Defining the Awe of Religious Music
By Robert R. Schwarz
Music is an inherent part of every society. The unearthly sounds
of throat-singing in Mongolia and Siberia are as important to
their cultures as Bach is to European cultures or drum-driven
song and dance are to Native American cultures. Since music
is such an important part of life, it should not be surprising
that the Bible says much about it; in fact, the longest book
in the Bible is its song book—Psalms. ( from " Got Questions.org",
a volunteer, non-denominational ministry )
He who sings well, prays twice . ( Saint Augustine of Hippo )
He pulls in to the small parking lot of the Graham Memorial Presbyterian church ; it is a small church attended by many senior citizens proud of their several decades of worship tradition. Tamaron , wearing a black suit jacket and green shirt, takes a final glance in the rear view mirror, alights from his car and heads inside.
He walks to a small room and is greeted by the music director Vicki , a woman in her mid-sixties who, sensing Tamaron's nervousness, immediately puts her applicant at ease with a sincere, welcoming smile. Tamaron will remember her as a "youthful appearing woman with no false nature. " He will also remember how his nervousness now increased because Vicki was "so nice , " and that meant he had to please her.
Vicki soon was at an upright piano playing two songs which Tamaron had never heard. Standing behind her, this young man with his baritone voice sings both selections, one an opera aria. Vicki then picks up a hymnal , hands it to Tamaron, and requests that he sing a particular hymn . Not only is Tamaron completely unfamiliar with the piece but he must sing it without any accompaniment other that the one note Vicki now taps on the piano.
Today Tamaron will tell you that by his standards he did poorly, yet Vicki offered an "encouraging word" after he had finished singing and then asked him to come back in an hour to meet the choir section . Her invitation brings a smile to his heart. When he returns after a turkey sandwich at a nearby outdoor café, Tamaron is introduced to 18 men , most between the ages of 70 and 75. This is the choir section which Tamaron would direct if hired, and when he reflects on what they would expect from him—improve their musical accuracy, sound, and tone quality—he begins to sweat.
But at day's end, Vicki asks Tamaron if he'll take the position. " I'll do it right away!" he says.
Tamaron later describes this climax: " It was at this moment that I realized this isn't just a job; it would be a family ; it felt like home ! A place I wanted to be , a place in my life that had been missing. "
12 Years Later
" Taste and see the goodness of the Lord ."
( refrain of a hymn inspired by Psalm 34 )
Tamaron—or "Tam", as he is known—is once again waiting for an audition, though this time confident of his professional skills, which have been honed by 12 years of directing church music. He sits in a darkened church sanctuary , waiting to be ushered down to the church basement . There he will be evaluated for the position of music director of the St. James church in Arlington Heights , Illinois . St. James, with its more than 12,.000 parishioners and five choirs ( three adult , one children's, and a teen choir ) has an illustrious history of producing semi-professional Broadway musicals in which one or more or its three priests frequently make cameo appearances.
|As the baritone soloist at a high school|
honors music festival
Tam wants to know more about the sound quality of the sanctuary and begins to test it by listening to his own whistling. Minutes later, he is downstairs and being introduced to one of the choirs and to the music director search committee. The church pastor, Fr. Matt Foley, will arrive later. In a no-nonsense business tone , Tam is told, "You have 30 minutes . " At that moment , he remembers the advice given from other music directors: Use time effectively.
Tam's final test comes when he is asked to direct the hymn, " Taste and See." It happens to be his favorite , and it allows him to express his core belief: We always have to sing our faith. When the choir sings it, Tam feels "connected" to everyone in the room , especially the choir members, whom Tam perceives are enjoying this same connection. He is also feeling what he had felt intensely in that small church room 12 years ago: I am at home !
Fr. Matt has arrived , and he perceives that the singing has energy unusual and spirited . It is exactly what Tam wanted to achieve. The priest shares what he has just felt with Tam , who later say during our interview, "I knew then that I really wanted the job . "
A Music Director's Challenges and Some Opinions about Music
During our recent interview in Tam's small , task-filled office, he talked openly and often candidly about work and life. One quickly notices that he runs on high voltage and welcomes meaningful conversation . He is a tad over six feet tall, has blue eyes and dark brown hair, and wears glasses. His workday clothes were khaki pants, a necktie, and a checked dress shirt with sleeves partially rolled up .
|With new bride Natalie|
Since his singing roles in the Lyric Opera chorus included the tragedies " Faust " and the " Damnation of Faust, a logical question was : What in life makes him sad ? "People who can’t see life for the goodness and possibilities that can be, " he replied. Hatred and homeless people also sadden him . He tries not to read newspapers too often. As for what gives him happiness, it is his wife , Natalie, and three children: Julian 7, Claire 4, and Daniel, 15 months. "I know it sounds sort of dorky, but I really do love coming to church on Sundays. I just love being here with everybody and glorifying God. " For fun, he plays a lot of basketball at a local X-Sport Fitness. He's a Cubs and Bulls fan and has remained loyal to the Los Angeles Lakers . And he loves to "make a good steak for the family. "
Tam weighs 180 pounds, a 100 pounds less than when a high school senior. He admits dieting was perhaps his biggest life challenge, especially making up his mind to say no to certain foods and realizing he could not be in complete in control of his life. It was a year of discipline with Weight Watchers. The result: " It changed my life. I became more of a take-charge person. "
"Music has always been a part of my life and has been at the heart of my faith and spirituality," Tam said. He grew up in a house "always filled " with music. "My dad was a drummer, and my sister and I were always performing different things for my father and his friends who came over. Tam's mother used to dance with a modern ballet company in Los Angeles. Tm started playing the piano at age six . " Because music was all he knew when he started college, Tam today advises youths who seek a career in music —a career known to often be financially unrewarding—to have a backup career in mind.
The Eucharist Prompts His Conversion
In 2006, Tam began attending the Catholic mass with his wife and two years later made his profession of faith after attending classes of the church's Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. Music had played no small role in Tam's conversion. While attending the Catholic mass , he had been giving rapt attention to how its music and liturgy "had this elegant flow . " He also had thought a lot about the church's "beautiful faith history" and how the Eucharist seemed to be " drawing him into a faith I longed to be a part of. "
|Dad , baby Claire and son Julian|
Tam wants his St. James congregation to sing wholeheartedly so they will then sing as one "communal" voice . " When that occurs, " he said with some passion, "It's a really moving experience and helps people grow in faith. When I sing, I try to let myself go and let my spirit in. " His personal favorites are the Mozart and Verdi requiems and Bach's " Saint John Passion", whose chorus he has sung with several times.
In discussing how Americans since the 1960's have radically changed their taste in popular music , Tam said that listening to today's hit tunes is "an altogether different experience; a lot of it is pointless and repetitious and without a meaningful message of love or loss. Some of it can be very crude. "
Two technical questions (perhaps with obvious answers?) were posed to Tam: What's the fundamental difference in sound quality between a high school orchestra and a top professional one; and, can an orchestra play well without a conductor ? Good orchestra sound, Tim explained, occurs when the musicians , after years of experience, blow and bow their instruments with greatly matured skill and when the orchestra "blends" its music and faithfully follows how the music score, its style and dynamics ( softness and loudness ) . With singers, he said, it's a matter of how their voices have seasoned physically. "The quality of a really good singer is how softly can he or she sing those low notes with the audience still able to clearly hear the text. "
Challenges and Goals Today
Music naturally has a prominent role in a large parish like St. James with its almost 80 ministries. No wonder then that Tam's biggest daily challenge is organizational or, as he said, "keeping the choirs and accompanists informed as to what's going on. " Another full-time challenge he expressed this way: " Because you have various levels of experience and talent , you don't want to squash anyone's desire to lift his or her voice up to God . It's not necessarily how good each musician is; it's working hard to find the choir's singular voice ." He works especially hard to help a choir "hone its vowels " and fine tune its sounds. "It's a difficult tight-rope act because you want them to lift up their voices to God to make their singing a prayerful experience. If the choir gets passionate about a song they're doing, then you can get a sound that's from heaven. " The director, he added, must inspire and motivate a choir as would the manager of a champion athletic team .
Tam's other goal? " Right now, I'm living my dream. I want to help inspire others to reach a deeper level of understanding of Christ and to deepen their faith through music. " He paused, then affirmed: " And I want to be a good father and husband, because at the end of it, family is the most important thing for me. "
All comments are welcome.
© 2016 Robert R. Schwarz