Here in this place…(place)…(place)…(place)…
Earlier this month I had the privilege of spending a week at the “One Bread, One Cup” conference at Saint Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana as a catechist teaching instrumental music. Over the course of the week we celebrated several liturgies in the St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel: Morning Prayer, daily mass, Evening Prayer, etc. If you’ve never been there, the chapel is a beautiful space with an amazing amount of reverberation/echo!
I had the honor of working with Curtis Stephen (an extremely talented and gifted musician and songwriter) and together we planned the music for the various liturgies. We spent our time paging through the many resources they had available there: Voices As One, Spirit and Song, Gather, and instrumental books by GIA, WLP, and OCP. There were so many great songs from which to choose. We quickly learned that the space where we would be celebrating Mass, the chapel, would greatly influence our song choices and our instrumental arrangements.
Back at my home church of St. Ann’s in Marietta, GA and Curtis’ home church of St. Ann’s (yep…same name!) in Coppell, TX, we are used to a less reverberant room with a sound system that has been tweaked for drums, bass, guitars, horns, etc. Alas, we are used to using all different kinds of songs and arrangements, big and small. In the St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel, however, we found it best to keep it simple.
In that space, percussive sounds (drums, shakers, rhythmic acoustic guitar…even piano) get lost and muddy when played at faster tempos. We had to simplify our arrangements, adding an occasional single low drum here and there, maybe some chimes, simple strumming, etc. to make it work well. Sometimes the orchestration consisted of myself on piano while Curtis played a trumpet descant (or melody). Sometimes he’d strum guitar while I supported with a simple piano part. But in the end, it always came back to the main driving force of the song: the melody.
We tended to pick songs with simpler rhythms and soaring melodies. As always, if the song has a simple, well-crafted melody, people can sing it.
It’s easy to see how chant became the music of the church while most churches were still being built with such incredible acoustics. The St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel is a fine example of this. With nothing but the human voice you can create a sound as rich as any orchestra in a premiere concert hall. When you combine all the different timbres and octaves of the assembly’s voices together the sound is incredible! Time and time again I was moved by the prayerful tone of the teens, college students, and adults singing together—chant style—as if we’d been doing it forever.
While it would have also been nice to work with the teens in a band-type setting (drums, bass, etc.) and play music with that instrumentation, the fact that we played and sang with full, active, and conscious participation was most important. I do believe that we all left there with the understanding that our voice is our main instrument.
My week at Saint Meinrad was not only a wonderful experience in its own right, it was a reminder of how we need to always be open and adapt our music and our musical choices to our current space, assembly, and moment.