t’s the question that I’ve heard the most, both explicitly and implicitly. For many music directors, getting their congregations to sing is the greatest challenge. Whether or not everything needs to be sung by the congregation is not the point of this entry. One of the primary means of lay engagement in the liturgy is congregational singing, and if your parish is one where nearly everyone remains silent, there is a problem somewhere. It is not always the fault of the music director; the liturgical culture of a parish is many-faceted. That said, here are some practical tips to get your congregation to sing out:
1. Sing worthy music. This may sound completely irrelevant, but it is, in my opinion, the number one reason that congregations don’t sing. People need to have something that is worth singing, and that means both a worthwhile text and melody. Trite and banal music and poetry does not edify anyone. If you want the people to sing, make it worth their effort. Give them real prayers and texts that are not sappy and embarassing to utter.
Make the music “singable.” The average person in the pew cannot sing complicated rhythms, syncopation, and exotic melodic leaps. Keep it simple and dignified. A good place to start is with the dialogues. If the priest intones the simple prayers of the Mass, the people respond, and it puts them “in gear” for sung prayer. When Mass begins, a sung Sign of the Cross gets everyone off on the right foot. I have never in my lifetime heard a congregation sing the Lord’s Prayer poorly.
2. Step away from the microphone. I almost listed this as Number 1. Other than music selection, overuse of the microphone is a fantastic way to discourage your parish from singing. You may (or may not) have a cantor with the most beautiful singing voice, but if he sings every single piece from the microphone, he will be the only singer. Even hundreds of parishioners can’t compete with one amplified voice, and they won’t even try. If the microphone is needed at all, save it for music that the cantor must sing alone, like the verses of the Responsorial Psalm or the Verse Before the Gospel. If you want the congregation to sing, just back away from the mic. Singing, whether in choir or in assembly, is an act of responsibility. The congregation needs to know that the music simply won’t happen unless they create it. At first will be a shock, and you may see a decrease in singing before it increases again, but the end result will be greater. Another reason to tell your cantor to back away is because congregational singing is already, by its nature, clunky and ponderous. As such, there can be only one leader of song, and it absolutely must be the organ. Speaking of which,
3. Use the organ rather than the piano. This is not an argument from tradition, though there are some good arguments there, too. Solely as a practical matter, the organ is an infinitely superior instrument in leading congregational singing. The broad and sustained sound from the organ will always lead song better than the attack-and-decay sound of a piano. Furthermore, the very mechanism by which the organ creates sound is the same mechanism that the human voice uses. The organ is an instrument much like the human voice and makes for a better song leader.
Next week, we will cover additional tips for getting your congregation to sing, from how the instrument is played to more tips on music choice.