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Ministry & Technology

Music and technology: In service of our God

As a classically trained musician, I have always looked for new and innovative ways to help volunteer choir members and accompanists better learn their music for liturgy. Expecting them to sit and go over their vocal parts at home proved unrealistic, so I had to look to the audio gadgets of the times for help.

Back in the 1980s, I recorded vocal and instrumental parts on cassette tape (stopping and starting over to correct every mistake) and allowed choir members to record rehearsals (mistakes and all). When tapes were eventually replaced by CDs, I learned how to record on my computers (Windows and Mac) through MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) devices and controllers to create wave files that could be burned onto discs. When CD players became standard in cars, many a practice disc found itself traveling to and from work or school as its driver soaked in all the musical measures and sang along in traffic.

With the arrival of "iEverything" devices, some of my earlier tech education is still useful but had to be expanded to allow these new gadgets to produce the same results: helping choirs and instrumentalists learn and execute their music better, thus resulting in better prayer and worship for all. Has all the work been worthwhile? Has it resulted in better sound and more meaningful prayer? I have to say yes (with a few minor exceptions). I feel that if I had not gone the extra technological mile, I would not have done everything in my power to bring out the very best in all my musicians, both musically and spiritually.

Let me share with you some of the programs and hardware I've used over the years to help me and my musicians grow.

Music notation software

I've used the powerhouse program known as Finale for almost 20 years. The initial investment was hefty then and still is ($600, or $350 for an academic version). As of this past February, the parent company MakeMusic has released a decently moderate version called NotePad for folks who want to transcribe simple melodies and parts and print them out. You can't create mp3 files to listen to, however, but the next product up — SongPrint — is only $49.95 and seems to be able to do the job. You can compare and contrast all of their products and download free trials at www.finalemusic.com, and I can attest that their products and customer service are first-rate.

MIDI keyboard

I hated having to use my mouse or trackpad to click in each note on a staff in order to write and arrange in Finale, so I finally broke down and purchased a USB (universal serial bus) MIDI keyboard to transcribe all the notes in real time. M-Audio's KeyRig 49 is not bad for the price ($129, but I snagged one cheaper at Guitar Center), but be forewarned that the keys are not weighted and are only half a standard 88 keyboard. Because you're not using it to play Bach or Mozart but to input notes on a staff, for that purpose it works just fine.

Recording equipment

Gone are the days of lugging a tape recorder around to capture rehearsals on cassettes and then duplicating them for the gal in the soprano section who wants a copy to practice with. My gadget of choice to record anything from music to the spoken word is the Zoom H2 digital recorder ($154 at amazon.com). With the same dimensions as a smartphone and using the small SD (secure digital) cards to record on, it is a powerful recorder that produces high quality mp3s that can be transferred to almost any mp3 player or burned onto a CD. There is a newer version, the H2n ($199 at Amazon), but the original does the same great job for a little less. I've suggested it to more than a few musician friends who are not as tech-oriented as I am, and all of them have found it easy to use and are pleased with the results.

Music editing software

For intrepid souls who want to edit or polish raw recordings, programs such as Adobe Audition (Windows and Mac, $349) or GarageBand (Mac, $14.99; iPad or iPhone, $4.99) are powerful tools for beginners. If you use a Mac, it's worth the money to try either of those out, but if you use Windows, then I'd suggest you download a different program, Audacity (runs on all operating systems), for free. Though I've never used it, friends and colleagues who use it swear by its easy-to-use and easy-to-understand interface.

Remember, music is not an end in itself; music serves our Catholic liturgy's worship of our loving God. So it is with technology: it is not an end in itself but should bring out the best in our music (or any ministry) as it serves our faith community. ML

author imageJoanne Mercier serves as director of faith formation at St. Theresa and St. Christopher parishes in Tiverton, R.I. She is on the advisory board for the Diocese of Providence's Office for Worship. She earned her bachelor's degree in church music from Barrington College and her MTS degree from Weston Jesuit School of Theology.