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]

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2019. 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.

What makes a good psalm Response?

All shapes and sizes

We’ve just had a couple of brief psalm Responses, ‘Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will’ and ‘Teach me your ways, O Lord’, and there’s a longer one coming up for Sunday: ‘If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts’, or for the Canadians; ‘O that today you would listen to the voice of the Lord. Do not harden your hearts!’ Even so tiny a sample shows how much the Response set for the congregation on a Sunday can vary.

A quick study

Sometimes it’s difficult to get the congregation just to remember the Response for the duration of the psalm. Length is a significant factor.  Rhythm is very helpful, but not always on offer, especially if the Response has been imported from some different bit of the Bible (eg a bit out of one of St Paul’s Epistles as the Response to a psalm).   A tune really helps, especially if it has a certain predictability, but it’s difficult to be predictable without being boring.  This is a tune that the congregation hears once and then has to repeat three or four times, while the cantor sings something different, sometimes to the same words. It almost sounds like another fiendish parlour game from I’m sorry I haven’t a clue. 

Learning the Response

In some parishes, everyone has a printed copy of the words of the psalm; in many they don’t.

Potsherd with mass text
This is the earliest known Mass sheet fragment : on a piece of pot

Some people won’t pick up a sheet at the back of the church on principle; not everyone can read quickly.  If you’ve ever tried to sing along in a language (or alphabet) not your own, you will be aware of how hard it can be to keep up with the unfamiliar.  The congregation has to pick up the words as well as the tune.  Our current congregation, like many others, includes many people for whom English is not their first language, so I speak the words first, and then sing them.  With a very long Response, you already see the congregation begin to flounder at this point, but keep trying, and be very clear.  Some churches allow you to run through the Response before Mass, and this can help, but it disturbs those who are trying to pray before Mass starts, and it doesn’t help the many who arrive more or less at the same time as Father processes in.

Alternative Responses

Unfortunately, even if you don’t like the psalm Response, you can’t change it, as it is set in the Lectionary.  Occasionally you are offered a choice between two Responses (All Saints has some of these, so has the Christmas Vigil), and often you can substitute ‘Alleluia’ for the words of the Response.  Since the Alleluia is going to be sung later, the one word response seems to me a bit of a cop-out, unless you are omitting the Alleluia proper.  And it’s not always the most appropriate response either, especially if (part of) the psalm is gloomy.  I don’t set Alleluia on its own as a psalm response, as I think the longer ones work better.

Singers with long score
…but maybe not too long
Getting a good Response

A good psalm Response is not too short or too long.  A single sentence works best.  The very short ones tend to be a bit blink and you miss it, and you aren’t allowed to repeat them to improve the length,  but have to use the words as given.  Getting them across to a congregation in a bigger church can be quite challenging, and short can be as difficult as long.  Don’t rush; be measured and clear.  ‘Arrow’ prayers work better for individuals than in congregations, because there is no time to catch up if you miss the beginning ; this applies to short psalm responses too.  Litanies work for bigger groups because they have a predictable rhythm and a repeated response.  Ditto the Rosary.

Mixed medieval choir, with musicians outside the frame
Mixed group singing with musicians providing the frame

But the Response is different every week, one of the trickiest things for the congregation to handle.  No wonder many people don’t even try to join in.  Try and make it easy for them;  I try to make the music immediately attractive and straightforward, one note per syllable (mostly), a clear rhythm and line, something to latch on to, (nearly always) ending on the tonic (unless I’m after a different effect), and (even more nearly always, but there are exceptions) lifting off from exactly the same point of introduction.

Stress levels

The first thing you have to do with any given Response is work out where the natural stresses are if you are saying it as a spoken text, because this will help your congregation to grasp the Response as a whole.  It sounds obvious, but it can be tricky.  Some words act as stumbling blocks from the start (‘ordinances’ is my favourite example, ‘favourably’ is coming up shortly for the Canadians).

Many Responses start with an unstressed syllable (‘The’ or ‘O’, for example, usually followed by ‘Lord’), which means that you can’t start on the first beat of the bar.  But if you don’t start on the first beat of the bar, then each verse has to be framed to lead into the Response smoothly, while allowing for the fact that the congregation may not have the words or is just hoping that it will all be over soon.

The last syllable of the Response is also very important.  In English, it’s often a short, stressed word (‘joy’, Ps 125/126; ‘want’ Ps 22/23), which is very helpful.  Sometimes it’s an unstressed syllable at the end of a long word like salvation, forever or deliverance, which is usually straightforward; but a single short unstressed word can get lost if you aren’t careful (you can’t give it a bar to itself or it receives too much stress).  ‘The Angel of the Lord will rescue those who fear him’ (Ps 33/34): you need the stress on ‘fear’, but you can’t put too much stress on ‘him’.

The importance of small differences

The smallest of changes to the text can have a significant effect on the rhythm.  The psalm coming up for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, has different Responses according to different Lectionaries. ‘I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you fill me with the joy of salvation’ (US and OZ, but their verse words are different).  ‘You are my refuge, O Lord; you fill me with the joy of salvation’ (UK).  ‘You are my refuge, Lord; with deliverance you surround me’ (CAN).  Simply adding or subtracting an ‘O’ changes the rhythm of the first half to a surprising extent, and although these are all clearly translations of the same thing, I can’t use the same tune for all of them.

This is why many people are keen to intone or use a sort of chant-lite, but unless it is really well done, it won’t help the congregation much, as people usually find rhythm and melody more effective in making the words stick in the mind.  Chant takes a lot of practice and works best in (surprise surprise) a group which does not change, and sings together often (e.g. a monastery). A congregation is a much more varied group, and all of them need to be able to take part.

Medieval school choir with cantor and teacher
Cantor and supporting choir?

I get nervous as soon as I see a psalm setting with no time signature.  It’s difficult to sing without applying one unconsciously, and not everyone will agree. A time signature means there is a supporting structure, like a trellis in a garden, or the rules of form for a sonnet.

Start from the Response…

Sung mnemonics work really well only if the tune fits the spoken rhythm and precisely isn’t too interchangeable (that’s why it’s difficult to learn your times tables to a tune, as too many of the number words have the same number of syllables : twice two could be anything under ten except seven, according to the rhythm).  So once you have a spoken rhythm, you make up a tune that follows it, and you always start with the Response because that stays the same, at least for this Mass.  The verse words are going to be irregular, so I will need to adapt the tune to them (and sometimes it works better than others), but that affects only the cantor, so long as I make sure that the lead-in to the Response is unaffected.

….whatever it is

Many psalms turn up on a different Sunday with a completely different Response.  Sometimes you can just write a new tune for that Response, but sometimes the rhythm of the Response is so definitely either a 3/4 or a 4/4 that you may have to go back to the beginning and start again, as you can’t have a 3/4 Response with a 4/4 psalm, or vice versa. ‘Lord, you are good and forgiving’ is a 3/4 Response; ‘Lord, let us see your kindness…’ is a 4/4.

Occasionally a psalm comes with a repeated Response actually in the text (Pss. 45/46; 66/67; 79/80 for example), but that’s not to say that it will be the Response appointed to be sung.  Ps 79/80 turns up three times in the Lectionary, and on one occasion (27 OTA) it is given a Response out of Isaiah 5.  That’s all right, as Isaiah is a beautiful and poetic book with a strong sense of rhythm.

I have far more trouble with the responses gleaned from St Paul’s letters.  He may be a towering genius but he didn’t have the benefit of being translated by Joseph Gelineau and the Grail.  I suspect it’s not just the translation, though;  I’m not sure St Paul had a good sense of rhythm or whether he actually could sing, because when he does quote a song or poem, it stands out so very clearly from his own prose, which could be seen as heading towards a slightly bureaucratic style (I am trying to be diplomatic here).  It’s not fair to blame or reproach him for this; the Epistles weren’t meant to be sung, but read, read out and passed around.  It’s the choice of extracts as lines of singing that I find occasionally difficult to handle.

Choir singing from one book
Long Responses can be hard to remember without checking the score
The point of the Response

In the end, what matters is that people pick up the Response and sing it back to you.  Joining in is the most important thing.  The music should make it easier, not harder.  You can feel the energy with a succesful Response, and you can see the congregation begin to feel stronger and more involved as they join in.  This is why we sing in church: if you sing, you commit.  You need to use your voice, your breath, your diaphragm; you can’t help but get involved.  Setting music to the words is meant to make people want to join in, and make it easier to do so.  ‘Let all the people praise you, O God; let all the people praise you’ (Ps 66/67 ).   The italics are mine, but follow the natural stress; and this is why I write tunes for the Response.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. 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.