Philantrophy and the Sacred Arts

Telling people that I specialize in Sacred Music in Malaysia is always an interesting experience for me.

May 23, 2014

Sacred Music Space

By SHANTI MICHAEL
Telling people that I specialize in Sacred Music in Malaysia is always an interesting experience for me. If the people who are inquiring are Roman Catholic, 90 per cent of the response I get is, “Oh that’s great, the music at ________church is terrible, can you do something about it??”

Having been back for the past few months and having the privilege of working with the Church here has led me to some interesting observations. Now, when faced with that question, my response is… “Actually, the question is, what are you willing to do about it?”

I then launch into a discussion about philanthropy and the arts = paying artists and funding training to help our church musicians grow via donations. More often than not, the interest in what I do gradually turns into a squirmy smile and a polite/uncomfortable laugh. I can understand why, as whenever conversations like these occur, the impression most people have is that I want them to spend their hard earned money on something as ‘superfluous’ as music. Music, after all is only something you make your child learn until they are bored with it, or until they have their UPSR or SPM. Because a career in music is unstable and unreliable. Besides, who in their right mind would pay you to work in sacred music in Malaysia…definitely not the Catholic Church!! This was pretty much the mantra that was sung in my ear by family and friends for the past eight years. I’m glad I didn’t listen and persisted.

In places where the art of sacred music is more developed, it is not uncommon for foundations or personal donations to contribute to the development of sacred music. This practice is not exclusive to the west; we can look at our doorstep at the various other Christian denominations to see how far they have come to having paid music programmes funded by donation from the public. An excellent local example is the group Yin Qi, an interdenominational group in the Chinese speaking community. They have done some truly remarkable work such as having full choral performances with orchestra, running Sacred Music festivals, and providing regular training programmes for musicians.

The very first section in the recent survey ‘Sacred Music: 50 Years after the Council’ by the Pontifical Council of Culture asked questions regarding the local formation of those cultivating music for ministerial service, including what local institutions are dedicated to the field of Sacred Music. The two that come to mind are the Asian Institute for Liturgy and Music in the Philippines — which studies both traditional Church Music, and Asian music that is relevant in our culture — and second the Singapore Bible College.

We don’t really have a Foundation for the Sacred Arts in Malaysia for the Catholic Church, but it certainly is an idea worth exploring. There are several ways however, that you can help your local church if you wish to see the growth of well played music in our churches. Here are some examples:

1) Sponsor a young musician. Go to your parish priest; say that you would like to sponsor a pianist/cantor to have music lessons. Offer the scholarship with certain conditions; to be eligible they should have a minimum level of Grade 5, play/sing regularly at Mass, sit for their Grade 6 exam and obtain a decent grade in the year of their scholarship. They also have to study church music with their teacher, both classical and contemporary.

2) Set up a Church Music Sponsorship programme in your local parish where you raise money to sponsor musicians for training. There are several short term programmes in the Philippines, Singapore, Australia and even locally.

3) Buy Hymnals, sponsor international specialists to come to your church and provide workshops. Send your musicians for workshops both locally and internationally.

A lot of our Catholic musical tradition that has been abandoned in the last few years needs to be relearned properly so that it can be done well. Choral singing, chant, organ playing have been attempting to make a comeback in our churches, but because of the lack of musical expertise and exposure of the congregation in this area, it is necessary to provide proper training to our musicians so that they may adequately provide the service that they very often volunteer their time for.

There is no subtle way of saying that we need to invest money in Sacred Music…or, Sacred Art in general. As a church, we are quite philanthropic in other important areas such as having the Dominic Vendargon Award, providing for the needy and the poor, helping with the development of necessary constructions for our churches etc. But investing in Sacred Art is still something that needs to be addressed. Art is meant to feed the soul, and Sacred Music in particular is supposed to be a thing of beauty to elevate our senses and to help facilitate our worship to God. Our country is quite blessed with an abundant number of volunteer musicians, but I almost feel that we take it for granted that there will always be people who will volunteer, and we are quite comfortable accepting a mediocre standard of music for our Roman Rite. Or we are quite comfortable complaining about it.

This is in no way meant to undermine the volunteers who work tirelessly week after week to rehearse and provide a valuable ministry. And many of the volunteers are very talented. But how will they improve and grow in their ministry? How will they learn about sacred and liturgical music specifically? How do we teach people how to chant or sing as a choir well? How to we teach pianists how to play the organ if your church has invested in one? (The piano and organ are two different instruments with specific techniques for each of them; organ training should be available to a pianist with no organ playing experience.)

Does singing chant, polyphonic music, Bach, Beethoven, Handel’s Messiah, have to be beyond the ‘ordinary’ congregation? Are all these things exclusive to the ‘educated and artsy’? Have we cocooned ourselves to the music only of Don Moen, Darlene Zschech, and Chris Tomlin. I have no objections to any of these artists, I am actually a big fan, but I’m not willing to completely sacrifice the Church’s traditional roots for it. How would we react if our schools took away History from its syllabus? What would our Church be like if priests were not required to have sufficient training? Why are we willing to compromise on the education and training of a musical tradition that has a 2000-year-old history, and is still growing?

The benefit of providing funding and training to musicians as well is that they are obligated to fulfill their role in a disciplined and professional manner. A certain standard is to be expected and maintained. All of this should also be done hand-in-hand with our clergy, for without their support, there is no hope of growth in this area.

So the next time you are at Mass, and you find yourself unhappy with the quality of music provided by your hard-working volunteers, ask yourself, ‘What can I do about it?’.

--If you have any questions with regards to music in church please feel free to send your questions to the Archdiocesan Liturgical Commission at liturgy.kl@gmail.com

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