A reader asked how I would deal with the following situation of a new music director expanding the liturgical music repertoire:
“As I am sure you can read between the lines, I have become very frustrated with the situation (in my parish). My biggest concern is the overall health and well being of the congregation and the cantors. It seems I am approached by other cantors on a regular basis with them expressing stress and that they are overwhelmed with the new music. I find myself assuring them that they can do it, that they will recognize it, generally trying to build up their confidence.
I am also afraid that … the constant changing of music tends to “disenfranchise” the congregation. I would appreciate your insight.
Here were some specific questions:
1. how much new music to throw at the cantors and ultimately the congregation and how fast.
If a parish is teaching more than one new piece a month, my assessment would be: too much. There should be a reason for every repertoire novelty, something a little deeper than “This is the best chant!” or “This is the latest David Haas!” New music should have a purpose. That said, six times a year would be good for a good singing congregation. Less if the overall repertoire were satisfactory. Maybe more with a new hymnal or a hymnal supplement.
Whenever I use new music, I make sure to balance it out with other selections well-loved and well-sung. I could manufacture a whole post on managing a congregational repertoire … another day.
2. how much time is reasonable to give cantors to be ready to lead congregations in new music?
It depends on the expectations and abilities. Do your parish cantors possess an optimal musicianship? In other words, can they read and interpret music and internalize it quickly? Or are they expected to show up, announce the songs, sing into the mic, and just wave their arm when it’s time for the people to sing?
In a parish with multiple weekend liturgies, the “weakest” Mass will drive the implementation of new music. If one cantor or a set of cantors there takes longer to learn music, needs recordings, must be coached, etc., then three weeks’ notice would seem ample time. Another question is this: does the parish see teaching new music as a cantor’s responsibility, or is it better left to the music director?
3. the cantors have been asked to introduce the new mass parts at this week before Mass but not sing them during mass until the following week. Is this a reasonable teaching concept?
First, I don’t know why a parish would be implementing a new Mass setting now, unless it were in Latin. Not only will texts change, but new music will need to be acquired, and there’s the possibility a composer will decline to refurbish an old setting. Learning a new Mass setting now is imprudent, in my opinion, unless there was a really, really important reason to do so.
But if I were to implement a new Mass setting, the white post-Pentecost feasts aren’t a bad time. I would phase in the Eucharistic acclamations first, on Trinity Sunday. Week two, I would teach the music for the Fraction Rite (Lamb of God). Week three and beyond for the Gloria. Then the Lord Have Mercy on week five or later.
Teach one week and sing them the next? I think it’s better to jump in all at once. Some music directors play new music instrumentally the week before teaching to get the melody in the heads of the congregation. I haven’t done that often.
Anybody else have advice for my friend?