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Musical Musings: Miscellaneous

They Just Won't Sing

by Gary D. Penkala

Mention congregational singing and any parish musician can relate experiences of how congregations just don't sing, followed, perhaps, by nasty comments about those people in the pews. But, assuming the church has good acoustics and an adequate pipe organ (big assumptions, indeed), the fault may not lie with the assembly. The music director and organist should consider the following points before refusing to accept responsibility for poor singing in our churches.

  1. Choice of music. The qualified music director should select the music to be sung by the people (hymns, responses, antiphons). This must be quality music. There is much trite garbage available, especially in paperback hymnal substitutes. The immediate appeal of trendy songs should not substitute for the lasting value of quality hymns. Congregations will appreciate music directors who respect their maturity by selecting good music from all periods.

  2. Range. Hymns should lie within the comfortable range for the average congregation, from middle C to C or D above. Occasionally a note on either end may be needed if the hymn has a wide range. Go beyond this and you can expect poor singing.

  3. Accompaniment. The most critical factor in good congregational singing is the accompaniment. The pipe organ is the ideal instrument to accompany the assembly, but the organist must know some basic rules for effective playing. Registrations used for hymn playing must be clear and bright. Use a basic principal chorus with or without mixtures. Reeds may also be added occasionally. If your organ has no 2' stops or mixtures, draw the brightest 8' and 4' stops, add the 16' coupler and play an octave higher than written. The registration must be loud enough to support the congregation but not so loud as to overpower them. Never use the following for hymns: 16' manual stops or couplers (except if playing an octave higher), undulating string stops, vibrato.

    The organist should practice good phrasing, intelligently allowing sufficient time for breaths where called for, but carrying over lines which make no sense to interrupt. Careful attention to punctuation and meaning will make proper phrasing natural.

    Repeated notes must be broken cleanly to solidify the rhythmic pulse. The habit of tying repeated notes together leads to weak, unprecise singing. In certain circumstances judgment and common sense will dictate a bending of this rule, as in the repeated bass notes in Ode to Joy (Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee) and Aurelia (The Church's One Foundation). Perhaps these repeated notes are better grouped in two's.

    Selecting the proper tempo is vital to effective accompanying. If a hymn be played too quickly, the congregation will not have sufficient time to breathe. The result... they won't sing. If a hymn be played too slowly (more often the case), the congregation cannot sustain complete phrases and will bore easily. The result... they won't sing. Once a tempo is selected, stick to it. Don't change tempo during a hymn.

    Nothing has done more to kill congregational singing than miking a cantor and the priest. There can be only one leader in hymn singing, and it must be the organist. This overpowering vocal "leadership" from cantor or priest, or worse yet, conflicting tempos and interpretations among the three "leaders" is an aural-liturgical disaster. Nothing makes a congregational singer shut his mouth quicker than this kind of chaos. Turn all the microphones off during hymns!

  4. Presentation. A new hymn must be presented well the first time it is used. Teaching a new hymn before Mass, while not ideal, may be necessary... especially if it's a little tricky. Other techniques may be used to enhance the learning process. The organist could play the hymn or a prelude based on the hymn several weeks before it is used. The choir could sing the hymn as an anthem or meditation. A section of the hymn might be used as an antiphon, with the cantor singing psalm verses in between. The choir and congregation could alternate verses, giving the people extra chances to "listen."

If your congregation doesn't sing well, check to see if the fault lies not in the pews, but at the console.

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