A few months ago Catholic choir directors and liturgy teams had the difficult task of picking a new or revised mass setting based on the promulgation of the 3rd Roman Missal.  The new changes took affect on the first Sunday of Advent, November 27th, 2011. Looking back, I now realize this was quite a momentous event in the history of the Catholic Church. 

I went to various workshops in Sacramento and San Francisco sponsored by Catholic music publishers and our local diocese in order to be ready and have the tools necessary to make an informed decision on a new mass setting.  Our Office of Worship for the Diocese of Sacramento suggested that we pick a mass setting and stick with it for at least six months in order for our assemblies to familiarize themselves with the new text.  They also “suggested” that all the parishes in the Dioceses of Sacramento pick one common mass setting that we all would know and be able to sing…that mass setting was (drum roll), The Heritage Mass by Owen Alstott

Now I think that was a great idea to have one mass setting that all the parishes would be comfortable singing—but myself and many of my choir director friends thought it might be easier for our assemblies to learn the new revised text singing a completely new mass setting verses one that was already in their heads.  To prove my point, I had the pleasure of going to a concert/workshop put on by David Haas / GIA Publications in Folsom California a few months ago.  In the workshop, he sang through his revised setting of Mass of Light and then sang through his new mass setting Mass for a New World.  Because I already knew Mass of Light, I found myself struggling through the words and revised melodies.  Sight-reading Mass for a New World seemed much easier and smoother.  There is something about “revising” a piece of music that was already written that just seems to make it a little cumbersome.

What was my criteria for picking a new mass setting to use?  First of all, I wanted an interesting theme that was neither boring nor to contemporary sounding—not to “folksy” or to ostentatious .  I wanted the music to at least have SAB parts available and one or two C instrument parts—a string quartet or brass quartet arrangement would be another plus.  Not that I could pull either out of my pocket, but I do occasionally have string and brass players available. It should also be workable with various accompaniments: organ, piano, guitar, etc.  

I finally decided upon Mass of Spirit and Grace by Father Ricky Manalo, Oregon Catholic Press. Here is the introduction to this mass setting from OCP”s website:

Serve a variety of musical and cultural styles
Inspired by his Eucharistic hymn "Spirit and Grace," and the role of the Holy Spirit during the Communion rite, this approachable setting can be adapted to fit a number of different ensembles. Plus, enjoy a complete set of verbatim Gospel verses for Sundays, solemnities and feasts—available in a separate special edition.

It’s interesting that one of the things that sold me on this mass setting was the above mention of “verbatim Gospel verses for Sundays, etc.”.  I’m still waiting for that “separate special edition” to come out.  I was so looking forward to not having to write out a separate gospel verse chant for each weekend…but that is something I need to bring up with OCP. 

Ricky Manalo, CSPThe melodies of Mass of Spirit and Grace are typical of Father Manalo.  The Holy is majestic and flowing without being pedantic…The OCP recording has an organ accompaniment which sounds great, but I played it on my guitar and it also worked well.  There is a traditional refrain/verse Gloria as well as a through-composed version that I chose to use.  I’m still not sure if that was the right decision to use, but the beginning of the mass is so music heavy, I decided that would be one place to, for a lack of a better phrase, speed things along. The previously mentioned Alleluia along with the other melodies in this mass setting just seem timeless to me.

There are many new mass settings from WLP, OCP and GIA that I am excited about learning and sharing with our assembly.  I plan to write further about them in future blog post.  For now, I am happy to say that I am very pleased with my decision to go with Mass of Spirit and Grace and I look forward to five more months of this new edition to the Catholic service music repertoire.

My church community has drastically changed over the past 5-7 years.  It went from about 90 percent English speaking to now maybe…I don’t know the statistics, but probably around 60 percent English speaking and 40 percent Spanish.  We’ve added a 7pm Spanish Saturday mass and a 1pm Spanish mass on Sundays.  This all seems to work out well.  We now (after a lot of growing pains) have a well established Spanish choir.  I’m not really a part of that movement, but a former choir member is running it and their accompanist is also the same one we use in our English speaking/singing choir. So there is some pretty nice connections between the English and Spanish speaking choirs.

Our pastor is from Mexico (came to the United States about nine years ago), so he has no problem switching between the two languages.  Our English speaking choir has taken on the task of singing at this bilingual liturgy.  My part as the choir director has been to try to come up with appropriate bilingual Christmas songs as well as try to maintain some of the music tradition that is expected in this church that was established some sixty years ago.  A huge task where I’m sure I haven’t  been able to please everyone.  On top of that, our traditional Christmas service music for the last 15 years has always been Mass of Remembrance by Marty Haugen (GIA Publications)…The bilingual mass setting I picked for our midnight mass was Misa Del Pueblo Inmigrante by Bob Hurd (OCP).   It was the obvious choice as both our Spanish speaking and English speaking assemblies already were familiar with the mass setting.

My real challenge was how to arrange the Christmas carols in a way that was logical, singable and familiar to both the Spanish and English speaking assemblies.  My web search of GIA, OCP and WLP didn’t help to much.  There are some beautiful bilingual octavos available through each of these publishers, but my criteria was simple, easy to read and mostly unison singing.  Keeping in mind that there is usually little choir practice time available and little money to properly (and legally) buy quality music, I mostly used what I had available from the above mentioned publishing companies.

I went around and around in my head the best possible way to sing the bilingual Christmas carols and decided to keep a constant pattern of Verse 1 – English, Verse 2 – Spanish, Verse 3 English, Verse 4 Spanish, etc.  This worked pretty well, although during O Come, O Come Emmanuel we were actually jumping from the English version to a separate piece of music with the Spanish words.   Not the best arrangement, but it actually worked out ok.  I followed this same pattern throughout the service, but for some reason, I changed the pattern for the recessional song “Joy to the World”—moving to the pattern, Verse 1 English, Verse 1 Spanish, Verse 2 English, Verse 2 Spanish, etc.  This decision turned out to be very bad and I got mixed up and started singing the wrong Spanish verse.  My cantor was singing the correct verse, but then started singing the “wrong” verse (following me).  In the meantime, I noticed the choir was struggling (basically looking puzzled and not really singing at all)…I realized my mistake and started singing the correct verse, but, alas my cantor was now singing the wrong verse having followed me down the wrong road.  After what seemed like an eternity (in choir director embarrassment time) the song ended.  The priest and deacon hadn’t moved from their chairs and all were left standing there in the eerie silence that now completed midnight mass (Ite, missa est). 

So—the moral of this story is this:  When doing a bi-lingual Christmas liturgy, make it as easy as possible for the choir and assembly to sing the the bilingual music.  In my case, the worship aid should match exactly what is being sung by the choir.  Add translations where needed.  The choir (and choir director!) should not have to have a roadmap of arrows and circles on their music to keep them singing the correct verses.  In my case (using Finale) I also increased the size of the words for my ever aging choir members.   Here is an example of what I did with O Come, O Come Emmanuel (public domain version):

O Come O Come Emmanuel snippit

There is no question as to the next verse to be sung and the actual printed music font is large and easy to read.  I didn’t add it to the worship aid this Christmas season, but next year, you can bet it will look just like what the choir is singing.  I know this may not be the best solution, but I know it is the best for my choir.  We are always struggling to find enough time to practice the music for the Christmas season.  There is always (at least I get this feeing) an undercurrent of “why are we even singing in Spanish when they have their own Christmas liturgy”!  And, as much time as I do rehearse the Spanish singing and pronunciation with my choir, it is usually only passible when it comes time to sing during the mass.  That is why I want to do everything in my power as choir director to create a scenario where there is a very good chance of success.

I recently sent an email to the instrumentalist in my choir reminding them of some extra responsibilities they have as liturgical musicians and leaders of sung prayer.  There are the obvious ones, like having a well tuned instrument, having music set up in a binder in the proper order and having practiced the music before hand so they are not sight reading their music.   But what I wanted to discuss is the posture or movement of the musician in the choir area. 

Let me start off by offering a little confession.  I often times day dream during the homily, even when there is a very gifted homilist speaking.  It’s been pointed out to me after mass by very dear friends in the assembly that I was obviously not paying attention or looked like I was off in space.  We all need to keep in mind that as members of the choir or music ministry, we are on display in front of the assembly (hopefully there are no longer any choirs still singing from the back balcony of the church!).  Any movement or sound we make can be seen and may be distracting to the assembly.

Here are the bullet points I sent to my instrumentalist (based on what I have seen lately during mass).  I know…some of them may seem blatantly obvious:

  • Please arrive at the church early so that you have enough time to tune up and warm up your instrument.  At least 10 minutes before mass (15 minutes would even be better), please stop warming up (playing scales, etc.) your instrument or tuning.  By this time, the microphones are usually on and even though you might not have your own microphone, other microphones in the area may pick up your sound.  Others around you may be trying to quite themselves and/or pray.
  • During the mass, please don’t play your instrument softly, or even finger your instrument without making a sound.  Even though you may be playing softly, it is still distracting to other instrumentalist around you.   Please remember that we are very much on display where we sit.  I’ve actually had people from the assembly mention about a musician, "that person sure was moving around a lot".
  • If you don’t have the music (an example is after communion when the keyboard player is playing an instrumental piece), please don’t try to improvise or pick out the tune yourself.

    This list may need to be modified when there are younger instrumentalist.  I’ve muppet drummerworked with younger drum kit players (I’ve always called it a trap set) for other churches who only know how to play one volume (loud of course!) and it is really a challenge getting them to understand that we, as instrumentalist, are there to support the singing and to not be the center of attention.  The same goes for other instrumentalist, especially those who have access to an amplifier.  I myself, play bass guitar most Sundays but constantly ask key members of the assembly to check my volume during the mass to ensure I’m not playing to loud. 

    I’m sure I’ve missed some bad habits that I’ve seen pop up at other times during my liturgical career, but this blog entry at least hits the highlights.  The main point for all of us to remember, is that we are not playing our instrumentalist as soloist or are sitting in a liturgical bubble.  There are other musicians and singers around us and we are there to support the sung prayer of the assembly by adding some musical variation and interest.  If we are distracting by playing to loudly, or moving around to much, or playing when we are not supposed to be playing, then we are not doing our job as liturgical musicians. 

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    About ten years ago, my local Catholic parish had a Wednesday evening centering prayer service.  It wasn’t very well attended…maybe ten or so people.  What I found so wonderful about this form or prayer was the relaxing pace that ensued once we began the service.  Even further back in my childhood (early 70’s), I was introduced to the charismatic prayer movement.  Although I haven’t participated in a charismatic prayer meeting in over thirty years, it influenced my early faith development.  I loved the singing (I was the accompanist for many years) and the prayer and the silence.  I also loved the fact that the meetings, although had some structure to them, were very much,  “lead by the spirit”.  The same goes for Taize prayer services I’ve been a part of for the last fifteen years.

    I could go on and on about the various virtues of slowing down everything, but the best example is from a video I found at TED.COM by Carol Honore.  The one example of learning to slow down that really hit me was when Carol spoke of telling his son a goodnight story.  His life was so caught up in multi-tasking and rushing through every aspect of this life, that his nightly bedtime story with his son became more of an inconvenience and his son’s reaction to his “speed-story time” was that they both became more anxious and frustrated. 

    Have we as Catholic’s gotten caught up in the speed-reading, speed-dating, speed-(fill in the blank) of life?  Most Catholics don’t go do mass on a daily basis, so the one mass we attend on Sunday should in fact, be the highlight of our weekly spiritual journey with Christ.  The Mass should be the one time and place where we give our body, mind and soul to our Lord…leaving the Blackberry’s, to-do list, and worries of our life at the door.  Ironically I recently heard a priest give a homily on this very subject.  It was very good…he pointed out that we are always on the clock, we are always speeding in our cars from one place to another and missing out on some of the most important things in life…good conversation, good food prepared with care, and good relaxing prayer.  The irony being, this same priest is so incredibly caught up about starting the liturgy exactly on time and always badgering the music ministers, readers, lectures about keeping up the “pace” of the mass. 

    The talk given by Carol Honore mentions the slow food movement and even the slow city movement where people are reassessing the way our society has lost touch with the quality of life that allows for our everyday task to become more meaningful and enjoyable.  Why not the slow mass movement?  Alas, I googled it and came up with nothing!  But wouldn’t it be lovely if we always sang all the verses to all the songs during the mass without “Father’ giving us the “you’re wasting my time look”.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if after each reading, there was a minute or two for the assembly to mediate on what was just read.  Wouldn’t it be moving if there was time to contemplate on each liturgical action during the mass, instead of many things happening at once.  I know I’m missing many areas that could be improved upon (more silence after communion!).  I’ve been to the “rush to the finish line mass” and I’ve also attended many Catholic liturgies that were prayerful, thoughtful and spiritual.  The former felt lifeless and inconvenient for the presiding priest.  The later was spirit filled and left me wishing it wouldn’t end.  Thirty to Forty-five minutes of feeling like you were cheated out of your weekend liturgy, or an hour and fifteen to thirty minutes of reveling in the deep spirituality and history of Catholicism?  Smell the incense…listen to the word of God…mediate…sing praises to the Lord…slow down!


    “May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the Lord”
    Psalm 104:34

    Choir Characters

    I’ve noticed in my years as a Catholic choir member and now director for the past 9 years—there is a reoccurring theme of characters in every choir.  No, not all choirs have these same characters—although some of these characters have multiple personalities!  Here is my list of the most common “Catholic Choir Characters” I’ve run across over the years.  Hopefully you will find this entertaining and maybe even add your own.  Oh, and this is not an exhaustive listing by any means…just the most common in my experience.

    By the way—all names have been changed to protect the innocent (and guilty).

    Cathy the Complainer – I have a dear friend who is the choir director in another town about 30 minutes away.  She is a sweetheart “nice girl” and has the patience of Job.  I know this because she has the mother of all “Cathy the Complainers” in her choir. Cathy seems like she really doesn’t want to be in the choir, so it always puzzles me as to why she even shows up since nothing seems to make her happy.  A few common phrases from Cathy:  “I don’t like that song”, “We used to sing it slower (or faster) at my last church”,  “She sat in my seat!  I always sit there”, “I won’t sit by [insert name here], she throws me off”, etc.

    I think the bottom line with this lady is that she just wants some attention and will say about anything to get it.  This person loves to drag everyone down with her and takes delight in doing so.  Of course, she’s always there for every choir practice and liturgy!

    True Confession:  when I took my previous choir director position, the only stipulation was that “Cathy the Complainer” (I knew everyone in the choir) be asked to leave before I started.  That was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done.  This particular lady was previously asked to leave the church choir by another choir director!  Ouch!

    Helpless Harriet –  Harriet is a nice version of Cathy the Complainer or  clown ladiessometimes the two personalities morph into one super helpless-complainer monstrosity.  Harriet never practices the music during the week. She is a long time choir member who can’t read music to save her life and is unwilling to try.  When she arrives for our warm-up period before mass, she never has her music in order.  In fact, the most common phrase heard from Harriet is, “You never gave me that music”.  Harriet can also never sing her part unless she has a “strong alto or soprano” singing next to her.  When her “crutch-singer” isn’t around, Harriet is—-well, helpless!

    Terry the Triple Forte Tenor -Terry is the guy that sings everything as loud as he can.  He knows he has a big voice and wants to share it with all of God’s creatures.  Terry is the guy you place as far away from the choir microphones as possible because he can be heard throughout the church…including the basement!  Another lovely character trait of Terry is that he loves to talk to his choir neighbors all throughout choir practice!

    Ophelia the Opera Star – Ah—the female version of Terry.  Ophelia at one time in her life had voice lessons and studies Italian arias. Ophelia’s vibrato is so wide and over-the-top that you could drive a trunk through it.  One word Ophelia was never taught in voice lessons—blend!!!

    Sophie the Soft Singer – I’ve been in the choir with Sophie for 25 years.  I have yet to actually hear her sing!  Much like Cathy the Complainer, Sophie never misses a choir practice or liturgy.  Every choir practice I plead with her and her friends, Susan and Sarah (soft singers too!) to please sing out—use your diaphragm, stand up straight, get your head out of your music…they never do.

    Late Larry –  Late Larry and his counterpart Late Laura are always 15 to 30 minutes late for choir practice.  I thought I would cure him one season by changing the choir practice start time to 7:30PM versus 7:00PM.  You guessed it.  Larry was still 15 to 30 minutes late.  Of course, at the beginning of mass, I can always see Larry sneak in from the back and take his place during the processional.

    Isaac the Itchy Instrumentalist – Isaac’s MO is that he can’t keep from fiddling on his guitar, drum, or whatever instrument happens to be in front of him before and sometimes during mass!  What’s worse, when there is a beautiful instrumental being played by the keyboard player after communion, Isaac is right there trying his best to pick out the tune!!! I, of course, look like I’m swatting flies as I try to wave him off.

    I better stop now.  I hope you had fun reading this.  You, of course, are not one of the above characters, right?  And I do understand that choir directors are probably the most peculiar people out there.  I’ll save my description of this breed of folk for another post.


    I am a believer in the use of worship (participation) aids to encourage assembly participation in the “singing of the mass”.  Not just any worship aid, but a very well thought out and professionally created worship aid with notes and music—not just a sheet with words. 

    It is my goal as a minister of music to create worship aids that look professional, are pleasing to the eye and easy to read.  Any seasoned director of environment and arts will tell you that everything in the church, the vestments, the artwork, the flowers, etc. should all have a certain richness that draws the faithful into prayer.  On special occasions (during the Season of Christmas and Easter) I also have the worship aids professionally printed on 8 1/2 by 17 (folded) paper.  My regular Sunday worship aids are always legal size (8 1/2 by 14) folded in half.  I find that using 8 1/2 by 11 paper (folded) requires me to shrink the music and words of the hymns down too small.  I can’t imagine someone with bad eyes squinting to see the words and notes to a hymn on a standard piece of paper.

    This brings me (finally) to the topic of this blog post.  Where imagecan one find acceptable liturgical clip art to use in a worship aid?  I’ve searched the Internet high and low and with a few exceptions, I can not find good quality clip art.  The graphic at the beginning of this post is from Hermanoleon Clipart which I dare say is about the only Internet site I’ve found that has Catholic clip art that conveys prayer and worship.  I used this particular graphic for the cover art work for my Pentecost worship aid.  Much of what I see on the Internet is non-Catholic in nature and although some of it is high quality, it doesn’t meet my criteria or doesn’t represent our Catholic form of worship.  The worst clip art I found on my Internet search was of an animated cross with legs and arms and a “happy face”.  I can’t imagine what the creator of that graphic was thinking!

    religious clip art_steve erspamer_smMy all-time favorite Catholic clip art is  from Liturgy Training Publications called Clip Art for the Liturgical Year by Steve Erspamer, SM.  An internal search of the LTP web site for clip art may find you as frustrated as I was.  If you click on “customer service” and then “software” you’ll be taken to this location where they do refer to the aforementioned software but don’t really tell you how to order it.  The second graphic I used for this post, “Peace to You”, is an example of the art work on the Clip Art for the Liturgical Year CD. 

    What are our guidelines for creating worship or participation aids?  The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops actually published a documented called “Guidelines for the Publication of participation Aids“.  It doesn’t really mention much about clip art or artwork in a worship aid, but towards the end of the document, it does list various resources for graphics used in creating a worship aid.  My advise would be to use quality graphics that call you to prayer, and try not to use to many graphics in your worship aid because it tends to clutter things up and distract from the professionalism of the aid.  I normally just use one piece of clip art for the front of the worship aid.

    I have a friend who is a freelance pastoral musician.  She provides her services for various funerals and vigils in the local area.  It’s always interesting to hear of her experiences dealing with various priest and liturgy directors.  At her latest funeral, she was asked before hand by the liturgy director if she would sing “Ave Maria” during the communion procession!  Wow!  She managed to talk the liturgy director into letting her sing the song as a prelude to the liturgy.

    The liturgy documents tell us the song during communion should be one that is well known by the assembly and have a refrain that can be sung without everyone having to carry a hymnal down the isle with them.  A psalm is suggested, but I’ve never felt comfortable singing a psalm during the communion procession.   

    Ths Holy Light_Ricky Manalo_CD cover I recently ran across a wonderful piece of music that I used for the communion process for Pentecost and the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ this year.  The song is called Spirit and Grace and it was composed by Ricky Manalo, CSP.  I always get excited when I get my OCP quarterly packet and see an octavo with his name on it.  Many Ricky Manalo compositions have become standard repertoire at my church (Beyond the Days, By the Waking of Our Hearts, Come, O Spirit of God…just to name a few).  I’ve seen many Catholic choirs make the mistake (in my mind) of singing to many (or even all) hymns during the Pentecost Vigil or Pentecost Day based on the “Pentecost Sequence, Veni, Sancte Spiritus“.  Ricky Manalo’s hymn speaks of the Holy Spirit by in a very unique way.

    As I mentioned, “Spirit and Grace” is a communion song.  The tune is also a continuation of Ricky Manalo’s “Mass of Spirit and Grace” which, as far as I can tell, is not yet out in print yet.  The song fills a very needed niche in our Catholic repertoire because it speaks of the connection between the Holy Spirit and the Eucharist.  The song can be sung during any Sunday of the Church year, but would be very appropriate for the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, Pentecost, confirmations, ordinations, anniversaries.  

    The octavo of Spirit and Grace was written for assembly, SATB choir, Keyboard, Guitar and Solo Instrument.  The solo instrument part is beautiful and I look forward to playing it on my violin.  The tune to this hymn was picked up very quickly by my choir.  That almost always means the assembly will not have any difficulty picking up the tune either.  I know it will become another standard communion hymn at our church.

    In the bread, blessed, broken and shared,
    Christ is our life, whose presence we bear. 
    Come, O Spirit, make your grace revealed in this holy meal.

    Refrain – Spirit and Grace, by Ricky Manalo, CSP