Give Thanks for – and to – your Parish Musicians - 5th October 2014

Being an instrumentalist or vocalist for parish liturgies is a tough gig. Many people in the pews are probably unaware of the discipline and difficulties involved in this vital ministry to the worshipping community.

Obviously liturgical musicians have to organise the music for Sunday Masses and other celebrations, rehearse together, arrive well before Mass starts to set up and prepare, and stay after Mass is over to pack up and put away.

But there’s much more.

Musicians would love to play their favourite pieces or to keep introducing some of the fabulous new compositions that they come across, but usually they cannot do this. Because they are there to serve the assembly and to help them do the work of worship, they have to choose and play music with which the parish is familiar and which people can join in with confidence. The point at which the musicians are bored with a particular Mass setting or hymn because they have played it so often usually coincides with the time when the assembly has got to know and love that piece and wants to keep singing it!

Often a piece of music for liturgy will be set in a key which the musicians like because it does not have too many sharps or flats, but the musicians are aware that is too high for most people to sing so someone has to go to the trouble of transposing the music down to make it accessible to the congregation.

Liturgical musicians seldom get to show off their musical skills in church. A friend of mine has a beautiful soprano voice but never gets a chance to hit the high notes when she is the cantor at Mass in her parish because they would be well beyond the range of most members of the assembly.

Instrumentalists have to restrain themselves and resist the temptation to add “fiddly bits” that would enhance a piece of music if it was being performed but would only serve to confuse the worshippers in the context of liturgy, making them unsure, for example, about when to commence singing.

Volume is another issue that instrumentalists have to wrestle with. While the instrumentalist’s natural instinct might be to pull out all stops and demonstrate their keyboard skills, the playing has to be sufficiently muted to allow the assembly’s singing to dominate. On the other hand, people need to be able to hear the tune to participate. If the music is too soft, people will be hesitant to sing for fear those around will hear them.

On top of all that, parish musicians often have to endure complaints –that the music is too fast or too slow, too high or too low, too loud or too soft, too old or too new, too much or too little, etc, etc. One organist I know was actually chastised for playing too many verses of the psalm!

So, next time you are at Mass, you might give thanks for – and to – the pastoral musicians who have helped you and your fellow worshippers lift your hearts and spirits to God in prayer and praise.

Elizabeth Harrington