How the Brain Learns: Musical Pedagogy in Evangelization (Part 1)

During the 1960s, Dr. Georgi Lozanov and Dr. Evelyna Gateva published groundbreaking research into how people, particularly children, and teens, learn using music. A medical doctor and pedagogical researcher by trade, Lozanov and Gateva shared the impressive link between music and learning that made remembering facts and information easier. This led to the buzz phrase of the 60s, long before common core and asynchronous learning, called “accelerated learning.” Drs. Lozanov and Gateva brought to the world something that Catholics already knew, albeit subconsciously: the power of music to effectively teach concepts.

In last week’s bulletin, I shared Pope Francis’ intention on stomping out what he called “eccentricities [within the Mass] that can easily degenerate into abuses.” Like many parishes, we were not and still are not perfect, but we are trying to adhere more closely to the teaching of Vatican II. His Holiness has asked for greater decorum and fidelity to the liturgical books of the Second Vatican Council. As a parish, we have diligently been working on this since just before the onset of the pandemic nearly a full year and a half before His Holiness made his request in the form of a Papal motu proprio just this past July.

The approach that we have taken at St. Anthony of Padua tackles the low-hanging fruit first. For the most part, music is very subjective. What one parishioner likes and finds beautiful, another will absolutely loathe. What one priest likes musically another might find blasphemous or “not what the people want” or exactly “what people want.” As you can imagine, especially in American society, opinions abound, and most aren’t afraid to share them. As touched upon in last week’s bulletin, our personal opinions are mostly moot when it comes to not only the catechism of our faith, but also how we practice the faith. This has been backed up by not only Pope Francis, but Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. While musical characteristics are mostly very subjective, there are things to consider regarding the complexity of music – most typically in the form of rhythms and range – that are highly researched based. Because musical characteristics and styles are highly subjective, along with my music team, I make our musical decisions grounded in musical pedagogy, or what people should developmentally be able to do, based on peer-reviewed data-backed research and best practices. Not exactly interesting stuff for the second edition of this series. As this generally relates directly to rhythm and how “high” things are, I’ll explain more about this in subsequent weeks as it is very important to have an understanding on this topic.

So what is that low-hanging fruit that we are currently tackling in regards to the fidelity with Vatican II at St. Anthony’s? The texts that we sing: lyrics.

For the better part of our faith’s existence, the vast majority of the faithful have been illiterate or had very limited reading ability. The Church used music to catechize the faith. In the Catholic tradition, this was mostly limited to singing words that came directly from sacred Scripture in the form of antiphons. The General Instruction on the Roman Missal, or GIRM, one of the books Pope Francis referenced in his most recent motu proprio, prescribes four options that can be sung during the opening, offertory, and Communion parts of the Mass. Three of the four options are antiphons that come directly from sacred Scripture and not man. The last option, somewhat of a last resort if you will, is “another suitable hymn” that has been approved by the local bishop. Thinking back to your own experience, which option became the most popular in the time period after Vatican II? For the overwhelming majority of us, the last option is outlined in the GIRM. The last resort.

The problem with other suitable hymns is that the texts of these hymns were written by people like me: musicians with the best of intentions, but with little to no theology background. That was quickly reflected in the texts of the post-Vatican II era that relied heavily on what some call “emotional theology,” and not Catholic theology. Many of these songs lacked not only actual Catholic teaching but were written in rhythmic and harmonic ways that made them nearly impossible for the average Catholic in the pew to sing along with. What’s the problem? Why be so rigid, especially if the average Catholic doesn’t know the difference? Well, think back to the two main reasons we have music at all at Mass: (1) Praise of God (2) Evangelization and Catechizing the faith. Are we able to praise God and evangelize the Roman Catholic faith, if we are using heretical or schismatic texts that directly contradict what our faith teaches and believes? Are able to effectively teach the faith to children, newcomers, or even cradle Catholics with faulty information? To put it bluntly, no. Absolutely not.

With the return to public Masses in June 2020, Bishop Thomas and the Diocesan Restoration Council gave very clear instructions: limit singing to avoid spreading the aerosolized COVID-19 virus. (We all were working with the information and research known to us at the time.) While some parishes skipped music altogether, others introduced new unfamiliar hymns, some simply ignored the Bishop’s directive altogether, we opted for another option: the antiphons. For the majority of our parishioners, these texts and music were unfamiliar, which meant it limited participation and possible spread. We weren’t leaving music, such a critical aspect of our liturgy, behind, especially in a time when many needed “normalcy” in their lives. We were being obedient to our Bishop’s Episcopal authority and being pastoral to the needs of our parishioners during a time of uncertainty on so many fronts.

We also were satisfying the third need that the majority of parishioners likely did not know existed until about three or four paragraphs ago: sing the antiphons. And people are. Even through masks. In fact, there are people coming to our parish from all over Las Vegas because we have taken His Holiness’ message to heart: 

“be vigilant in ensuring that every liturgy be celebrated with decorum and fidelity to the liturgical books promulgated after Vatican Council II, without the eccentricities that can easily degenerate into abuses”

As we move forward as a parish, we will slowly begin introducing other musical settings of the antiphons. The Scripture-based texts will not change, but the music does. So, if you’re not a fan of the type of music, that’s alright. Know that we are moving forward to incorporate more musical styles (that are appropriate and in accord with Vatican II) of these sacred texts. We especially do this as we look forward, in humble anticipation, to the day of our choral program not only returning but expanding and flourishing in a post-pandemic world.

Next week, we will dive into specifically what antiphons are.