SINGING WITH TRANSPARENCY
Diana Gokçe Beautiful singing is all around us, not only in the media and on recorded music, but in the singing of church choirs, cantors, and vocal soloists. As a school music teacher, I am astounded each year by the vocally gifted children in my care, and I know that other music teachers at other schools could say the same. Pablo Picasso once said “Every child is an artist. Te problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” He was talking about art in its purest form, and I see that, too. As young singers grow they develop their voices, but they also tend to develop artifice, most of which is learned from others. Granted, music is a performing art, and performance often involves skills of deception. Great performers make observers and listeners suspend their disbelief and accept what the performer offers as reality. But great artists reveal something of themselves through their work. When Billie Holiday wrote and performed the song “God Bless the Child Tat’s Got His Own,” she was fighting over money with her mother. Tat song was her personal story.
In church music, most singers don’t get to choose the songs they sing. Tey must make the songs their own. Te first step toward this is adequate preparation. Singers should study and learn the meaning of musical texts. No two psalms chanted to the same tone should sound the same. As a trainer of cantors for nearly 40 years, I know that having singers speak their songs is one of the simplest ways to positively change their rendition of those texts in song.
When it comes time to sing, your ability to communicate with the assembly
(or to watch the conductor, in the case of choristers) will be greatly limited when your eyes are glued to your music. Sometimes singers are given little time for preparation, but there are ways to work around this. Most music has a form, involving repetition of musical material, as well as the repetition of small musical ideas or motives. Identifying these is essential to learning a song well. Another way to expedite learning is to sing through a piece, circling anything that causes you to stumble, struggle or err. Practice these parts slowly, one at a time, until they are no longer obstacles.
“ At liturgy, be fully present in the moment, attending to the assembly, even as you sing your part . . . be transparent, allowing your humanity to radiate.”
Parishes generally have a repertoire of songs they use, and singers should make it a goal to learn this repertoire for the long haul, rather than simply learning music as it is assigned. If your parish has a hymnal, missalette, or other collection of songs, make it a point to buy or borrow a copy for your use at home. Ten, as time permits, sing through everything you can so that you have some prior knowledge to build on when a song is slated. I used to do this with friends on Sunday evenings, and it was so much fun. We were all either music directors or cantors, and we would get ideas about new songs to use with our communities. A parish music director may help you in your quest to learn repertoire by letting you know which collections of psalms to look at, or better yet, specific repertoire scheduled for an upcoming season or two.
When it is time to sing in the liturgy, balance humility and self-confidence— both are required. If you struggle with humility, here are some things to try. Remember that there is always someone better than you. Remember the privilege and responsibility that goes with singing for worship. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. If you struggle with confidence, remember that you are the creation of a loving God who sings through you.
At liturgy, be fully present in the moment, attending to the assembly, even as you sing your part. Look for their reactions (don’t try to take in everyone, but sing to a single person or two) and listen for their singing when they have a part to do. Be transparent, allowing your humanity to radiate. Another way to think of this is breaking the fourth wall, which means acknowledging the presence of an audience and abandoning a role to be your real self with the audience.
Singing from your heart and making a song your own is not the same as emoting, which means “to act in an excessively theatrical manner.” Jacques Berthier once said "Music should be like John the Baptist, pointing the way to the Lord and never to itself.” As soon as you and/or your song become the focus of adoration, you have crossed a line. Let the assembly see your heart. Tis is not the same as “letting it all hang out" either. Nobody wants to watch you cry through a song, and if you struggle not to, you may need a break from music ministry.
In Matthew 18, verse 3, Jesus tells us “unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Let us offer our songs before God with the innocence and openness of children, letting go of artifice and personal burdens for God’s greater glory.
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