And All the People Played Amen

As music ministers we all struggle with participation of our congregations. Given the various locations of choir in the church, interests in different kinds music and musical ability, anyone trying to lead worship seems to have their hands full. There was a discussion started in the forum recently that really got me thinking about the challenge of participation from a different angle. I’m going to repost the entire entry here because I think there’s a lot of important context that would be lost by quoting, and I will also keep the forum discussion open and hope that others join in.  Thank you to Joette for her very personal and thought provoking post.

I’ll admit that I was taken aback initially when I first read the post – while I’m not against the idea of percussion in the congregation – the thought of instruments playing from the pews along really gave me pause.  It might be natural for a director to automatically dismiss ideas like this, but the more I reflect on Joette’s story, the more I realize that a knee jerk reaction is not adequate.  Her points about our role as music ministers being to lead all people in prayer are accurate.  I will be thinking about this for a while and I encourage others to carefully consider the thoughts posted below.

From Joette:
What has happened to liturgy being the prayer of the people of the parish? Why are we so often relegated to just singing in the pew? When I have asked about the emphasis on singing at an NPM convention, I was referred to the church document, Sing to the Lord, where it says: “Of all the sounds of which human beings, created in the image and likeness of God, are capable, voice is the most privileged and fundamental. Musical instruments in the liturgy are best understood as an extension of and support for the primary liturgical instrument, which is the human voice.”

Whoever wrote the above statement does not know what it is like to have difficulty singing. I have experienced a paralyzed vocal cord which left me unable to sing at all. It was repaired with surgery, but then I developed a tremor on my larynx from Parkinson’s disease. And someone is trying to tell me that the best way for me to pray is with my voice, when I know that the sound of my classical guitar playing a hymn is far more pleasing to anyone to hear than the sound of my voice trying to sing notes that are always too high? Why should everyone be expected to pray with a singing voice? I would like to see a parish where everyone is welcome to pray musically however they feel fit. That would include people bringing egg shakers or a small hand drum to mass with them. (Did you ever try to clap your hands when you have arthritis?) That also would include people joining the choir with whatever instrument they play. No one would be asked to sit out on any song, they would only be asked to adapt the sound of their instrument to the song. Trumpets can play softly with a mute. Guitars can strum softly or fingerpick and not be any louder than a singing voice.

Back in the 70’s, everyone who could play 4 or 5 chords on guitar was encouraged to join the music group at church. Sometimes the music was not the best, but people were participating in liturgy. Now we have gone from the extreme of letting everyone play an instrument at mass, to only letting the very best musicians play and telling everyone else to sing. I heard music directors at an NPM convention complain about the guitarists who want to play every song. The answer to this complaint by the leader of the workshop was to say the music ensemble at church should be compared to the school band, where not all the instruments play all the time. No, the instruments in a school concert band do not play all the time, but they do play every song.

I have been involved in music ministry consistently since 1971. In 2009 I moved to Florida’s Treasure Coast and music ministry is very different here. The pastors look for music directors that are great performers rather than ones with knowledge of liturgy or good ability to lead the congregation in sung prayer. My opinion is that they are trying to impress rich snowbirds. The pastors will argue that their very good professional musicians do lead the people in prayer, but I do not see it and I have found others to agree with me.

When you are used to playing guitar at mass every Sunday and holy day and now you are sometimes told to come to church without your guitar, it is very hard. I am used to praying with my guitar. I have done so since high school. Now that my singing voice has greatly declined due to medical problems, my guitar is even more important. Even if the arthritis in my hand is acting up, I can still get a pleasing sound from my guitar, unlike my singing voice that causes me to choke and cough when Parkinson’s disease makes my neck stiff. One holy day, I sat in the empty crying room and played along on the hymns from there. I am trying to get the nerve to play my guitar from a back pew whenever I am at a mass where I am not in the choir or music group.

At my old parish in Pennsylvania, where I played guitar at mass several times a week, someone once asked me if my guitar was an appendage, because I seemed to always have it with me. I like thinking of my guitar as an appendage. My guitar is a part of me. I think I should be just as welcome to softly pick on my guitar as to sing at any mass I go to, and I would like to see everyone made more welcome to pray with more than a singing voice.

It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praise to your name, Most High,
To proclaim your kindness at dawn and your faithfulness throughout the night, With 10 stringed instrument and lyre, with melody upon the harp. Psalm 92:2-4

7 thoughts on “And All the People Played Amen”

  1. A most thought-provoking post indeed! Joette, I am sorry for your loss ( l lost my voice for 4 years with GERD). I too play guitar and can finger pick melodies. I like praying with my instrument too.

    Your idea is most challenging. There are many pros and cons.

    The cons are easy to name:

    1) What if someone “thinks” they can play well but in fact play poorly, thus causing those around them to be distracted? Bad singing and bad playing are major distractions to many people (just as over-the-top performance playing and singing are distractions).

    2) And what about the attention that someone with an instrument would inevitably draw (even if they don’t seek the attention) thus taking the attention away from the liturgy?

    Pros of course are truer worship for those who pray with their instrument, and creating a prayerful atmosphere for others.

    Our former pastor used to conduct a most unusual children’s mass for Easter. Each child was given a noise maker and during a portion of the mass, he led a procession of the children around the church, asking them to “make a joyful noise to the Lord!” He was encouraging them to praise God for Jesus being raised from the dead by making noise with primitive instruments. The people loved it. And he was able to keep control of the kids. I used to not like it because it seemed like it was thisclose to getting OUT of control, but I am rethinking this after reading your post.

    Here’s an idea: designate a mass once a month to begin with for the purpose of inviting musicians to worship with their instruments. Some ground rules would have to laid down (send out the song list ahead of time so that people could practice the songs; a certain level of competency should be expected so as not to cause a distraction).

    Thank you for sharing, Joette. I am going to share this on my Facebook page.

  2. Thanks Susan. The “controlled chaos” idea is an interesting one. As a Youth Choir director we do a lot to get the congregation sing along, clap the beat, and participate. Years ago I ran a folk choir, guitars and voices. The local high school had a great band program and I started getting kids wanting to play – trumpets, flutes, a tuba, etc. Well, we didn’t have music but I had a few musically inclined kids and we wrote music! It was tough – every instrument couldn’t play every song and balance and tough keys (take a song in the key of E and transpose it for trumpet and the poor kid gets to read 6 sharps including E#…)and seating and all these challenges were part of it – but when I visit home I still get comments about that group – people remember it almost 20 years later. Many of those kids are professional musicians and practicing Catholics today. To me that says something about what we did.

    I know there’s no easy answer. Some churches don’t have the people in place for more inclusion. Some people are just not going to think outside the box. I do have hope though – that there are folks that will drive music ministry within the church. Maybe the answer is to start with “controlled chaos”. I think encouragement of some sort is key. Finding a way to make some of these alternatives ok instead of a source of chastising.

  3. Sorry to be late in seeing these responses. I thought that I checked before and did not see anything. Oh well. I guess I should have checked the box that would notify me by email of comments made.

    I like Susan’s idea of having an instrumental mass once a month. I am not sure it would go over well in the parish I belong to now, but maybe someday.

    When we lived in Syracuse, NY in the 90’s, our parish had a children’s choir and a teen choir where anyone who played a band instrument was encouraged to play at mass. There were lots of pages of music transposed by hand- nowadays, transposing is so easy on the computer. My son learned to transpose by sight for his trumpet and continued to play at mass in a number of parishes for about 10 more years until he was married and had children. I expect he will play at mass again when his children are older.

    He also played for Taize services in college and introduced me to Taize prayer. If you play Taize music the way it is published by GIA, it includes instrumental parts for many instruments, although not percussion. I was very disappointed at the NPM convention I attended in 2013 that there was only piano played at the Taize breakout session. I got my guitar out and softly played some of the songs anyway, even though it seemed like my guitar was not really welcome. When I asked the person leading the session, he said that at the Taize services in Taize, France, they only have a keyboard that is sometimes set to sound like a classical guitar. You can imagine that I was not happy to hear that.

  4. Hmmm. The people on this blog have a very different viewpoint than I do. I can understand that Joette is struggling with her medical problems, and wants to contribute to the Mass. I guess my basic question is, is there an ideal music for the Mass? I believe that Vatican II stated that Gregorian Chant is the official music of the Catholic liturgy. I guess I would encourage anyone who wants to pray with their instrument, I do that too at home, but why feel that you have to pray with your instrument at Mass? Can you find meaning in the Mass, by participating with listening and praying? Why does your guitar playing HAVE to be part of the Mass for everyone around you?

  5. Hello people,
    I’m a brazilian catholic and discovered this site just because i was tryinng to hear some music in enghlis in my smartphone. It was great!!
    Now, i think i’m uptodated in catholic music. praise the Lord!

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