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CNP Feedback - Learning New Hymns

The "Feedback Box" on the CanticaNOVA Publications website has proven quite effective in promoting communications on a variety of subjects, and expressing concerns of liturgists and musicians. From time to time, we'll compile a few of these questions or comments and put them in public view, with the hope that others with similar concerns may benefit from their content.

Q. Dear CNP:

Thank you for your dedication to liturgy and church music.

My pastor is not pleased with the quality of congregational singing in our parish. We disagree as to how to solve the problem.

My pastor suggests that we (the choir) sing the same opening hymn (we have not graduated to psalms for the processional hymn) until the congregation is familiar with it and sings it with gusto and enthusiasm at which point we can change to another opening hymn.

I direct the senior choir, and I suggest that repeating hymns leads to boredom and apathy. I believe that all of the ministers should have hymnbooks in their hands whenever possible and sing with gusto! I think it might also work to repeat the last verse of the opening hymn with encouragement from the pastor.

Any thoughts?

InA Debate

A. Dear InA:

The problem of encouraging a congregation to sing and to learn new music is often a big one. Your pastor is correct in that repetition is the key. However, I don't think I'd sing a hymn as the Opening Song for weeks and weeks until all are satisfied that the people are "singing with gusto." In my parish the congregation just learned a brand new hymn, "Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation" (hymn tune: Westminster Abbey). No one (neither pastor, nor choir, nor congregation) had heard the hymn before, but I had in mind to use this hymn at the dedication of our new church (since it has a particularly appropriate text and the tune is very majestic). It's not an easy tune, so I started programming this six months before the dedication, and this is how I did it:

The first time we sang it (I used it as an Opening Song, since this usually garners full attention), I played an organ prelude on the tune before Mass. Then as the Opening Song, I had the cantor or choir sing the first verse alone, inviting the people to listen, and then join on the second and third verses. This allays the fear many people have of "singing something I've never even heard before." We always sang all the verses! [I would not repeat any of the verses, though — better to maintain the integrity of the hymn poem].

The next week, we did the same thing (with the first verse sung by a cantor/choir to "refresh the memory") as a Closing Song. It could also be done at Offertory, but Communion is not the time to sing an unfamiliar song — too much else happening.

We sang it again the next week as the Opening Song, but the congregation now sang the whole thing.

I put the hymn away for a while, and after 4-5 weeks, we sang it again. I would then program it about once a month for the next four months. We sang it in the old church for the "last Mass." There was a procession after that Mass to the new church — we sang it again. There were forty hours of Eucharistic adoration in a temporary chapel at the new church (before the time of the Dedication Mass) and we scheduled various services [Morning Prayer, Daytime Prayer, Evening Prayer, Night Prayer, Office of Readings, Rosary, Divine Mercy Chaplet, etc.] during this time. Yes — we used "our hymn" for all these services. By the time of the Dedication Mass, the congregation really knew this hymn and they sang the roof off — with organ, brass, timpani and handbells!
Now, granted, there was an emotional boost (since this was billed as "our dedication hymn"), but if this model works for a completely new, rather difficult hymn tune, it certainly can work in other situations. The keys are:
  • creative repetition — you're right, the choir and congregation can be bored
  • thoughtful planning — choose a good new hymn to learn and make it worth their effort
  • education — tell the people about the new hymn and make them want to learn it
  • above all patience — you, and the pastor, and the choir and the congregation as well, need to realize that the first 6 or 7 times the hymn is sung it's not going to be "rousing" — let it develop!
No learning curve goes from 0 to 100% even over six repetitions. Have faith in the people's ability, have patience with their progress, and a new hymn is not impossible to learn well. In a year, you'll have another selection in the repertoire.

And that brings up my final point about this plan: do not program too many new hymns at once. I would never consider learning more than two new general hymns (good, useful, versatile hymns) per year. You might also consider learning a new Advent or Lenten or Easter hymn as well (but not all of them — and we probably already know plenty of Christmas carols for that short season!).

It is very important, as you mentioned, for the pastor to be supporting the music program. Yes, he, and all the liturgical ministers, should be vigorously singing all the music at Mass (and not necessarily into a microphone!). Beyond the audible contribution to the assembly's singing, there is great sign value in having the leaders set a good example for the congregation. Any way you can encourage this (a music practice for all the lectors, extraordinary minister of communion, ushers, altar servers?) would be worth the effort.

In all my dealings with pastors, I've found that they generally want immediate change ("I want the people to be singing with gusto ... today!"). Anyone working in the Catholic Church should know that nothing works that way. My biggest chore as a music director is often trying to instill patience in the pastor. Assure him that you're on the same path that he is ... you want robust singing as much as he does. Invite him to trust you, then put a logical plan in place (like the one outlined here), do your best work ... and all the while pray (it's ultimately not up to us anyway — God does most of the work!).

Good luck with your very worthwhile project!

Gary Penkala
CanticaNOVA Publications

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