Seeking the Wisdom of Pray Tell’s readers

Discussion is going forward at a number of Catholic institutions of higher learning with which I am acquainted about the advisability of starting or continuing an academic program in sacred/liturgical music. All conceptualize this program as interdisciplinary, but they are frequently split on whether the program should be “housed” in a music department, a theology/religious studies department, or some other academic “home”. All conceptualize the outcome of the program in terms of degrees or certificates granted.

I would like to poll Pray Tell’s readers about the kind of person they would hope to meet and/or hire who had studied in such a program. In other words, I’m trying to think about such a program in terms of the “product” at which it aims. What kind of skills should a graduate of a B.A. program in liturgical music demonstrate? Another way of saying this might be: What would a pastor or business administrator or hiring committee expect of a freshly graduated person holding a B.A. in liturgical music? If possible, could readers respond concretely in one or more of the following areas:

1) Musical (e.g., must be able to play the organ accurately to accompany congregation or choir; desirable to be able to play the piano or guitar similarly)

2) Liturgical (e.g., must be able to read and decipher an Ordo to determine what liturgical elements are appointed for Eucharistic worship and the Liturgy of the Hours each day; desirable to have a good grasp of the historical development of the Eucharist, other sacraments, and the liturgical year)

3) Theological (e.g., must be able to show how liturgical worship embodies theological convictions about God, creation, humanity, etc.; desirable to have knowledge of how the Church has come to those convictions through history)

4) Administrative (e.g., must be able to organize and communicate with singers, instrumentalists, lectors, servers/acolytes, ushers, and clergy; desirable to create and maintain a budget)

5) Pastoral (e.g., must be able to work collaboratively with other members of the parish team, especially the clergy; desirable to be able to write bulletin columns explaining or exploring worship practices)

Notice that these are simply suggestions. I thank you in advance for your interest in this topic.


  1. 6) Technological — knowledge of (and ability to use) various music notation software, and a basic grasp of acoustics, amplification, and recording technology (e.g. the different types of microphones and when to use which, how to run a soundboard, how to mix and edit a recording, proper care and maintenance of equipment). These skills aren’t limited to contemporary music/”praise band” applications — a parish with a well-established classical/traditional program might want to make a recording. Also, if something goes wrong with the sound system 5 minutes before Mass starts, having that kind of knowledge might help with troubleshooting.

    7) Legal — basics of copyright law and the fair use doctrine, & how they apply to the parish setting, overview of licensing (including mechanical licensing for any recordings made) and how to obtain them, reprint permissions for bulletins/worship aids, and any required reporting.

    Also, under the musical compentencies, I would include orchestration/arranging and basic improvisation (even for non-keyboardists).

  2. It’s not clear if the position contemplated to be desired by such a graduate would be a Director of Liturgy or Director of Music position, but it’s implied that it would include duties typically associated with at least the latter, with the hope of duties also sometimes associated to the former. I may be misreading – it happens – but the intended frame of reference may be relevant for getting worthwhile responses.

    With my sense of the intended framework, and without duplicating any of the fine recommendations already made, I would add:

    -Because the human voice is the basic instrument for liturgical music, basic competency in voice and composition, so that one might knowledgeably (a) understand, evaluate and help correct vocal problems in amateur (non-professional) music ministers, (b) have the ability to provide training needed by clergy to sing their chants, and (c) identify and remediate glaringly deficient voice leading in music.

    -In a specifically Roman Catholic context, informed familiarity with the repertoire in the Church’s liturgical books of music: the Missal, Kyriale, Graduale, Liber, et cet., and vernacular adaptations thereof, so that programming may not be narrowed before getting out of the gate by unfamiliarity. In other words, a candidate who assumes the terrain of available music is what’s in a typical missalette/market hymnal and typical topical offerings of the major publishers is, well, at least as narrow as someone who restricts their programming only to what is in the books I mentioned. The liturgical books give us options, and familiarity with their range and depth is optimal for framing fully informed decisions.

    Ideally, an employer would be expected in turn to help candidates deepen their education in these matters. Only likely in very well endowed parishes (or, more likely, oratories) … or parishes with visionary leadership.

  3. I want to second (and applaud) what Nick Basehore stated … the knowledge of all things technological will prove invaluable particularly in a digital age. Further, knowing all the legal implications is critical, especially as our services move to simulcasting and web content.

    My daughter studied Marketing at university. One of the compulsory courses was “Introduction to Computer Programming and Server Management”. What????? … was the cry from everyone. In her first year of work she sat at a meeting in which the IT company was bemoaning how many weeks it would take to do a simple data transfer. She looked at them and said, “Get me up in the terminal and I can complete it in 10 minutes. If you can’t, you need to be replaced.” And yes, she could. That is the level of competence needed: from repairing and tuning a pipe organ, to rewiring a microphone cable, to troubleshooting an electrical system, to debug a projection computer. How quickly can you slip a piano into tune?

    To all this, my concern becomes the profound level of liturgical awareness and sensitivity that is required. My phone rang off the hook before, during and after Holy Week from parishes who discovered that they now had dramas replacing the Passion readings, readings being replaced by a song, psalms and parts of the Ordinary being cut “to save time” … Vigil at 5:00 PM … no Exsultet … how does one teach a response to that? How does one prepare a candidate for the reality they may/will ultimately face. May I suggest what is following ….

    I would add “Spiritual” … a solid grounding in the traditions of the prayer life of the church, particularly the sung prayer life. This must be a community devotional in both contemporary and traditional forms. A person working in the church today must function in almost every genre, from Gregorian to Power Chords. They must be solidly grounded and confident in their own spirituality. They need an unshakeable core at their foundation.

    It is a daunting task.

  4. I’d like to see a greater emphasis on understanding the history of the rites, especially the shaping of the reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council, and the background to them. Without this, liturgical music is in danger of floating into a disembodied sacred music, or neglectful of the principle of active participation. This isn’t an optional extra, but essential.

    Second, the definition of pastoral here is very weak. Communicating with the pastor? Writing bulletin inserts? People skills are used by liturgical musicians constantly, for dealing with — the people of the church, choirs, cantors, etc. A pastoral understanding of how liturgical music functions is a skill learned.

    1. Dear Rita,

      Perhaps my use of “e.g.” was unclear. I was not limiting what the graduate needed to know to the examples I gave, but simply giving an example of some topic that might be covered under a particular heading. Obviously, the graduate would need to know more under the category “musical” than just knowing how to accompany an assembly or choir on the organ, piano or guitar. My hope was that Pray Tell’s readers would fill out the category with their own “e.g.”s.

  5. Hmmm. For music, liturgy, or both, it’s only the rare gifted person truly ready for ministry after a BA. Mainstream candidates for being a director of music ministry in a parish, I would think major in organ/piano or voice, and significant coursework/skill/experience in the other. Conducting third, and composition, music history, some basic theology after that.

    Director of liturgy, I always thought that an undergraduate degree in drama or art would provide a good basis if music wasn’t in the picture. Serious theology is for graduate students, as it is for seminarians.

    In an ideal world, a prospective music and/or liturgy director would be supervised for a period of time in a parish, a year’s stint as an accompanist, assistant liturgist, something like that. The reality is that this is far less likely to happen today than a generation ago.

    One of my most disappointing experiences in ministry was having a gifted undergrad who played in his parish all through high school. Organ. Piano. Classical. Contemporary. Improvisation. He did an internship for four years accompanying a regional children’s choir with one of his professors, and played at a few Protestant churches in town. We didn’t have a chance–no money to compete. He played the occasional Taize Prayer or closing song at Saturday Mass.

    If I were a cynic, I might say, “By all means, let’s train students for ministry in non-Catholic churches.”

  6. We’ve had a long string of well trained organ scholars assisting our principle organist each academic year. All have gone on to well paying and in some cases prestigious positions in other Episcopal or Protestant parishes. I don’t know of a single case where one even considered a RC posting.

  7. To some of the above comments, I would add a knowledge and love of Sacred Scripture. The planning and execution of liturgy is so integrally tied to the Scriptures that I would want a a Music and/or Liturgy director/planner to have a reasonably extensive knowledge of BOTH testaments. This ties into the “spirituality” mentioned by Mr. Donaldson

  8. It keep it in interdisciplinary, but primarily in the music department. First things first; if they are incompetent players, it doesnt matter how much liturgical history they know, nor how well they navigate the ordo.

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