hat do you do when the congregation just won’t sing? Here are a few more practical tips to encourage reluctant singers.
4. Sing a cappella from time to time. Sometimes the best accompaniment for congregational singing is none at all. Once you’ve started down the road to making your parish responsible for communal song, try a verse of a hymn a cappella. Learn a plainchant Mass ordinary. A cappella singing adds a layer of reverence in the liturgy that is simple yet underutilized. When you do use the organ, however,
5. Choose appropriate registrations. You want to support the singing, not bury it. In my experience, though, congregations aren’t avoiding singing because the organ is too loud, but because it isn’t loud enough. Singing is an act of responsibility, but very few people like feeling exposed while they sing. They like to be surrounded with other sound. For this reason, a congregation that sings well is, to some degree, self-supporting. It’s easy to join in singing when the people around you help cover your less-than-confident voice, and that cycle continues. Unfortunately, the converse is also true: fewer people singing means people will be uncomfortable singing. No one wants to be the first. For this reason, a robust organ registration can help bridge the gap between wimpy and confident song.
6. Choose singable keys and tempos. Your congregational literature has to be in a middle-of-the-road tessitura. Extremely high or low keys will cause people to drop out, especially very high ones. That said, don’t let your parish get lazy, either. A congregation can sing as high as a D (although I wouldn’t push them further except with some very popular hymns that they’ll sing anyway. I’m looking at you, Jesus Christ is Risen Today). Do not choose music or keys that hang in that high register, but don’t avoid it entirely, either. A congregation that never sings D’s will never be able to, either.
Tempos are even more critical. Practice singing while you play. You don’t have to sing while you play at Mass, but singing while practicing is a good way to understand the phrasing that the singers will need to have. Too fast, and they’ll be hyperventillating; too slow, they’ll never make it to the end of reasonable phrases. Be sure that your organ playing breathes with the singers. Using lifts, be extremebly clear and obvious at the ends of phrases where breathing is necessary. If you just slur right through them, congregations will unconsciously receive the message that they never get to breathe.
7. Be consistent with repertoire and sparing with new hymns. This doens’t mean that you can never introduce new music. Don’t go overboard, though. 2 or 3 brand new hymns a year is plenty. You can get away with quite a bit more in the realm of responsorial-style music, where repeating a short phrase or antiphon is the only new information, and with the “same tune, different text” approach (Tip: learn to use the Metrical Index in your hymnal). With psalms and mix-and-match hymnody, your repertoire can increase exponentially without actually “teaching” a thing.
8. Be patient. Even if you were to implement all of this advice and more tomorrow, it will still take time for your parish to start singing well. Singing is a cultural thing, and it will take patience and, most of all, consistency to get a good result. In the end, it might have nothing to do with the music. Some people are sticks-in-the-mud and won’t sing under any circumstances. It’s unlikely that your entire parish is made up of these people, though, and if it is, I’ll pray for you.