Unaccompanied Song

GIA editor and church musician David Anderson discusses his “Thoughts on Unaccompanied Song” in his piece in GIA Quarterly. If you have access to this publication, I recommend his article.

He speaks of four practices that hinder assembly singing, all long on the list of don’t-be’s in pastoral music circles for at least a generation:

    • organ registrations that frighten instead of lead
    • tempi that do not respect the size of the assembly, the acoustics of the room, and the style of the particular hymn, song, or acclamation
    • cantors constantly singing into the microphone
    • overamplified choirs and ensembles

And then he describes his experience of a course taught by Alice Parker, who inspired him to introduce at least one unaccompanied piece at every liturgy.

I was smiling, thinking of my own experience this past weekend, subbing as a pianist for a group I haven’t accompanied much. I prefer to go to the Communion minister to receive, rather than have it brought to me. Sometimes, I will duck out during a refrain or a verse of one of the Communion songs, whichever seems appropriate. But this past weekend, I got up to receive, and darned if the choir delayed in announcing the song. I did tell them they should begin Foley’s “The Cry of the Poor” (See? It was the proper Psalm for Communion!) unaccompanied. And I would get back when I got back.

I wondered what would have happened if I had just gone to sit in the front pew and prayed for a minute after I received. Or if I had gone out to the stairwell and dropped dead. Would the music have been completly silenced?

I seem to have landed a regular 7PM gig these days. Before I recruit a student or two to fill that gap, maybe I should tell the choir I’m taking a song off one week. They’ll have to sing unaccompanied. More from David:

Regular unaccompanied singing reminds the Christian assembly that, without their voices, there is no song.

Amen to that!

What sort of adventures have our readers had with unaccompanied singing of sacred music?

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About catholicsensibility

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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One Response to Unaccompanied Song

  1. Liam says:

    I heartily support it, as you know. To the point that it’s also a good tool for choosing music: if it’s awkward or suboptimal to sing it without accompaniment, I have a rebuttable presumption against choosing the piece. This puts a bias against works that involve lots of instrumental riffs either solo or underneath sustained vocal notes. It is rebuttable, but it’s a good bias, in my experience. Generally, music that is written through an instrumental lens instead of a vocal lens is suspect.

    And I would quibble about that first bullet: the organ/instruments should even be leading so much as supporting. It’s an important quibble as there are plenty of instrumentalists (yes, mostly, but not entirely, organists) who champion the leading approach. (I think that approach is safe with works like major Christmas and Easter carols that the congregation will sing fully regardless of what is happening with the instruments…..)

    And, especially when the congregation is singing, everyone (including you, Fr Celebrant) back back away from your microphones, and no one gets hurt.

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