Just a few days ago, I did the singular most difficult thing I have ever been asked to do as a musician - I cantored the entirety of my beloved grandmother’s funeral Mass.
To my recollection, I don’t think I’ve ever sung a funeral before, even for a stranger, and so it was an incredibly emotional experience for my first funeral Mass to be someone who I loved so dearly. Very thankfully, I’m at a point in my career where I don’t often feel incredibly nervous before I have to sing, but I was so completely nervous before this Mass. I was very keenly aware that I was offering my grandma a unique and final gift, which no one else was capable of offering in the same way, and the resulting pressure was intense. Here are a few tips I learned through this process that I want to share with you.
Choose easy music! For regular Sunday Masses, or even weddings, I like to incorporate pieces that are a bit more technically challenging or vocally showy, not with prideful intentions, but as a means of beautifying the liturgy. However, strong emotions and difficult music is an extremely risky combo. I knew that for myself, as well as for the congregation full of friends and family, that I would much rather program easy music that I’m totally confident I can deliver well, even if it wouldn’t be my first (or second, or third) choice of music.
Surround yourself with a music team that totally supports you. I am incredibly blessed that my family and the parish agreed for me to bring my own accompanist, rather than collaborating with the pianist from the parish. Sometimes working with new musicians who you don’t know (which I didn’t, in this case) can be a big blessing, but it can also sometimes bring unnecessary and stressful complications, especially having to work together on such short notice. NOT ideal for such an emotional experience! I cannot rightly explain the mental and emotional peace of knowing that my accompanist had my back through every single piece, that we could communicate effectively, even as I was singing from the pulpit, and that, even when the funeral was over and our final goodbyes were said, she would still be in my corner to support me through everything.
If you can, arrange to have a backup. This is especially relevant if you’re cantoring, but I feel like it can apply to any breath-supported instrument, specifically. We all know that crying has a direct correlation with the breath. We experience it most clearly in moments of intense sorrow, when sobs seems to come uncontrollably. If you’re able, try to have a secondary singer, maybe a friend, a colleague, or another parish musician, to offer you support, and to step up to the plate if there comes an instance where you feel too emotional to sing. You may not end up needing the musical support, but the emotional security of knowing that you’re not expected to deliver a flawless performance, and you have another professional there to encourage and support you is incredibly reassuring.
Arrange rehearsals BEFORE the day of the funeral. I know most church musicians don’t like to rehearse together until the hour or so leading up to the Mass they’re playing for, but I am of the opinion that funerals should constitute an exception- most especially if you’re a family member of the deceased. The morning of the funeral will already be emotional enough, and parishes often encourage a time of visitation on the morning of the funeral, leading directly up to the start of the Mass. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to try and hold rehearsals one, two, or even three days in advance of the funeral. If you’re working with a larger ensemble of musicians, there’s a chance they won’t all be able to attend, but as long as the cantor and the pianist or organist are there to hold down the fort, and anyone who has a high probability of experiencing intense emotions during the funeral itself has an opportunity to rehearse, the rest of the ensemble can be added in later.
Give yourself time and space to grieve, however you need to. It’s so, so important not to suppress your emotions, especially grief. Grief is just another expression of love, so don’t be afraid of experiencing those emotions. I was able to have a few, big moments of grieving before and after the funeral Mass, and it was just enough to allow me to keep my emotions in check when I had to sing. Even if your feelings come out during your singing or your playing at Mass, those expressions always come from the heart, and are completely normal and understandable in such circumstances. Remember that you are playing firstly for God, and secondly for the deceased.No one expects perfection, only authenticity, and sometimes authenticity looks like sadness.
Finally, throughout every season of grieving, remember that you, as a musician, have something totally unique and special to offer with your gifts. It is truly a great blessing and privilege to use our musical gifts to honor God and express love for those dear to us. Your musical gifts are a small, imperfect, but nevertheless important reflection of Heaven on earth, and what a gift to be able to bring that as a final gift to someone we love who has gone to God, and as a comfort to those left behind to mourn. Some of the most beautiful music has come from grief, and we know as Catholics that we can’t experience the joy of the Resurrection without first knowing the sorrow of the Crucifixion. So, while it may well be the most challenging thing you’re ever asked to do in your professional life, should you be presented the opportunity, I would highly suggest playing for the funeral Mass of someone you love. In these tender, emotional moments, the veil between Heaven and earth truly feels insubstantial.