Let all the people praise you

Joining in

One of the most important things (for me) about church music is that everyone (or as near as possible) should join in. I’m saying ‘one of’, because I have to admit to unhappy memories of times when the music was too bad, or too difficult, or too whimsical or something similar, and I have resolutely chosen not to keep trying. I feel bad about it when I do this, and I try not to, but it does happen.

I remember coming across a great piece of American polemic once called something like  ‘Why don’t Catholics sing?’, and part of the answer was that they had been uniquely traumatised by the awful music inflicted upon them. Unfortunately this is self-perpetuating, because I can’t count how many times I’ve been told that we can have ‘only’ the hymns the children know at a service.  When I suggest that we might teach them something new to them, I’m told that it’s too difficult. But this is nonsense. It’s like saying Shakespeare is difficult. His plays were written for everyone to enjoy; good hymns are written for everyone to sing. And a good hymn is as much better than a bad hymn as a good novel is more enjoyable than a bad short story.

Hymns and psalms

I’m going on about hymns because I’m not just talking about psalm settings here, but the psalms are our oldest hymns, it’s just they are in translation and we don’t have the original tunes to them. (Also I didn’t want it to look too much like special pleading for my own psalm-settings.)

To return to psalm settings, though, what are the practical implications, and why do we emphasize the word ‘singable’?  Because I want people to join in, I need to make it easy for them to do so, and I need to make them want to do so (that second bit is much more difficult, and takes time).  First of all, it helps a lot if the priest is also trying to get people to join in.  Because it really matters.  This is why I put ‘Let the people praise you, O Lord, let all the people praise you’ as the strapline at the top of the website, because this is the point.  We are there to praise God, we’re not singing for us, and we’re not there as the audience to watch or listen to someone else.

It’s like when you gather your children together;  if one is missing, the hole is disproportionately large, like a missing tooth.  If we don’t sing, God misses our voices;  like a good choir leader, he can hear who is singing, and he wants to hear everyone.  As they say, ‘If God gave you a good voice, sing to praise him; if he didn’t, sing to get your own back.’.  But sing!

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What is church music for?

That feels like a good place to start this blog. We’ve been talking about starting a blog for a while (partly because the Webmaster thinks my Facebook posts are too long, I have to admit).  Then I thought about when to start, and we sadly missed April 1st, but I don’t want to wait until Easter, as everyone will be very busy then in church music circles.  So I think I will take a deep breath and just plunge in.  April is a good month for new beginnings; our youngest son was born in April, and he is a fine example of the genre.

I write the sort of music I write because I want more people to join in the singing when they are at church.  But why do I think it’s worth spending so much time on it? Lots of people, including several priests, don’t think church music actually matters very much.  Now I have strong opinions about church music : I don’t think it should be a concert performance,  I think it should be easy to take part in, I think everyone ought to join in, so they need copies (words and music) where possible…..but why is having church music important?

I think it matters because singing is something physical which engages the whole of us (mind and body), and singing in church engages the soul as well.  But the disadvantage of this is that if people don’t take part, they feel completely apart from the group, so the responsibility of church musicians is to make it not only easy but attractive to join in.

I started with writing tunes for Psalms, almost by chance at first, but then because the shape of a Responsorial psalm is such a good example of what I mean. It’s an easy form to understand, like nursery rhymes, or folk songs or sea shanties (I love sea shanties).  One person has the verse with lots of possible variation, and the congregation/audience/child/crew has the chorus, which we all sing together (I suppose you could leave the congregation to sing on its own, but in my experience this doesn’t tend to happen, because they like a strong lead;  and I don’t use a microphone, so I don’t drown them when they sing back to and with me).

The other useful parallel with sea shanties (and some nursery rhymes)  is that they are work songs.  You sing to help you get something done (raising the anchor, scrubbing the deck, washing the baby, getting dressed), and the same is true of the liturgy.  Liturgy is work too, Mass is Divine Service, and we sing to help us do the work better, all keeping the same rhythm and the same tune.

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