I had the joy of singing with the Rochester Choral Arts Ensemble and being workshopped by Cantus on October 6th and 7th. Many insights on how Cantus is such a compelling ensemble gave a real insight into my life as a liturgical musician.
Engaging in freedom of expression is a real challenge for most of us. We have become a people of wandering screen zombies and don't express ourselves in the real world terribly often. But us musicians and music lovers have a unique duty to preserve art expression.
Much of what Cantus explained can be paralleled to liturgical music. When we sing, we bring our entire self or only a piece of that whole to our songs. The choice is for each person to make. When your ensemble agrees on being all in, magic happens.
The magic of surrender, collaboration, and moving from division toward unity is such a Christian method I couldn't escape it. When I think about the best moments of leading music for Mass, the thread that binds it all together is the idea of "Many as One." When we surrender our individual self to the greater good of a shared vision, we don't lose anything! We gain an entirely new plain of existence we would otherwise never experience.
I think back to a few moments across my years in music ministry, and the risks we took to bring an element, theme, or new reality into the presence of others has never left anyone disappointed.
For instance, when I was tasked with planning the music for the Funeral of Fr. Paul Nelson, I couldn't help but schedule "The Summons" by John Bell, but the usual feel-in-one didn't have the right effect. I asked our ensemble to slow down, pay attention, and pray the text's words. During the rehearsal, many wept because it suddenly and perfectly described our dear pastor.
During the Mass on June 30th, 2016, I remember the packed house and the intense assembly volume. When we began "the Summons," the power of it all was just overwhelming. We all sang through our tears because we surrendered to the expression of discipleship proclaimed by the song. Afterward, many said that was the most amazing congreational song they had ever heard... and I agree.
We did an emotional warm-up when the Choral Arts Ensemble worked with Cantus—singing the same thing repeatedly but with different emotions in mind. The change in the sound was staggering. How could a thought make such a difference? Oh, friends, this is the magic of music!
When applied to our repertoire, the performance shifted from perfection to transcendence. We didn't just sing with great vowels and perfect tunning; we were ALL IN, and it made the music ring! After we finished, I took a deep breath and realized we had done something extraordinary. We created unity.
Unity is the goal of Christian life. Its to unite under the leadership of Jesus Christ. Unity is the surrender of your person to the emotion and communication of the work ahead. For Catholics, our Unity comes when we begin the opening song. Our Communion starts with the first words of the opening hymn. Mass's entire exercise and experience is to Unify, Feed, and Send us to create that unity in the world. It is not the most straightforward task, but one we certainly can achieve if we go all in.
That's the goal from now on, to bring everyone all in.