WO WEEKS AGO, I was blessed to give a presentation at the annual CMAA Colloquium here in Indianapolis. My presentation was about slowly implementing the propers in the “average” parish. I will try to reproduce it sometime for a blog. For now, we here at Watershed are embarking on a similar project: what are some simple ways, some “first steps,” to improving music at the average parish level?
I think that, in order to have this conversation, we have to establish what that average parish looks like. It likely uses a mainstream hymnal, and all music selections are from the suggestions provided by those publishers. They may use hymns, “praise and worship” music, or other contemporary and traditional styles, but for the most part, the model is still the Four Hymn Sandwich. Propers are never done, and the large majority of the parish is not even aware of their existence apart from those short verses included in the missalette. Instrumentation ranges from piano to guitar, sometimes using the organ, but a capella music is never used.
NOW, AS CRITICAL AS THAT PICTURE LOOKS, I do not draw it in mockery or scorn; I draw it in realism. If we have an unrealistic view of what our parishes look like now, we have little chance of improving the liturgy to where it could be. So where does one begin? Let’s say I have been hired as the new music director of St. Everyman here. What do I do first?
IRST, we need to establish a rapport with the parishioners. Music reform doesn’t exist in a top-down model, and when you’re the new guy/gal, you don’t have a lot of capital to spend in implementing changes. Get to know the parishioners, and get to love them. When your guidance comes from a place of love, you will go much further, and they will trust you much more. Always respect people more than systems.
ECOND, and this cannot be stressed enough: go slowly. I know you see a bleak liturgical picture here, and your instinct is to change just about everything, but if you go too fast with the changes, you will lose everything. You may experience serious pushback, or worse yet, your pastor will. This is how good, talented people lose their jobs, and the person they hire after you will not be interested in moving forward. Be patient and keep your eye on the long game.
HIRD, on to the musical shifts. The very first thing you should do is start working on your pastor to intone the dialogues. These are not difficult, and there are numerous print and online resources to assist in learning to sing the Mass. The sung dialogues can be inserted right into the liturgy as described above, with no other changes. Get the people used to singing everything. Even keeping praise and worship in place, the reverence of the liturgy will be greatly improved simply by starting with a sung Sign of the Cross and Preface Dialogue.
OURTH (Jeff told us to focus on one thing, but I just can’t stop), the first actual change to the music should be at Communion. Begin singing responsorial-style psalmody during the Communion procession. It doesn’t matter whether they are propers, simple psalms, or even the singer-songwriter psalm settings so ubiquitous at the parish level. Get people used to hearing psalms as the proper music for the Mass. The hymnal isn’t the Church’s songbook; the Psalter is. Also, there is the practical matter that no one carries a hymnal to receive the Eucharist. If you use a simple antiphon response, people will be encouraged to sing even during that point of the Mass, as is the norm set forth in the GIRM (whether this is a good idea or not is a discussion for another time).
Good luck with your new parish! The above suggestions should take you no less than a year, unless you are being pushed by your pastor. Take your time and allow the new concepts to sink in before you move on to another one. Keep your eye on the prize and remember that it takes far longer to build something up than to tear it down. Start slowly and set in place improvements that will last.
7-part series: “Basic Steps To Improve Music At Your Parish”