Reminiscing a Papal Visit: World Youth Day 1993

It was very late one evening in Austin, Texas, I was returning home from the music library, pre-cell phone era. There were two messages on my answering machine, one from my mother, telling me that the Notre Dame Folk Choir director, Steve Warner was trying to reach me and the other from Steve Warner saying that he was trying to reach me. I called Mr. Warner.

He informed me that he and Alicia Scheidler, a student at Notre Dame, had written a song. I was delighted for them, but what did that have to do with me? The song was a bilingual setting of Psalm 45/Hearken, O Daughter/Atiendeme Hija and it had everything to do with me.

Mr. Warner informed me that they wrote the song specifically for my voice, a bilingual song to be sung with a “mariachi” flare. He said that the piece was submitted to the World Youth Day ’93 Mass Committee as the Psalm of the day for the Papal Mass to be held at Cherry Creek State Park in Denver, Colorado. The piece was submitted with the condition that if chosen, I would be the one to sing it. It was chosen! His question, “Would you be willing to join the Notre Dame Folk Choir in Denver as a soloist for the Papal Mass?”

I joined a million people who had pilgrimaged from all over the world in Denver for one of the most amazing experiences of my life. It began with rehearsal in a Cathedral filled with the best-of-the-best musicians from around the country, including several professional singers (the other soloists). It would be the understatement of the year to say that I was a bit intimidated.

The conductor took the podium and the rehearsal began. A full voiced orchestra and a cathedral full of singers created an all embracing energy that resonated goodness. The conductor moved thoroughly, but deliberately from the plethora of processional hymns, as it would take His Holiness, Pope John Paul II, a good deal of time to make his way through the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to the alter, to the Gloria and then finally to the Psalm. I was up.

I made my way to the podium as the musicians shuffled through their music. International television crews with their cameras, all pointing at me, made their way to the podium as well. I was terrified. Papal Mass soloists are auditioned, I wasn’t. All sorts of things were shooting through my mind, at the forefront, “am I good enough?”

The music began. We all began…time for my part. I opened my mouth and started to sing… the Spanish words filled my mouth and I gave it all that I had, “…en lugar de tus padres, tendras hijos, que en todas partes, reyes seran, y los pueblos te alaban mujer, para siempre…” confident that there would be some divine intervention and God would make sure that what everyone was hearing was good, it was rehearsal for a Papal Mass, after all! There was a moment of silence, then applause and everyone was standing around me…musicians were giving me a standing ovation…good musicians.

The conductor directed them seated and quiet. He said, “O.k, o.k., now you’ve heard her. Can we continue?”I felt like Harry Potter when he stepped-up to the Sorting Hat at his first Hogwarts Convocation (Is it o.k. to mention witches and wizards in a story referencing Catholicism? Oh well, Harry Potter is fiction, right?).

The Papal Mass itself was like nothing else in the world. The Pope made his way to the alter and began by blessing the musicians. As I was the first soloist, I was the closest to His Holiness. I bowed my head, humbled in his presence, his goodness. This was the closest that I would ever be to heaven, in the presence of God, here on earth. It was more than just being close to a famous man…man…hu-man; he radiated goodness. Regardless of religion, whatever one’s faith is or beliefs are, it was too visible to be negated, the existence of a higher being…of something greater than one’s self, of something else, something truly holy.

I have three degrees in music/vocal performance, a B.A. Notre Dame and an M.M. and D.M.A. U. of Texas at Austin, but am still convinced that there is always and was that wonderful World Youth Day, ’93, some sort of divine intervention that has adjusted the quality of my voice from the time it leaves my lips to when it touches another’s ears. Either way, I am just an instrument and have found great comfort in this fact. One doesn’t blame the instrument for wrong notes, correct? And, God doesn’t make mistakes!

-Dr. Rachel Yvonne Cruz


The Instrument: Vocal Health

What makes the voice different than most instruments? (I fear saying “all instruments” as someone somewhere may use one part or another of their person to make sound.) The singer’s instrument lives within their person, it is their person. The quality of the voice (that we have decided is not quantifiable, but rather subjective, from person to person), the timbre, the range differs from person from person. There are no two voices alike; voices cannot be duplicated in a factory, like fine violins made to specifications that denote quality of sound.

The singers health, physical and mental, dictates the fineness of the instrument. And, I am not speaking of the quality of the sound, as is subjective from listener to listener, but how the instrument feels to the singer? How does it feel to make the sound? If one is uncomfortable with their weight, height, overall appearance, it will be reflected in their performance. If the singer has a sore-throat or some other physical ailment, it will be reflected in their performance. Being under-the-weather, physically or mentally, is like playing the violin with a fallen sound post, it makes sound, but not to its full potential.

Keeping the instrument, the voice healthy is paramount to good singing. Training the instrument is a completely different topic of conversation, better saved for tomorrow.

-Dr. Rachel Yvonne Cruz

Taste the Music 2: A Response to a Great Question

An answer to the question of pitch-perfect and the subjectivity of what is “good” music:

History’s most prolific singer/songwriters were not “pitch-perfect” vocalists, as vocal academics may deem; however, I love me some Willie Nelson and Dollie Parton, and most definitely love the soulful, heartfelt, emotionally charged music of Janis Joplin. Yes, that music is just as “tasty”.

There was a school of thought in the 19th c., that only “pure” music, absolute music, or rather music without lyrics was the only “good” music. Many intellectuals, or those who believed themselves enlightened, were of the opinion that if music came with lyrics or a program (a synopsis of what the composer was thinking or the portrait that the composer was painting through the music), that the intellect was being challenged. Intellectuals didn’t want to be told what to think or feel.

I, a classically-trained vocalist, would be dead-in-the-water if all I sang were vocalises, melodies without words. I, a singer/songwriter, think that the most powerful and scary experience in the world is to add words to your feelings and perform them publicly, for the world to hear. The audience gets your inner-most thoughts and experiences. When the song is yours, you stand naked, raw, for the world to observe, appreciate (at best), and judge (at worst), your person, your soul.

My music, is just that, my music. If you can relate to the songs that I sing, and they move you, then you will listen and perhaps even sing along. Music that is relate-able, sing-able, this is “good” music, to whomever experiences it as such. Perfect-pitch is not what defines tasty music.

-Dr. Rachel Yvonne Cruz