It's Sunday morning, and Catholics aren't singing. Maybe, Don Embling thinks, it's a bit too early -- and they need a little encouragement from a supportive cantor.

Maybe, mulls Nancy La Fave, parishioners are a little embarrassed or self-conscious about their voices.

Maybe, considers Sally Scuderi, they just don't think singing is important.

Do-re-mi

Forty years after the shift from choral to congregational singing during the liturgy, and despite numerous official liturgical documents promoting that change, many Catholics still come to Mass with closed mouths that frustrate music ministers.

"A lot of Catholics feel like they can't do it, and they don't even try," said Mr. Embling, music minister at St. Mary's Church in Oneonta. "But it's important that we sing."

According to Glenn Osborne, director of music at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany and chair of the music subcommittee for the Albany diocesan Liturgical Commission, singing isn't only a crucial means of participation; it also "gives voice to our faith, creates a sense of community and gives movement to the liturgy."

Silence; pleas

Many of the music ministers agreed that the long tradition of non-participation at Mass and an abrupt shift to congregational participation played a part in the negative attitude towards singing.

"In some places, they tossed the baby out with the bathwater," said Mr. Osborne, explaining how, in some churches, overzealous efforts were employed to get people to participate, "instead of trying to develop music that had some coherence with the rest of the liturgy."

"In the very beginning, the music we had to sing was dreadful," noted Mrs. Scuderi, music minister at St. Michael the Archangel Church in South Glens Falls. "Now, we have people who write really good music. [But] it's not in [some Catholics'] nature to sing."

According to Mr. Osborne, good liturgical music -- music that congregations are more likely to sing -- adheres to the Scriptures of the day. Together with prayers and readings, music forms a "comprehensive packet" whose parts relate to one another.

Many styles

Sometimes, say the music ministers, the blame lies with the music itself. If they move too much on either side of the liturgical music spectrum -- traditional and contemporary -- the congregation can end up feeling alienated.

"You need to include different styles," explained Mr. Osborne. "If you limit yourself to one style of music, you limit yourself to that group of people. Catholics are an eclectic group who need an eclectic variety of music."

At St. Alphonsus in Glens Falls, where Mrs. La Fave is the music minister, she has "built up quite a repertoire of songs the people love to sing."

At St. Mary's in Oneonta, Mr. Embling caters to a wide variety of age groups, tastes and desires: from elderly parishioners who crave the old standards accompanied by the organ to college students and teenagers who look forward to the drum set, guitars and keyboards he uses one Sunday a month.

Picking the best

No matter what style she chooses, Mrs. La Fave notes that her parishioners like smooth, easier rhythms with melodies that aren't choppy or jumpy. That makes it simpler for the parishioners who can't read music to participate. She likes traditional hymns, Taize pieces and contemporary composers.

She speaks with parishioners regularly about their likes, dislikes and suggestions for the music program.

When St. Mary's purchased a set of newly-published hardbound hymnals in 1996, said Mr. Embling, the pastor talked to the congregation about the importance of communal singing and musical participation in the Mass. The music ministry took the opportunity to introduce unfamiliar pieces from the new hymnal.

A new song

The introduction of new songs to congregations, most of whom cannot read music, happens in different ways across the Diocese. In some places, general songs about praise, love and the Eucharist are sung repeatedly for a number of weeks. At the Cathedral, Mr. Osborne sets different words to the same tune to help the community familiarize itself with the melody while staying true to the Lectionary.

"If they're not familiar with it, they won't sing," said Mr. Embling.

Leader of pack

People need a role model, such as the pastor or cantor, the experts said.

"The priest is the role model for the community. If he doesn't sing, it'll be an uphill battle to get the assembly to sing," Mr. Osborne said.

According to Mrs. La Fave, cantors "raise their hands to tell people when to come in and sing loud and clear, so that people can understand the words and melody."

It should be easy to see and hear the cantor, she said, noting that "closeness with the people gives you more familiarity. You want to show people that you are a part of them and that they are a significant part in what you are doing."

"It would be tough to get enthusiastic singing without a cantor," agreed Mr. Embling, who noted that some Mass attendees need "someone up there to say, 'Join right in; be a part of this.'"

All together now

More than anything, say the music ministers, churches need to have an attitude of openness and encouragement when it comes to breaking out in song.

A strong sense of community, said Mr. Osborne, can overcome any embarrassment that crops up, and Mrs. Scuderi recommends that churches establish a tradition of singing early in life by founding a children's choir and having families sing at home.

Mr. Embling says that pastors and church musicians should "make it a priority to teach new music." Mrs. La Fave urges an attitude of encouragement throughout the parish so that feelings of self-consciousness don't surface and people feel comfortable.

"What I see as most important to make wholehearted congregational singing is having trained musicians and choosing quality music with theologically sound texts that fit with the rest of the liturgy. Those are the fundamentals," said Mr. Osborne.

(6/24/04)