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The Imagination of their Hearts :

detoxing static techvox with realtime vocal dialogue

by Elizabeth Sheppard
OblSB BA BTh STBACertCM GradDipEd DipMus DipAdvAbStuds NILA

Australians hear people singing every day - on the radio breakfast

programme, on television, on the Internet, in the mall and supermarket muzak. The
music we hear, particularly the music that is song, subtly shapes our perceptions
and thoughts. Song, especially real time song with language, has particular power,
because throughout human history the authentic human voice has meant fully
human contact, fully human communication. The first human voice most babies
become aware of is their mother's, that of a constant carer. The first human skill
we learn is that of associating the love in our mother's voice with the indistinct
image of her face. As we grow, we tend to respond automatically to any voice by
giving it our attention. But in today's society we have to learn to be selective, to
prudently "turn off" the harmful voices we do not want to hear.
Many of the voices and sounds we hear today are no longer fully human.
Our world is filled with deconstructed sounds. It is dominated by machine and
electronic noises, electronically manipulated music, and fragmented and spliced
electronic voices. We live amongst a barrage of traffic noise, aircraft noise, and
meaningless electronic beeps and shrieks. We listen and "appreciate" music made
by strangers. In this dislocated audioworld, filled with polluted and degraded
sounds as well as attractive and pleasant ones, many people believe that there is no
longer any such thing as real dialogue with real people.
The Church can still choose to access a deeper mode of communication
through its sacred liturgical music, if it chooses to retain its ancient, Christ-centred,
sacred music traditions. Today, we need to search for, respect and treasure
authentic human voices, and firmly reject pseudo-communications that prohibit
our authentic response, or seek to evoke a predetermined response in us.
Authentic voices have the ability to carry fully human messages, and because they
are intelligently integrated with a human person, they have the ability to receive
our feedback and respond to our human messages. Real communication is always
responsorial, two-way. Without the ability to receive a message and respond to it,
a human voice is manacled, a half-voice with an extended toxic half-life, shouting
impotently into thin air.
Every real-time voice has a real-time person behind it, a person who chooses
to be fully present to and in relationship with others, by using their voice in
methodical ways for various purposes. Through the gift God has given to them,
their voice, a human person can choose to reflect the truth of their relationship to
God, in an appropriate Church community. This is a kind of Christian witness, and
it also has power to teach by example. In witnessing to their authentic relationship
with God, they are also open to receive what their active, responsive listeners truly
are, or hope to become, in the sight of God. With attentiveness, prayer, patience
and practice, a person who has faith in God experiences the full awareness of a
communicating being in tune with God as they speak or sing. They must work at
being in tune physically and spiritually, in order to survive the encounter, to have
the strength to stand before God truthfully, as an individual within a community.
The authentic human voice of a harmonious, peaceful, faithful,
compassionate, humble yet strong human person can miraculously render the still,
small voice of God, singing at the centre of all being, audible to humanity. In
speaking or singing with humility and skill, synchronously and truthfully, the
organic human voice may become clothed with the holiness of God, so that the
words and songs that emerge are perfectly balanced, perfectly tuned, and imbued
with holiness. Sound engineers have measured the unique sound waves this
inexplicable event produces during worship. If and when this happens, the
speaker or singer may participate in profound spiritual and technical events not of
their own making. This is not at all the same as becoming a powerless zombie, or a
medium or channel for the divine. To engage responsibly in such an event the
human personality has to be fully active, the understanding and the soul must be
fully aware and engaged with God, and the speaker or singer must maintain full
technical and emotional control of a very difficult art.
An individual authentic human speaking or singing voice is never
anonymous in a Christian community. Its owner may choose to serve God by
speaking or singing with other responsible people who are able to tune their voices
and respond to God. In order to hear each other and tune to each other, our
individual voices must remain willing to speak and sing, willing to be heard, clear
and audible, and each authentic voice must be trained individually. Each
individual human voice takes shape over time in a unique way, under the control
of its owner, teacher, and deity. The process of learning to sing authentically in
community also develops the mind, body, intelligence, emotions and physical
organs of the individual.
The pedagogic process for speaking and singing in Christian worship
integrates and forms the physical and spiritual character of the speaker or singer.
It can only take place if the student is cooperative, hardworking, attentive and
filled with awareness of God's presence. The authentic human voice exhibits a
mature, harmonious, vocal personality that has the courage to publicly
demonstrate its full awareness of its total dependence upon God for existence and
The unresponsive recorded voices we hear channeled via technology, which
are imprisoned in past time, are often beneficial, but are not authentic in time-
space in the full sense of the word. The most we can do with these vocal products
is to listen and reflect historically upon them; any response we may make is
delayed, lacking spatial, face to face actuality. The strident voice of a spruiker or
the honeyed tones of a TV advertiser, whose only goal is to manipulate their
listeners into buying their goods, is a commodity rented to the employer who
profits by it. The sound an authentic human voice produces is actual, real and
true, because the person produces it in real time-space by coordinated movement,
awareness, listening and looking as well as by speaking or singing.
The amazing thing is that a listener who hears a real voice coming from a
real person, hears sounds uniquely keyed to him or herself and to how he or she
perceives the speaker or singer. A listener can learn from this real, personal
experience of hearing, if they choose to engage in dialogue. What you get out of
the experience many be difficult to understand, and what you choose to give back
may be a judgment, but an authentically Christian human voice does not lie,
mislead, or misrepresent. It communicates beyond words, emotionally and
intuitively, as well as through syllables, harmony, rhythm, and melody. It says or
sings "I am", and "you are", and that's where we're at in our present situation, and
adores and thanks God and Christ in the Holy Spirit. Like sheep who hear the
voice of the good shepherd, and follow, we learn to trust authentic human voices,
and we respond joyfully to them. If we listen carefully, we will hear many such
voices in the Churches.
Listening carefully, and speaking or singing carefully, involves all of the
senses and all of the human body, not just the ears. Behind the responsible real-
time human voice is a real human person who first listens, looks, and feels, and
constantly and prudently responds to their listeners as they speak or sing.
Exercising prudence - the harmonising virtue which integrates all the other virtues
- is extremely important in sacred song and music. Singers and speakers of sacred
song are far from perfect people - in fact, they must have undergone a full range of
human experience to be able to feel with the necessary depth, so that they can
express and respond to all human emotions. They are faithful, sensitized people,
prepared to live every moment of their lives fully, and graced by God to speak and
sing God's responsive Word to humanity. They are rational, not over-passionate,
technically competent, but also emotionally aware and emotionally literate. They
must be adaptable because of the nature of the art they practise, which shapes the
Word of God in real time in order to make it accessible and participatory within a
Church community.
Sacred speech and song is never the sole property of the person who speaks
or sings it, but they must take full responsibility for it, since it is most precious. It
must be guarded, nourished, defended against corruption, and promoted strongly,
without reservation. The Church community that fosters and cares for sacred
speech and song faithfully and generously will never lack for converts or income.
Claiming an inability to speak or sing publicly is frequent among Church
people who in fact speak or sing perfectly well in secular life. Many refuse to offer
their gifts to be trained in the service of God, and may try to prevent others who
have the requisite gifts from doing so. Various reasons are given for this disturbed,
unhealthy behaviour, not the least of which is unwarrantable competition amongst
Church musicians and teachers of Church music. The erroneous belief that sacred
singing impedes spiritual development or prayer has no basis, and has never been
supported by any authentic Catholic doctrine. Suppression of the voice of the
Church is a regular historical phenomenon, arising from a deliberate intent to
persecute and silence Christians whose beliefs challenge worldly values and
It is true that sacred silence is an important part of worship, and it is, in fact,
a part of sacred music, but it is only one part among many that make up the
totality of whole-hearted, balanced Christian worship. In the Catholic Church both
priests and assembly are permitted, in fact required, to sing during worship.
However only those with specialist training in the chant are permitted to sing the
solo Precentor's and Cantor's parts, or the parts of the Mass reserved to the Priest
Celebrant or Deacon. The Schola Cantorum of every Catholic Cathedral in Europe,
America and Asia, supported by clergy and congregation, promotes and rejoices in
sacred music. There is no valid reason why the Scholae Cantorum of every
Australian Catholic Cathedral, and the music teachers of all Australian Catholic
schools, should restrict good quality sacred music to Cathedral and Catholic
schools, or fail to encourage, praise and sustain it in our parishes.
At the very least, parishioners must, according to the current Roman
Catholic documents on sacred music, be taught to sing the Kyrie, the Gloria, the
Creed, the Sanctus, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Agnus Dei in Latin and the
vernacular, as well as the Responses and Acclamations - otherwise they cannot
take part in the Mass actively. It is no defence to say that parish priests discourage
music because they do not have musical training, that it is too expensive, or just
too much trouble. Through Parish Councils and Diocesan Liturgical Commissions,
lay people and religious, as well as clergy, can take responsibility for their own
parish music. The Parish Priest is bound by canon law and adherence to his
Bishop, to support any initiative strongly supported and funded by the faithful,
which has the approval of the Bishop.
Some of the more unreasonable objections to music in the Roman Catholic
Church in Australia, rest on the shaky ground that singing encourages pride and
self-promotion. However, speakers and singers of sacred words in worship are
always taught to refer praise for any excellence, to God. God's Word is venerated
as Jesus Christ himself, the human being who was divine, who is risen and with us
now, and we have an obligation to make this Word audible in a worthy manner.
The New Testament calls Christ the Logos, the two-edged sword of the Word that
cuts both ways, searching and dissecting our souls - the revealing Word which
involves both speaker and listener in necessary and sometimes painful two-way
communication. Within a Church community the authentic spoken and sung Word
of God carries a powerful motivation for Christian action in the world. Church
music in its best form facilitates harmonious and ordered communication, and
moreover reveals weaknesses, while controlling any tendency towards discordant
or tyrannical control. Its liturgical power to restore social harmony and peace,
when at the service of Christ in the Mass, is unsurpassed.
In our cacophonous world, the human voices that bear God's Word speak
and sing for those who listen intently with an open ear and an open heart. They
are heard not only in the Eucharistic liturgies, but also in the Sacrament of
Reconciliation, and in all authentic Sacraments, Offices, and paralitugies of the
Church. The way a skilled speaker or singer of sacred words speaks or sings is
acquired very slowly, so only those dedicated and selected undertake this
advanced training from an early age. Basic vocal training should be completed by
the age of 16, when the vocal organs are fully formed, and this provides a sound
basis for further studies. Many fundamental skills of intonation, projection and
articulation must be learned in this preliminary stage. The techniques of sacred
song in the Catholic Church are adapted to each person’s voice, but are consistent
with the textual and musical traditions of the Catholic Church. The techniques are
acquired only by years of arduous physical and spiritual apprenticeship to skilled
Lectors and Cantors who are familiar with all of the Catholic repertoire, liturgies,
service books, rubrics, and unwritten local customs. The Celebrant’s, Deacon’s,
Lector’s, Precentor’s and Cantor’s way of speaking, singing, and interpreting the
Word of God is tuned to their human existence by God through the Church’s
traditions of sacred music. Listeners who have opened their hearts to God, hear
actively, and respond to these voices fruitfully.
If we listen and respond intently to a holy voice which speaks and sings
God's holy Word in real time in our world, that voice and its message can help us
to perceive God with us now in the Eucharist. If we, as responsive listeners, are
obedient to the urgings of the Holy Spirit working through the Word, this can
contribute towards resolving emotional conflicts, inspiring good actions, and
sustaining peace in our world. Using the fully human means of a living,
coordinated, healthy human body, God produces in human beings who truly love
Him, a sound and a message of both human and divine origin, and this is a
mystery to both the owner of the voice and the listeners. The message heard
through the holy speech and song of such a voice, opens real possibilities for
loving action in our lives. Producing and listening for the holy song of God is not
easy: it is hard work that cannot be accomplished in isolation. But hearing God's
voice emerge in the responsorial song of the Church, Christ’s Body, and seeing the
joyful strength for right action that it brings, is most surely worth the effort.