The Armchair Liturgist: Integrating New Accompanists

I was going to do an “armchair liturgist” post on First Communions, but we’ve already hit that topic. If you care to read it and post your comments, feel free. Your additions to that old thread will bring it to the surface on the sidebar, right.

I bring it up because one of our musical middle school parishioners has a younger sibling celebrating First Communion on Saturday. I’ve been gently (I hope, gently) urging the young lady to play at Mass for some time now. The family approached me about having their daughter play the final song Saturday night.

Playing the whole Mass can be a very intimidating experience for young musicians. Sit in the purple chair and pontificate on the future of church music. How would you acclimate a young keyboard musician to liturgy? Are you flexible enough for a piecemeal approach? Would you encourage them to learn the Mass setting and play it week after week? Would you arrange a piano/organ duet so if disaster strikes, you have one keyboard working? Are there other liturgical services that you’ve found to be a good intermediate step to Mass?

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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4 Responses to The Armchair Liturgist: Integrating New Accompanists

  1. Randolph Nichols says:

    Piecemeal, definitely. There’s too much happening with too many unexpected decisions for a young first-timer. She will be nervous enough as it is, so let her grow into the role gradually with first a single selection, then add more with time.

    This brings to mind my first musical experience at Mass. A priest needed someone to play the organ for a Christmas eve mass and thought that I, a young pianist being trained by a famous guru at the Juilliard School, would fit the bill. I explained that I had never played the organ though that did not seem to deter him. I agreed to play and upon arrival sat down at the instrument, an old Hook & Hastings pipe organ – so old that it didn’t have an on-off switch as expected. Though I arrived thirty minutes before the Mass was to begin, it took almost all that time before I accidently pulled a draw knob that activated the blower. By that time my nerves were shot and of course I had no idea what those names and numbers on the knobs meant nor what all those gadgets were down by the feet. I will only say that it was the loudest “Silent Night” on record. That was the beginning of my church music career.

  2. Gavin says:

    Not on short notice. Accompanying congregational singing is demanding work (unless you’re at a typical RC parish, then it doesn’t matter what you do because the cantor “leads” the music for you) I would probably want a month or two to work with someone who has the piano skills to make sure they’re confident on their music and teach them some basics. Given enough time, I may even let them try it out on the organ (hands only, of course).

    Absolutely have children play at liturgy (I’d say 8th grade or higher). But make sure they’re well prepared. Turning them away because they asked too late might discourage them, but having them play and then screw everything up and get embarrassed publicly is a surefire way to keep the next generation out of church music.

  3. Gavin says:

    FWIW, this would be roughly my teaching syllabus for teaching a new accompanist a hymn:

    1) play scale of key, and if possible arpeggiate and play I-ii-V7-I a few times
    2) play melody in octaves
    3) sing melody, all verses
    4) teach about proper breathing in a verse, repeat 2, 3
    5) teach proper breathing between verses, repeat 2, 3
    6) slowly play all parts, being sure to mark music
    7) right hand alone, left hand alone
    8) combine
    9) teach about proper tempo, bring up to speed, incorporating 4
    10) play through all verses

    And from there mentor a bit on specific problems of congregational song, such as volume, dragging, etc.

  4. Sr. Peggy says:

    I’d start out with an easier straight up song like the communion procession song. The switching thing between organ and piano- that was my first experience too- up in the loft taking my godmother’s place who was sick for a 7 am mass- very rough go.
    I think liturgy accomp. have to learn as much about accompanying singing- different than solo-ing, as they need to learn about timing during liturgy- starting, stopping, tempos, acclamations verses anthems, etc. Not the usual type of playing at all, and terribly important.

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