Embrace the music

Michele Frankeni 23 October 2023

Parishes have the power to lift their music programs from the mundane to the truly inspiring by reaching out to young people.

Music helps us engage with God, according to Professor Clare Johnson, director of the Australian Catholic University (ACU) Centre for Liturgy. She says something miraculous happens when a group sings a theologically sound text. ‘When we sync together as a group, we become more aware of ourselves as the body of Christ.

‘If we operate together as a body, we are living that wonderful image from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians (12:15-20), where the different body parts work together to form the body. With all the different voices, different bodies breathing at the same time, singing words at the same time, we have a perfect offering of praise in that moment. Music can do that.’

Clare is a professor of liturgical studies and sacramental theology. She founded the ACU Centre for Liturgy in 2015. The centre caters for those who want to study academically but also has programs for those in the pastoral sphere. ‘Recently we offered an intensive in liturgical music; this was one of those academic programs which we opened to anybody who wanted to come and have a professional learning experience.’

Clare’s musical journey began at a young age with a children’s choir, but also with church music. ‘Our family lived in the same street as our local Catholic Church so we were always there.’ From her early teens, Clare was often called on to sing at funerals, weddings or whenever needed.

Clare believes parishes and young musicians can have a mutually beneficial association. ‘We need to recognise that though young musicians may be skilled, they may not be very confident within a liturgical environment.’

She says perhaps the best way of forming liturgical musicians is to consider an apprenticeship model. ‘If you’ve got a young person who’s a wonderful pianist, for example, you could introduce them to the concept of the pipe organ. Their skill as a keyboard player is transferable. And if you’ve got a good piano, why on earth wouldn’t you invite a young person who has skills to play?’

Sometimes older people in parishes who have served wonderfully for years can become territorial with regards to ‘my Mass, my role’, but Clare says it is important to talk about succession planning: ‘What’s going to happen when you don’t want to do this anymore?

‘Who in the secondary schools in your parish is learning a musical instrument? Have you got a good trumpet player, a good oboe player, a good violinist? Perhaps you’ve got the makings of a string quartet there.’

She acknowledged difficulties in finding young musicians for the Mass, but says good contacts in schools could help identify students and then it is up to parishes to invite them.

‘We’ve got to encourage young musicians, give them skills and support them in practical ways. If they’re not having private music lessons or music lessons in school where they’re learning musical skills, the parishes should think about paying for that. Of course, there’s a quid pro quo – if a parish subsidises somebody’s music lessons, there’s an expectation that that person will in fact contribute to the liturgy.’

Relying totally on volunteers is a mistake, Clare says.

‘We wouldn’t imagine not paying the florist to do the flowers for the church, or not paying the electrician to take care of the wiring. We should pay musicians who are performing at a professional level or on the way to doing that. What young person wouldn’t prefer to sing or play at Mass for 50 bucks rather than work at Coles?’

Clare says while parishes might ask how they are to pay musicians, it is looking at the problem from the wrong angle.  ‘The key contact point people have with the church is the liturgy. What percentage of the parish budget is going towards liturgy? If you invest in it, people will take it more seriously. Parishes that have good music programs have higher attendances.’

She says employed music directors would help enthuse music participation, and though few parishes have the resources to employ full-time musical directors, there are different ways of approaching it.

‘If you’ve got an amalgamated parish situation, each of them could contribute to a music director. A paid music director is responsible for galvanising the amateur musicians and organising the volunteer musicians. The dynamic shifts to not just another volunteer, but to somebody who’s actually trusted by the parish to take care of this area.’

Parishes could also consider sharing a music director with a school, Clare says. ‘Then you have that wonderful linkage between school and parish, and they can then channel some of the young people into the church roles because they are working with them in the school environment.

‘We’ve got to think creatively about this. We can’t just throw our hands up and say, “It’s all just too hard”.’

Clare also believes in stretching people’s musical ability. ‘We underestimate what people are capable of and I think that’s a massive error, especially with regards to liturgical music. We tend to aim for the lowest common denominator and are then surprised that’s all we get.’

She says it is also important to have different varieties of music and not just the folksy guitar hymns. ‘It’s a beginner’s entry point and I think that’s OK, but don’t let that be the place where you stop. We can raise the bar slightly and help people get there by giving them skills and pushing them a bit.’

She says it is possible to do a lot with very little. ‘We’ve got to stop relying on recordings in churches because that actually makes people less likely to sing. If they are led by somebody who knows how to sing, they are more likely to join in.’

A problem in a lot of parishes is that musicians are not expected to develop beyond where they already are, Clare says. ‘We need to have an expectation that they will continue working on their craft. You either keep working or you stagnate.’

Michele Frankeni is the editor of Australian Catholics.


The ACU Centre for Liturgy will host Professor Teresa Berger on 6 November. Prof Berger, from the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School in the US, will lecture about the possible futures of Catholic liturgy via Zoom at 10am AEDT. 

She will take as a starting point the upcoming 60th anniversary of the promulgation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy on 4 December 1963, Sacrosanctum Concilium. See HERE for more information, or to register.