Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Los Angeles Jewish Journal posts the following terms of service for its message board. I think they're on to something. Several sites I used to frequent, including Jerusalem.com and the Washington Post's "On Faith," would benefit from similar standards.

Our Rules: Tolerance and Respect

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Hey, we're doing our best.

Last Friday -- August 15th -- was the feast of the Assumption. A small group of us from various music ministries in the parish put together a choir for the 9:15 a.m. mass. It was a case of whoever can make it on a workday, but we did all right. Most of the songs we sang were familiar enough that the congregation sang along. (When I say the congregation in this context I mean the roughly half the attendees who actually participate in anything besides rote recitation and communion.)

Not all the music we sang was my favorite, to put it mildly, but I sang loudly when I was sure of the tune and more tentatively when I wasn't. A choir put together that quickly doesn't get a lot of rehearsal time, and we were a capella, since both the regular accompanists had to work.

A few days later I happened to be early to Sunday mass and allowed myself to be roped into singing with the choir. It wasn't my usual group, I hadn't rehearsed and I didn't know all the music. I lip-synched to the parts I didn't know and helped out when I could. In both cases, the mass was much improved by having live music. Some of the people involved (not me necessarily) had put a lot of effort into providing a service to the congregation at the cost of their own time, energy and talent.

I don't remember now whether it was on Friday or Sunday, but a woman came up to our songleader at the end of the mass and launched into a lecture on how we had sung one of the songs wrong. The woman demonstrated on the piano her version of how the song should sound. "You need to sing it the way it's written," she told us. As far as I could tell, we had sung it the way it was written. Her point had something to do with triplets, which she played very fast like incidental notes, but which we had sung pretty much even tempo.

I'm not a well-trained musician -- to say I even read music is an exaggeration -- and for all I know the lady was right. Nevertheless, I had two conflicting reactions to her criticism. First, I sympathized with her apparent impatience with the ad hoc quality of our church's musical offerings. I wish our choirs were bigger, more skilled and just plain louder. There are some structural reasons why I think my parish often misses the boat on congregational singing. For me this is often exemplified by the congregation's habit of applauding after we finish singing the recessional. Excuse me, we are not performers. If it is enough just to sit silently and listen to us then we're not doing our job.

Which brings me to my other reaction to the woman with the fast triplets. If she's such a skilled musician, why isn't she in the choir? It is easy to criticize from the pews, harder to stand up there in the front or the church and try to add to the liturgy. She was trying to be helpful, but she would have been a bigger help going over the music at the rehearsal before mass, and maybe even exerting herself enough to participate on a weekly or even monthly basis. We were surprised and a little hurt, so none of us showed the presence of mind to provide her with contact information or rehearsal schedules for our choirs, which always need new people.

The lesson here is obvious: If you think you can do something better than those currently doing it, then you should be involved.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2008


...And it's really wide, too.

photograph (from National Geographic) by Peter Miller/Getty Images

By what process did Montana receive the name "Big Sky State"? I only ask because I can't imagine anywhere in the world having a bigger sky than western Nebraska. Montana is a beautiful place, but much of its sky is obscured by mountains. If you want to see stars without using a telescope, or spot the approach of a change in weather just by gazing toward the horizon, the choice has got to be Nebraska.

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