Like Lent, Advent is a time of contemplation. John the Baptist calls us to it with his admonition to “Prepare the way of the Lord.” And Mary — the teenager tapped to bear a savior — models it with her desire to ponder her unexpected destiny.
Year after year, we are invited into this personal space, too. Advent is the season before the season, the time leading up to something momentous. It reminds us that the lives we live as Christians are part of something bigger. The significance of that demands preparation and commitment.
I’ve spent more than 30 years preparing for the way of the Lord as an ensemble director, cantor, guitarist, and liturgy director. And it’s still a constant effort, and sometimes a struggle. So this is not about perfection or the exact right way. It’s about getting better, maybe just incrementally, at the things that matter.
With that in mind, here is an Advent reflection for musicians with three ways we can engage during Advent (and beyond) to ready the way of the Lord.
1. Show up ready
In my day job as a corporate communications vice president, we talk about what is expected of leaders. How do I need to show up as a leader? Are we prepared for the project discussion or the performance conversation we need to have? Are we organized and focused?
We could apply the same thinking to those who are leaders of sung prayer (which is each of us in music ministry). At the most basic level, we should show up ready musically. That may mean using tabs to mark the pages in our hymnal or ensuring our music binder is in the right order. It may mean having sung through the psalm or played through the pieces, especially the new or difficult ones. For me, it may mean cleaning out my music bag to get rid of old bulletins and make sure I have a sharpened pencil or two. And it means being at my music stand at the assigned time (a lifelong aspiration).
Being ready musically also means having spent some time with the music of the day. Truly, any is better than none. The accompanist at my church takes time after Mass to play through music for the next weekend. Our new guitarist runs through the music at home.
When I cantor, I spend time a day or two ahead singing through the psalm a few times. My goal is twofold: get out of my head and get off the page. I try to understand how the psalm fits with the other readings of the day or with the season, and then just pray it as I sing. The more familiar I am with the melody and the rhythms and timing, the more I can focus on being a conduit for the Scripture and the Holy Spirit.
All in all, each of us spends from 30 to 60 minutes preparing music for the week. The longer you do this, the more efficient the preparation may be, so each person’s time required to be musically prepared will vary.
2. Show up grounded
Whether we call it “mindfulness” or “being present” or “centering yourself,” being mentally and emotionally prepared is important as a liturgical musician, and it’s a great way to help others by modeling it. It’s easy to treat rehearsal or Mass as another task on a to-do list. It can often take intention to lift yourself out of busy mode. That’s where starting and/or ending with a prayer (with the full choir or ensemble preferably) can be a great source of unity and focus.
Another intentional way to get focused is to greet others and look them in the eyes when you do so. As anyone who has served as a Eucharistic minister knows, eye contact creates real connection.
Finally, taking a few intentional deep breaths is a simple way to connect yourself to your body and release some of the stress you may have brought to church with you!
3. Show up for yourself
Dedicated church musicians often become victims of their own selfless service. It’s easy to get burned out or resentful from all the ways we serve others. It’s critical that you find ways to serve your own spirit.
Being in a church ensemble may not feed you musically in all the ways you need. To better satisfy my desire for musical creativity, for instance, I’m part of an acoustic trio. We have more fun practicing than playing gigs because that is where the discovery happens. Similarly, your ensemble may not have the voices or instruments or level of experience to do all kinds of music at the highest level of quality. Listening to and sharing aspirational examples of liturgical music can fill a desire and be a great bonding experience with other musicians.
Sometimes, silence is the musician’s greatest balm. Make time for that, too, whether it is spending time in quiet prayer at Eucharistic adoration or attending a Taizé service at another parish. Simpler yet, commit to 15 minutes in the morning to light the Advent wreath, make a cup of coffee, and ponder before the world awakens.
Kathy Felong is a longtime director of music and liturgy in Erie, Pennsylvania. Her Advent practice this year is to substitute her daily Wordle for an Advent reflection and a cup of Starbucks Holiday Blend. Her addition to this year’s Advent parish repertoire is Curtis Stephan’s Ready the Way.
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