Welcome to Sing

I’ve been a musician and singer in church since I was 15. Suffice to say that I’ve been at it for more than 2/3 of my life, even without counting the part where I was a cantor for the responsorial psalm and prayer of the faithful in middle school.

The very first church where I participated as a music minister: St. Bonaventure in Paterson, NJ.
The very first church where I participated as a music minister: St. Bonaventure in Paterson, NJ.

I’ve never been afraid to lift up my voice and sing in church. Now, I’m by no means a solo-quality singer, but I’m happy to blend in with a group (and ecstatic if I get to sing the harmony part.) So even if I’m in the pew instead of in the choir or ensemble, I’m going to sing.

It’s been my pleasure and privilege, for thirty-mumble years, to sing and play in quite a number of folk groups, choirs and ensembles. I’ve seen (and heard) the good, the bad, and the ugly–both while playing and singing and while sitting as part of the assembly.

Jane the Actuary at Patheos Catholic wonders how to get people in the assembly to participate by singing. It’s simple, really. In my experience, people will sing unless they are discouraged from doing so.

How can choirs and musicians show that they don’t want the assembly to sing?

  • Play the song in a key that’s out of reach for all except the deepest bass or highest soprano
  • Don’t announce the number of the song in the hymnal
  • Announce the number of the song, but tell the congregation that they’re invited to sing during the refrain only
  • Choose music that is not in the hymnal
  • Sing the hymn in a language other than what’s in the hymnal or spoken in the community (Latin being the exception here)
  • Use a different arrangement of a familiar hymn
  • Sing familiar hymns whose words have been changed by politically-correct hymnal publishers
  • Sing the hymn in madrigal style so that the assembly can’t find the melody
  • Don’t provide a hymnal or worship aid, or leave all the hymnals stacked on the outer edges of 12-seat pews, so that people who forget to grab one on their way to sit down never get one later
  • Sing with so much technical perfection that you intimidate everyone in the pews

I have seen all of these happen in my long tenure as a musician. And there’s no excuse for any of them.

Finally, this is the story of the Music Director Who Caused a Mutiny. During my junior year in college, the music department hired a graduate student to direct the folk group. The position was usually a volunteer one, held by an undergrad music student in the folk group–but they all graduated. We learned a lot of new music that year, which is always good, but most of it wasn’t in the hymnal, which is usually bad. When we spoke up to the director about the probability that people in the pews would be discouraged from singing, her response was, “You’re performing for God.”

Well, no. We were not performing for God. We weren’t performing for Father, either, nor for the congregation. We were there to lead people in sung prayer, not to put on a show for anyone (even God.)

Our director only showed up at one of the two Masses the folk group played. My friends and I took turns leading the music at the other Mass, and if music that wasn’t in the hymnal was chosen, we’d replace it during the Mass when we were on our own.

When our parish merged with a neighboring one in 2008, we were told that people at the other church didn’t sing. Indeed, many of them expressed surprise at the level of participation in our original parish. But guess what? It’s gotten better! With encouragement, people will sing. Even if they’re Catholic.

Image source: St. Bonaventure Parish Facebook page

12 thoughts on “Welcome to Sing

  1. Great blog post! We try hard to encourage the congregation to sing and I’m happy to say it mostly works. Nothing is worse than the congregation sitting like statues as if they’re at a performance. Sing on, Barb!

  2. Love this post!! I totally agree. When I was involved in music ministry we often made sure the congregation would find it easy to participate and when there were new Mass parts we always took a minute or two before Mass started to teach the congregation the new parts. I am not a great singer, but I love singing at Mass now that I am a part of the congregation, especially when others around me are singing. And at the Mass I generally attend I have found that most people do participate. This past Sunday, due to my travel plans, I had to attend a Sunday evening Mass. This was still my parish, but the group that does this Mass does their own music. As a musician, especially when I am unfamiliar with the music, I really need to see the music, not just the words. But this group doesn’t use the hymnal at all. Even with the words in front me, I couldn’t sing along because I didn’t know melodies at all. I also didn’t hear much singing around me. I didn’t enjoy that Mass as I normally would (there were other issues with the music as well, but it had more to do with balance, volume, and too much bass). I really wish more music ministries would take all the suggestions you list to heart. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I love to sing – in the choir or pew. The only point with which I disagree is the second one. I find the announcement distracting to the flow of Mass. A number board is more than sufficient. 😁🎶

    • I’d be happy if we HAD a number board, for just that reason. We only have number boards in one of the two churches in our parish.

  4. I have served as a Cantor at our Church for over twenty years. All of the above are correct. I would like to add one more way to encourage the congregation to sing – the cantor or choir need to sing loud enough that individual members of the congregation feel safe, that is, their voice will not stand out. Many people have a very real fear of singing (or speaking) in public. But they will gladly join their voice if it merges with others and is not specifically identifiable to them. This is true for some people who are gifted vocally. So, Cantors and choir, sing loud enough to lead, but NOT so loud that you are the only one heard. That will also stop the congregation from singing.

  5. My dad was a cantor in our Byzantine church (where we sing everything!) for several years before he became a deacon. So I got an earful about the importance of the people singing! Great points.

  6. I love that you include a picture of St. Bon’s! When did you serve as music minister there? (I’ve been at St. Bon’s since 2004; my wife’s family goes back generations!)

    • I was a high-school student when I played at St. Bon’s, in the early 1980s. Your wife’s family will remember Fr. Jim Scullion and Fr. Jason Miskuly, who were stationed there at the time and who had a very vibrant music program going. My mom’s family also went back generations in that parish: the Harrington and Leavins families. I was the fourth generation in my family to graduate from the school. Thanks for stopping by!

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