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

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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

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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?

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Copyright 2019 Barb Szyszkiewicz

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

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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.

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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.

#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!

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.

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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.

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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: Dread vs. Hope

Do you hate Lent?

There’s nothing fun about penance, to be sure, but Lent has its hopeful side. Today I’m revisiting a post I wrote on the First Sunday of Lent in 2007:

Why is Lent something we seem to dread?

It’s only been three days so far, and I’ve lost count of the people who have expressed to me how much they “hate Lent.”

This morning a fellow church musician mentioned that she finds Lenten music to be full of Gloom and Doom.

Granted, this is not a cheerful time, in the sense that Christmas and Easter are cheerful. But it is certainly a hopeful time. It is a time to look forward to the holiest Three Days that we celebrate as a Church. As we remind ourselves each week as we recite the Memorial Acclamation, “Lord, by your cross and resurrection, you have set us free. You are the Savior of the world.”

At Mass today our choir will sing this song by Dan Schutte:

Let us ever glory in the cross of Christ,
Our salvation and our hope.
Let us bow in homage to the Lord of life,
Who was broken to make us whole.
There is no greater love, as blessed as this,
To lay down one’s life for a friend.
Let us ever glory in the cross of Christ
And the triumph of God’s great love.

Let us tell the story of the cross of Christ
As we share this heavenly feast.
We become one body in the blood of Christ
From the great to the very least.
When we eat of this bread and drink of this cup
We honor the death of the Lord.
Let us ever glory in the cross of Christ
And the triumph of God’s great love.

(copyright 2000, OCP)

During this season of Lent, may we remember that it’s not All About Us. It’s not about whether we can abide giving up chocolate, or soda, or colored sprinkles. These sacrifices are small potatoes indeed when we meditate on what Christ was willing to do for our sakes.

May we walk through this Lent with a joyful spirit.

Saint Bernardine of Siena wrote that Saint Francis once said:

May the fiery and honey-sweet power of your love, O Lord, wean me from all things under heaven, so that I may die for love of your love, who deigned to die for love of my love.

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.

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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!