Congregational Singing

Well it does to the people who post here... dispassionate and reasoned debate, with a good deal of humour thrown in for good measure.

Moderators: Dom Perignon, Casimir

User avatar
contrabordun
Posts: 514
Joined: Sun May 23, 2004 4:20 pm

Congregational Singing

Post by contrabordun »

In another thread, docmattc wrote:Without a confident choir or cantor to lead the singing, will the congregation sing the Latin, or the English, both, or neither when led only by the organ? There's no way of knowing unless you know your congregation well (and even then its a bit of a lottery).

Some of us here are lucky enough to have a choir which has been rehearsed beforehand and can (usually) be relied on to sing even if we've misjudged it and the congregation don't join in. The congregation are also more likely to join in if there is a vocal lead. In a parish without such luxuries (and would that be the majority of them?) how best can we keep the music from getting stuck in a rut, but avoid the organist playing an embarrasing solo? The Ash Wednesday liturgy Contrabordun describes would not have worked without a choir to lead and/or sing on their own.

Its happened to me when I've assumed a congregation knows one of the old favourites, only to launch into it from the organ loft and discover from the stony silence that the parish doesn't have this one in their repertoire. Its a very uncomfortable experience and if anyone has found solutions to this it would be good to hear them.

Well now, I'm feeling provocative, so let me give my answer to this.

There are only 2 ways for a member of a congregation to learn a piece of music well enough to sing it. A] by reading the notes or B] by repetition and learning by ear. (B can be a great aid to A).
If you pick something that the congregation don't know and the publisher hasn't printed the dots, the congregation are out of options. They simply have no way of joining in, whether they want to or not. (This applies equally to Latin as to English and to old as to new music.)

My answer is that if you want congregational singing, and you want to be able to ring the changes on the repetoire, you have to consider a rehearsed choir to be a necessity, not a luxury, precisely because, as
docmattc wrote:The congregation are also more likely to join in if there is a vocal lead.
Instruments are fine, but when the congregation don't know the music, instrumentalists tend to be more valuable for their voices than anything else. (For the same reason, whilst choir members like to sing hymns in harmony, if there's any uncertainty about the melody, they should be giving a strong unison lead to the congregation).

A choir is preferable to a cantor for 2 reasons: 1 - a choir can have one person missing without being wholly absent and 2 - it's more comfortable for a member of the congregation to join in as an additional member of a large group, a chorus, then to sing along with a (usually amplified) soloist.
Paul Hodgetts

alan29
Posts: 1177
Joined: Fri May 27, 2005 8:04 pm
Location: Wirral

Re: Congregational Singing

Post by alan29 »

Playing through before mass often works for simpler stuff. In extremis a quick rehearsal just before kick-off.
Alan

User avatar
contrabordun
Posts: 514
Joined: Sun May 23, 2004 4:20 pm

Re: Congregational Singing

Post by contrabordun »

Still doesn't get round the problem of how do you know what they know?
Paul Hodgetts

Southern Comfort
Posts: 1920
Joined: Sat Feb 23, 2008 12:31 pm

Re: Congregational Singing

Post by Southern Comfort »

contrabordun wrote:A choir is preferable to a cantor for 2 reasons: 1 - a choir can have one person missing without being wholly absent and 2 - it's more comfortable for a member of the congregation to join in as an additional member of a large group, a chorus, then to sing along with a (usually amplified) soloist.


This is, of course, a matter of opinion. In the hands of a competent cantor who knows how to use the microphone properly, a congregation can do more than you may think. If formed over a period of time by a competent cantor, an assembly can do almost anything. Fr James Walsh, when he was in Stowmarket, even had his congregation singing the Passion Chorale on Good Friday in 4-part harmony......

I disagree that it's always more comfortable for the congregation to join in as an additional member of a large group. This may be true when they have learnt something well, but during the learning process it's much easier for them to hear and imitate the sound of a single cantor's voice.

User avatar
PaulW
Posts: 54
Joined: Mon Sep 06, 2004 3:46 pm

Re: Congregational Singing

Post by PaulW »

In Musicus's absence (he's in Rome, don'tcha know?), Welcome, Southern Comfort!
Paul
Life is a ball: learn to bounce.

alan29
Posts: 1177
Joined: Fri May 27, 2005 8:04 pm
Location: Wirral

Re: Congregational Singing

Post by alan29 »

I assumed we were talking about playing in our own communities, where I would hope we would be aware of what they know.
Alan

docmattc
Posts: 987
Joined: Sun Aug 07, 2005 11:42 am
Parish / Diocese: Westminster
Location: Near Cambridge

Re: Congregational Singing

Post by docmattc »

alan29 wrote:I assumed we were talking about playing in our own communities, where I would hope we would be aware of what they know.
Alan


Not necessarily, I've been involved in mine for 8 years but only full time for about 5. I'm still caught out occaisionally, although I'm lucky enough to have a choir who will tell me if they don't know something. They always err on the side of not knowing things. I once asked if they knew the Taize "Eat this bread" and they were adamant they didn't. As I sang them the melody they joined in in perfect SATB harmony and several of them had their parts highlighted in the book, but even after that they STILL told me they didn't know it!

When I've played in places without a choir, and had to ask members of the congregation if they know a particular hymn, I've found them very reluctant to give a definite answer. The usual response was "I don't know, you'll have to ask someone who knows about these things"

I agree with Contrabordun that harmony confuses the issue until the melody is well established with the congregation.

User avatar
contrabordun
Posts: 514
Joined: Sun May 23, 2004 4:20 pm

Re: Congregational Singing

Post by contrabordun »

Nick Baty wrote:
contrabordun wrote:Still doesn't get round the problem of how do you know what they know?

You ask them?

That assumes that they know what they know.
(This is, of course, different from them knowing what they like)
Paul Hodgetts

User avatar
contrabordun
Posts: 514
Joined: Sun May 23, 2004 4:20 pm

Re: Congregational Singing

Post by contrabordun »

alan29 wrote:I assumed we were talking about playing in our own communities, where I would hope we would be aware of what they know.

Actually, though, after 40 years of permanent revolution, both in music/liturgy and in the way people live their lives, I wonder how many places could be said to have any kind of innate repertoire, other than that which the current DoM, howsoever called, has worked with over the last 5 years?

More generally, if you took 5000 British Catholics at random from the pews (not choir stalls or music groups) of ordinary Parish Churches, what, if anything, would, say, >80% of them know and be able to sing?

Starters for 10:
1 The Lourdes Hymn
2 The Israeli Mass
3 Faith of our Fathers
Paul Hodgetts

alan29
Posts: 1177
Joined: Fri May 27, 2005 8:04 pm
Location: Wirral

Re: Congregational Singing

Post by alan29 »

Here I am Lord
Celtic alleluia (and Mass?)
Be not afaid
Do not be afraid
Gadarene Mass(oops, Gathering)
Here in this place
Soul of my saviour
Crimond
Praise my soul the Kingof heaven

Must be others

RobH
Posts: 31
Joined: Fri Sep 08, 2006 2:25 pm
Location: Norfolk

Re: Congregational Singing

Post by RobH »

I should venture to suggest that most Catholic congregations would, surely, know the following well-known hymns/music:

Be Thou my vision
Battle is o'er
Gifts of bread and wine
Hail Queen of Heaven
All people that on earth do well(surely too well-known)
Hail Redeemer, King divine
Holy Virgin by God's decree
Godhead here in hiding
Immortal Invisible (seems to be staple diet in most churches!)
Lord Jesus Christ
Love is His word
O Bread of Heaven
Praise to the Holiest
Sing of Mary
Sweet Sacrament divine
Tell out my soul
The day of resurrection
Thine be the glory
This is my body
Be Thou my vision
The Celtic Mass
Missa de Angelis

I caluculated that at my own church people only know, approx. 180 out of 1000 hymns in 'Laudate' - Shameful, but it is not easy to introduce 'new' stuff with limited musical resources. As has already been said, people often insist they do not know things which have been 'in the repertoire' for ages. Still, we keep trying our best!

User avatar
VML
Posts: 717
Joined: Thu Feb 12, 2004 12:57 am
Parish / Diocese: Clifton Diocese
Location: Glos

Re: Congregational Singing

Post by VML »

I suggested to our PP that it might be good to try the Missa de Angelis Sanctus for what is now the four great Sundays Ascension to Corpus Christi. He is not keen but said we could perhaps try a Latin Sanctus for just two of the weeks.

We don't sing Sing of Mary, but I know it.
Considering what is known and sung in different parishes is an interesting one. My newly Catholic son-in-law asked why what we sing here is so different from his home parish. We have the old Celeb hymn book, they have Laudate, and we use bits of Masses, some of my own music, (no paraphrases, so the words are the same,) but there are1000 items in L. and 800 in CH, and the age of the MD or planning group will possibly influence the hymns chosen.

To the congregation's favourites/ well known items I would add: (We don't actually use them much, but they are distinctly popular and weel sung. )
I watch the sunrise
Colours of day
Make me a channel of your peace
Our God reigns
Follow me
I am the Bread of Life (Toolan)
Go tell everyone

docmattc
Posts: 987
Joined: Sun Aug 07, 2005 11:42 am
Parish / Diocese: Westminster
Location: Near Cambridge

Re: Congregational Singing

Post by docmattc »

Of course the "What they know" question is complicated by the fact that the x o'clock Mass goers might not know the same repertoire as the y o'clock crowd.

But rather than just list what we consider the 'modal repertoire' (and I use modal in the statistical not musical sense) lets get back to the original question of how we add to that innate repertoire which may or may not exist. Contrabordun proposes that a choir is a necessity in order to increase the repertoire of any congregation. Are there any other ways of adding music to the congregational repertoire sucessfully?

When a new piece is introduced, how many times does it have to be sung before the congregation are comfortable with it? (Obviously different from piece to piece, but as a ball park figure) VML's PP suggests a Latin Sanctus for 2 weeks, but I don't think that this is long enough for the congregation to become comfortable with something unfamiliar. Paul Inwood's column in the current M&L touches on this. He suggests its months rather than weeks.

dmu3tem
Posts: 254
Joined: Fri Mar 04, 2005 3:11 pm
Location: Frozen North

Re: Congregational Singing

Post by dmu3tem »

Several points occur to me on this:

(1) I doubt there is a 'fixed' way of introducing new repertoire. Much depends on local circumstance. For example, where I work the layout of the church favours using the choir as 'cheerleaders' since the organ - and therefore all the other instrumentalists and singers (including our cantor) are in a choir gallery at the back of the building. This cannot be reordered without great difficulty. On the other hand, in the 1970s, when I 'cut my teeth' as a composer and arranger at the Blackfriars family Mass in Oxford, the congregation were arranged in a half moon shape around the altar, which was placed on the north side of the nave, there was no choir but a dozen instrumentalists. What is more, as this was not a regular parish, the congregation was a 'floating' assembly of people ranging from vagrants to high academics. Your job then was to write/arrange the music, have it run off on a gestedner machine for every member of the congregation and in three minutes flat rehearse the everybody from the front using the microphone. This worked surprisingly well.

(2) Similarly the nature of repertoire varies from place to place. On the surface the claims for developing a standard repertoire are strong (a) It means that when people from different places meet up, musically they have something in common (b) Visitors from outside likewise have something they can latch on to (c)There is the idea that we are all supposed to part of the same church. However there are counter arguments in favour of local diversity (a) Although it is true that many people like to be part of a larger group, others take pride in a local group with a distinct identity of its own (b) Linked to this is the fact that local diversity makes it easier to maximise local musical talent and resources. At the most fundamental level it encourages local composers like myself. At the very least the local church becomes a laboratory where new compositions and arrangements are tested. Without this it is much more difficult to develop and adapt repertoire to suit changing conditions.

In reality, of course, one needs a combination of universal standard and a specialised local repertoires. This immediately raises the question of balance between them. I doubt whether it is wise to fix this in a rigid way. In practice it is likely to change with circumstance. For example, in the 1970s, the situation described above at Blackfriars, with its high proportion of new material, fitted in the with atmosphere of the times - an atmosphere shaped by the recent introduction of a new English liturgy. A more fruitful approach might be to see this not as a conflict of opposites, but as complementary sides of the same coin. A local group concerned to develop its own identity will not just produce its own resources; it will take in stuff from outside. When it does this, it will (often subconsciously) adapt it to suit its own purposes.

This then, is where choice of repertoire overlaps with the techniques used to promote it. As an organist I frequently adjust the harmonies I am faced with - if only to make them easier to play. I also make decisions about the choice of stops I use bearing the type of instrument I play and the character of the singers (congregation and choir) I have to work with. If I have instrumentalists as well, then I may not just stick with this but rejig the whole piece so that every instrument and voice - including the organ - pulls its weight in the most efficient way. Note too that the equation changes according to the particular service (saturday evening and Sunday morning Masses where I work have very different clientele).

(3) Another issue concerns the role played by choir and cantors. One assumption is to regard them as cheerleaders; but if they 'just' do that they may well become dissatisfied. After all they are specialists - even if it is only in the sense that they spend a little bit of time doing some rehearsal or because they are slightly more proficient musically than everyone else (in itself sometimes a rather dubious proposition). If you are going to keep them 'on side' you have to make them feel they are contributing something special of their own. This especially applies to those with superior technique, training and ability. It also applies to composers and arrangers, who will want at times to 'stretch their technique' by writing more sophisticated music which might prove harder to perform or require different combinations of resources from a standard congregation-accompaniment format. This means that choirs, cantors and instrumentalists have to have the opportunity to perform solos (e.g. anthems, solo arias or verses in a responsorial psalm, organ voluntaries and other purely instrumental works, special descants and parts within music sung by the congregation). What is more some members of congregations value the opportunity to remain silent in an atmosphere to some extent shaped by the music performed by specialists. The danger of course is that such activity has the potential to discourage congregations from singing. It also creates a 'sheep and goats' situation vis a vis the musicians and congregations. In the 1960s and early 1970s this was certainly a phenomenon I encountered at school and I have still seen it in Anglican Cathedral establishments. The issue, once again, concerns balance. There has to be enough congregational singing to keep them 'in practice'; and there have to be opportunities for musicians to make special contributions of their own. A little bit of congregational rehearsal then can be one of the principal means of signalling to all 'non- specialist musicians' that their contribution really is valued.
T.E.Muir

Southern Comfort
Posts: 1920
Joined: Sat Feb 23, 2008 12:31 pm

Re: Congregational Singing

Post by Southern Comfort »

At least two people have mentioned the Celtic Mass. They don't mean that. They mean the Celtic Liturgy, the Eucharistic acclamations that Chris Walker wrote back in the 1980s when he was at Clifton, and which are well known. The Celtic Mass is a different animal, also by CW, that is scarcely known outside the USA (wish it would stay there - it's very disappointing).

Another to add to the list:

Christ be our light (including the heretical last line of verse 5 :shock: )

Post Reply