The View from the Loft


July 16, 2014 by lucieromarin

The obvious piece of advice to give anyone thinking of joining a liturgical choir is this… don’t do it! Are you crazy? Do you not realise that the liturgical cycle is exactly that? It’s a cycle, which means it never ends. Just think; you’re going to spend every winter from here on in shivering at night in a choirloft instead of reading novels by a nice warm fire, and unless you get married or die, you can’t leave. (And even if you do get married, some chorister will still remark on how terrible your spouse is for compelling you to stay at home instead of serving God like he or she is doing.) And after you’ve shivered and sung, the judgemental bogeyman will appear in the form of some well-meaning person after Mass, who says, “Oh, you sounded so beautiful, though I thought I caught a few mistakes here and there. Or was that on purpose?”

Gah! Fortunately for this post, my ironic humour is now spent, and I can admit that, even though a liturgical choir can be a prime agent in the making of roadkill (tiredness, hunger, personality clashes, guilt trips, and general performance stress) it can also be an agent of healing of (beauty, liturgy, meaningful time, new friendships). It all depends on how it’s taken.

If you can deal with the divas, it’s really something to experience the increasing awareness of what it means to help the priest make the Mass. You have to be able to live with the public humiliation of bungled chant or botched polyphony, but set against that are those oddly humbling, private moments when someone says ‘Thank you.’ You have to be able to go without dinner or a sleep-in (or, over Christmas, sleep) but you get the kind of near-indestructible comradeship that comes with mutual survival. And, if you persist for a few years, you may get to experience the moments when the chant almost becomes visible before your eyes, a kind of living energy. When three or four singers, who know each other and the music well, have the silent, cold night air to work with…well, the sound attains a purity that has to be heard to be believed, and the singers actually feel the energy on their skin. It hardly ever happens; when it does, it makes everything worth it.

And, of course, against the lost sleep-in, there has to be set the treat of the view from the loft. I had no idea how rich in meaning the movements and gestures were of a High Mass until I saw them from above. Less noble, but equally important, is the fact that the loft is behind everyone else; unlike the schola, you can drop things, choose pieces of music at the last minute, gesticulate wildly at erring servers, and hide when you need to laugh. You also get to watch the ten-year-olds in the sanctuary learning to serve Mass. Their duties seem to comprise a) walking in a straight line, and b) walking in a straight line holding a candle… but, oh, my goodness, between the concentration on their faces, the surreptitious glances from one to the other, the bobbing up and down while trying to work out if this is where we get up to walk in a line, and the occasional bumping into each other once the walking is underway – well, it’s a good thing we have a rood screen to conceal this from the congregation, because, if they could see it in all its cuteness, how would their mothers avoid bursting with motherly motherliness?

2 thoughts on “The View from the Loft

  1. Team Alto says:

    I enjoyed this post: how I wish we sang more polyphony and chant. We tend to get simple two-part anthems, suitable to our numbers and abilities. However, we rejoice in some really nice Mass settings, and it’s a privilege to lead the congregation in them.

    The one thing I miss from my Calvinist days is the hearty congregational singing.

    • lucieromarin says:

      Thank you! Yes, I love it when the congregation raises the roof with Mass XI or the final hymn. I even used to like going to my local Italian Mass, just because listening to a church full of people belting out Italian hymns was so…well, I don’t really know the word for it, just that it didn’t matter that they all sang flat, because the fact that everyone was putting their hearts into it made it good. Isn’t it difficult putting good music together, though, when numbers are down and all you have are people who can’t read music? (i.e me!).

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