Music, the Cantor, and the Priest

Although my experience is based on attending mass at only four or five different parishes, I have come to the conclusion that Catholics can't sing. Growing up in the Lutheran Church, I have memories of hymns being sung loud enough to reach heaven itself. My experience in Catholic churches, however, is that half the people don't even try, and the ones that do don't do so with much enthusiasm. So, with that background in mind...

At the parish that I usually attend with my wife, we are between priests at the moment. Mass is celebrated by a visiting priest, often an elderly, retired priest. Anyway, one of these retired priests apparently had an issue with our cantor, a young man who isn't afraid to turn up the volume when he senses that the congregation is starting to fade away. I remember one time when the cantor was trying to encourage the people to sing, this priest was just staring daggers at him. A few weeks later this priest was back, and I notice that the cantor, in addition to looking really upset, could not be heard at all. He was barely singing. I was wondering if maybe he was ill. During the homily, the priest was talking about correcting sinners in a charitable manner. To give an example he said, "Before mass today I had a discussion with our cantor that involved correcting him on a certain matter." He then looked over at the cantor and said, "I spoke to you in a charitable manner, didn't I?" Well, if looks could kill, that priest would have been struck dead on the spot. I actually thought the cantor was going to give him the finger. After mass I was talking to a friend who was a server that day. He told me that the priest really tore into the cantor for singing too loudly, and told him not to do it again.

Anyway, my question is, what's the big deal? I understand that the mass is not supposed to be about entertaining the troops, but what's wrong with enjoying the music? As it stands now, the cantor barely sings anymore, and the hymns tend to fade to nothing about halfway through the second verse. Doesn't make sense to me.:shrug:

Oh wow, if I was that Cantor I would probably have gotten real red and probably start crying. That is so ignorant for him to do that! And in front of a whole congregation AND calling him a "sinner" for singing too loudly! Wow! I would definately write a letter to the bishop about that.

On another note, I notice that many Catholics don't sing that loudly either as many Protestant religions. Maybe the hymns are not uplifting like some of the Protestant hymns? Typically, our hymns are not that fast-paced and overly joyous.

But yeah, that priest was definately in the wrong and that's probably a sin for him to call him out in front of the congregation. I wouldn't be surprised if people were thinking "What the heck, Father."

The real culprit here is probably the sound system, or possibly the priest's hearing aid. It's entirely possible for a cantor's reasonable levels of singing to be transformed into BRAINMELTING SOUND by the speakers, sometimes only in certain areas of church. (Like up in the sanctuary near the altar.)

I have also heard rumors that a lot of wireless hearing aids are sensitive to wireless sound systems. It can get very bad.

That said, it's clear that the priest freaked out at somebody who didn't really understand, and that he did it at the wrong time. All the priest had to do was give the cantor the "turn it down" sign, and I'm sure it would have been done.

It's possible that the priest actually thought he was apologizing to the cantor by making his "joke". If so, it was very socially inept, of course.

That said again... it's not a good idea to try to "whip up the crowd" by singing louder, at least in a typical American and Catholic parish. I've been a cantor for a long time in my parish, and it doesn't work. Just doesn't. Either people take it as a cue to settle back and listen to you (instead of singing), or they stop singing because they can't hear themselves.

The more desperate you get, the less it works and the worse you sound. The more you try to fix it in ways that would work at a concert, the less it's going to be fixed. The only cure is never to expect anything. If you just go on and do your best, it will work out. If you can put your mind on prayer and trust your body to do the right thing, you will probably do even better. (Assuming you've practiced, so that you can trust your body to get on with it.)

You can draw people's attention by singing quietly but audibly, especially if you make it sound super-prayerful. You can make people more secure in singing a song by hitting the rhythms of the piece more strongly. You can make people sing more by backing away from the microphone (or by having the sound system actually conk out). Plenty of tricks. But they're almost used at right angles to the tricks you use for public performance, because it's just a totally different situation. Most cantors learn this the hard way.

But yeah, that's a horrible situation to have happened. If you can't be professional and adult in front of the Lord God and everybody, when are you going to be professional and adult?

It might have to do with our religious DNA. Pre-Vatican II, the congregation didn't sing, the choir did. Unlike many Protestant denominations, our church singing DNA is relatively recent, while they have had about 500 years of it, and have developed a corpus of fairly decent music.

We on the other hand hastily threw out the baby with the bath water. In our effort to incorporate the people, in itself a laudable move, we had to quickly develop the music in the vernacular. As we say act in haste, repent at leisure and the result is, with some exceptions, fairly abominable music. The music is difficult to sing, has insipid lyrics, and is just plain ******.

When we DID sing Gregorian chant, the emphasis was not on volume, but on being "one voice" so that one voice did not rise above the others. If the priest in this case was older, that's probably what he remembers, and singing loudly would grate on him (but thumbs down for the way he rebuked the cantor; such things are best done in private, and to blast it to the congregation in his homily was far from charitable).

Catholic Church music needs a top-to-bottom overhaul. Returning to its Gregorian roots seems the surest bet. I've heard some pretty decent work done to adapt the vernacular to plainchant, especially in a local French-speaking Cistercian abbey and a few recordings from an English-speaking Benedictine community on the West Coast. I belong to a Benedictine community that still uses Gregorian chant, and French plainchant, on a daily basis, and I sing in a small Gregorian choir whose mission is to bring Gregorian chant to local parishes.

The beauty of Gregorian is that the music is there to support the words which, apart from the hymns of the Divine Office, are Bible verses and psalms. The emphasis is on the words, and the composer's skill is entirely dedicated to emphasizing the word and setting the mood for the particular verse being sung (joyful, sorrowful, meditative, plaintive, etc).

That happens to be what IS in our DNA, we would do well to return to it even if that means adapting plainchant to the vernacular. If we had done our music properly post-Vatican II, and preserved Gregorian chant (and Latin... still legit for the post VII Mass), or at least vernacular plainchant, we probably wouldn't have seen such a demand for the Tridentine Latin Mass.

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