Choirs v Congregations

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contrabordun
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Choirs v Congregations

Post by contrabordun »

Since we were getting so far away from the topic...

pews2 wrote:People's participation in the Mass sometimes can seem better with this approach than with a well-rehearsed choir.


pews2 wrote:Perhaps it is better for a throng to sing at Mass than for a few to sing instead merely because they can sing better


(Sorry to pick on you, pews2, but it's my turn to be provocative!) Is this not a bit old hat? Why is this (so often-not just here) seen as an either/or question? Surely the answer is C - All Of The Above. Full-throated congregational participation is A Good Thing. So is a competent music group (choir/instruments/washboards). The one does not preclude the other. Lets aim for both.

Seems to me that, properly handled, the optimum is to have as many singers and instrumentalists as you can interest in participating to create a critical mass (pun semi-intended) of music. Yes, I can see that if you're not careful, this creates three possible danger situations
a a Them-And-Us feeling develops with the congregation
b the musicians are more interested in the music than the liturgy
c the congregation enjoy the music so much that they don't participate

But I'm sure if you manage the situation to avoid these problems, the benefits (ie of having a team of people who know what's supposed to be going on and who have the confidence that comes with technique and rehearsal to make it happen) are a surer route to success than to disperse all those interested around the congregation and hope that the music will just happen.....

pews2
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Post by pews2 »

Agree that a choir which serves mainly as cantor and accompanist can encourage participation. I feel that the choice of music has a lot to do with participation. The more competent a choir (or director), the greater the tendency to look down on the kind of music that anybody can join in with. Of course the tendency can be resisted. Nothing stops those choosing the music (or writing it) from asking, "Can this piece encourage participation?" For many pieces of otherwise wonderful music inflicted on people at Mass, the answer is "Not likely". The problem is even more acute when the music in itself is truly great, since perspective can easily be lost in that case.

There are opportunities outside Mass for choirs and composers to demonstrate how accomplished they are. I feel Mass offers an opportunity to demonstrate what good servants they can be, and how greatly they can encourage participation. It takes genius to write a melody as simple and irresistible as the unison melody in Beethoven's Ninth, last movement, or Dvorak's New World symphony, or Be thou my vision. It probably takes genius to come up with a piece that becomes a participatory classic. It is good when those choosing music emphasize the potential for participation.

A "servant" choir or music group (as distinct from a performing choir) can not only encourage participation, but is also useful in familiarising the people with new music that is likely to become a great favourite for participation.

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SOP
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Post by SOP »

Perhaps a slippery slope is when someone believes it is their duty to educate the masses (pun intended). It can turn easily to music to soothe the savage beast.

What is forgotten is that most congregations at some time or another have good singers/musicians/choristers who for one reason or another are in the congregation. I t can be very frustrating to be at a sung Mass but just expected to sit back and enjoy 'beautiful' solos. If I want to listen to a soloist I buy a ticket for a concert!

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Benevenio
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Post by Benevenio »

pews2 wrote:"Can this piece encourage participation?"

There's a problem here: first define participation. There are those who argue that the term actuosa in the documents does not translate well as active participation, but equates more with total participation. Then there are those who argue that it is participatory enough to participate by listening and praying, not by singing and praying.

Whilst I believe that music is an integral part of the Mass, and whilst for me music is incomplete if I only listen and don't play or sing, I recognise the right of those who wish not to sing so to do. It frustrates me, but I try to keep that mostly hidden!

pews2 wrote:It probably takes genius to come up with a piece that becomes a participatory classic.

I bet that the person who wrote the music to Be Thou my Vision didn't set out to write a classic, and I suspect that some would argue with you about whether it is or not! Sometimes it is the marrying of a text and a melody that actually makes the melody itself considered great; few hymn tunes are truely great in their own right. And some of our response to music is influenced by our cultural background. Would someone from Japan/China, say, immediately consider Western music such as Beethoven 9 and Dvorak's New World as classic?

When I write music, I do take into account how it will be sung by the assembly, where that is appropriate - but not every piece of music at Mass is for everyone to sing... and I can only really take into account the assembly with which I am familiar. So my music may, or may not, work next door. I write from where I am spiritually - and sometimes people like it, and sometimes not. But never do I write something just to appeal to people so that they will join in or accept it. Mostly that would result only in the banal. Writing for a local assembly means there is also a problem for me when trying to put together a notional core repertoire for England and Wales, as dicussed elsewhere on this forum. Some choices must come down to personal taste - and thank goodness it does, else it would be dull - but the idea that there can be some repertoire that is universal and uniform sort of misses the point for me. Diversity is important, surely?

SOP wrote:It can be very frustrating to be at a sung Mass but just expected to sit back and enjoy 'beautiful' solos.

There have been times in the past when I too have been frustrated that I'm at a sung mass, but not had the opportunity to sing - no words, no notes for an unfamiliar tune, no invitation by a "beautiful" choir to join in -but I've learned to participate by listening, by being ministered to rather than ministering myself - something that, as musicians we sometimes forget to do. We need to let others wash our feet from time to time!
Benevenio.

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sidvicius
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Sploosh!

Post by sidvicius »

the congregation enjoy the music so much that they don't participate
I would call that participation - some music is for everyone to sing, but if just listening to it makes you feel good or even helps you pray, that's good in my books. However:
There are opportunities outside Mass for choirs and composers to demonstrate how accomplished they are. I feel Mass offers an opportunity to demonstrate what good servants they can be, and how greatly they can encourage participation. ...takes genius to come up with a piece that becomes a participatory classic.
...which is perhaps where the choral ministry's work is, and that means being brave enough to step out of the safety of the 'choir boat' and into that sea of horrible faces - the congregation, sitting in the pews and singing aloud amongst the masses.

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SOP
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Re: Sploosh!

Post by SOP »

sidvicius wrote:...which is perhaps where the choral ministry's work is, and that means being brave enough to step out of the safety of the 'choir boat' and into that sea of horrible faces - the congregation, sitting in the pews and singing aloud amongst the masses.


:D That is exactly where I am at the moment!!! It also encourages the congregation to join in.

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Post by pews2 »

" Then there are those who argue that it is participatory enough to participate by listening and praying, not by singing and praying. "

I am sure the Holy Spirit can touch even those who are present but half asleep. While even that might be sufficient participation, it is probably better to be fully awake. And even better to join in with people during the speaking or singing. :D

"Whilst I believe that music is an integral part of the Mass, and whilst for me music is incomplete if I only listen and don't play or sing, I recognise the right of those who wish not to sing so to do. It frustrates me, but I try to keep that mostly hidden!"

It is true that musicians can only encourage, not compel, people to join in with the singing. Probably better to try than not to try?

"And some of our response to music is influenced by our cultural background. Would someone from Japan/China, say, immediately consider Western music such as Beethoven 9 and Dvorak's New World as classic?"

Modal melodies seem to unite most cultures, if tempered instruments and modulation are kept to a minimum. Some would consider Western modes a subset of the modes found elsewhere in the world, and therefore readily accessible to many other cultures. The reverse is probably not true.

"But never do I write something just to appeal to people so that they will join in or accept it. Mostly that would result only in the banal."

That might partly explain why people are so often unenthusiastic about new music.

"the idea that there can be some repertoire that is universal and uniform sort of misses the point for me. Diversity is important, surely?"

Once the principle of participation receives its due place, a world of musical diversity lies open to the person choosing or writing music for the Mass.

"We need to let others wash our feet from time to time!"

Surely the bond between the Almighty and the individual at Mass is a bit nearer to the bond between man and wife than between a traveller and footwasher. It is difficult to delegate EVERYTHING to a substitute spouse. :D There is probably a place for the choir to sing instead of the people, but as an exception rather than the rule: why not encourage the people to sing to their Father as far as possible, together with all their brothers and sisters.

I am sure that participatory classics can be chosen (or written) by mistake, and probably even better by choice.

Dot
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Post by Dot »

I have long had the nerve to stand up and sing in front of people or in the midst of other people; I know that others haven’t. I am equally aware of the barrier that is created by lack of confidence – I suffer from that as an accompanist. When I have suggested that, for certain kinds of song we would do more good scattered among the congregation than in a line at the front with our backs to the majority, it has been greeted with consternation by the choir. My argument is, when we get the singing right, there should be no fear in it for anyone, and it should embrace the entire assembly, even those not joining in. So, while the choir feels the need to huddle (for things which we expect the assembly to sing), I don’t think we’ve got it right. I do not believe we have yet become a “servant” choir.

At the same time, I cannot forego the privilege of being part of the group I belong to. I have tried sitting in the pews. Apart from being resented for doing it, I feel deprived and not fully involved. We may not have got it completely right, but I’m sure there’s much more good being done than harm. If the majority feel differently from me, I will go along with the majority view, having had the chance to put my point of view. As Canonico said elsewhere (can't remember where) your parish is like your family - you can't choose who's in it. Equally, guys, you don't move on at the drop of a hat.

Also, please let’s not knock our neighbouring parishes who do it differently, and may get different things right and different things wrong.

Dot
Last edited by Dot on Fri Sep 24, 2004 6:14 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Post by Merseysider »

Our choir (if that's the right term) are totally flexible. When there are verses for them to sing (Teach Me O Lord; Unless A Grain of Wheat etc), they stand together at the front – and, on those occasions they add harmonies and descants to the Holy etc. The rest of the time they are spread throughout the church. There is definitely no "Them and Us" feeling from choir or assembly. And when they add the musical stained glass (the harmonies, verses etc) they are truly appreciated.

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contrabordun
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Post by contrabordun »

Dot wrote:with our backs to the majority

I'm not surprised this doesn't give the required lead. Loudspeakers and musical instruments generally get pointed towards the congregation - singers should be able to do the same with their voices. I'm guessing your situation arises for logistical reasons / communication with cantor/MD? (who is, I seem to remember, a contributor to this forum...maybe I'll just shut up now....).

I'm in favour of keeping the choir in its boat and motivating the congregation by giving them a proper lead and plenty of verbal and non-verbal encouragement.

I take this view for a number of reasons:

1. One aspect of motivating people to do something (talking about persuading the congregation to sing) involves showing them that the activity has value attached to it in. The visibility of a group of people committed to practising together and working on providing a competent lead (vocal and/or instrumental) has this effect. (incidentally, is it just me, or has anybody else noticed that congregations sing better when the celebrant sings his parts - I'd attribute this effect to the same 'oh it must be important' effect)

2. I've known plenty of choir members (mostly sopranos - don't know why) who are perfectly confident hunting in their pack, but who dry up completely, even in the choir, when their normal next door neighbour is absent. I just don't believe you get more noise out of those-who-would-sing-with-the-choir if you disperse them round the church. I think the Dot's (and me's, and probably most other contributors to this forum) are well outnumbered by those whose confidence fails them when surrounded by non-vocalising members of congregation. And I think the first prerequisite for encouraging (and I do believe that's all we can or should do) our more reluctant brethren (and sororen? or does brethren do for both?) to join in is as much noise from other people's voices. So I think we get less out of our forces by dispersing them.

3. It's motivating for the choir members themselves to develop a corps d'esprit. This is the thing that can spill over into an undesirable exclusivity, but, choir members tend to have lower musical education and self confidence than instrumentalists (how many church flautists can't read music? very very few if any. but easily half the church choristors I've ever met couldn't) and by practising and working as a body, you build a team spirit that gives people the confidence to do what they very often thought they couldn't.


btw, picking up something that one or two people were driving at, Cardinal Hume once made a comment about "praying with one's ears". Nice way of putting it, whether you agree or not with the sentiment.

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Tsume Tsuyu
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Post by Tsume Tsuyu »

contrabordun wrote:I'm in favour of keeping the choir in its boat and motivating the congregation by giving them a proper lead and plenty of verbal and non-verbal encouragement.

I agree wholeheartedly with this for precisely the reasons you've listed. I also agree that positioning is important and the faces of the singers should, if possible, be seen by the majority of the congregation. There is no greater encouragement to join in with singing than to see others singing joyfully (that's always assuming they are smiling - another very important way of encouraging the congregation, IMHO).
TT

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Benevenio
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Post by Benevenio »

Contrabordun wrote:I'm guessing your situation arises for logistical reasons / communication with cantor/MD? (who is, I seem to remember, a contributor to this forum...maybe I'll just shut up now....).

Yes, I am... but don't let that stop you commenting - I can be open to constructive criticism...

The logistics: our church has the altar and sanctuary at the centre of four quite short, stubby arms. The back arm currently has no pews, but does have the font; most of the assembly sits either facing the altar or to the left as you face the altar (I guess because this is where the two doors to the church are); the 'other' choir usually sits in the arm to the right of the altar, singing towards most of the assembly, with the MD's back to the people. They use the organ (electric thing).

'My' choir, for want of better terminology, sits at the right-hand side of the facing arm, backs to the people... because, when we started, we used guitars exclusively and I was leading the people and the choir at the same time. A guitar with its sound hole faced away from the people, a cantor/MD with his back to the people just would not have worked. Stood where I stand, I can, with a little turning, survey most of the assembly - and do... There was also some opposition to having me stood with my back to the altar; to have had the entire choir turned to face the people would not have gone down at all well, and to be honest, would also have smacked to me more of 'performance' rather than 'encouragement to sing'. We could sit where the 'other' choir sit - and do, when the need arises for us not to sit where we would normally. However, this means that I turn and lead the choir with my back, or at best out of the side of my head; it also means that I have little communication with the bits of the assembly which I cannot see because they're then behind the altar. The building is less than ideal from this point of view, and I try to make the best from the compromises that I need to make the shape work.

I have considered turning the 'choir' pews 90 degrees, but they're a bit long to do that (considering that all the singers can fit into one pew), and again, I think that there'd be opposition - and we'd need to turn them back after every service. The problem of the guitar sound hole could be overcome by amplification, which I have now (though didn't when I first came to the parish)... but the use of that has been adversely criticised... amongst others by Dot herself! However, if any of the forum contributors want to PM suggestions for what we could do, I'll consider whether it's better than what we have now.

Dot wrote:please let’s not knock our neighbouring parishes...
Good idea...
Dot wrote:I don’t think we’ve got it right. I do not believe we have yet become a “servant” choir.

... Wey-Hey! You can just keep knocking your own instead!!! :roll:
Benevenio.

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Re: Sploosh!

Post by Copernicus »

sidvicius wrote:...that means being brave enough to step out of the safety of the 'choir boat' and into that sea of horrible faces - the congregation, sitting in the pews and singing aloud amongst the masses.


This bothers me quite a bit. I think there's quite some scope for self-delusion here. I've had the experience a few times over the years, of singers treating themselves for reasons that are unclear as 'exiles' from the parish musical ministry. Presumably because of some falling out with other musicians, I'd guess, but the consequences each time have seemed to be (i) a prompt migration from the ministry of musician to the ministry of complainer-in-chief, and (ii) a misguided conviction that the individual in question has a musical leadershp role that can be exercised from within the assembly. I know - I've stood next to someone like this more than once. The biggest delusion, sadly, can be a purely musical one - that someone who's OK as a choir member is necessarily good enough to sing by themselves, let alone good enough to lead. There's a world of difference in how good you have to be for singing solo to be an effective exercise of ministry, rather than something the assembly have to put up with politely because it's your turn to be cantor.

So I say cherish your choir! It's not just that the choir is an ancient tradition of the Church (and earlier, in the Temple), it's also, I think, a fine example of how people doing things together are better than people doing things as individuals. A 'sacrament' of the wider Church, you might say.

Which is not to say that having a choir can always be effective. If you've got an MD who thinks the choir's primary role is to perform, or a PP who thinks the choir belongs in the choir loft (or some place where it's impossible for them to give the assembly an effective lead) then it's never going to work the way it's meant to. Maybe musical ministry is forever meant to be frustrated by the fact that it's carried out by mere human beings. And perhaps that's a 'sacrament' of the Church too.

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Tsume Tsuyu
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Re: Sploosh!

Post by Tsume Tsuyu »

Copernicus wrote:Maybe musical ministry is forever meant to be frustrated by the fact that it's carried out by mere human beings.

I think this is right. We are mere human beings; we are going to get it wrong sometimes, we are not always going to agree about how we should be doing it and, in our parish, we don't always agree on what we are trying to achieve by our ministry.

Dot wrote:I do not believe we have yet become a “servant” choir.

As a member of the same choir, I have to say I think you're wrong, Dot. I think we do serve by what we do. And I don't believe our sole aim should be a relentless attempt to get the assembly to join in much as we'd like them to. We invite every week, by choosing songs that both fit the readings and suit the assembly, by being careful about how we introduce new music, by having a practice and invitation to sing before Mass, by providing a words sheet every week to ensure that the assembly has the words for anything not in the hymn book. This is all part of our ministry, but so is encouraging youngsters to join us and play and sing, giving them a chance to exercise a ministry too. And, in our particular choir, we take all comers, making them welcome and making them feel that their contribution is valuable (as it is). We don't reject those who are less able, but encourage them and support them, adults and children alike. I think we are very much a servant choir. Certainly a choir that I'm proud to belong to, not because we get it right all the time (we don't; we are mere human beings, after all), but because we try. And, in trying, I feel we truly exercise a valuable ministry.
TT

pews2
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Post by pews2 »

"a misguided conviction that the individual in question has a musical leadershp role that can be exercised from within the assembly. I know - I've stood next to someone like this more than once."

I am picturing somebody who actually bursts forth into a solo uninvited, from the pews during Mass. If that happened, what did you do, elbow them each time it happened? :D

We are indeed only human, and apt to get things wrong even when our vision is clear. A clear vision of the optimum situation probably helps. It seems good when at least a few sing together as in a choir, and even better when nearly everybody sings together regardless of ability or membership of the choir. I feel the choice of music can largely enable or disable those not in the choir but willing (or even eager) to sing. Try stopping even the tone-deaf ones from joining in with some of the best-loved music. It is a brave person who comes between a creature and the Creator in that way. Might even vex the Creator as much as it vexes the creature. Choice of music seems crucial (no pun intended).

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