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
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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
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Copyright 2019 Barb Szyszkiewicz

#WorthRevisit: My Semiannual Spiritual Attack

Shame on me. Once again I’m letting myself fall victim to my pride, and I’m letting that pride get in the way of the holiest 3 days of the Church year.

In short: there’s only one group of musicians at my parish that is invited to participate in the Triduum, and that’s not the group to which I belong. So instead of acting like a grownup, I pick up my toys and go home and don’t come to the Triduum.

Shame on me. The only one I’m hurting is myself.

I said this last year, but I didn’t follow through:

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.

Honestly, it is pride that gets in my way here. I rail about the entitlement mentality but I let myself get all caught up in it when it comes to music. We’re there every week, yes. But we’re not owed anything because of that.

This journey, like any journey, will begin with a single step. And I’ve decided to make a plan for that step. I’m starting tonight by refusing to rant at folk group practice about the fact that we’re left out. It’s time to stop licking my wounds and just start praying.

Please pray for me, in your kindness, as I try to get over this.
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!

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: First Faith Formation Mass

For the past 7 years, faith formation at my parish was held off-site, at the local Catholic high school situated midway between the two churches that make up the parish. Faith formation took place on Sunday mornings, beginning with Mass in the school auditorium and running for two hours after Mass. There were 14 faith-formation sessions per school year.

Faith formation (or religious education, or CCD, or whatever you call it) has largely been off my radar screen because my children have always attended Catholic schools, where they have daily religion classes. I never paid much attention to how our parish did religious education—until the children disappeared.

For the past 7 years, my children were among the very few children at Mass on faith-formation weekends. All the other kids were in the high-school auditorium. And that’s not a good thing. It means that families were separated out from the rest of the parish. This is not the same as designating a particular Mass as a “family-friendly” Mass, with a homily geared toward children and more upbeat, contemporary music.

The families had left the building—or, more accurately, been removed from it and sent to an auditorium whose primary purpose is school assemblies and performances of the spring musical. Projecting stained-glass windows on the auditorium walls is a poor substitute for the real thing that the children could see, up close and personal, at our two church buildings.

Families missed out. They missed out on the experience of being at Mass among people of all ages. They missed that fellowship and, hopefully, that encouragement at the sign of peace, or after Mass, or when someone in front of them turned around to smile at their babbling babies.

The rest of the parish missed out. They missed out on the witness of families who showed up, despite untied shoes, major bed-head, and arguments about whether Matchbox cars are good church toys. (Trust me, families. The parish needs to see you there. That’s how we know the Church is alive and well and continuing into the future.)

And this morning, at the second of two inaugural Masses for faith formation on our own parish turf, it became evident that the children had missed out as well. Case in point:

  • Lots of people sang the responsorial psalm, an entirely new, but very simple tune. Very few sang the other acclamations until the Lord’s Prayer came along. They sang that (again, not as many as sang the psalm, but they sang it.)
  • I watched one brother-sister pair as they made their way through the Communion line. The brother, age 9 or 10, was demonstrating to his sister how she should receive Communion as they walked toward Father. He had it all down—how to hold up his two hands, how to bless himself afterward. I hoped and prayed that his younger sister was actually old enough to receive, and that if she wasn’t, she hadn’t just made her First Communion today.
  • The kids didn’t seem to know what to do in the pews, which makes sense if their entire Mass experience has taken place in an auditorium with no kneelers.
  • And at the end of Mass, after Father prayed the closing prayer and the deacon said, “Go in peace,” they went. Immediately. Without waiting for Father and the rest of the procession to leave first. The rest of the parish followed their lead, so behind the altar servers we had a senior-citizen couple who crept along at a snail’s pace in the middle of a bunch of families. Father and the deacon couldn’t go anywhere.

I’m really glad that the families are back in church. I hope that as the weeks go on, things get better. It was encouraging that they sang the psalm, so we can expect that participation in music will improve.

It was good to see kids watching the musicians. I never mind if kids turn around and watch us play. That gives me hope that they’ll think, “maybe I can do that someday.” That’s what I did as a kid, and I appreciate the encouragement I received as a beginning musician 35 years ago.

There was a little dancing in the aisle, too, during the closing song, which contributed to the procession’s traffic jam, but to which the parents put a quick end.

We had one mom stop by the musicians’ area and ask us about joining our folk group. That’s terrific! I hope she does, and that she brings a friend or three.

Overall, I think the good of having the families back within the parish church far outweighed the bad and the ugly. This is good for the whole parish, and it’s necessary—and not just because we have only one priest now. It’s necessary for the good of the Church to have the families among us, not in some high-school auditorium.

After 7 years, the families are back in our parish church for faith formation. It’s about time. And now it’s time to welcome them.

Welcome to Sing

I’ve been a musician and singer in church since I was 15. Suffice to say that I’ve been at it for more than 2/3 of my life, even without counting the part where I was a cantor for the responsorial psalm and prayer of the faithful in middle school.

The very first church where I participated as a music minister: St. Bonaventure in Paterson, NJ.
The very first church where I participated as a music minister: St. Bonaventure in Paterson, NJ.

I’ve never been afraid to lift up my voice and sing in church. Now, I’m by no means a solo-quality singer, but I’m happy to blend in with a group (and ecstatic if I get to sing the harmony part.) So even if I’m in the pew instead of in the choir or ensemble, I’m going to sing.

It’s been my pleasure and privilege, for thirty-mumble years, to sing and play in quite a number of folk groups, choirs and ensembles. I’ve seen (and heard) the good, the bad, and the ugly–both while playing and singing and while sitting as part of the assembly.

Jane the Actuary at Patheos Catholic wonders how to get people in the assembly to participate by singing. It’s simple, really. In my experience, people will sing unless they are discouraged from doing so.

How can choirs and musicians show that they don’t want the assembly to sing?

  • Play the song in a key that’s out of reach for all except the deepest bass or highest soprano
  • Don’t announce the number of the song in the hymnal
  • Announce the number of the song, but tell the congregation that they’re invited to sing during the refrain only
  • Choose music that is not in the hymnal
  • Sing the hymn in a language other than what’s in the hymnal or spoken in the community (Latin being the exception here)
  • Use a different arrangement of a familiar hymn
  • Sing familiar hymns whose words have been changed by politically-correct hymnal publishers
  • Sing the hymn in madrigal style so that the assembly can’t find the melody
  • Don’t provide a hymnal or worship aid, or leave all the hymnals stacked on the outer edges of 12-seat pews, so that people who forget to grab one on their way to sit down never get one later
  • Sing with so much technical perfection that you intimidate everyone in the pews

I have seen all of these happen in my long tenure as a musician. And there’s no excuse for any of them.

Finally, this is the story of the Music Director Who Caused a Mutiny. During my junior year in college, the music department hired a graduate student to direct the folk group. The position was usually a volunteer one, held by an undergrad music student in the folk group–but they all graduated. We learned a lot of new music that year, which is always good, but most of it wasn’t in the hymnal, which is usually bad. When we spoke up to the director about the probability that people in the pews would be discouraged from singing, her response was, “You’re performing for God.”

Well, no. We were not performing for God. We weren’t performing for Father, either, nor for the congregation. We were there to lead people in sung prayer, not to put on a show for anyone (even God.)

Our director only showed up at one of the two Masses the folk group played. My friends and I took turns leading the music at the other Mass, and if music that wasn’t in the hymnal was chosen, we’d replace it during the Mass when we were on our own.

When our parish merged with a neighboring one in 2008, we were told that people at the other church didn’t sing. Indeed, many of them expressed surprise at the level of participation in our original parish. But guess what? It’s gotten better! With encouragement, people will sing. Even if they’re Catholic.

Image source: St. Bonaventure Parish Facebook page