’s easy to open up Spotify on your phone or tablet, cue up this playlist, and play different artists’ renditions of the songs as Carrigan details the interpretation and instrumentation of each one.

Read. Pause. Listen. Repeat.

Reading Fifteen Spirituals That Will Change Your Life is like taking a very specific, self-paced music appreciation course. You’ll gain a deep knowledge of 15 beloved spirituals and a new appreciation of their history and message.

15 Spirituals

In addition to describing the songs’ performances by well-known musicians, Carrigan delves into each song’s history, discussing the time period in which a particular song was written and details of the composer’s life. Readers will learn about the theology behind the songs as well, with an intensive look at the spirituals’ poetic structure, verse by verse. What are we saying when we sing these words?

Carrigan also shares moments from his own life and depictions of well-known performances of some of these spirituals.

Reflections to end each chapter offer questions for discussion, prayer, journaling, or meditation.

As I began reading this book, I was called to sing at a funeral at my parish. One of the requested hymns was “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” which I’d heard before but had never sung. Reading Carrigan’s line-by-line analysis of this spiritual helped reinforce the message of the song: joyous praise amid sorrow. It helped me better prepare to sing a new-to-me song at the funeral of someone I knew.


Copyright 2019 Barb Szyszkiewicz
This post contains Amazon affiliate links. I was given a free review copy of this book, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Harmony where there isn’t any

harmony
Image created with Stencil.com.

In my parish, the music ministry uses three Mass settings: one for Advent and Lent, one for Christmas and Easter, and one for Ordinary Time. This is only the third weekend for us to settle back in with our Ordinary Time settings.

During the “Gloria,” I heard one of the other musicians in our group singing the beginnings of a harmony line. It sounded good, and after we finished singing I whispered to him to let him know that.

“Thanks,” he replied. “I like putting harmony where there isn’t any.”

Once the congregation is secure in singing the melody for a new song, we musicians feel comfortable adding harmonies. If there are enough of us to carry the melody, we’ll layer in two or three harmony lines. It’s fun to do, and it adds to the beauty of the music.

But there’s more to harmony than that. When you add harmony where there isn’t any, you put your own stamp on the tune. You place your individual gift at the service of the whole. By itself, harmony doesn’t work. There needs to be melody, and that melody needs to be strong. Done right, the harmony behind that melody won’t overpower it, but will instead support it in sometimes undetectable but undeniable ways.

Inventing harmony involves listening, creativity, and courage. If you don’t know where the melody is going, you can’t harmonize. You have to hear the music, then imagine another dimension to it. Then you have to take the big step of singing what you hear.

It’s not just about music. If everyone takes the melody part in life, the music is boring.

Where can you put harmony where there isn’t any?

harmony
Image created with Stencil.com.


Copyright 2019 Barb Szyszkiewicz

Listen to This: Jonathan Cain’s Christmas Album and Worship Music from The Porter’s Gate

Listen to This logo

Unsung Noel

It’s October and I’m listening to Christmas music! I love Unsung Noel, a new album from Jonathan Cain of Journey (yes, the ’80s band). The music is definitely contemporary, but it’s also very devotional. It’s refreshing to hear religious Christmas music from a mainstream rock artist — normally you’d expect songs all about winter and snow and mistletoe, not songs with lines like “[The Savior’s] birth has changed our lives.” 10 of the 14 tracks are songs written by Cain, and they are beautiful, reverent and joyful.

Jonathan Cain Unsung Noel cover art

While I enjoy those familiar carols, new Christmas music that celebrates the Savior always draws me in. These songs have a sound all their own — this is not “Journey Sings Christmas.” Cain is backed by the Grace Nashville Church choir on two of the tracks, but this is very much solo work. I’ll be listening to this frequently as Christmas draws near.

Work Songs

Does it strike you as strange to think about worship music centered on the theme of work? The Porter’s Gate, a collective of musicians featuring Audrey Assad and many others of varying Christian denominations, recently released Work Songs, an album of 13 modern hymns centered on affirming vocation as an integral part of a life of worship.

ThePortersGateWorshipProjectcoverart

I don’t consider this music something that could be used at Mass (it’s really not suitable for assembly singing), but it’s beautiful for use at retreats or prayer services. One of my favorites from the album, which features quite a few different musical styles, is “Ever Mother Every Father” with Audrey Assad.

At once joyful and meditative, the music on this live album is definitely worth a listen.


Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz
This post contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchase through these links helps support this blog. Thank you! I received preview downloads of the albums for this review, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Earthquake Topples Benedictine Basilica

Last December I reviewed Benedicta, an album of Marian chant as prayed by the Monks of Norcia.

Courtesy of DeMontfort Music. All rights reserved.
Courtesy of DeMontfort Music. All rights reserved.

Norcia, Italy was near the epicenter of the 6.2-magnitude earthquake that leveled the nearby town of Amatrice. It did not escape the damaging effects of that earthquake; 300 were killed, many more injured and many buildings damaged.

Among those damaged buildings were the monastery and basilica where the Benedictine monks have lived since the founding of the Benedictine Order in the fifth century. The monks were forced to relocate to Rome while repairs were being made.

Yesterday’s 6.6 earthquake in the same region leveled most of the basilica. Only the facade of the 14th-century church still stands.

The monks seek prayers and financial assistance; donations can be made through their website.

benedicta-album-cover

There’s another way to help as well: purchasing the Benedicta album for yourself or as a gift. The chant is beautiful and peaceful. The 33 a cappella tracks are calming and serene.

Whether you donate or listen, definitely pray for the monks and for all in central Italy who were impacted by the earthquake.

###

This month I’m joining all the cool kids in the #Write31Days adventure! I didn’t pick a keyword or a theme, because just getting something written for all 31 days is challenge enough for me right now.

Your purchase of this album through my Amazon affiliate link helps support this website. Thank you!

#WorthRevisit: Song of Mark

Today’s #WorthRevisit was inspired by my friend’s Facebook post. She was the director of this production, and took a chance on my strictly-amateur musicianship in order to get my kids to participate in the production. This is the only opportunity I’ve ever had to perform with all 3 of my kids. It was a true privilege, and I’m beyond grateful for the opportunity and the friendship. 5 years ago today, I was the guitarist for Song of Mark.

Growth Curve

During the past two weeks I’ve been rehearsing for Sunday’s performance of Marty Haugen’s Song of Mark, a musical production based on the Gospel of Mark, with a group of musicians and singers that I don’t ordinarily work with. It’s been a wonderful and interesting experience.

Playing with a new group is always a challenge, and that’s good, because when you play with the same people week after week, you start to know what to expect. It takes playing with different people to make a musician grow.

I’m not an excellent musician by any stretch of the imagination. Once I was out of college, I haven’t been in a position where I could play my guitar every day. It was more like one or two times per week. That’s not conducive to growing as a musician either. And while I had enough basic piano lessons to know how to read music, I’m a self-taught guitarist. The director of this production teaches music and can play just about any instrument. Frankly, if she weren’t so nice, I’d be really intimidated.

It’s nice being a part of a musical production with my kids. All 3 are taking part. Big Brother is playing electric bass, and Middle Sister and Little Brother are both in the children’s chorus. Since there are only about 20 in the entire cast and orchestra, we make up 1/5 of the people involved in this event.

All the music is new to me, and Haugen’s music is always a challenge. One of the other guitarists from my Sunday folk group observed that Haugen must hate guitarists when I showed her some of the music, written in tortuous keys and including chords like E-flat, Gm, and the like. Many of the songs are 6 or 8 pages long, so I also had to learn to work in page turns!

I have loved the opportunity to go and play for almost two solid hours at a time–though my arms are really feeling it. I’m playing along with a pianist, a keyboard, and Big Brother on the bass. With only one guitar, I don’t have much room for error. That’s a challenge too.

I think the challenge is good for me. And certainly playing is good for me. And some of the songs are really, really good. Here’s the refrain from my favorite one:

When the day of our God has come to pass,
The skies will ring out with the angels’ song.
The last will be first and the first will be last
When the day of our God comes,
The wondrous day of our God.

That’s been stuck in my head for days–and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Want to watch? The videos are here:

worth revisit

I’m linking up with Reconciled to You and Theology is a Verb for #WorthRevisit Wednesday, a place where you can come and bring a past & treasured post to share, and link up with fellow bloggers!

#WorthRevisit: Pride, Music and the Triduum

The Triduum: it’s only a few weeks away. And the musicians’ schedule has come out, and once again the folk group is not on it.

I’ve been a musician at this parish for about 20 of the past 25 years. For the first 10 years or so, the choir had Holy Thursday, the folk group had Good Friday, and everyone who could make it had the Easter Vigil.

When I returned to the parish after a 4-year hiatus, the folk group had its last hurrah at Good Friday that first year and no one but the choir was invited to sing at the Vigil. After that, we weren’t invited to anything for the Triduum.

I wrote about it here. I wrote about the Year We Were Excluded on Christmas too (thank God that only happened once.)

Last year we invited ourselves to Good Friday (after the pastor and music director who’d been keeping us out of special occasions had both moved on.) The new music director was very welcoming and accommodating. So was 50% of the choir. But the choir’s “Penalty Box” in the Big Church creates a real design challenge when it comes to getting 3 guitars and 10 extra people into the space, and not everyone was gracious about sharing wiggle room and music stands (why vocalists need music stands is beyond me. Their hands are not busy.)

#Hey! Let's make a triangular choir area with a closet bump-out in the middle!" said no sane church designer ever.
“Hey! Let’s make a triangular choir area with a closet bump-out in the middle!” said no sane church designer ever.

ANYWAY, for the past several years I’ve basically boycotted the Triduum, because it hurts to be there. It hurts to be excluded. So I rant in this space (and to my husband) and commiserate with the rest of the folk group–and nurse my wounded pride.

That needs to stop, and I’m the only one who can stop it. This year, I need to make it my business to be at the Triduum.

As I mentioned the other day, my friend has set a good example by bringing her children to a musical in which they were not cast, in order to support their friends who did get a role.

These boys are learning how to rise above their own disappointments and support their friends who were not similarly disappointed. It’s a hard lesson–at any age.

How many adults have not learned such a lesson? How often do we let our own wounded pride stand in the way of enjoying an experience or supporting a friend?

Time to put my money where my mouth is. If 9-year-olds can do it, so can I.

worth revisit

I’m linking up with Reconciled to You and Theology is a Verb for #WorthRevisit Wednesday, a place where you can come and bring a past & treasured post to share, and link up with fellow bloggers!

#WorthRevisit: Epiphany Edition

It’s January 6, and in some places, Epiphany is celebrated today and not the Sunday before. With that in mind, here’s my #WorthRevisit from 2 years ago:

I Played My Best for Him

I love Christmas carols–always have. If you ask me to choose my top 3, it’s an easy choice:  “O Holy Night,” “Silent Night,” and “The Little Drummer Boy.”

That last one hardly fits into the category of “traditional Christmas carols,” but I can’t help it. That song makes me cry every time–always has. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to sing the line, “I played my best for him” without choking up.

The Little Drummer Boy gets it right. He brings his gift–not something that can be opened, but his talent–and he gives his best effort to honor the newborn King. As a musician, it’s what I try to do, Sunday after Sunday. And I love that after the Little Drummer Boy offers his humble gift, Baby Jesus smiles at him.

Pass me a tissue, please.

Why would I choose bongo drums to illustrate this post? In art, the Little Drummer Boy is always pictured with a snare, sometimes slung around his neck, and drumsticks in his hands.

But my Little Drummer Boy (AKA Little Brother) has bongo drums. We sang “The Little Drummer Boy” on Tuesday at church and will do so again today. (It’s not “orthodox;” it’s not in the hymnal, but it’s better theology than a bunch of what is in there.) Little Brother has learned to play the song on his drums. On Tuesday he knelt beside the guitarists and nailed that drum part, even meriting a thumbs-up from Bill, a former drummer who’s very particular about how percussion is played.

I love that my kids have had the opportunity to offer their musical gifts in worship, to play their best–even when they’re beginners musically. I teared up on Tuesday when my Little Drummer Boy played his best, right alongside me. And it’s pretty much a given that I’ll cry again today.

________________

We played this song on Sunday, as we do each Epiphany. Yeah, I cried. And even though the song is not in the hymnal, so we didn’t announce it, the congregation sang right along. (Which means we’re doing our job.)

worth revisit

I’m linking up with Reconciled to You and Theology is a Verb for #WorthRevisit Wednesday, a place where you can come and bring a past & treasured post to share, and link up with fellow bloggers!

#WorthRevisit: Lessons and Carols

It’s time again for the Festival of Lessons and Carols, happening Friday. This is my favorite musical event of the whole year. I’ve participated every year since 2011, though last year I attended all but one rehearsal and missed the performance because I was too sick to play, let alone sing.

filming Lessons and Carols small
From a performance in 2013. I’m not in this photo; the instruments were off to the right.

For today’s #WorthRevisit Wednesday, I’m revisiting December 2011, the first year I participated in Lessons and Carols. None of my kids participate anymore, but I’m still there and, if they’ll have me, I’ll continue to be there in future years. (Hey, I multitask. I play guitar AND sing alto. I’m the only guitar, but one of 6 altos this year–the alto section is nothing short of amazing. Not that I’m biased.)

One of my favorite activities in high school was the choir. We were probably about 60 strong–that’s half the school! I loved the chance to sing in harmony.

We only had 3-part harmony (soprano, second soprano, alto) since my high school was not coed. I was a second soprano, but over the years I’ve migrated to alto. (And I’m not above throwing in a tenor or baritone part now and again, just for the fun of it.) I do not harbor any illusions of having a solo-quality voice, but I do just fine in a group and I can sustain a harmony line without being near anyone else who’s singing that same part.
Right now, I’m thoroughly enjoying a chance to stretch my musical muscles. Over at the school parish, preparations are under way for a Festival of Lessons and Carols, scheduled for the Tuesday before Christmas. It’s a mixed group in many ways. First of all, we’ve got soprano, alto, tenor and bass–and a children’s chorus. WOW! It’s amazing to be part of creating that wonderful sound. We’re coming from at least 4 different parishes and at least as many different choirs/ensembles. There are kids (as young as second grade), teens, college students, young adults, parents with kids of all ages, and empty-nesters.  
Soon, we’re bringing in the musical instruments! And we all come together to make music. Christmas music is wonderful, and there is a huge repertoire of beautiful Christmas music out there. As a musician at church, though, I’m pretty much limited to standard carols. And that’s fine–people attending Mass during the Christmas season expect, and should find, those old familiar carols. It makes things easy when people visit from other parishes, other traditions, or just haven’t been to church in a while. When we play and sing at Mass, we’re there to lead people in prayer through song, not to perform for them.
This Festival of Lessons and Carols is a combination of Scripture readings and beautiful music, most of which is not your standard carol. It’s a performance, but don’t think for a moment that it is not also worship.
Last year Big Brother played bass at this Festival. The rest of us came along to be part of the audience. I loved it and was thrilled to be asked to take part this year (along with Little Brother and Big Brother, who will participate again).
That whole “singing is praying twice” thing? For me, it’s completely true.
I love that we pray before we rehearse, thanking God for the gift of music, for the opportunity to share that gift and to give God honor and glory by using that gift. (That’s the gist of the prayer; the music director does a better job phrasing it than I just did).
And I love being a small part of this large group. Some people in the group are like me, with ordinary musical skills. Others are incredibly gifted. When I sing with them, I am challenged beyond what I think I am capable of doing.
Great joy!

worth revisit

I’m linking up with Reconciled to You and Theology is a Verb for #WorthRevisit Wednesday, a place where you can come and bring a past & treasured post to share, and link up with fellow bloggers!