Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Why can't the Catholics teach their children how to sing?

This is really ridiculous. I customarily am in the choir loft of a Sunday morning, and have little opportunity to observe my fellow Mass-goers. However, this Sunday I was sitting in a pew like a real Catholic, and was appalled to see how few, how very few, mouths were moving during the procession, at offertory, and at the close of Mass. Why? WHY WHY WHY? It has always been my greatest gripe about choirs that they make a grand show of singing, or that they turn what should be a beautiful mode of worship into a production for everyone to applaud (horror!) at the end of Mass.

Now, I've dicovered a bigger gripe. Wny aren't the people sitting out there singing? I'm been labouring under the delusion for a year and a half that the choir sits in the loft and leads the singing, and that everyone in the pews follows the singing. If anything, we're there for backup. Not so, I've found, and I'm so very upset. I should look into this. It seems to me that there should be no one on earth more enthusiastic about singing in church, given the numerous biblical recommendations for such activity, especially in the psalms. Why aren't we singing?

I will wager every A I got this semester (okay, and every B-minus) that there are as many Catholics out there not singing at Mass, as there are Protestants who are singing in their own churches on Sunday. The argument has been posited to me in the past, of course, that the Protestants have stripped so much from their worship, especially as regards the liturgy, that they have nothing left to do but sing, so why wouldn't they? I think there's a fallacy in that argument someplace. Just because we've still got the glory and the majesty and the wonder and the awe and the amazingness of the Catholic Church and all her teachings and liturgical traditions doesn't mean we should clam up. It doesn't mean we ought to use the offertory hymn as a brief period of organized noise, which conveniently masks a conversation with out neighbor about the lucidity of the homliy just delivered. No! I won't have it.

I'm typing too fast--there are probably mistakes all in this. More later...must run away and write more papers.


  1. Actually it seems the faster you type the fewer the typos.

    Yes, the lack of singing in Catholic churches is a problem. There are many causes, a few of which (that I've personally witnessed) are: a) the cantor/choir sings the hymns in a range inaccessible to anyone other than a colorature soprano, b) no one knows the melody of the hymns because the cantor/choir rarely sings the same thing twice(except at Christmas), and c) the words to said hymns are so wishy-washy and ugly that no one wants to sing them.

    At my church, however, (pardon my momentary boasting) most people sing, including the young children and the one boy whose only note is monotone. I must mention (quickly because there are chores to be done) that when people don't sing at my church, Father Peter is apt to scold. He'll say, "Everyone should participate in the singing." :):)

  2. Yes, well, I'm afraid that of your three possible reasons, only the second might apply in my situation.

    And I don't think it does--they all have hymnals, they all know the number of the hymn, and there areonly like ten hymns taht we ever sing anyway.

    I'm still bugged.

  3. A couple thoughts - first, this is not an exclusively Catholic problem, thought it is more serious among RC's than Protestants. I've noticed in both cases that women tend to sing a lot more than men. (High Anglicans are the one big exception to this overall rule; but that's because they're the only people on the present ecclesiastical scene who really appreciate liturgical aesthetics.)

    Second - and this is highly speculative, so take it with a hefty grain of salt - I wonder whether the nature of the Mass itself doesn't discourage people from singing. The central event of the Mass - namely, the transubstantiation the bread and wine into Our Blessed Lord - seems to dwarf such considerations as congregational singing. I wonder whether the main reason the Mass has taken on the "communal" form it now has is primarily from expedience - ie, that it would be impractical for the priest to administer consecrated hosts door-to-door, as it were. Because it is precisely this function and action of the priest, and not anything done by the laity, which makes the Mass what it is, people feel awkward participating in the Mass in ways that seem forced, superficial, and unimportant in this context - such as singing.

    Then again, it may just be an American problem. We live in a culture that doesn't sing very much, sadly.

  4. Like I said, there are many reasons people don't sing at Mass. I drew my possibilities from the examples I have seen in multiple parishes in my area. Personally, I think most of the music is just set in too high a range for most people. But I'm an alto, and therefore biased. :)

    I see your point Mark. While singing is not the high point of the Mass, it does enable people to praise God in ways other than usual Mass responses. Unfortunately these responses are often mumbled or not said at all. Singing, especially if done well, can bring people out and encourage them to participate.

    Good music can also be a means of bringing people back to the faith. We have an example of this in my own parish. One man started coming to Mass again simply because we sing traditional hymns in a very simple, but beautiful manner.

  5. I'd say Mark's final point is very telling. However, that's not as big a one at Christendom as elsewhere, as we all know. However, I'm not going to speak for others, just for myself.

    There are two reasons I don't sing (much) in Mass, and a third specific to Christendom (though it could apply anywhere with a good choir).

    1. I'm not a good singer. My voice is not very steady, especially when (on Sundays here) I've only been up for about an hour by the time things start. (My voice is raspy for a long time after getting up, especially if I don't have something warm to drink, like hot chocolate or tea.)

    Following from that, I don't know the words to everything, and a hesitant voice, off-beat with everyone else, seems to me to be worse than none at all.

    2. Mark's second point is true in my case. When I go to Mass, I'm not going for the singing; if I want that, I can go to a prayer group. Most of the ones I've been to are mostly singing, in a charismatic tradition. I'm focused on the priest and what he's doing.

    3. At Christendom, specifically (though, as I said, it would be true with any good choir), I feel like I SHOULDN'T sing when the choir is. You people do so well, I feel like anything I do will just mess things up. I suppose that sounds like a carry-over from my first point, but I don't feel the same way about singing along with the choir at my home church (which is nothing to write home about at all . . . the turnover is pretty bad).

    So, anyway . . . there's one person's answer.

    PS - Since you were complaining on Fiddleback, I've added your blog to my Favorites/Forums and Groups folder . . . happy now? :P

  6. I tend not to sing at Christendom because 1) I can't sing on ding and therefore can't sing. 2)I really stink at singing. 3) I think I'm tone deaf.. 4) I can't keep the *mutters* beat.. and it is slightly ackward to realize that you've finished the word that the rest of the world is still drawing out.. 5) I never sang as a child in church. 6) I don't know the words to any of the songs like everyone else, and ergo I feel like an idiot when I have to use a hymnal for something that the rest of the world has had memorized since age 3..
    Not to mention my 'singing' tends to be rather monotone..

  7. Fist of all Augustine says that singing well is praying twice. I don't sing well, so I'm not praying twice, but I do sing. That's just me.

    First of all, music is very important to the liturgy. It is not necessary, but it is important, just as statuary, i.e. imagery, is important but not necessary. The small things matter, the medium things matter, the big things matter. That doesn't mean they are necessary, but they help.

    yes they do feel awkward in ways that seem to be as you said Mark. But that is due to, I think, poor education and formation.

    You aren't forced to sing, nor do you need to, nor is the choir there necessarily to encourage others to sing. I see it as the choir being there to enhance and conduce contemplation. Whether you want to sing or not is your prerogative. But the choir is like the crucifix, the statues of St. Joseph, or Mary, etc. This is just scratching on the surface, and there are elements that I am not even alluding to, but I am i a hurry, and this does have to do with you have directly said. Just some thoughts.

    Enough ambiguity for now, ciao.

  8. I admit that I still find some enjoyment in the music of hymns, which are alive with your praises, when I hear them sung by well-trained, melodious voices. But I do not enjoy it so much that I cannot tear myself away. I can leave it when I wish. But if I am not to turn a deaf ear to music, which is the setting for the words which give it life, I must allow it a position of some honor in my heart, and I find it difficult to assign it its proper place. For sometimes I treat it with more honor than it deserves. I realize that when they are sung these sacred words stir my mind to greater religious fervor and kindle in my a more ardent flame of piety than they would if they were not sung; and I also know that there are particular modes in song and in the voice, corresponding to my various emotions and able to stimulate them because of some mysterious relationship between the two. But I ought not to allow my mind to be paralysed by the gratification of my senses, which often leads it astray. For the senses are not content to take second place...

    Sometimes, too, from over-anxiety to avoid this particular trap I make the mistake of being too strict. When this happens, I wish but to exclude from my ears, and from the ears of the Church as well, all the melody of those lovely chants to which the Psalms of David are habitually sung ... But when I remember the tears that I shed on hearing the songs of the Church in the early days, soon after I had recovered my faith, and when I realize that it is not the singing that moves me but the meaning of the words when they are sung in a clear voice to the most appropriate tune, I again acknowledge the great value of this practice. So I waver from the danger that lies in gratifying the senses and the benefits which, as I know from experience, can accrue from singing. Without committing myself to an irrevocable opinion, I am inclined to approve of the custom of singing in church, in order that by indulging the ears weaker spirits may be inspired with feelings of devotion. Yet when I find the singing itself more moving than the truth which it conveys, I confess that this is a grievious sin, and at those times I would prefer not to hear the singer.

    -St. Augustine, Confessions X

  9. The fact that you can't sing is totally beside the point. And of comment.

    The choir is there to lead the singing--emphasis emphasis emphasis--and there is nothing more disappointing to a choir member than knowing that we're just up there singing away while everyone else just listens. Granted, the polyphonic motets and meditations that we sing are not intended to be congregation-friendly, necessarily. However, those hymns with the numbers, you know, the ones posted on the board at the front of the church, we're asking you all to sing. Please.

    More on this later...lots more points to address.

  10. I have been following this post I can resist the urge no longer, I must comment.

    I have noticed for some time the same problem that Fidelio first mentioned. One of the things I enjoyed the most as a child growing up in church was singing. Today I can sing about as well as a hound with strep throat, but when I open my hymnal and read the words....I just can't help myself, even if I can't hit the notes, I sing. I figure that God will accept my worship on the basis of my heart rather than my voice.

    On a sidenote: My grandmother wasn't doing well so I took her to church one time, and imagine my surprise when we start singing...I could hear myself. It startled me at first, but hardly anyone was singing. What the hay, I bellowed it out anyway.

    I do love a good chior.

  11. A priest I once knew told his congregation repeatedly: If God blessed you with a beautiful voice sing loud to praise and thank Him. If you don't have a very good voice sing louder to get revenge.

    Not a very inspiring comment, but an amusing one. God bless all.

  12. God gave us what we have for a reason. He gave some people good voices to inspire others to try harder and he gave some of us bad voices so we would have to work at it. At least, that's my take on it. I don't REALLY know why he decided to give me a crappy singing voice. I just know that I'm happy with what I do have.

    I do like what you said though, Kelly Jo. I know a few people that will get a kick out of that.