How We Should Sing—And Why People Don’t Sing

Benedictine monks perform chants at the Monastery of St Benedict of Norcia, Italy. (CNS photo/Christopher McLallen courtesy Universal Music)

Part 3 of a 3-part Series. You may read the other parts here: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Now for something really practical: How should we sing the chant? An experienced choir director will have plenty of advice and know-how, but it requires persistent and persevering effort to educate a congregation to the point where the people will sing the chant reasonably well. It can be done, I’ve heard it done many times, but it doesn’t happen automatically, and woe betide any parish or chapel that pays no heed whatsoever to the art of chanting.

First and foremost, chant should be lively, moving forward with momentum. Chant is never to be sung too slowly or lethargically. It is not a funeral dirge. When it comes to the pacing of chant, there is always a danger, given the law of entropy, of slowing down over time. At the college where I teach (and where we sing a lot of chant), it seems that at certain times of the year, people start to sing more slowly, and need to be gently prodded to pick up the pace. We have to make a conscious effort not to be heavy like syrup, but light like birds on the wing. Remember, the monks who gave us the chant had to sing many hours a day, so they couldn’t afford to wallow in it—they wrote music that is meant to be vibrant and energetic, while still being meditative and peaceful. These characteristics are by no means contradictory.

Chant’s rhythm is an organic one, like the beating of the heart or the ebb and flow of the tide. It should be sung in a legato style, smoothly; not every note is equal or should be equally emphasized, as in a badly played military march. One hears the ebb and flow of the melody. Corporate breaths should not be too frequent; phrasing should match thoughts as much as possible. All of this is the province of the music director, who needs to take steps not only to train the members of the choir or schola, but also to help the people sing better, through such means as brief lessons given before Mass begins, the introduction of chanted prayers into schools or parish groups, and chant workshops open to all.

The more you sing and hear the chants of the Church, the more connatural they become to your soul; they rise up within you as spontaneous prayers. They shape your memory and imagination, and thus your prayer life becomes more and more suffused with the Church’s own memory and imagination. It’s like the way people speak and use the gestures of their mothers or fathers because of so many years of being close to them. When we come before our Lord at the end of our lives, it will be a great consolation to us if He sees written into our souls the very face and voice and gestures of His beloved Bride, the Church, of whom His own Virgin Mother is at once the most perfect member and the supreme exemplar.

Now I’m going to have some fun. In my lifetime, here are the main excuses I have heard as to why people don’t sing, or at least don’t sing much in the household of God.

“I don’t feel like it.” This, gentle reader, is sheer laziness, which is perhaps too polite a term for it. If someone plans to do in life only what he or she feels like doing, I strongly recommend avoiding marriage, priesthood, or religious life. This “I’ll sit back and listen” attitude seems to be linked up with a longstanding problem: Catholics, in general, seem to lack all inclination to SING at Mass. Part of the reason is that the quality of the music has tended to be so poor, but surely part of it also stems from an unfortunate history of thinking about the Mass as something the clergy do, rather than something every Christian genuinely participates in—and, be it noted, with a distinctive role for the laity assisting at the mysteries. As we have seen, the modern popes for over a hundred years have urged the faithful to sing the parts of the Mass that are theirs to sing.

“I can’t sing.” Really? Not even quietly? Do you want to sing better? There’s only one way to get there: by trying. Everyone can make it to the point of singing the simpler chants of the Ordinary of the Mass, but it takes a sincere intention and some effort—like all good things in life. Although I seldom have occasion to quote Protestants favorably, John Wesley had it exactly right when he said: “If [singing] is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.” The more we sing, the more it makes sense to sing and the more joy we find in good songs. St. Augustine is credited with this remark: Qui bene cantat bis orat, “He who sings well, prays twice.” The first meaning of “well” is not that you always hit the right note, but rather that you sing with love and understanding. That is what it means for the people to sing well at Mass. So, convince yourself, no matter how many objections you can think of, that the only appropriate thing to do when there is congregational singing at Mass is to SING. You don’t have to sing loudly in order to participate in a simple song, like the Gregorian Mass Ordinaries common in traditional churches or chapels. Even a quiet voice, sotto voce as the Italians say, is better than no voice at all. In the end, no one can replace or substitute for your voice. Your singing voice is the instrument God gave you in your mother’s womb, the only instrument you always carry, and the one that God most desires to hear, because it bears your personality.

“I don’t know how to read music.” How do you expect to get better at it if you don’t keep working with it? The four-line square note system of notation used for Gregorian chant might look scary if you’re not a musician or you’ve been trained only with modern musical notation, but it is a very intuitive approach and easy enough to get used to if you keep your eyes on it while you’re first listening to chant and making your tentative forays. Back in high school, when I first came across a copy of the Graduale Romanum and had no teacher who could explain it to me, I went out and bought a chant CD at the record store, and proceeded to listen to it over and over while attempting to follow along on the pages of the corresponding chants. After some time, the relationship between the sound on the recording and the symbols on the page grew clearer to me, and it was not long before I was chanting for love. We can all do something like this whenever we attend a sung Mass.

“Music is for the choir, for specialists, not for plain folks like me.” That’s false: music is for everyone. My own children, by the time they were 5 or 6, were belting out the Salve Regina and other chants before they could read any letters, let alone any music. We have to get over our inhibitions and our pride: really, every human being was created with a natural musical instrument that the Creator intended each of us to use regularly. If a child can do it, we, striving to be child-like, can do it, too.

I’m saving the best excuse for last:

“Singing disturbs my personal prayer.” This is a Quaker mentality. Liturgy is public worship: the very word litourgos in Greek means “the work of the people.” Each one of us needs both public prayer and private prayer, every day. They are like the systole and diastole of the heart, or the inhalation and exhalation of breath. Breathe in with mental prayer, breathe out with communal vocal prayer. Naturally, the liturgy has silence within it, and there is not an opposition between collective and personal—we ought, for example, to have a certain precious leisure to commune intimately with our Lord after receiving him in Holy Communion. But the main point is that the Mass is fundamentally and essentially a public and vocal prayer offered by the Church to God, and therefore a prayer that is public and vocal for each one who participates in it, always in keeping with one’s proper role. If we try to get from the liturgy what we ought to be seeking in fifteen or thirty minutes of quiet personal prayer each day, then it’s possible we will end up frustrated, obtaining the benefits of neither one form of prayer nor the other. It would be like expecting a salty dish to be sweet, or literature to be philosophy (or philosophy to be literature).

Our Lady, Queen of the Angels, Saint Gregory the Great, Saint Cecilia, Saint Pius X, pray for us!

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