Monday, September 26, 2011

Disconcerted on Sunday

Monday greetings to all.

Back in Chicago after a weekend in New England. The talk on Saturday on the new translation went quite well.

I did want to share my experience at Sunday Mass yesterday. I am not going to name the parish, just describe the experience.

I have attended Mass at this particular parish in New England perhaps once or twice per year over the past dozen years. The music director, who has always been the cantor at each Mass I have attended, was once again the cantor at yesterday's Mass. At this particular parish, the cantor if warm and friendly and quite capably announces the hymn numbers. She then sings every single note of every single hymn, song, and acclamation directly into the microphone. Her voice is somewhat stylized, but is pleasing. Unfortunately, one feels as if one is singing along with her. It was very unfortunate, since the people around me were singing; unfortunately it is difficult, of not impossible, to hear the assembly because of the amplification of the cantor's voice.

I also noticed something else yesterday. The vocal range of this particular music director has been dropping as she grows older. Years ago, she was able to reach (with some effort) notes that reached higher than the C above middle C. When the organist played the introduction to yesterday's opening hymn, Glory and Praise to Our God (I thought that most parishes had given that one a rest), I was struck by how low the key was, and I mean low; like at least four keys lower than the original. Apparently, she tells the keyboard player (who plays on an electronic organ and an electronic keyboard) to use the "transposer" button to lower the keys of everything so that the pieces are comfortably within her vocal range. When I was listening to the singing of people around me, I found that they were switching octaves in the middle of songs, because the range was either too low or too high for their own "normal" vocal ranges.

There was so much wrong with this picture. But, then again, there was so much that was so consistent with this music director's concept of her ministry. The understanding, apparently, of this music director is that she needs to sing very loudly into the microphone, in order to "provide" the music. And, since here range has dipped, it must make perfect sense to her to lower the keys in order for her to continue her idea of what she is supposed to be doing.

Can you tell that this was frustrating for me?

The homily was terrific.

Gotta sing. Gotta pray.


FJH 3rd said...

If we knew the parish we could send them a link to this blog post! :-)

Scott Pluff said...

I've become increasingly aware of how Mr. or Ms. Microphone Voice can obliterate a congregation's singing. So can "let's play every pipe of this 100-rank organ for the 99 people at Mass today."

I try to train my cantors to picture a volume knob on their voices. When you are the only one singing something (psalm verses, etc.) turn the knob up to 8 or 9. When others are singing with you (everything else) turn the knob down to 2 or 3, sometimes even 1. Easier said than done.

My previous congregation had a strong singing voice matched with great acoustics for singing. My new parish is more challenging--a very large space with moderately dry acoustics that is usually less than half filled. Acoustics are such a big factor-you can't fight physics!

Charles G said...

In my home parish in the Boston area, the microphone is so loud it the cantor's voice blares in one's ears even if one sits in the rearmost pew. Honestly, I don't understand why it has to be so loud, it is very offputting. The congregation could be able to tell perfectly well what the cantor is signing with one quarter of the decibels used. Actuosa Participatio does NOT require that one's eardrums be broken. I can only imagine what an awful impression it must give to any non-Catholic inquirers present.

Geoff said...

Personally, I am not for sure why a cantor is needed on congregational singing anyway! The parish I attend on Sunday mornings is a fairly good-singing assembly. They certainly know the Mass parts and yet the cantor always sings them right into the microphone. It actually slows the entire congregation down. From my experience as a music director for 20 years, the BEST thing you can do to create a space where congregational singing will flourish is to diminish the role of the cantor during assembly singing. I think this also has effect of heightening the importance of the psalm for the cantor...something they should take the lead on. In one parish I served, the congregation never sang the verses of the Gloria when I arrived. I could tell that many people were mouthing the words and so I asked someone why they didn't sing. The response, "Because the cantor's hand isn't up then!" I did an experiment. For the next few weeks, I had the cantor put their "hand up" for the verses and down for the refrain. Solved the problem instantly. After everyone felt comfortable singing the Gloria we didn't even have the cantor stand at the stand at all. I think we really underestimate the capabilities of the our assemblies...give them permission to sing!

Anonymous said...

If it's the one thing I have learned and experienced as a cantor, is back off from the microphone and allow the congregation to sing with and respond to you. It's an unfortunate case you mentioned. The choir director could be transformed herself by understanding what her role is as cantor.

As for the gathering song, Glory and Praise to our God? Oy vey!

Brent McWilliams said...

Now leave Glory and Praise alone....
I use it regularly in my parish. (once a year, come rain or shine,to make some of our hootenany folks happy. It can actually be fun to play if you rewrite the organ accompaniment to be a bit more tocatta-esque. LOL)