The topic of this post is congregational singing and how to improve it.

This past week,  I traveled with a colleague to St. Peter and St. Joseph Catholic Churches in Bellwood, NE to provide music for a funeral of a friend’s father. The brother of the deceased presided at the funeral accompanied by a dozen priests. The full church sang every hymn, every Mass part with gusto. My colleague and I remarked how uplifting it was to experience congregational singing at the funeral of a loved one.

The next day, I traveled on a bus with our RCIA group and a dozen singers to St. Cecilia Cathedral for the Rite of Election. Here, again, I experienced fantastic hymn singing and extraordinary organ playing.

In both instances, it reminded me just how moving congregational singing can be and how important it is as a means of stirring hearts. Throughout my childhood, I was blessed to experience rousing congregational singing as a normal part of worship.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, congregations often don’t sing. Especially at Funerals and Weddings, but even on Sundays, congregants don’t open the hymnal and sing. Instead they listen to an amplified Cantor or to a choir sing music that is intended for the congregation to sing.

When faced with a non-singing congregation, what do you do? What is the secret key that will unlock their voices? In the above instances, both churches had a pipe organ. The natural resonance of a pipe organ encourages singing. Both churches had fine acoustics, so that the sound resonated in an exhilarating way. Thus, basic needs for good congregational singing: 1) A good pipe organ and organist 2) Good acoustics. Beyond that, congregational singing can thrive when the church space is at least 75% full. Obviously, singing in the pews is improved when the music is familiar.

However, beyond these basics, there are other factors that influence the success of congregational singing. For instance, every community has a unique culture that is reflected in how they sing together. Think of how people sing differently in South Africa, in the Philippines, in Italy.

To improve the culture of singing in our community (which has always been fairly good), our priests often sing the Mass.  At the cathedral, we sang the petitions. By singing the Mass, a ritual foundation is established with singing as normative…to be expected…not a showy solo…and so easy, you don’t hesitate to join in.

May God bless the singing Catholics in Bellwood, at Saint Cecilia Cathedral, at Sacred Heart Parish and throughout the world!

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