Liturgical Music V: Performance Issues

So I had to say it some time.  It’s not always the song’s fault.  The songs don’t pick themselves.  They don’t perform themselves.
No, I am not going to criticize individual choir members.  Not only would that be ugly, I don’t have the right to do that unless I am willing to go up there and sing myself. [edit: I did end up singing in the choir last time we had one–but I’m still not going to criticize anyone’s singing ability!] And besides the fact that I am needed in my pew to corral my smaller kids, right now I like to feel I am doing my part by actually singing (why do so many people–some of my family included–remain mute during the songs?).
But I am going to bring up in a general way some of my own pet peeves about the way music is chosen and performed in many Catholic churches I have visited.
We don’t sing the whole song.  I have been going on about this for years to anyone who would listen, including members of our choir at my parish.  I grew thinking this was normal, because we never sang the whole song except at Communion.  It was always the first two verses.  In fact, I know hundreds of hymns but lots of times I only know the first two verses (never knew all four verses of America the Beautiful, for example, until post 9/11, when suddenly singing the whole song was in vogue!).  But when I was in the choir at Georgetown we always sang all four verses of the final hymn, with a rousing “AMEN” at the end.  I realized that the songs were not just words, and that they made more sense when we sang the whole thing.  With some songs this is painfully obvious.    At Christmas, how much sense does it make to sing We Three Kings and just STOP after the verse of the first Wise Man?  Doesn’t it irritate anyone else when we are singing any of the many songs based on the Beatitudes and we only sing about four of them?  Am I the only one who feels a big let down when  we stop before the “I will give my Life to them” part of Here I Am, Lord?  Surely not.  And this leads us to . . .
We pick the wrong song.  Why do choir directors pick a song with two verses for Communion, and then have us sing the whole song three or four times (and then stop in the middle of it!)?  Why not pick a song with LOTS OF VERSES instead?  Why pick a LONG song for the Offertory and leave the priest up there twiddling his thumbs, or else stop without singing the whole thing? Why? Why? Why?  Why pick a song that is OBVIOUSLY meant for a certain part of the Mass and sing it somewhere else?  It might seem creative, but to me it just sounds stupid.  Hello, the songs are organized right there in the hymnal so that you can easily see when you should sing it.  One presumes the people who organized the songs had some idea of what they were doing.  Didn’t they?  They don’t just suggest that a song should be sung at Communion or Dismissal, they even provide thematic suggestions.  Which I think some choir directors need.  Because how often have you gone to a Mass and realized that the songs you sang had nothing whatsoever to do with the readings?  If you pay attention, you will see that the readings have all been picked to go together.  If your priest is a decent homilist he will also have directed your attention to this.  The songs should reinforce that further, and so often they just don’t!  Do choir directors choose songs they just like, or think the choir sings well, or what?  So often there are songs based directly on the Scripture for that Mass–they are practically crying out to be sung–and we don’t sing them! I cannot stand that!  Another thing–we MUST sing Joy to the World on Christmas and Jesus Christ Is Risen Today on Easter.  Music directors take note!
We sing the song wrong.  You know how when celebrities do a cover of someone else’s song, or sing the National Anthem, they feel like they need to put their personal stamp on it, so they hold some notes longer, and add extra notes, and fancy stuff like that?  Well, choir directors, you are NOT celebrities, and I don’t want you putting your personal stamps on the hymns.  I attended a Mass just recently (not at my parish!  I promise!) where the choir director was changing half notes to quarter notes at random.  It’s jarring if you already know how the song is supposed to be sung, and it’s irritating if you are trying to sing it by reading the music.  And if I had written the song I would find it very infuriating that a choir director assumes he can rewrite my music and make it better!
We sing the same songs.  Over and over and over.  And over.  There are SO MANY SONGS.  How many do you know?  I bet I can sing hundreds.  Maybe more.  Why not give us a chance to sing some of them?  Why not ask the parishioners what old favorites they’d like to see resurrected?  Sure, you can’t expect a choir to harmonize with them all, but you can expect a good organist to be able to read music so at least we can be accompanied.  Sometimes being at Mass is like listening to a Top 40 radio station.  They ruin good songs by playing them into the ground.   What songs am I sick of?  The Servant Song, Now We Remain, The Supper of the Lord, Now in This Banquet . . . hmmm. mostly communion hymns, probably a relic of the time when we were singing the same one EVERY SINGLE WEEK which was the policy of the choir director we had then.  I’m sure you have your own list, which I would love to read about in the comments, if you’d care to share!

0 thoughts on “Liturgical Music V: Performance Issues

  1. Miss K.

    Regarding cantors / directors “putting their stamp on a song”: You sound like you are a musician who reads music, and so am I. I think the problem is that for the most part, the songs are sung a bit sloppy / not what it is actually written in the music. So when somebody follows the written rhythm really closely, it doesn’t match the dozens of different perceptions of the sloppy rhythm that people are used to hearing.
    As to the same songs being sung over and over: Blame it on the choir director / organist / “music minister”, as well as the usual Catholic music publisher (let me guess, your church uses Oregon Catholic Press). Most music directors get suggestions from a weekly list in some magazine they get. Surprise, it’s the same ones over and over, adn you are stuck with whatever is in your little throwaway paperback annual missallette. Your music director GREATLY underestimates what the congregation can sing, or thinks the music is too high, whatever. Or your choir doesn’t want to rehearse, so it’s the same old, same old.

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