What is the purpose of a church choir?

Speaking as a choir member…

I’ve been a member of at least one choir, off and on, ever since I was at school, and the first ‘outside school’ choir I joined was a church one. I love singing in a choir. I have joined the church choir in most of the places we have lived for any length of time. I even met my husband in a church choir (and that’s where he learned to play the guitar).  I am not being nasty about church choirs.

One day I’ll get him to move on to a theorbo…

This summer on our travels we got to see more different churches than usual for Sunday Masses, and I found myself thinking about church choirs and what they are actually for.  My first ever blog was about why we have music at all in church, but now I’m thinking about how we do it.

Differences between choir and church choir

I would distinguish very carefully between a church choir and a choir. Choirs learn to sing something exactly and beautifully, by doing a lot of practice. They sing different sorts of music, and often outside any context except that of a concert.  Their reason for existence is to perform the music.  Church choirs on the other hand lead the people at an event (usually a religious celebration) so that those people can take part confidently in the event itself.  The church choir may sing during a time when the congregation is doing something else (e.g. handling the collection, lining up for Communion), but it is not there to replace the effort of the congregation but to enable and enhance it. Mass is not a concert, and music should never be an excuse to stop people joining in.  I was delighted to discover that the Pope made the same point last year.

too much discipline here for a real congregation
What a choir can do

Deciding to concentrate on a choir instead of getting the people to sing is an easy trap for church musicians to fall into, because most musicians, even the non-professionals, are thinking all the time about how they can make the performance better, to do a better job at bringing the music to life, making it flower.  Using a choir instead of the congregation is a short cut.

a rare picture of a mixed choir

It’s quite difficult to find early pictures of choirs singing, because there are really only a few stock options, and in some ways it’s a relatively modern idea.  One version is the group of monks singing in community, and this is still the only model of church music which pleases some people.   Another is the single singer, often with instrument: the minstrel or the troubadour model originally, like the singer-songwriter of today.  We’ve all come across people like this singing at Mass, and it doesn’t work as a community effort.

Don’t leave it to the professionals

When we’re talking about Sunday Mass, we’re not talking about a congregation made up entirely of musicians.  Obviously any church on a Sunday is going to contain people who don’t know the music, who can’t sing in tune, who just want it to be over, who don’t feel like joining in, who can’t sing because the last time they sang that hymn was at a funeral, and the loss is still raw (and that’s even before you look at the congregation as well as the clergy).

Children can (will?) be restless and babies noisy (one old priest I knew always called that the ‘chorus of angels’).  People will take breaths in the middle of words;  they will sing passing notes that aren’t there in the text;  they know a different version of the tune (or the words – I often sing the wrong words in an older hymn because the text has been subtly altered and I’m singing from memory).  Often they don’t have a very big repertoire of hymns, so if you want to extend it, you will need to do it gently and encourage them.  As soon as they feel uncomfortable, they will simply stop singing.   They are frightened of getting something wrong and other people noticing, with a fear totally out of proportion to the likelihood of that happening.

So the music produced by a congregation is less polished and accomplished, but it’s their music, and they’re not doing it for any other audience than God.  I suspect at Mass on Sundays he’d rather hear them than a choir singing alone,  – just as you’d be disappointed if you went to your child’s school play and they had outsourced the singing to professionals.

…even if they came with a great set of instruments
Sing a new song

Having discussed the possible drawbacks of congregational singing, it’s only fair to say that it’s great to hear how well a congregation can sing if you give it the chance.  This is why we stress ‘singable’ (awful word) as the point of the music on the website, and why I try to give all my church music tunes which are easy to pick up.  Good unison is much more likely than bad harmony to allow people to feel secure enough to join in.  If your congregation consists of the same people singing the same words every day, you can decide to sing in Latin or anything else, but for most Anglophone people at church on a Sunday, it needs to be English.  If your congregation is, remarkably, exactly the same people turning up every week and they know the words, you can get them to sing chant; but for most congregations, chant will put them off, and they will leave the singing to the choir (and if you want to do chant well, weekly rehearsals are not usually enough).  Tunes were invented after chant, for a reason : they are easier for non-monks to pick up and join in.

New every Sunday?

I’m very aware that the psalm and response change every week, so accessibility is extremely important.  I’ve talked before about what makes a good psalm response.  I do ask quite a lot of my cantors, but the shape of the tune should be strong enough to help you to get back on the rails before the end of the stanza if the irregular words have thrown you off.  Then the congregation’s part is simpler, but still strong.   Only very rarely do I change the last line of a stanza, because the congregation really needs to recognise the lead-in (and of course, the cantor’s looking up, and if necessary waving at them, will also help).  Psalms do get repeated in the Lectionary (especially around Christmas and Easter), and this helps too, if it’s recent enough for the congregation to remember.  The Alleluia verse changes from week to week, but the Alleluia itself not so often (and they are modular, so you can decide just to keep to one, though I think it’s good to wake the congregation up and make them refocus every now and again).

Growing accustomed to the tune…

The Mass parts have much more chance to bed in to people’s memories, so it is worth spending time on getting them right, maybe even running through one of them before Mass if you have the chance.  It is an advantage that the congregation mostly knows the words for the Mass parts;  and/or having a tune is a great help to settling the words in your head if they have been changed.  Deciding to sing the Latin (or Greek, for the Kyrie) version every week to avoid getting to grips with the (new) English version is actually selling your congregation short, as they will end up stumbling over the English words (even while speaking) for a long time when they visit other churches.  Singing the Our Father in Latin at the standard parish Sunday Mass means that small children can’t join in with the one prayer they may know by heart, and it really annoys some young adults too (one of them being my youngest daughter).  There is a case for not singing the Our Father at all (Jesus didn’t, so far as we know).  I’ve set it so that you can sing it if you want to, but I’d always keep an eye on how many people are actually joining in, because surely that’s the most important thing.

The other version of the church choir

The other obvious version of a group of singers in this context is the angels, who turn up either alone as messengers or in a group as a choir.   Traditionally, there are nine choirs of angels, though I have no information on whether they pool their auditions, and I have heroically refrained from discussing the way in which the Church has used church choirs throughout its history as a way to prevent women singing.  But I take great comfort from the fact that the main choirs in the Bible are angels, since they do not have gender, so women can sing with the angels as much as they like.  The angels are like the best sort of church choir : they strengthen the congregation and make it brave to join in.

And here is a lovely picture of these wonderful inclusive angels with possibly the first version of a singalong sheet.  Why are they holding up the music?  Because, at any Mass, what matters is that everyone can take part.

Sing all ye citizens; all you need is the words and a full heart

[Read this in Spanish]

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Does size matter? The shortest psalm (116/117)

Size isn’t everything

The psalm coming up on Sunday is the shortest psalm in the Psalter (116/117). It has only two verses, and for once I don’t need to distinguish between stanzas and verses, because each verse makes a stanza. Even with an intercalated Response, this is a very short psalm. Does that matter?

Some small things are larger than they look

Of course it doesn’t, because this is a tiny psalm with a mighty subject.  It’s probably a good thing that it isn’t the first psalm in the book, because we might just skip over it without realising its significance, but by the time we are one hundred psalms or so into the Psalter, we can pick up references and reverberations and value this psalm for all it means rather than just noticing how short it is.

Expressing distilled praise

The main meaning of ‘the Book of Psalms’ is ‘the book of praises’, and this psalm is a distilled version of so many others (the very next psalm is a great litany of praise in 29 verses).  Its size does present a challenge when you’re setting it to music, though, and it’s worth considering exactly how to deliver it.

Saint Joseph holding baby
Good things can come in very small packages
No repetition, no deviation

The shortness of the words would not have presented a problem in previous years.  Anyone who has ever been to an opera knows how the music is allowed to express feeling and significance with the words being repeated to fit.  There is a marked difference between spoken dialogue with music (recitative) and making a song (aria) to enhance the meaning of a brief statement or even question.  Many church composers have written whole arias around a single word (e.g. Alleluia : Bach, Handel, Mozart, Kodaly among others) or a single verse out of a psalm (Tallis, Byrd, Palestrina….everybody, really), but nowadays we aren’t allowed to repeat anything at all, unless it’s traditional (the three-fold Kyrie) or invented as part of the new Canon (‘this pure victim, this stainless victim’ etc).  Musically you have to set the words as given.  So what do you do with a very short psalm?

Ensuring engagement

The Responsorial Psalm is situated between the two readings before the Gospel.  People are sitting down, after the first part of the Mass, and they are listening.  In some churches, they listen even to the psalm, sung by a choir; in others, they sing just the Response, and listen to the stanzas in between. (In some churches, they just speak the Response, but I think this is a shame, and it’s not what I’m talking about here).  After the Psalm, they listen again to the second Reading before standing up for the Gospel, which ought to be greeted by them singing the Alleluia (though in many churches, they just speak it, which is again a shame).  All the sitting down and getting up again helps to keep people engaged, but the best engagement is joining in the singing, as I’ve explained before, because it wakes everyone up and increases their oxygen levels..

The risk with a choir (only) singing a short little psalm is that the congregation barely notices it.  I’ve mentioned before the problem posed by  a very short response, you might call it the ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ problem.  So long as the congregation is singing even a short response, though, you have a good chance to engage their attention.  I do find that it is worth taking an extra beat or two before you actually start (as you look up at the beginning and make sure everyone is watching),  just to make sure that everyone is already paying attention, as there is not enough time for them to catch up later, and we don’t like leaving anyone behind.

mediaeval dancers in a line
Hold hands and keep together
Varying numbers of verses and stanzas

So a short psalm needs to have just as much presence as a longer one.  We can have up to five stanzas in a Responsorial Psalm for Sunday Mass, but most are three or four.  The stanzas often vary in length considerably, even within the same psalm (causing the composer much muttering and trying out different ways of inserting extra bits of tune), but given that the psalms are translated (and sometimes twice-) poetry, it’s amazing how well the text for most of them has come out (and thank God for the brilliant people who have worked on the Grail psalms).

Adam names the beasts
Relative sizes can be very deceptive
Multum in parvo : small but mighty

As always, you have to focus on the meaning of the words.  Psalm 116/117 could hardly have a bigger subject.  O praise the Lord, all you nations,/acclaim him, all you peoples!  is the first stanza, just two lines, but crucially addressed to everybody, not just the Chosen People.  Judaism was a ‘closed’ religion, open only to the people who qualified, which is why there are so many rules in the OT about ancestors and circumcision, and you can see Paul and Peter struggling in Acts with the dawning realisation that God actually wants everybody.  But here in this tiny psalm, we have a clarion call aimed at the whole world.

The second verse explains why : Strong is his love for us; /he is faithful for ever.  The size of what we are talking about has not reduced in the slightest.  It’s just adding more dimensions.  It’s almost as though the first stanzas is about breadth (the whole world),  the next line states the central point (God’s love for us) and the last line brings in the time dimension and extends it to infinity (for ever).  People have written whole symphonies on smaller topics.  My job is just to try and help the congregation express some of this praise.

There isn’t room for much development, so the tune (everyone except the US setting) basically just surges up and comes back down again.  I think of it as waves on the sea, but big waves crashing with enthusiasm and sparkle (moving ‘like kings into court’, as the wonderful book by Margaret Mahy,  The Man whose Mother was a pirate,  puts it).  The US setting was a bit more wordy, so you have trumpets instead.

Holy trumpets can even defy gravity

Sing this psalm with a swagger, and take it at a good speed.  This is pure praise, pure celebration; there isn’t room for subtlety.  It’s not about the minutiae of the psalmist’s life, or his problems, or his situation; it’s just about God the Almighty, and celebrating him.  Instead of the earlier yells for help, this is just a shout of praise.  Enjoy it.

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