Thursday, January 17, 2008

Can Catholics Sing... depends on who you ask!

This from the latest NPM "survey" about singing in US parishes...

Depends on Where You’re Sitting
NPM Newsletter, January 2008

Can Catholics sing? In a recent online survey by the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM), both musicians and non-musicians thought that congregational singing was better in their own community than it is in most U.S. parishes. (this alone should signal that something is amiss... how would the average musician or non-musician know this?)

Directors, organists, cantors, choir members, instrumentalists, and other music ministers, however, rated assembly singing much more positively than did the people in the pews. (leaving open the question... who is right?) Almost three-quarters of the survey respondents were involved in some form of music ministry. (This gives the survey something of a bias, don't you think? But after all, why would a non-musician be reading the NPM Journal...)

A large majority of music ministers – 72 percent – characterized the singing of their congregations as "very strong" or "somewhat strong." Non-musicians had a rather different perception, however. Only 39 percent of this group thought that the singing of the assembly was strong in their parish.

Both groups had negative opinions of the general state of congregational singing in the United States, which received a positive rating from just 39 percent of musicians and 27 percent of non-musicians.

Why do music ministers perceive congregational singing as stronger than do the people in the pews? (Hmm... I wonder??? See comment below...) One explanation could be that in most churches music ministers are a bit removed from the assembly and can more easily hear the corporate sound of the singing assembly while non-musicians are often painfully aware of those immediately around them who are not singing. (this assumes an extremely self-conscious assembly, and a rather un-christian approach to worship)

Another factor could be the poor acoustics in many churches that results from the overuse of sound-absorbing materials. Instead of blending the assembly’s voices, many church buildings actually deaden sound and prevent people in the congregation from sensing the strength of singing.

(But the most likely factor is that Directors and musicians have a vested interest in the continuation of the myth of strong assembly participation at Mass, and so if the people are not singing well, they would have to view themselves as failures in their jobs )

Whatever the reason for the striking difference of opinion or perception, the NPM survey provides food for thought for pastors, musicians, and other pastoral leaders.

These "surveys" get more ridiculous every year, and each year they come to the same conclusion, that Music Directors will generally represent the singing in their parish much more positively than it actually is.
Here's an idea: If the NPM is truly interested in getting an accurate picture of the current state of liturgical music, which I don't think they are, then do an actual STUDY. Enlist a group of COMPETENT persons who know about liturgical music (Hmm... that shouldn't be too hard to find in the hallways of the NPM main offices, should it?) to be Evaluators and select perhaps 500 parishes of various sizes and locations throughout the country as a "sample". Have the Evaluators attend Sunday Masses at these parishes and rate the singing on a scale of 0-10 based on how many people out of 10 in the assembly are actually attempting to sing. This would be simple enough to do just by counting a random sample of people during the time the singing is going on.
In addition to the location of the parish, data should include the part of the liturgy being sung (Entrance, Gloria, Psalm, Offertory Song, Eucharistic Prayer Responses, Communion Song, Recessional Song) as well as title of song and whether the assembly was using a hardbound hymnal, Missalette or printed "worship aid". Since each one of the 50 Evaluators would be responsible for 10 parishes, It would take about 10 weeks for each to complete a fairly thorough evaluation of the music at their assigned parishes... 20 weeks if each parish was attended on two different Sundays, which would give a more accurate picture still. If the Evaluators were trained properly for this study, they might actually be able to put together some usable information concerning how people sing, and what they will sing better and what they won't sing at all.
The result of this study, if carried out properly, might give us some insight on how contemporary liturgical music holds up versus traditional hymns or how various types of instrumental ensembles fare versus Organ or unaccompanied singing... which is precisely why this study will never be done!


Scelata said...

At my present parish, when I had just arrived and was a PIP, introducing myself to one of the priests, we discussed congregational singing and I mentioned that there was a song we had just done, Gather Us In, that I hadn't known at the time, (O! to enjoy that blessed ignorance again!) and it sounded as if the congregation didn't either.
No!, said, Father, we sing that a lot, and they sang it really well today!
It's all from ones own perspective, I suppose...

By the way, I noticed from your posting elsewhere in which diocese you are located. Do you know anything about the general spiritual and liturgical health of any of the dioceses on the other coast of your state?
I'm considering a move, and looking at a wasteland so far, in my very limited observance of individual parishes.

(Save the Liturgy, Save the World)

Chironomo said...

I served at St. Joseph in Palm bay (Melbourne) on the East Coast for a while, but I really don't know much about the East Coast in general. Are you talking about Miami, or further north? Remember that in Florida, Catholic parishes are few and far between, although generally quite large in size. They are all going to be rather progressive since the vast majority of them have been built after 1975 and have developed in the Post VII era. It is a different world for Catholics here in the South...

Dad29 said...

While musicians must be involved, the responsibility for preaching "singing" lies with Bishops and their priests--

Chironomo said...

If I were asked what is the biggest difference between a Parish that actually does sing well, and one that doesn't, I would have to say it is whether the Priests sing... and that includes singing THEIR parts of the Mass consistently too! The "Protestant" model that has become the norm is missing the one thing that makes it work in protestant Churches... The Pastor standing at the lectern "conducting" the congregation in singing the hymns. This single element (in the Protestant model) is what makes it work. It doesn't work when the Pastor sits at his chair silently looking out at the assembly, often totally disinterested in what they are doing. In the new music guidelines, I thought it was really quite perceptive of them to emphasize that the person in charge of the music in the parish is first and foremost the PASTOR, who leads by example. That is a totally different perspective than the old Music In Catholic Worship, where the "assembly is the primary choir". What great damage that approach did to the dynamics of the liturgy!

Steve Cavanaugh said...

I heard an interesting comment after Mass yesterday. I was at the Anglican Use parish I usually attend, and the wife of the pastor remarked how weak the singing is when I'm not there (as I wasn't the week before, being in D.C. with my son). Funny thing is, I'm one of the cradle Catholics for whom most of the hymns (from Hymnal 1940) are all new. We have a small schola at this parish (2-4 men usually) but the people really depend on us to "set the tone" apparently.

I think this is partly due to the fact that singing is not a regular part of people's lives in contemporary USA culture. People are afraid to sing out, and this carries over into church. For Catholics in the US, who don't have a strong church tradition of congregational singing, this is compounded.

I was surprised to learn, when reading about Nicholas Ferrar that it was not uncommon in 17th century England for even middle class families to have small pipe organs in their homes, and that singing together was an established custom. It's no surprise that from a culture such as this the great tradition of English hymnody should arise. But nowadays, we have become consumers rather than producers of music, and that affects how people act in church.

Chironomo said...

Hi Steve!

Yes, the fact that we, as a culture, are taught that music is something we listen to (I-Pod, etc...)rather than take part in ourselves is a strong contributing factor, I'm sure. It doesn't explain the differences between Protestant congregational singing and Catholic assemblies however. It may be that the tradition of Protestant singing developed at a time when singing was a more prominent part of people's daily lives, and that tradition has been maintained. Or, perhaps it has more to do with the way that music is presented in protestant worship. Either way, I can well imagine that the singing would be less vigorous without you there!