Recently a friend of mine heard a priest announce in his sermon to the congregation, “our choir can’t be expected to sing well so we might as well do it ourselves” or words to that effect. What is most extraordinary about this statement is that the choir were formed of members of his congregation. They were not a Cathedral choir or a group of semi-professional musicians paid to come and sing every week, they were just ordinary folk, parishioners, many who could not read music who wanted to support their parish, and their priest, and sing to God.
I am taking a break from our parish choir at the moment but while l am off, l have been considering what is the role of a typical parish choir particularly in a small parish such as my own. Is it better to have everyone singing everything so the finger cannot be pointed at individuals and their substandard singing or is a parish choir important not just to support the singing but to foster unity and togetherness in the parish?
The general instruction of the Roman Missal states : 40. Great importance should be attached to the use of singing in the celebration of the Mass, with due consideration for the culture of the people and the abilities of each liturgical assembly.
The folk Mass ethic perpetuated in the 1980s encouraged us to make the congregation the choir. To do away with the parts of the Mass attributed to the choir and to have everyone sing everyone. The ‘have a go’ Mass it could be called. I suppose that this formula for the liturgy could be argued that it is easier on the ear because when you sing, you generally have no idea of how you sound, if you are doing the singing rather than the listening there is a tendency to assume that the singing is better than it really is and so everyone is happy. The inherent problem with forcibly encouraging everyone to sing everything is that not everyone wants to sing.
The focus now is for us to ‘sing the Mass rather than to sing at Mass’ but this equally raises problems.
Back to the Instruction: 41. All other things being equal, Gregorian chant holds pride of place because it is proper to the Roman liturgy.
Chant might be the ideal but sung badly it is possibly the most excruciating music to listen to so given its difficulty should it never be attempted in our parishes except in our cathedrals and our semi-pro choirs? This thought could be applied to other singing. Is it actually better not to have a choir if you cannot get the singers to create a beautiful sound to aid prayer?
Reflecting on my own experiences, some Sundays l was incredibly proud of our choir and their achievements, and then other Sundays, it did not sound great but the devotion, the enthusiasm, and the innate desire to sing with all their heart and all their soul never faltered from week to week. Our choir never lost sight of the importance of the texts we were singing, that to ‘sing was to pray twice.’ But no matter how hard we worked, we would never sound like Westminster Cathedral choir or the London Oratory. At the same time though we have a group of people who have learnt to read square notation, who have learnt to chant the psalms, improved their understanding of Latin, and have learnt to develop their voices to the best of their ability to ‘sing a new song to the Lord.’
Since l have taken a break, l have been astounded at the response from individual members in our choir about the effect singing at/the Mass has had on them. Someone from the parish came to visit me last night. They wanted to talk about how singing had transformed their life and most importantly had strengthened their faith. I have to say in five years, we have had four from our choir who have become Catholic, with another thinking about it the moment – not a bad track record. We also have a member of the Ordinariate. l have realised that while l have spent most of my time focusing on the importance of singing the right notes ‘ to sing to him with joyful melody’, l had completely underestimated the profound effect that singing and praying as a group ultimately has on people’s lives, and this l suspect is what the small parish choir is really all about, whether we like the singing, or not.
“cantare amantis est… Singing belongs to one who loves” St Augustine.