Let the People Sing!


I cringed when I saw line on a flyer for a liturgical musicians’ workshop which read “Bring out the performer in you!”

The role of those who play a musical instrument, sing in a vocal group or take on the role of cantor at liturgy is not to perform or to ‘do’ the music, but to assist the assembly to offer its praise to God in song.

A poor model for liturgical music leadership is where a well-known performer ‘leads’ the singing of the national anthem at a sporting event and puts his or her ‘signature’ on the anthem by varying its rhythm and tempo. The result is that the celebrity sings the national anthem as a solo. Surely, a national anthem is just that, the song of the nation – of everyone - and we should all be able and encouraged to participate in singing it on such occasions, not to sit and listen!

Certainly, liturgical musicians need to be skilled musicians, just as Ministers of the Word need to be skilled at reading in public. To play and sing well is very important, but it is not enough. Ministers of music have first to be ‘ministers’, or servants of the worshipping assembly.

Ministers of music do not perform for the entertainment of those present, but provide the accompaniment and lead which will enable the members of the assembly to sing the responses, acclamations and songs of the liturgy. Hence they need not only musical skills but also the ability to encourage people to participate.

The cantor should never dominate the singing and ‘drown out’ the assembly. Once the people are familiar with the melody, pitch and timing of a piece of music, the cantor can step back from the microphone and let the assembly do its work unaided.

Organists and other instrumentalists assist the assembly to sing by giving clear introductions so that people know when to start singing, by playing in a manner that is clear and rhythmically steady and by allowing people to breathe at the end of phrases.

Parishes sometimes attempt to solve the problem of poor assembly singing by increasing the sound amplification or the number of song leaders at liturgy. This is counter-productive, however, as the assembly’s sound is suppressed by miked ‘lead singers’ and people will stop singing (if they ever started!) when they cannot hear themselves singing or feel ‘drowned out’ vocally.

The role of liturgical ministers is not to do anything for others but to assist the assembly to do its work of worship and help them to enter into the experience of Jesus’ dying and rising, the heart of all our worship.

It is not a good sign when the assembly applauds the music ministers at the end of Mass. Unless the people are applauding their own singing efforts, it indicates that they have seen themselves as spectators at a performance rather than as full, conscious and active participants in their work of public prayer.

The question for all liturgical ministers to ask themselves after carrying out their role is ‘Did I help the community to pray?’. Liturgical musicians assess their effectiveness, not on the basis of how few wrong notes they played or sang or introductions they missed but by asking themselves the question: ‘How well did I enable the assembly to exercise its right to sing the liturgy?’

Elizabeth Harrington