Starting singing again in church

A long and winding road

We are slowly easing back towards normality in our parish, but it’s taken a long time and we still have a long way to go. There have been long periods when many of us couldn’t go to Mass in person, either because it wasn’t allowed because of lockdowns or because somebody in the family was self-isolating. We all got used to Masses on-line, or gave up altogether and hoped for a better future, but I don’t want to go in detail through all the stages of that gloomy period.  My memory of it is thankfully fading, and I don’t want to sit down and work it all out in detail again.  But we have now reached a stage when we can look back in general terms, I think.

a long and winding road…to get back to where you started from
Silence in the pews

It seems almost like a bad dream, so I may be a little out in my sequencing, but as I remember,  we went from nobody being allowed to go to church in person,  – to being allowed to attend Mass, but only in small numbers and no singing,  – to a small group (six) people being allowed to sing on behalf of everyone else,  – to less emphasis on the numbers, but still compulsory (according to the parish itself, no longer by law)  masks in churches.  So we had more people allowed in the churches, but no congregational singing.  Different countries  (like different denominations) have had different patterns of Covid precautions; some churches have had some music as part of their recorded Masses, some live, some from CDs.  It’s been very confusing, very patchwork and rather unhappy.  Some church musicians have done heroic work, like my friend in Adelaide in Australia, who has been singing a daily psalm at the Cathedral Mass all the way through the pandemic, whenever it was allowed (I know about this because she emailed me to ask for settings of the weekday psalms, which is why there are more of those in the Australian version on the website than for any other country).

Swans singing
Hunting for extra voices to boost choir numbers
Bringing things back to life

I want to think about how we can get the machinery of liturgy and church music grinding back into action, and what it feels like as we are doing it.  So here’s an account of what’s been going on in one of the Sunday Masses in one parish in England, and how it feels to be doing it.

Starting with hymns

When we were finally allowed, and those who would be constituting the choir wanted, to start singing again, there were immediately problems because you were allowed only six singers and we could not even muster those.  Many singers were either still self-isolating or had not returned to Mass in person yet.  But we had an organist, a few (double-jabbed) voices, and a deep sense that even limited music was a good idea.  So we started just with hymns, and nothing too ambitious.  We did not even try to sing the Mass; the usual Mass setting for that particular Mass previously was an old one in English (from before the ‘new translation’, so the words were not the current version), and in four parts, which we certainly couldn’t manage.  So we just had hymns, and quite short ones, too, because the time needed at Communion, for example, was much reduced as the congregation was so shrunken.

Little organ
teamwork makes the dreamwork
Humming along

Just starting with the hymns was touching, because the congregation didn’t have any hymn books and wasn’t supposed to join in anyway, although there was a bit of audible humming from behind masks.  What struck me, though, was how they patiently stood and waited at the end until we had finished.  They clearly didn’t see the music as a mere accompaniment, or a sound track to their leaving the church,  but an integral part of the service, and several people said how glad they were to have it back.  Of course there are people who don’t like any singing at Mass, but there are several Sunday Masses available, and only two have any music, so people do have a choice.

…but which hymns?

Choosing the hymns : now is not the time for interesting new versions and unfamiliar tunes.  If you pick fairly well-known ones, the congregation will hum along, and some of us even remember the words, having an alarmingly good memory for hymns with short lines, nurtured by years of school assemblies (no hymn books because they are too hard to sanitise).  But we are also trying to avoid anything too dirge-like.  In our church there are even too few singers to manage parts or some of the big hymns reminiscent of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  We’ll get there, but for now, we’re thinking more of gentler hymns which encourage a prayerful atmosphere and make people feel comfortable and reassured.  He who sings, prays twice; especially if the words are good and you enunciate them clearly.  I shall stop sitting on the fence and offer some solid examples : anything by George Herbert, anything translated by Catherine Winkworth or E. Caswall, anything with an old German psalm tune, and don’t forget the old favourites like Soul of my Saviour, and the familiar psalm-hymns (The Lord’s my shepherd, All people that on earth do dwell, O God our help in ages past).   The words are very important!  They have to make sense and not just be emoting, because people are actually going to be listening to them.

Youths singing
only six singers at a time
Then the Alleluia and the Responsorial Psalm

Moving on from the hymns, we wanted to reintroduce singing the Alleluia, and then the Responsorial Psalm.  We did the Alleluia first because it is one of the shortest elements, especially if you don’t repeat it at the beginning.  The congregation still wasn’t supposed to join in, so we limited the number of repeats, and avoided using the lectern and making eye contact.  This all felt very peculiar, as usually what you are doing is desperately trying every body-language way you can think of, to communicate that you do want people to join in.  Now in contrast we were just doing a pared-down version of these parts of the Mass, on everyone else’s  behalf, which felt like quite a responsibility.  Some of the time there were gaps, pauses and hitches, as the readers tried to remember which parts they were no longer doing, but that’s fine, I’m sure God does not expect a perfectly choreographed offering every Sunday! 

Last week we sang the Response to the psalm just the once, as we had been doing since we restarted the singing, and went straight on into the verses, only to hear the congregation trying to repeat it (still with masks on).  The rules about congregational singing, though a bit unclear, have apparently been eased, so next week we will reinstate the repeat and see how it goes.  That coming psalm (53/54) has a nice easy Response, too.  The Lord is on our side.

Snail shell with person emerging
encouraging the singing (once it’s allowed)
Singing the Mass (or bits of it)

For the last few weeks, we have been singing the Kyrie, the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei out of my Mayfield Mass setting, with just the tiny choir singing it and the congregation listening.  It is a new setting for this congregation, but I’m actually delighted to be able to introduce it in this way, as they are learning what it sounds like without any risk of embarrassment over making mistakes, and I think they will move into singing it with no trouble (we’ve had some positive feedback, and I’m delighted to say that the congregation toddlers are swaying to the Agnus Dei, which I love to see).  It will probably be a while until we can tackle the Gloria, but there’s no rush.

mediaeval dancers in a line
Hold hands and keep together : another group of six
Still a work in progress

We are still a scanty congregation.  This week we put the pews back to the way they used to be instead of bunching them up and labelling them so that people had to sit two metres apart.  It looks very strange, even though we know it never used to.   The pews look astonishingly close together,  and the Communion queues bunch up and spread out unexpectedly as people try to remember what version of social distancing is current.  I’m more comfortable with the uncertainty than with those who ostentatiously push for going faster,  because we are in fact still being asked to wear masks and keep some distance in our church.  I would like there to be more open doors, and to have the fans in use.  I know we usually keep them only for summertime, but they are an easy way to encourage ventilation, and our church is modern and low, not one of the soaring Victorians with a big ceiling space.

Singing hopefully on the journey

Repeating the Response and the Alleluia seemed to run smoothly, so we’ll keep those going.  Our aim is to glide smoothly into more singing, letting people join in as much as they feel able to.  A church choir is meant to lead but not replace the singing by the congregation, at least since Vatican II.  It is going to take a while, even as the pandemic restrictions have taken a while.  Christians have always sung together,  borrowing psalms from the Jewish tradition and writing their own hymns from the earliest days.  Singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (nice distinctions, there),  as St Paul urges in Ephesians 5.19,  is for many of us a completely natural and integral part of the Mass.  We have missed it.  It is wonderful to hear it coming back.

Church choir
all singing together : something to look forward to
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The shapes of psalms: songs, litanies, shanties, lullabies

Psalms come in different shapes as well as sizes

If you want your congregation to join in, it’s very important that they feel comfortable with what’s going on.  If they don’t, they will keep quiet and just watch everyone else.  We long for the days when we can encourage a congregation to join in the singing again, so when the restrictions are lifted, we want everyone to feel ready to take part with confidence.  This means understanding what is going on; and part of this is knowing what shape the Responsorial Psalm is for this week,

Lady = Church scaring off dragon=Satan
Is it one of these?

 – because the Responsorial Psalm can take different forms.  I’ve written before about psalm-lullabies, but at least they usually follow the standard shape.  Some of the other types change even the format.   Most often we have the verse + chorus model, with which everyone is familiar from folk songs and Christmas carols.  The verses change but the chorus stays the same, so even those who didn’t know it at the beginning can pick it up and join in freely by the end.  

Dinosaur in a snailshell
…or more like this?

Other liturgies which use the psalms (like the Anglican tradition) sing the psalms straight through without a Response or Chorus. This is beautiful, covers the Psalter more efficiently and is easier to control and practise, but you don’t get the congregation joining in.  Sometimes the choir divides, just as in the cathedral tradition (Decani, the side where the Dean sits, and Cantoris, the other side, for the Cantor), so that the verses of the psalms can alternate; again, no audience participation, but difference in the way it feels and sounds.  Think of it like mediaeval stereo, with the sound coming from alternating speakers, or as God’s Dolby helicopter in a film’s opening.

Psalm as psea pshanty
Jonah and whale
yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum

There are a few psalms (and a couple of canticles) where the poetic form is like a sea shanty. I’ve talked about this before, specifically about the Daniel canticle.  Sea shanties are currently having a moment, as part of the pandemic, though I am not at all sure why. Perhaps it’s because, if you’re rehearsing on Zoom, it’s a lot easier to keep together when the lines are short, and anyway, with shanties, a bit of rough-and-ready is already factored in.

Stella maris (Coptic) with goldfish

In a religious context we tend to call them litanies rather than shanties, but the principle is the same. One person (or less often, a group) says or sings a line of text, which varies every time but has something to keep them together. They might be titles for Our Lady : ‘Rose of Sharon’, ‘Tower of David’, ‘Star of the sea’ etc. After each brief line, another person (or usually group) answers with their own line, which keeps repeating: ‘Pray for us’, or ‘Alleluia’, or ‘Have mercy on us’, but the pattern is that the first halves change all the time and the second half doesn’t. I used this sort of shape in the Mayfield Mass Kyrie, so that the congregation can ease into singing it after learning just one simple line of melody.  The Agnus Dei inverts this, using the same first half three times, and changing the second half.  It seems to work well, and is easy to pick up.


Verse and chorus
children singing and marking the rhythm by clapping as well ( we could do that with psalms, but some people don’t like it)

One of the things which first attracted me to writing tunes for psalms is the shape of the Responsorial Psalm as we Catholics sing it Sunday by Sunday, with verse and chorus, like so many traditional folk songs or nursery rhymes. Children learn how they work just as they learn turn-taking in speech.  I say this; you answer that.  Some of the oldest forms of tonguetwister and word games work the same way (I am a gold lock…I am a gold key, and so on).  Some of our earliest musical memories are probably this shape; such songs are easy to pick up and join in with. They encourage everyone to take part.

Shapes in the Psalter

If the Book of Psalms is the Church’s first hymn book, it’s a hymn book designed to encourage audience participation, with its repetition and simple shapes.   It’s fascinating to see the shapes already there in the written text of the Book of Psalms, from litanies (Pss 117/118, 134/135)  to songs with choruses (Pss 45/46, 48/49, 66/67).  We can see the shapes of some psalms more clearly than others.  Sometimes a chorus is used to give shape to what might otherwise be a bit unwieldy (Ps 79/80, for example).  I think it’s quite likely that some of the psalms, where there is a short first stanza before the psalm takes a breath and sets off, might well have been sung as we shape them today, as Responsorial Psalms, with that first piece being the recurring Response (see Pss 19/20, 83/84 and 127/128, as well as the several which just start ‘Alleluia’).  In Psalm 106/107, this possible suggested response even comes in quotation marks.  I’m not sure at what stage of translation or editing they would have been added (this is, after all, a very ancient, very foreign text, however familiar),  but I think they indicate something about the way that psalm has been shaped and used, as well as the other psalms where similar phrases occur.

Shaping the Response as well as the psalm

The only slight problem here is that sometimes the Responses we have prescribed for us in the Lectionary can feel too short.  This didn’t matter in the old days, when church musicians were allowed to repeat something (imagine saying to any church musician of previous centuries that they couldn’t repeat an Alleluia or a Dona nobis pacem),  but nowadays this is officially frowned upon and some Responses feel too short to balance the verse length.  I have talked about this before.  And sometimes a Response is just bad (see my complaints about this here).

Mary and choir of angels
you really want me to sing that?
Sailors and marines

Litanies are even easier than the standard Responsorial Psalm (because there is less to remember), but the group/congregation/team has to work harder, as they are holding up half of the song.  They are also less familiar as a shape for the psalm, so it really is worth explaining before Mass what the shape is, if it’s not the standard verse+chorus.  So long as enough people are not taken by surprise, the latecomers will catch up.  Every line (or pair of lines) in a litany/shanty alternates between the singers, and everyone has to stay alert (this is why they are good work songs).  An older form of sea shanty is called ‘chanty’, which is of course a reference to its heritage from Gregorian chant.  No, there I am kidding, but certainly some sea shanties are old, and Phoenician sailors were probably using similar songs to help keep time hauling up an anchor even long before Peter and Andrew were boys learning to fish in Galilee with their father.  A modern version is US Marines singing as they do their morning runs.

another way to use music to keep together (Georgians dancing clasped together)
All together now

It’s not about beautiful singing or developed melody; it’s all about rhythm and keeping together.  Think about the man on the drums to keep the rowers together on the ship in Ben HurThey have to have a Hortator (the man doing the drumming, same root as ‘to exhort’) to set the rhythm because they are working so hard they have no breath to sing (and they are slaves from all over the Roman Empire, so they wouldn’t have come from a shared musical tradition).  With a free crew singing a normal sea shanty, the men are working but not at full stretch, so they can sing at least enough to make the responses.  And the shantyman can improvise and/or make jokes, so long as he keeps to the rhythm, which also keeps the crew listening attentively (just like the Marines).  This is not a technique open to us with our Sunday psalms, however.

Youths singing
Trying to keep together
Making it clear and keeping it simple

Anything can work, so long as the people singing and listening know what the form is.  The usual shape of our Sunday psalms is verse + chorus, and most people are used to that.  The number of verses can vary, the length of the verses can vary, but so long as the movement into the Response is clear and remains the same throughout, you can get away with a surprising amount of variation.  There are even psalms (e.g. Ps 30/31 for Good Friday) where I have needed to use two tunes alternating (though always keeping the same Response), and it’s been fine.  Confidence (yours as well as theirs) is crucial.  Explain at the beginning if you need to, give a clear lead and offer plenty of eye contact.  At the moment, this all feels slightly academic, as our congregations are tiny and behind face masks, but we can nurture the will to sing, and better times are coming.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2021 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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