Congregational singing of hymns

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londonchurchman
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Congregational singing of hymns

Post by londonchurchman » Fri May 11, 2012 5:17 pm

I have just joined the forum and wanted to ask a question about the lack of congregational engagement in hymns. I have recently returned to the UK from Germany, and was shocked by how poor congregational hymn singing in London (and to a lesser extent engagement with the ordinary of the mass) has become. I have visited several central London Churches at their mass with hymns, and several suburban churches and I would estimate that less than 10% of the congregation sings. How have things got to this dreadful state?

Someobody suggested it was a "London" thing but I have visited churches in Bristol and Derby, and things there were just as bad.

Are there any Catholic churches - particulalry in London - where congregational hymn singing has been embraced?

Peter
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Re: Congregational singing of hymns

Post by Peter » Fri May 11, 2012 5:44 pm

Welcome to the Forum, Londonchurchman!

I don't think it's a particularly "London thing" or an anywhere else thing - it varies from church to church and even congregation to congregation within a church. My church for many years enjoyed a PP with what a friend described as "a good teaching voice": he encouraged the congregation to sing, unaccompanied for many years before we acquired an organist and formed a music group, and subsequent PPs have accepted or even positively encouraged the tradition. Our congregation generally joins in well, but the singing is noticeably better when the priest knows the tune and joins in with gusto. Maybe, after all, it's a "priest thing"?

On the other hand, I was recently at Mass not in my usual church, where despite the presence of a cantor leading the singing, a good organist and a musical priest, the singing was rather lacklustre apart from one man just behind me, who sang extremely loudly and enthusiastically but at least half a beat, if not more, behind the organist. Unfortunately he left during the last hymn, so I didn't have the chance to talk to him; some, who felt he was discouraging others from singing, wished I had spoken to him, but I'm not sure that as a visitor I had a right to do so, nor am I sure what one can do about people like that anyway. Any suggestions?

Of course, there are some who say we shouldn't be singing hymns at all, but those arguments are pursued on other threads. :wink:

londonchurchman
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Re: Congregational singing of hymns

Post by londonchurchman » Fri May 11, 2012 6:19 pm

Thanks for your welcome, Peter.

To be honest, I was expecting that the situation might be as you describe and would vary from church to church, and from mass to mass - what surprised me completely, was that at every church I visited (I am talking about 15 different churches in London!) the situation was the same - ie hardly anyone sang, or even bothered picking up the hymnal.

Even traditional hymns like Soul of my Saviour and Sweet Sacrament Divine, and Come Down, O Love Divine at a confirmation service were met with silence.

londonchurchman
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Re: Congregational singing of hymns

Post by londonchurchman » Fri May 11, 2012 6:22 pm

Sorry, I meant to add, in response to your question, that I would not want to discourage anyone from singing - however bad they might be. I'd much rather ask the majority of the congregation why they aren't singing as this seems to be the main problem.

alan29
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Re: Congregational singing of hymns

Post by alan29 » Fri May 11, 2012 7:05 pm

I have to say that up here our lot can rival the Methodists for raising the roof - improvised harmonies too. But it does rather vary with the material they are asked to sing, whether or not there is a choir/leader (tends to make the congregation sit back and listen) the occasion, and the weather. And of course some masses attract singers more than others.

Terry Quinn
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Re: Congregational singing of hymns

Post by Terry Quinn » Fri May 11, 2012 7:17 pm

I recently spent a month in Catholic Malta attending four Sunday Masses each in a different church where there were huge congregations. The music and singing was abysmal.
Each assembly had two or three leading the singing, accompanied by organ or guitars. No one else sang. How these musicians manage to make such efforts, week in, week out, in the face of such unbelievable apathy is beyond me.
One or two hymn-books were played with and waved about but there was a total lack of interest and effort from the congregation. The clergy gave me the impression that this music and noise thing was something they just tolerated and had nothing to do with them.

John Ainslie
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Re: Congregational singing of hymns

Post by John Ainslie » Sat May 12, 2012 8:55 am

Sorry to hear of your experiences, londonchurchman.

I have been a member of the Westminster Diocesan Music Committee for some ten years. During that time we have gradually built up a database of about one half of the parishes in the diocese (i.e. north of the Thames and excluding Waltham Forest and other eastern suburbs). These are parishes where we have been able to correspond directly with at least one parish musician. From time to time, at our request, they have reported on what they are doing in their parish - generally a good report, but they are not asked to estimate how successful they have been at congregational involvement in the singing they have presented. What happens in the other 50% of parishes in the diocese where, despite our efforts, we have never received any response, I would rather not surmise.

There are a whole host of factors that need to be borne in mind when seeking to explain resistance to vocal participation on the part of congregations. Among them:
    - The encouragement of the parish priest, as noted above: this is vital. Too many priests 'let musicians get on with their thing', as if it were nothing to do with them.
    - The physical layout of the church: a long narrow church with the musicians at the front will attract those who want to sing to the front and those who don't to the back. Music led from a west-end gallery will generally remain there.
    - Musical leadership by a cantor/animator. One cannot assume that an organ played loudly will automatically encourage singing - nor indeed any other instrumental ensemble.
    - The cultural and religious traditions of the congregation and how the music may or may not correspond to these. This is where your experiences in Germany, londonchurchman, are so different to what one might reasonably expect here. And especially in cosmopolitan central London (and increasingly in the suburbs) the number of different nationalities at a single celebration is astonishing.
    - The different levels of Christian formation and faith-awareness of those present. This is evident not only at First Communion Masses but (for instance) when parents bring their children for the sake of their Catholic education rather than from their own personal faith-conviction. (I do not wish for one moment to be judgmental: God works in mysterious ways and we should be thankful and welcoming to all who, despite their doubts and perhaps sense of not-belonging, even estrangement, do what they believe to be best and attend.)
I am sure that other readers can expand this list. Do musicians take the trouble to assess what their congregations are (and are not) actually singing?

Peter Jones
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Re: Congregational singing of hymns

Post by Peter Jones » Sat May 12, 2012 8:59 am

Peter wrote:..........but the singing is noticeably better when the priest knows the tune and joins in with gusto. Maybe, after all, it's a "priest thing"?


If the priest does not join in the singing of the parts of the Mass that he is able to, the phrase 'hiding to nothing' springs to mind.
Any opinions expressed are my own, not those of the Archdiocese of Birmingham Liturgy Commission, Church Music Committee.
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Hare
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Re: Congregational singing of hymns

Post by Hare » Sat May 12, 2012 10:13 am

Factors can vary from week to week and mass to mass. I play, and the choir sing from, a west gallery, but congregational singing is usually good here. We also have a weekend mass where I play from the gallery, and there is a cantor - but PP won't allow him to lead in any way, apart from singing the psalm and Gospel Acclamation fron the Ambo. Any other bits, eg the Kyrie, he has to do from his place in the congregation. The congregation sing though. On Saturday evening it is just me at the organ, no cantor. Generally, the singing is ok, but it varies from week to week. I remember once, a lady who always sings up, put down her hymnbook to blow her nose, and quite a few people stopped singing. Someone said afterwards "I take my cue from her. When she stopped I thought she didn't know it, so I thought, crikey, if she doesn't know it, then I certainly don't" ! :?

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Nick Baty
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Re: Congregational singing of hymns

Post by Nick Baty » Sat May 12, 2012 10:15 am

Hare wrote:there is a cantor - but PP won't allow him to lead in any way

A tad odd, Hare. Still, I come across parishes where PPs won't allow the psalm or acclamations to be sung. Hiding to nothing, as already mentioned above.

londonchurchman
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Re: Congregational singing of hymns

Post by londonchurchman » Sat May 12, 2012 10:32 am

Thank you for these very interesting replies. If anyone has any specific suggestions about a good church to attend which has good congregational singing I would be very grateful to hear. I am in North West London but very mobile and willing to travel anywhere in North London and to central London (from Notting Hill in the West to the City) Many thanks.

Hare
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Re: Congregational singing of hymns

Post by Hare » Sat May 12, 2012 12:17 pm

Nick Baty wrote:
Hare wrote:there is a cantor - but PP won't allow him to lead in any way

A tad odd, Hare. Still, I come across parishes where PPs won't allow the psalm or acclamations to be sung. Hiding to nothing, as already mentioned above.


PP is actually very supportive of music. The cantor in question joined us having moved here from elsewhere. I was looking for a cantor for the early mass on Sunday and so" Robert et votre oncle", as they say. He was used to leading from the front, indicating pitch by hand movements etc, and naturally started to do so here, but PP objected to this, rather than to the actual music. (Another topic brewing here, as we are off at a tangent...?

Southern Comfort
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Re: Congregational singing of hymns

Post by Southern Comfort » Sat May 12, 2012 1:33 pm

A good first port of call would be Holy Trinity Dockhead (see http://www.dockhead.com for Mass times, map, etc), where the PP is Alan McLean and the musician is Mag Shepherd. When visitors to London ask me where they can get a good parish liturgy (as opposed to the spiritual concert with appended liturgy that is common in many of the central London churches), that is where I recommend they go. It's not far from London Bridge.

There are of course plenty of other London churches where you can hear good congregational singing, but they are mostly out in the suburbs.

londonchurchman
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Re: Congregational singing of hymns

Post by londonchurchman » Sat May 12, 2012 2:09 pm

Southern Comfort wrote:A good first port of call would be Holy Trinity Dockhead (see http://www.dockhead.com for Mass times, map, etc), where the PP is Alan McLean and the musician is Mag Shepherd. When visitors to London ask me where they can get a good parish liturgy (as opposed to the spiritual concert with appended liturgy that is common in many of the central London churches), that is where I recommend they go. It's not far from London Bridge.

There are of course plenty of other London churches where you can hear good congregational singing, but they are mostly out in the suburbs.

Thamks , I will check them out. Please let me know about the suburban churches with good singing. I have yet to find a single one.

organgrinder
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Re: Congregational singing of hymns

Post by organgrinder » Mon May 14, 2012 1:02 pm

Interesting thread. Probably no single explanation/solution. For what they're worth, my thoughts are:

1. A good confident lead from the organ or music group, with varied dynamics and tone to match the text (I find the piano alone does not lead/support/encourage as much as the organ)

2. Rehearsal of new music before mass, to engage the assembly and explain what is expected of them (this also puts a human face on the music leader, and gains some sympathy!)

3. Have some (or even most) weeks when there is no choir - we only have the choir once a month plus special feasts and the assembly just has to get on with it. Conversely, when the choir is there it can lead new music and show how enthusiastic singing makes a difference.

4. Completely agree with above comments about supportive and singing priests - but, please, not with the microphone on! I reckon a single singer leading everything from a loud mic can deter the congregation as they feel they can't compete (I don't mean the cantor/animator role).

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