Valerie Nicolosi Niemerg
Lecture 1 - Rome, We Have a Problem
Updated: Feb 4, 2022
Lecture I – We Have a Problem
Hello. My name is Valerie, and I’m a Catholic and I sing in Church.
Back in the epic operas of my dating history, I remember coming out of Mass once with a boyfriend who was in all respects a decent Catholic. He did his best to stay in a State of Grace and even taught theology at a small Catholic college. “That last hymn,” he said as we crossed the parking lot together, “you got a little too loud. Especially that one high note towards the end.”
A cloud passed over the sun, and I mentally began preparing my “you’re not the one” speech.
Being an opera singer in a Catholic pew is generally speaking a demoralizing experience. My liturgical life, when not being paid to sing in the choir loft, has consisted of a variety of weekly encounters. Little kids will point with gaping whispers, asking silent fathers, "what's that lady doing?" Irked congregants shiver and twitch every time the music starts, knowing I’m probably going to start singing again. And by far the most singularly memorable moment was when a woman offered everyone around her the Sign of Peace, but coming to me, mustered only a cold scowl and a hand hidden in a convenient pocket. This has happened to me twice actually. . . Not the kind of thing you forget.
Still, I admit publicly that the problem is me. I just don’t sing like a good Catholic.
In 1991, Thomas Day wrote a popular book called “Why Catholics Can’t Sing.” In it, Day accused all post-Vatican II Catholics of having terrible taste in music and never singing in church. Okay, he probably had some points. We all know the pendulum of liturgical music probably swung WAY too far after Vatican II, and most of us grew up with no idea of what beautiful music in the liturgy could be. But what is most curious about Day’s book is how he managed to blame the whole sordid musical situation on the Irish. They just can’t catch a break.
Now, to those who dispute the urge to let loose on the singing during the celebration of Mass, I do, of course, tip my hat. You’re right. It’s not Carnegie Hall, and we shouldn’t be singing like it’s a concert or performance. I assure you, I don’t. If I did, it would make headlines. An opera singer is trained to carry over a sixty-person orchestra in a three-thousand seat hall without a microphone. Believe me, when I’m in the pew of a Catholic Mass, I sing the bare minimum to be on pitch. I hold it back, squeeze it in and tighten up my throat to let out as little as I can. Like a weird sort of Ordinary Time penance, I save this unpleasant corset on my singing specifically for church and the public worship of my God. . .
Thomas Day’s book is now almost thirty years old, but the problem lingers on. That devoutly Catholic boyfriend of mine told me to pull it back just about twelve years ago and I got some twitches and shudders just last week. So, you may think you sing in church, but in all likely hood, I’m here today to tell you that you’re probably just “doing the Catholic thing.”
In my private voice studio, I’ve come to a standstill many times with a student who simply won’t or can’t sing outside of what I call their “little Catholic voice.” This is not the voice God made. Rather, it is the safe and quiet voice they feel comfortable singing with when other people are around. It is produced using a great deal of laryngeal pressure and strain, a manipulated and not a natural vocal technique, specifically designed to sing so no one will hear them. Which, if you think about it, is absurd. It’s a sort of warped musical politeness. “I want to sing, I think I’m probably supposed to, but I don’t want to inflict my singing on anyone else.” So, sing like you don’t mean it. It’s the polite thing to do.
Hold on. Doesn’t that strike anybody else as messed up? I’m no theologian. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the brightest candle on the altar, but still, it seems somehow right to sing loud in church. Despite how it might irk or annoy some, singing in church, singing like we mean it, with all our hearts, well that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?
Let me be clear. I’ve never found this bizarre muted-singing style in a Mormon or an Episcopal. This seems to be a singing style reserved for the disturbingly polite, the rabidly insecure and the devoutly Catholic. And yet, we Catholics have more reason to sing than anybody, right? Sanctifying Grace, the Divine Presence, Intercessory prayer, moral truth and all that? Shouldn’t we be the ones letting loose in the pews?
Jeff Cavens said Catholics don't know their story. I say, we don't know our voices. So, this is my mission. After all these years of teaching singing, I’m here to argue that Thomas Day was wrong. Catholics can sing. Catholics should sing and Catholics must sing. We just don’t know how.
So, I’m going to teach you how. You read that right. I’m going to use our very own, oh-so-Catholic theology to introduce the musical instrument that God himself built within you. I believe that if you understood the incredible wonder of this "Divine Reed" that you would find a new relationship to prayer and liturgy. The basic principles of a healthy singing technique have been sequestered behind the doors of vocal pedagogy studios for centuries, but I will throw open these doors and teach you how to breathe, resonate and open your voice so it works “with the science,” that is, like God made it to work, and not the way you think it ought to.
God made you so unique. So also is your singing voice. It is a remarkable combination of your will to proclaim His praise and His ingenious work of creation, the human body which allows you to do so. Take a little time, just once in your life, and find out how God made your instrument to work and how, incredibly, almost uncannily, His creation within you stands as a proclamation in itself, a mirror of God's very nature, and a testament to His plan, your story, and the mystery of life. If you’re hearing excuses in your head right now, they are not coming from God. Believe me, the other guy doesn’t want you to read this blog. He envies your gift of God’s love within you. Hear his voice, it will never go away.
But sing anyway.
Singing for Catholics 101 begins today.