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

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