Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Volunteer parish liturgical musicians: ministry is ‘a real privilege’
by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the July 6, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)
(Editor’s note: In the May 18 edition, Inland Register writer Mitch Finley profiled a few of the diocese’s liturgical musicians who are paid parish staff ("Liturgical music ministry is more than performing the right notes"). This issue features a conversation with a few of the unpaid liturgical musicians ministering in the parishes of the diocese.)
Most parishes in the Diocese of Spokane rely on volunteer liturgical musicians who generously give of their time and talent to enrich their parish Sunday and Saturday evening Masses. Conversations with a representative selection of liturgical music volunteers reveal the dedication and creativity that characterizes these valuable parish volunteers.
Nola Koesel (left) is a veteran music volunteer at Deer Park’s St. Mary’s Presentation Parish.
“For 25 years we’ve had a parish folk group,” Koesel says, “and several people in the group have been doing it for all those years. My duties have expanded a little bit. I do the scheduling, deciding which groups will play at which Masses. We have five ‘groups.’ One is an organist who plays by herself, another is an organist and a vocal soloist who work together, another is a guitar player who may have three or four people singing with her, and we have a guitarist and solo vocalist who also work together, and then we have the folk group which includes about eight people right now.”
In the quarter century that Nola Koesel has been active as a volunteer liturgical musician, she learned that it’s important to try to avoid overworking volunteer musicians.
“We do it every other Sunday,” she said. “We alternate with someone else, and that has allowed us to escape burn-out. We still experience that a little bit sometimes, but in general by doing it every other week it gives us that time to actually participate in the Mass without thinking about what song is next. That’s really important for us.”
Chuck Foster (right) has been involved with liturgical music at Spokane’s Assumption Parish since 1989, when he first joined the choir. Today, he is responsible for the music for each Sunday’s 10:30 a.m. Mass, plus other special liturgies for Christmas, Easter, and so forth.
“I never do Good Friday,” he said, “but I do everything else.”
Foster is also the contact person for the volunteer musicians who are responsible for music for the other two parish Masses. “Saturday evening we have an organist, Bonnie McCollum, and a cantor, and Sunday at 8 a.m. there’s a pianist, Sister Anna Weisner,” of the Sisters of the Holy Names, “and two singers,” Foster said.
The choir Foster directs includes about 28 people, 10-16 of whom participate on any given Sunday. The group includes guitars, mandolins, two pianists, and reed instruments. “We’re a completely open choir,” Foster said, “meaning that if you can’t make it to practice you can’t make it to practice, but that doesn’t mean you don’t get to sing on Sunday.
“We have people call up and say they’re going to be in Spokane for two or three months,” Foster said, “and they’d like to sing with us, and that’s fine. Any Sunday, we never know who’s going to be there. We don’t have a rehearsal, but we practice before Mass. We used to practice about every other week, but we have gotten such a large repertoire that the only time I call practices is when I have new music or we’re coming into something like Holy Week or Advent. I have a practice before Advent starts, one before Lent, one before Holy Week, then I scatter them out every month or six weeks, and it’s mostly for new music.”
Mary Kay Jungert (left) and Bev Reed are responsible for liturgical music at Clarkston’s Holy Family Parish. Jungert has been active, “off and on,” she says, for 13 years, and Reed has been active for about the same length of time.
Both women began taking piano lessons early in life. “I lived in Kansas City, Mo., and when I was 14,” Reed said,” I was in a parish where, one time, the regular organist was going to have surgery, and Confirmation was coming up, and she said, ‘Oh, you sight read pretty well, Bev, why don’t you plan on playing?’ So I got interested in it that way.”
“I was tutored on piano by a Benedictine nun” said Jungert, “but I didn’t start until I was about 12 years old. I’ve also had guitar lessons, and I played the alto sax when I was in high school.”
Both Reed and Jungert play a synthesizer keyboard for parish Sunday Masses – Reed at 10:30 a.m., Jungert at 8 a.m. At times, both women also have played for the Saturday 5:30 p.m. Mass as well. Usually, another woman leads the congregation in singing for the Saturday evening liturgy.
When it comes to planning the music for Sunday Masses the women use the Today’s Liturgy booklet that gives suggestions for each Sunday’s Mass. Jungert also provides music for the parish’s religious education program for children.
Marian Fletcher Beaumier (right) has been a parish liturgical music leader, in various parishes, for 34 years. The last six have been spent at Spokane’s Sacred Heart Parish. She and her fellow Sacred Heart music leaders are volunteers, but they receive stipends as a reflection of the parish’s support and appreciation for their ministry.
“My formative experience is as a professional parish minister,” said. Beaumier “My commitment to music ministry through the choir reflects that level of commitment, preparation and competence. We have a unique system here at Sacred Heart in which each of the liturgies is served by music leaders who have made that kind of commitment to our parish.”
Volunteer musicians typically find that the parish priest takes a non-directive approach to liturgical music, expressing preferences only for special seasonal liturgies or holy days. The pastor, Father Al Grasher, “will make suggestions,” Koesel says, “especially for holy days or special times, but otherwise he leaves it up to us.” She said he “is very good about encouraging us.”
Jungert and Reed both serve on their Clarkston parish’s liturgy planning committee, which includes representatives of various parish organizations as well as pastor Father Thomas Connolly. “I really like working with Father Tom,” Jungert said, “and I enjoyed working with our previous pastor, too, Father Len Forsmann.”
Chuck Foster, of Spokane’s Assumption Parish, recalled that when he first started, he would meet with the pastor, Father Mike Savelesky, “but once he saw that I understood what he was after, he’s been pretty much hands-off.”
“I have a lot of autonomy in music selection,” said Beaumier. “The music leaders from each of the liturgies do coordinate and collaborate together among ourselves with the pastor and with the liturgy team.” The pastor, Father Mark Pautler, “also has a pastoral sensitivity to liturgy and we support one another and collaborate as needed.”
Volunteer parish musicians tend to bring to their ministry a personal background in music, having learned to play one or more instruments earlier in life – though not always.
“I taught myself to play guitar and standup bass,” said Foster. “I play one or the other, depending on what song we’re doing. I’ve got a ton of guitar players, so it’s not very often that I play guitar.”
“I had a flute that had been put away for several years after high school and college,” said Koesel, of Deer Park “There was a young family that was new to the parish, so my husband and I went by to talk with them, and it turned out that the husband had been in a folk group, and he said he’d like to get a folk group going in the parish. At that time we didn’t have much music at all. So my husband says, ‘Well, my wife plays the flute,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, right!’”
Like many other parish musicians, when workshop opportunities come along, Reed and Jungert take advantage of them.
“The workshops are always valuable,” said Jungert.
Beaumier has a bachelor’s degree in religious studies, with a focus on Biblical studies, as well as a master’s degree in religious studies. She’s taken several courses related to liturgy and sacraments.
“Frankly,” she says, “I became passionately committed to music in liturgy only in the past 15 years or so, and I credit the development of my musicianship to Leon Atkinson,” a North Idaho classical guitarist and teacher. Atkinson, she said, “patiently worked with me for years on musicianship and classical guitar.”
“I go to every workshop I can,” said Foster. “Mary Haugen has been here a couple of times,” as has Jesuit Father John Foley, a member of the St. Louis Jesuits liturgical music group, he said.
Typically, volunteer liturgical musicians put several hours each week into planning and rehearsals.
“I practice at home,” says Reed, “and we try to have a practice with our little choir, which might consist of four people – one evening a week, if we can.” Sometimes, schedules limit rehearsals to arriving early on Sunday and practicing before Mass.
“I hate to oversell myself, but I know there are times when I put at least 10 hours into it a week, at least,” said Jungert. “It takes a lot of planning and getting people there to do the singing. We get five or six people to sing for the 8 a.m. Mass on Sunday.”
“The weeks that our folk group sings,” says Deer Park’s Koesel, “I’d say I put in about four hours.”
“I probably put in six to eight hours a week,” Chuck Foster says, “depending on the time of year.”
Volunteer liturgical musicians face many of the same challenges that parish staff musicians live with. Koesel says that the most difficult part of her job is “finding those people who have the talent. I know they’re out there, and it’s just a matter of encouraging them. That part has been fun, to see people who are a bit hesitant starting out but then to see the growth. It’s really a gift that they give to the church. What I enjoy most is being part of a music group that is leading the congregation. It’s a real privilege.”
According to Foster, his biggest challenge is “never knowing who’s going to be there (on Sunday), but I quit worrying about it and let the Spirit take care of it. It never fails. What don’t I enjoy about what I do? I enjoy every part of it. It has become who I am. I think we have the best volunteer choir in the diocese. We get a lot of compliments.”
Reed agrees that “trying to keep people involved” is a challenge. “People live such varied lives,” she said, “and we’re all coming and going. But our little group has been very dedicated in the years that I have been here.”
“Music ministry that I find satisfying is hard to maintain along with full-time work,” said Beau-mier. “My biggest challenge is to maintain my own vision for my commitment to music which supports, enhances and empowers liturgy. I love what I do. I will do it as long as I can make it work with the rest of my life.”
New blood always helps, said Koesel. “As people come into the parish they bring new skills, and they know songs that we don’t know, and that really helps us to grow.”
“I just love the music,” Jungert said. “And the other thing is that I get this gratification if I feel like I’ve done my part, which is to help people to sing at the liturgy, and I feel that this happens quite often.”
“To me,” said Beaumier, “leading music ministry means that I hold the choir and the assembly with great care in my heart, supporting and affirming all of the gifts that make this ministry work, knowing that many of the gifts aren’t mine at all. A choir and assembly is a beautiful experience of the many parts of the body of Christ in the many gifts that each brings to share, whether through music, through open hearts, through a willingness to be touched and embraced by God in this experience we share. It’s very powerful, very rich, very healing.”
Today’s parish musicians often say that Catholics are better about singing than they once were.
Koesel said, “When we first started out, we had a congregation of non-singers, and looking out over the congregation you will see a few people who don’t sing. But in general, at this point we have a singing congregation. As a folk group, that’s what gives us the greatest satisfaction, knowing that our congregations are singing and enjoying singing. It really is a wonderful privilege to serve in the parish music program.”
Bev Reed agrees.
“I think the congregation is doing better at singing. Some of them like the traditional songs, and myself, I like to kind of mix it up. I like the old, traditional songs, but I like the new songs, too. I enjoy playing, and I enjoy the people who are in our group.”
Chuck Foster calls the increase in the participation in liturgical singing “unbelievable. We’ve got everybody singing now, from the little first and second graders to the old people. Everybody.”