A five-percent challenge for liturgical musicians

A five-percent challenge for liturgical musicians

Following on a previous post, I want to look at how parish music leaders can help turn Ordinary Time liturgy into an extraordinary experience of worship. There are two essential keys to making this happen:

  1. Yearn for the assembly to sing
  2. Follow the rubrics

These are basics. If you practice them over and over again — just like learning an instrument — your liturgy will improve. Set a goal of improving five percent each Sunday or each month.

Yearn for the assembly to sing

I am not a musician, but I do love to sing at Mass. However, very few parish musicians seem interested in helping me to sing. I know you are thinking that isn’t you. You provide worship aids, you rehearse the assembly before Mass, and you raise your arms high when it is time for me to join in.

That’s not enough. It may be enough for the musically-inclined members of the assembly, but it’s not enough for me. It’s not enough for most of the assembly. Here’s what does make me want to sing.

Always select a familiar opening song. If you introduce a new song for the entrance hymn, it’s game over. I feel discouraged right off the bat, and that’s going to influence my ability to participate in the rest of the music in the liturgy.

Avoid new music. Ask yourself why you are choosing a new Gloria or a new Holy. If you have an established repertoire that the assembly sings well, why are you changing it? Are you bored with the old standards? Is the choir bored? I can pretty much guarantee you that the assembly is not bored. What they are bored with is hearing you say, “Today we are going to learn a new _____.”

Give us a confident song leader. What helps me to sing is when a cantor or song leader is standing in a visible place and knows exactly when to cue me to come in. I have no rhythm. I can’t count the beat in my head and know when to sing. I need you or someone like you to signal me at the exact right moment. Don’t choose someone from the choir to lead because it’s their turn or a child to lead because it’s Family Sunday. Choose someone who is musically talented and has the personality to confidently invite the assembly to sing.

Train the keyboard player to lead. A well-trained pianist or organist is essential for strong assembly participation. A good keyboardist plays in a way that gives me an additional cue as to when it is my turn to sing. They also help keep me on the beat. Guitars alone, in my experience, are not substantial enough to help non-musicians sing.

Stop doing a communion meditation song. This is a performance moment for the choir. It is seldom a moment of actual mediation for the assembly. They are mostly waiting for it to finish so Father will bless us and we can leave. And it is not in the rubrics — which leads to the second key to fostering amazing, extraordinary worship experiences.

Follow the rubrics

I read a couple of different Facebook groups and a couple of blogs that discuss liturgy and music. It astounds how frequently liturgical and musical leaders will write public defenses of their practice of regularly ignoring the church’s liturgical regulations.

I know this makes me sound like a liturgical purist, and I wish I didn’t have to sound that way. I don’t like people who follow rules just because someone else said we should follow some rule. And I don’t think that God will send a heavenly host to smite you if you sing something you shouldn’t or don’t sing something you should.

What will happen, tragically, is that the assembly will not participate as fully as possible. The rules are there not to make the liturgy holier but to make the worship more participative. If you want to foster extraordinary participation of the assembly, set a goal to master the rubrics of the liturgy, five percent at a time.

Read Music in Catholic Worship. This is a very short document published by the United States Bishops in 1972. It is an excellent summary of the church’s norms for liturgical music. You can find it here: http://www.ccwatershed.org/media/pdfs/13/12/17/11-37-54_0.pdf.

Read Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship. Sing to the Lord is a 2007 update and revision of Music in Catholic Worship. Both are essential reading for liturgical leaders. You can find it here: https://www.yakimadiocese.org/pdf/SingToTheLord.pdf

Learn the principle parts of the Mass that must be sung. Both Music in Catholic Worship and Sing to the Lord will help you master this.

Learn the three judgments. Both documents discuss the liturgical, pastoral, and musical judgements that will help you select music for the liturgy.

Learn the place of sacred silence. Sing to the Lord says, “Music arises out of silence and returns to silence” (118).

Sing as the priest is receiving communion. We don’t wait for him to finish consuming the Body and Blood, and we don’t wait for the communion ministers to receive. Nor do we wait for the choir to go to communion. The communion song begins immediately as the priest begins to receive. The reason for this is participation. By singing as the priest and communion ministers are sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ, the assembly expresses “union in spirit by means of the unity of their voices.” (See Sing to the Lord, 189.)

Sing after communion — or spend time in sacred silence. The song after communion is sung by the entire assembly and should not focus on the choir alone. Or, alternatively, the assembly may spend a time of prayer in sacred silence. But there is no provision for the choir to, by itself, sing a meditation song. The reason for this is that at this highpoint of our communion, the focus of the liturgy should be on the mystery of Holy Communion in which we are all participating.

Aim for five percent improvement

That is a lot to take in. But remember, you are not going to master all of this at once. Set a goal for yourself to improve little by little — about five percent per week or per month. If you are up for it, keep a weekly journal describing how well your assembly is participating in the music of the liturgy. Then, a year from now, you can look back and be amazed at how much they have improved due to your leadership!

Image credit: Hao Zhang, Unsplash, CC0.

One Response

  1. Paul F. Ford
    | Reply

    VERY wise advice!

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