Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Traditional Choir prepares for Christmas Eve

Photographer Jane Winstead recently attended a rehearsal of the St. Raphael Traditional Choir amid preparations for the upcoming performance on Christmas Eve. Choir director Marie-Claire D’Arcy accompanied on piano as choir members ran through vocal exercises and sang hymns, frequently stopped by their director, who gave animated instruction.

Marie-Claire D'Arcy, the new traditional choir director and organist for St. Raphael, can't get over how friendly people are in Florida.

The New York state native is effusive in her admiration of the warm reception she has received since moving to the Sunshine State, and it has far less to do with the weather than it does with the welcoming people she has encountered here.

Trained in organ performance at Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam, Marie-Claire left music for many years to work in the fashion beauty industry in New York City.

But eventually she returned to her first love – organ music, serving as director of music for St. Mary Cathedral on Ogdensburg, N.Y., hard by the St. Lawrence Seaway and a stone’s throw from the Canadian border.

After a stint as primary caregiver for her ill father, Claire came to Florida to live with her sister in Lakeland. A member of St. Joseph parish there, she was immediately taken with the friendliness she encountered at the church.

It takes years to reach the same level of comfort and acceptance in her home state, she notes, even in the small towns. But not in Florida, she says. The level of welcoming and positive energy she found at St. Raphael was very gratifying.

Claire has been working with the St. Raphael Traditional Choir in preparation for their performance on Christmas Eve. In rehearsal, she exhorts her new charges to rise to their very best selves and become a cohesive musical unit. She explores with them techniques for breathing, pacing and pronunciation, all aimed at producing traditional hymns as prayer to enhance the Mass.

Claire sees as her challenge a quest to build the Traditional Choir, which at the moment has but 11 members, many over 70 years old. Although they bring good experience to the choir, she says, for the long term, she is determined to attract more voices, especially younger ones who can sustain the choir for many years to come.

The following is a Q&A interview Marie-Claire D’Arcy conducted with herself, showing that in addition to her music abilities she has a sense of humor.

Can you tell us something about yourself?
That might be boring. Let me say something about music ministry.

Uh, okay. What do you like most about working as a music minister?
I think my favorite moments have been when the assembly – by the power of the Holy Spirit – is singing full-throated, really getting into praising God. Of course, it helps if the hymn is an old favorite like, let's say, Holy God We Praise Thy Name. But we can't use that tune all the time.

Other than boredom, why not?
Well, we try to choose hymn texts that somehow relate to some aspect of that day's readings without necessarily quoting the Scripture almost verbatim. It helps us to reflect on the Scripture, sort of like a homily, but not as directed or explicit. Singing requires us to say the words a little more slowly than we usually speak them.

Well that sounds like a good idea, but doesn't the assembly get lost in learning a bunch of new music every week?
Not really. Let me explain. In Advent, we will be moving to a new format for our hymns and Psalms.

New? Oh no!
Let me finish. We will be using Worship Aids at the anticipated, and 8 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. Masses. This permits us to legally print hymns from many resources.

Yeah, but still tons of new music!
Not so. Most of these texts are "metered texts," which let us match them the appropriate metered hymn tunes – ones we already know very well, like the OLD HUNDREDTH, which is the music for Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow. Everybody knows that one, so there's nothing new to do but pray the text.

"Pray the text" – don't you mean "sing" it?
First of all, every good text is a prayer. Read them sometime without singing them, you'll see what I mean. And there is that old but true quotation attributed to St. Augustine that "singing is praying twice."

Never made any sense to me.
Well, go ahead and recite the words of Happy Birthday To You the next time your loved one's birthday comes along. It'll go over like a lead balloon. But singing does more than just fluff up the words. Remember, the text is the prayer, the important part of the hymn. But there is the reason I mentioned above that singing helps us to ponder a little better the words of that prayer, and we – as a culture – tend to sing for the important events. The event becomes more important.

Yeah, like when they sing or play the National Anthem at the Olympics when our girls and boys compete – it puts a lump of pride in my throat!
Now you're getting the idea. Music helps to underline what is happening; makes us remember why the event is important. And what is more important than praising God? Oh sorry, gotta run! Cantor rehearsal, you know.

The St. Raphael Traditional Choir will perform at Midnight Mass beginning at 10:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve and at the 11 a.m. Mass on Christmas Day.

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