T HAS BEEN SAID: “He who sings prays twice.” However as church musicians, we don’t always feel prayerful and peaceful when we are singing and playing during the Liturgy. Recently, I heard from some friends that singing at Mass was never a peaceful and prayerful experience for them, but a stressful one. A lot of times, we worry about whether the choir is singing too slow, pronunciation of the text, messing up the rhythm, missing an entrance in a polyphonic piece, making mistakes on a melody or harmony, etc. Should the Mass be a prayerful experience for the musicians?
YES! I am sure that most of you will agree that singing the Mass is not just a performance, but a prayer. The music at Mass should be for the glorification of God and the sanctification of the faithful. Musicians, as part of the faithful, should be sanctified by the Liturgical Music too. When we sing at Mass, it is understandable that there might be a little nerve just like what we would experience in other performances. However, this nerve shouldn’t affect us too much spiritually.
If Liturgical Music is a prayer, when do we begin praying? The prayer should start way before the Mass. In fact, we should make our personal practices and group rehearsals part of the prayer. It is a long process of prayer that the congregation will never experience. It is like saying the rosary. A rosary is formed by many “Our Father”, “Hail Mary”, “Glory be” and other prayers and devotions. Before Mas, we practice the pieces over and over again just like how we say the “Hail Mary” fifty times in a rosary. Each “Hail Mary” is a short and simple prayer, but when they are all linked together, they become part of a long prayer, the rosary. Similarly, we make a lot of mistakes and pauses during rehearsals. And when we put all our works and efforts together at Mass, the prayer is finally completed. That is why preparations and practices are very important for church musicians.
HERE ARE A FEW THOUGHTS and suggestions on how one can make “church singing” more prayerful.
1. Understand the idea of “Sing the Mass, not Sing at Mass.” To “Sing at Mass” would be to make our singing a performance only. On the other hand, to “Sing the Mass” is to make our singing a prayer. Always starts and ends the rehearsal or the “performance” with a prayer to remind ourselves to make the music a prayer to God.
2. Know the text. A good piece of Sacred Music should have a scriptural text, or sometimes the text would be taken from other traditional prayers. In order to sing prayerfully, we need to make sure we know what we are singing, especially when the text is in a foreign language.
3. Observe sacred silence, especially in our own prayer time. As musicians, we are constantly participating the Mass externally through singing or playing. It is important that we do not forget the internal participation and to listen to God through silent prayer and meditation.
And now, more Technical:
1. Know the Strengths and Weaknesses. As choir directors, we need to know our choirs’ strengths and weaknesses; and as singers, we need to know our own strengths and weaknesses too. If singing the Mass is a stressful experience for you, you should try to find out what is stressing you out.
2. Find the Right Repertoire. One of the main reasons why singing the Mass is so stressful for some people is because repertoire is too difficult. For example, the Tract might be too long and hard for a choir. Then maybe you would like to consider singing it in psalm tone until your choir is comfortable with long and melismatic chant. It is more important to sing well and pray well than to sing a challenging piece.
3. Use your Rehearsal Time Wisely. If singing the Mass is a stressful experience for you, consider lengthening your rehearsal time so that you can spend more time learning and practicing. In order to master a piece of music, you will need to be able to sing the piece comfortably during rehearsal. You might also want to consider spending some time during rehearsals on solfege exercises and other vocal exercises to increase your skill level.
I hope my suggestions help to make singing the Mass a prayerful and peaceful experience for you.