Organist at the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd (CGS) and music director of the Cathedral Choir of Saint Gregory the Great and the Cathedral Children’s Choir, ALPHONSUS CHERN answers some questions about the vocation of a church musician for The Catholic News.

Cathedral organist Alphonsus Chern demonstrates the pipe organ during a show-and-tell workshop for children at the Cathedral in June 2019.

  1. Why is music so important to the Church?

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini, wrote that the aim of liturgy is to assist the faithful to better understand the mysteries of their faith.

Martin Baker, former Master of Music at the Westminster Cathedral in London, goes on to explain that two things in the liturgy that can bridge the gap between the earthly and the divine are silence and music.

Through its beauty and dignity, sacred music, in particular, illuminates the essential elements of the Word of God by communicating it with fuller expression through both prose and melody. It therefore helps people in both their understanding of the text, and both interior and actual participation in the sacred liturgy.

When I first started out as a young church organist 30 years ago, it was more about me than the music. I thought that a good organist was one who could play hymns in an interesting way to keep the congregation entertained. Over the years, through the counsel of older and wiser people, my playing evolved from wanting to impress into desiring to serve the liturgy, and by extension, the people.

  1. What does it take to become a church musician?

Not every musician is called by God to the vocation of a church musician. It requires these things:

  • Faith, and a personal relationship with God: Church musicians must be fully immersed in the faith. They must also have the ability to feel and communicate the Word of God through sacred music so that those who hear it may be uplifted and edified by the glory of God.
  • Availability and a heart of service: A musician can express himself in many ways – by performing for audiences, recording albums, or starting a YouTube channel. A church musician finds his calling in serving the congregation through sacred music – music which is not about them personally, but about God.
  • Commitment, competence, and sacrifice: Musicians are on the bench every Sunday, all the Days of Obligation, the great Church feast days, and more. They spend days and nights in practice so that their playing becomes second nature and the liturgy goes smoothly. This rigorous training demands a substantial amount of time and personal expense.

Material gain or compensation for the church musician here is unlikely, at least in the near future. However, a good church musician fills the sacred space with a sound so prayerful, so glorious, and so uplifting that it causes a thousand hearts to be lifted in prayer and a thousand voices to sing in praise of their Creator. Good church musicians offer their fellow men a glimpse of heaven – a priceless gift.

Therefore, I encourage all those who feel the stirring to serve as organist, or in the choir (or as a lector, florist, or warden, for that matter), to heed the call and not to wait. Share your gifts with the world to witness to the glory of God, the giver of these gifts, and reach out to those who have not yet discovered Him.

  1. What if I love music but feel that I’m not good enough?

There are some who may feel discouraged that they cannot serve as church musicians because they are unable to play an instrument or sing a tune well.

Do not feel sad, because the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 reminds us that everyone in God’s Kingdom has received talents from Him, and that we can and should use them (no matter how small they may seem) according to our unique capacities, for His glory.

Even though you may not be a musician in church or a member of the choir, you can still sing and express your faith and love for God from the pews or at home: after all, Psalm 100:1 exclaims: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!”

  1. What has brought you the greatest fulfilment as a church musician?

Alphonsus with his first organ teacher, Father Andre Christophe, MEP.

I have played music at numerous weddings, many funerals, and more than a few baptisms and ordinations through the years. Being able to augment the joy for people in their happiest moments and bringing comfort to families in their sorrow through sacred music is one of the blessings I thank the Lord for every day.

But what has brought me the greatest fulfilment is having had the opportunity to start the Cathedral Organ Scholar Programme that trains musicians to become church organists and choristers. In 2019, our six organ scholars presented the CGS’s first hymn festival after two years of formal music studies. It was their way of using their talents to witness to God, and to thank their teachers and the congregation for their support.

That hymn festival was a defining moment for me because I knew then that it was possible to attract and form young people to serve as organists in a nurturing environment, with spiritual guidance from the clergy and financial support from the laity. My hope is that these organists will go on to inspire and mould the next generation of young musicians to come forward and serve their Church and community through sacred music.