Congregational Singing: A Wrong Issue?

A few Café folks asked for more than my very brief criticism of what I thought to be a wrong-headed editorial from Jeffrey Tucker.

First, perhaps a few things need to be re-stated. I think Jeffrey is one fine fellow. Those of us who know him somewhat know the worlds of difference between his online persona and what he presents in the real world.

On his blogs, he is audacious, anarchic, railing at the gates. He exaggerates and paints caricatures, and he is very definitely a man of American politics: playing to his base and whipping up foment. His latest focus on flame as fish is typical. Like him or dislike, he gets attention in a big way. Personally, I like his dapper crisp suits and bow ties, but most of all the kindness, generosity, and friendship he has shown me over the years.

So when he starts off an essay suggesting that to strive for a singing assembly is an “obsession that has crippled serious work in sacred music for forty years,” I’m not surprised.

Maybe JT knows that he lives in a country that is not strong in the serious arts. Celebrity is the religion of choice in this country, and the trinity includes sports, entertainment, and politics. (The lines between these three, you understand, are blurred.) And even if you get to what is acknowledged as an entertainment medium like rock music, garage bands don’t play in garages anymore. Garage band is a software. Or a video game. Music is something to be watched. Watched more than listened to. Listened to more than learn an instrument and play it yourself. Today, music is played on computers. Sheesh. And JT thinks an NPM panel is a threat to Western music?

Western culture in general, and the US in particular have very serious factors working against serious music. NPM talking heads chatting it up about getting people in pews to sing is most definitely not the biggest challenge to the musical arts in the 21st century.

But if Jeffrey and his reform2 pals discussed the real problems, they might be echoing a lot of what their perceived opposition outside the chant-n-propers-only crowd might be saying. And politically, we can’t have that.

Jeffrey suggests that congregational singing happens when musicians are faithful to the traditionalist ethic. This is an example of magicalism, the notion that if fanboys and girls follow the rules as laid down by the most-favored authorities they will achieve all that the demonized opposition desires. Plus they will prove their loyalty. Ahem: something more is required. That’s church teaching.

Congregational participation is an undeniable thrust of post-conciliar liturgical reform. Some communities haven’t achieved it. Some have gained it and lost it. Others have accomplished it. Who accomplishes good singing? Generally it’s to be found in parishes that commit to good leadership.

Speaking for myself, I wouldn’t attend an NPM seminar on congregational singing. I know how to achieve it. My last several parishes sing, and as far as I know, they still do. My personal concern is something Jeffrey skirts around: how to make the deeper connection from participation in the liturgy into participation in the life of Christ. Between people who sing at Mass or promote it and those who follow the strictest rules on sacred music, neither has an inside track to grace.

There are people who sing at Mass who make these connections. They sing because they have faith. Their faith feeds their singing. They sing because they have a spiritual reason to sing. They sing because God asks, not because a songleader flaps duck* at them.

The spiritual issues of individuals are largely beyond the abilities and knowledge of music leaders. Most of us can only hope to present with integrity a stable repertoire of meaningful music in a singable range.

And indeed, some people, even musicians and (gasp!) clergy, sing, but lack the inner focus of faith. Can’t do anything about those folks, either.

One must first focus on making the liturgy beautiful so that people have some sense of genuine personal inspiration to make their voices part of it. People will not be hectored, manipulated, pushed, rehearsed, badgered, or hornswaggled into raising their voices if the reason for doing is not apparent. Shuffling endlessly through strategies, tricks, and repertoire has not worked and will not work.

“Beauty” is oft-cited. I happen to think that spiritual beauty is paramount. It goes something beyond little kids singing and being praised just because the parents are oogling. Many children, and many new converts to Christianity have a quality about their singing that is more enforced by faith rather than artistic excellence. In other words, average voices using average technique will shine above professional singers because of the interior quality they bring to presenting music. And this is sometimes true of assemblies at prayer.

Jeffrey and many of his reform2 confreres hector, manipulate, push, rehearse, badger, and hornswaggle the rest of us in suggesting that interior participation is superior to outward. Interior illumination is, I believe, a consequence of grace. The best an ordinary music director can hope for is to facilitate the grace and block it as little as possible. Getting people to sing from the heart of faith cannot be imposed. As a music minister, my goal is to ensure that acoustics, bad examples, poor repertoire, and unsingable music don’t get in the way.

Jeffrey suggests:

What we desperately need is discussion about the musical structure of the Roman Rite and the place of everyone and everything within that. That discussion is not here taking place.

We live with a Church that doesn’t choose to conduct that discussion. It hectors, manipulates, pushes, rehearses, badgers, and hornswaggles people from bishops on down. Canon lawyers talk about liturgy from the cathedra, but where are the spiritual directors, the musicians, the artists, the poets, and others who facilitate and create spiritual beauty?

Count me as a serious skeptic on the true interest in some quarters for having a discussion beyond the political base of traditionalism. But that discussion is always welcome on this site. Any Café regulars want to chime in?

* “Flap duck” is my wife’s term for songleaders who feel (sometimes insistently) that people need an arm wave from the singer. One of our apocryphal conversations from long ago might have gone like this: She said, “Do you need me to flap duck on this litany?” I said, “No flapping; the people will get it.”

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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7 Responses to Congregational Singing: A Wrong Issue?

  1. Charles says:

    Of course I’ll bite. First error-
    You twisted two sentences of Tucker into one for your premise to back up your “magical” assertion. Jeffrey did not saying anything about musicians adhering to musical traditionalism, he said congregations will sing when liturgical coherence is evident. You extracted that as culminating in “traditionalism” to debunk it by transforming that word into a schema, or a magical formula. That’s dishonest on your part. Quote him accurately, not out of rhetorical convenience.
    As I mentioned at Cafe, you and I are in agreement about leadership (performance practice) as a crucial aspect in the congregational singing endeavors. There’s nothing in Jeffrey’s essay that contradicts that. Nothing. What you may rightly suspect from the history of you and JT is that you don’t agree on who sings what when at Mass? Well, the GIRM provides an almost dizzying array of options both of you are quite aware of. And in that, you ought not to conclude that Tucker opts for less congregational singing that you, me or any other practitioner.
    Kudos to you for acknowledging “as far as I know” you believe the congregations still sing at your parish. From our vantage point is it extremely difficult to assess this week to week for quantity or quality.
    Your implication that Jeffrey’s definition of beautiful is somehow different a priori than yours is presumptive. After praising him in your opening remarks, why then would you “bury” him with supposition that his definition of beauty is couched in an art for art’s sake (my words) mentality and devoid of any core of spirituality on the part of scholas and choirs. Schola and choir members are, for the most part, congregants as well. If we’re good stewards as DM’s, we will mitigate any and all prima donna’ism that is exhibited by choristers.
    Lastly and personally I myself take great offense at your caricature of R2 folks as hectoring (and all the rest) folks either locally, on the web, or elsewhere into swallowing anyone’s idealism about the organic progress at work in the liturgy. If you’d just once try to view or participate actively in a CMAA event, you’d experience that it is the calendar, the traditions codified in canons, the expertise of ministries, and more than anything the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that forms the entire gathered “assembly” of faithful into congruence.
    And to then add insult to injury, to also decry the Church as also an agent of “hectoring” by those very canons is beyond the pale. Bl. JPII didn’t stop Mass when not fully clothed dancers participated at Mass in New Guinea. Benedict didn’t stop Mass when some Australian diva did her best Whitney Houston on Moore’s “Taste and see.” And Francis seemed quite at home with every liturgy and gathering music program in Rio.
    P.S. What the hell is “the political base of traditionalism?”
    We all know that we all have our biases when we try to express our “positions/perspectives” here and in other forums. Yours has been adjudicated just as expediently as you have characterized Jeffrey’s style and manner, as has mine. Maybe Liam is the only fellow/lady to escape that reality. But I hope you get my take that while assessing your reaction to another’s opinion, you should accurately reflect what the object of your critique actually said.

    • Todd says:

      Points taken. I don’t accept all of them, but I respect what you are bringing to the table. I concede that much of my criticism of Jeffrey’s post is dependent on history, not the particular essay in question. If it were only that essay, I might not have bothered to comment on it. Perhaps I could just confine my criticism to his simple overstatements. Like fish instead of flame.

      The “insult to injury” is ICEL and Vox Clara. I was unclear about that. As Melody suggests, bullying is bullying. It happened in other people’s parishes after Vatican II. It happens today when good music directors like Mr McManaman are run out of parishes. And when dissenting opinions are disrespected in open conversations.

      The hectoring litany was just a reflection, as was duck flapping, directed at the CMAA person who made what I considered to be a rude comment about a woman’s weight. People behind comments like that: you don’t need them in CMAA. But like it or not, they are as much your baggage, I suppose, as the rude 1972 pastor who knocked down someone’s altar rail is mine.

      The political base of traditionalism is simply treating the reform2 crowd as a political base. It appears to me that’s how Jeffrey operates. As a political methodology, perhaps it is more or less effective or gains the goals one in which one is interested. So it’s not my definition as much as it’s how JT appears to interact online.

      I encourage people to go to the Cafe and read Jeffrey’s essay and address him there. I told you I would have more to say about it than I felt polite to include in a combox. I didn’t spare JT criticism, but that doesn’t mean I need to deliver it in some Fr Z-inspired pseudo-discourse or clog up a place some of your friends don’t think I belong.

      • And that was a classy move for your part.
        I’m of the opinion that Jeffrey’s political home base in his primary realms lies somewhere between laizzais faire and outright anarchy at times. Because in person and occasionally in print he personally is very tolerant. And I wonder if that has not caused him some misunderstandings within his own CMAA house on occasion. He seems to delight in well done EFs and OFs of varying stripes and languages. I wonder if he’s ever encountered a really well done and repertoire rich OF in a normal parish?
        As far as ICEL/Vox Clara and I presume LA as well, that point is taken only by virtue of the perceptions pasted all over by lots of “your folk” led by AWR (with reason) and others as credible as XR to incredible like Mr. Grady, if we’re keeping score of rude people. And that brings me to my last suggestion-
        Perhaps it’s time you and I stop referring to our confreres of thought as “your friends” or “your people.” Some of them are, some not so much. but let’s remain Ronin catholics rather than pigeon-hold idealogues. Peace, bro’

      • Todd says:

        Thanks for the reply, brother. I accept just about everything in it. Excellent point on “your people.” Not a good moment for me to use it. A friend of mine might be occasionally rude. I don’t have to imitate it. Or echo it.

      • LIam says:

        FWIW, I can offer advice unbidden that people vulnerable to temptation towards Grand Theory would treat that as an opportunity to learn temperance and epistemic humility. Because Grand Theory too often serves as a wonderful place to rationalize and displace egoism into our blindspot.

  2. Melody says:

    Well I’m not a Café regular, I had to follow your link to even figure out what it was. Decided to move on, not interested in getting into any hassles with the Carb-free liturgy, Clean liturgy or Paleo-liturgy crowd (since they’re using a café metaphor!). However, I will comment on your post here as someone who has been involved with Church music for 50 years (started in 3rd grade singing in Sister Eileen Marie’s girls choir). I’d say hectoring, badgering, pushing, and hornswaggling is a fair description of what has happened on a regular basis in church music over the last 5 decades. First the St. Basil and St. Gregrory hymnal was out, Glory and Praise was in; then it was the other way around; then the chant and propers people are pushing their viewpoint that all hymns are just Protestant junk anyway. Our parish does a pretty good job of congregational singing, and one thing our musicians do is listen to feedback from the people in the pews. They tell us what inspires them, what they would like to hear more of, and what they would like to hear less of. We do take requests, and try to make the music fit the scriptures of the day and the liturgical season. Our parish has Polish roots, and one thing that some people want is not to lose that heritage. So one of the choirs does Polish hymns for a Mass once a month; it’s surprising how many still know how to sing them. It seems to me that music in the church would be in better shape if it was more of a two-way street; listening to what people say they need rather than just telling them what’s good for them. Bullying is another name for “hectoring, badgering, pushing, and hornswaggling” , and no one wants to be on the receiving end.

  3. Jim McCrea says:

    My parish is noted for the excellent quality of the congregational singing (www.mhr.org). We have a paid, professional music director and a budget adequate to his needs. We don’t use a fixed hymnal; rather, the bulletin has the congregational selections printed therein. They come from a variety of sources and religious traditions (including Jewish.)

    The music selections are integrated into the themes of the readings for the Sunday (and Saturday). We have a long tradition of singing so newbies know right away that it is OK to … and expected that you … will sing out. If you aren’t a virtuoso, join the crowd. There is plenty of enthusiasm that fosters participation. The Sistine Choir need not fear its place of prominence, but we are happy to be making a joyful noise unto the Lord … and it’s a pretty darned good noise!

    We sing (as does our choir) a wide variety of musical types, including some Latin selections. Marian dreck is (thank goodness) minimal. We also have paid singers who bolster inadequacies in the volunteer choir as they are discovered. For special occasions we have hired musicians. We have soloists, almost always volunteers, whose talents are showcased as appropriate for the time and readings.

    People rise to a level of expectation. Our history is such that the level of expectation is quite good, and our congregation, choir and soloists rise to it consistently.

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