Flirting With Disenfranchisement

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?


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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3 Responses to Flirting With Disenfranchisement

  1. Liam says:

    I think that to expect the congregation to sing full-throatedly from the first week is, frankly, silly.

    By which I mean: it’s OK that the congregation gets used to hearing it used (in real time) for several times. In fact, upon reflection and observation over the years, I am less and less a fan of pre-liturgical “rehearsing” (simply because so many people miss it anyway – and rehearsing tends to encourage them to be late), but rather announcing, and doing in real time. And wait a while before evaluating.

    I would be taking time now, however, to set goals for a repertoire of “Mass parts” when the new translation is finally implemented. Such as:

    1. At least one (preferably two) vernacular chant-style setting that can be sung well without accompaniment (but that could be supplemented with very light organ, harp or guitar as resources allow). Something that the people can sing with a confident presider or cantor to provide the incipit. For example: the current well-known vernacular chant setting of the Our Father that was adapted by Snow for the Sacramentary. (This kind of setting to my mind is what should be at the top of the list for most parish repertoires.) This would allow more Masses to be sung, and instead of conditioning singing on the availability of the music ministry.

    2. At least one festive vernacular through-composed setting, with descant vocal parts and orchestrated parts for melodic (wind/bowed string) instruments like brass or flute or violin.

    3. At least one other vernacular through-composed setting.

    4. The Greek/Latin ordinary – Jubilate Deo is a good and free reference (and some of it is already in many hymnals).

    I would also suggest that, while the initial learning of these things will occur in blocks of time, that people move away from the model that has prevailed in many (not all) places of having one setting of Mass parts per season. It’s a convenience model, really, and over the years comparing the participation of congregations in places that use it versus those that don’t, I see little evidence that it does very much other than allow the music ministry to focus on the hymns (which I think is a bad thing, since the hymns are less important than the Mass parts, and this tends to encourage a kind of inattention to the quality of the Mass parts). So, especially during Ordinary Time, you should aim to be empowered to shift choice of Mass parts week-to-week.

  2. Jimmy Mac says:

    In my parish we are introduced to new seasonal and one-off music regularly. Three of our 6 cantors at the main Sunday liturgy are paid professionals and have no problem with learning new music. The other 3 are very skilled because they have been trained properly.

    Our parish has a strong history of full acceptance of its role in the music program and adapts quite easily to learning something new. The first round might be a bit spotty (we don’t practice sing, just jump in with both feet … and a well-trained choir to carry the melody in the beginning) but by the end of the verses we pretty much have it down. It is a matter of pride for us to rise to the musical occasion.

    Many of us have spent prior years worshipping in various Protestant denominations (me included) and a lot of what is considered “new” in our parish is, in reality, familiar old hymns from other denominations. Some of the words have been changed but the melodies are instantly familiar and sung out confidently by those who have good musical memories.

    If your parish is not musically comfortable or quite participatory, then I’m sure that each change will be hard to swallow. However, I’ve always believed the Catholics are more than capable of rising to an ambitious level of expectation if trained properly and encouraged to do so. Some will always complain no matter what the change is; that’s just the reality of being Catholic.

    We need to remember that many former Catholics now worship in non-Catholic churches and seem to have no trouble entering into a well-formed music program … even (shudders) rock ‘n roll “worship and praise” stuff.

  3. Liam says:

    “Praise and worship” (shuddering antiphonally)

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