One of the challenges in the Roman Catholic Church is trying to find ways to encourage and enable the congregation to sing. Unless you use a seasonal psalm refrain, this generally means the congregation has a new melody to learn every week with the responsorial psalm. Sure, you can build up a repertoire over time, but there’s not a lot of repetition in the three-year lectionary cycle. One of the easiest ways to learn a piece is through repetition, so I decided to use hymn tunes as melodies for the psalms. This reinforces the singing of the hymns and gives something familiar to the people for the psalm. I created numerous of these settings while at the Cathedral in Albany and now am in the process of revising them (and perhaps finishing the set) to go with the new Revised Grail Psalms. We used the first of these new revised hymn tune psalms at Mass this weekend for Advent 2.
Psalm 72 – Justice Shall Flourish
Refrain based on EIN FESTE BURG with Gelineau-style tone by Wm. Glenn Osborne
Each conference of The Hymn Society attempts to draw upon local resources for ideas and conference topics. This year’s conference was in New Orleans, so was flavored with a lot of jazz music and discussion about the use of jazz, gospel, and spirituals in worship. Jazz music expects a lot of improvisation from the performers, and one of the workshops I attended looked at how this musical creativity could be carried over beyond the music into how we worship.
A performer in a jazz ensemble has to listen and be aware of what the other players are doing. I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago when I compared participating in Mass to driving. Jazz performers often read from a lead sheet, which will give minimal information about the piece of music and will serve as the guide for what gets created. The rest must come from the interaction between the players. The ensemble will fall apart if one of the players stops paying attention to the others.
In order to be able to create music in the moment, it is most helpful to know the other players. To improvise requires making an individual statement. This requires courage on the part of the speaker (musician) and will happen most naturally when there is trust in the room. Do you get nervous when you have to speak to a new group of people? How much more comfortable are you speaking to familiar friends and family? The same idea holds with a jazz group. If the musician knows and trusts the other players (and the audience), then he or she can be free and truly creative in his or her musical expression. An unresponsive audience or group of players can lead a jazz musician back into a comfort zone of trite and unimaginative music that becomes dull and boring for everyone involved.
Singing is making a personal statement. Even if you are not required to improvise, using the voice requires a personal commitment and some level of trust in the room. Instrumentalists can pass problems off to the instrument, but the voice is part of ourselves, so any critics of our sound become very personal judgments. I would guess that most people are willing to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ in a group of friends and family because there is trust in the room. What can we do to build trust in the room here at the Cathedral so that everyone feels comfortable singing their faith in worship?
Multi-tasking is a very difficult skill, and at least according to some studies something that we never really can do. Regardless of how much it may appear that we are doing at the same time, researchers have found that our brains can only focus on one task at a time. To multi-task, our minds simply switch between tasks very quickly. Compared to our busy lives, attending Mass may not seem like multi-tasking, but there is at least one moment I’d like to mention today when the norms given for celebrating Eucharist expect us to do different things at the same time: receiving communion.
The General Instructions of the Roman Missal indicate:
“While the Priest is receiving the Sacrament, the Communion Chant is begun, its purpose being to express the spiritual union of the communicants by means of the unity of their voices, to show gladness of heart, and to bring out more clearly the ‘communitarian’ character of the procession to receive the Eucharist. The singing is prolonged for as long as the Sacrament is being administered to the faithful.” (GIRM, no. 86)
The implication of this instruction is that we have to walk and sing at the same time. Further help is provided in Sing to the Lord: “In order to foster participation of the faithful with ‘unity of voices,’ it is recommended that psalms sung in the responsorial style, or songs with easily memorized refrains, be used.” (STL, no. 192) By using music with refrains, we are less dependent on a book where we have to read every word of the song. We will have some time where we can focus simply of walking and receiving Eucharist while the cantor or choir sings verses. Because the song is expected to continue “for as long as the Sacrament is being administered,” there will also be a chance to sing while you do not have to walk.
Reading the words to a song while walking around definitely qualifies as difficult multi-tasking, which is why every song I plan for us to sing during Communion has a refrain. I hope these refrains are simple enough and become familiar enough that even if it seems a daunting task, you will be able to meet the challenge and become a successful multi-tasker.