Pray Tell Live Roundtable Discussion with Rita Ferrone

12:45–1:15 pm ET
Pray Tell Roundtable Discussion with Rita Ferrone, Tony Alonso, Rob Glover  and Paul Turner
“I’ve Got the Music in Me”

Archive of the Roundtable Discussion:


In a culture saturated with recorded music, we face great challenges in creating live music and congregational song today. What are we cherishing as we cherish musical participation in the liturgy? How do you stimulate musical participation? What works?

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14 comments

  1. A wonderful discussion. Thank you, Rita, Tony, Rob, and Fr. Paul.

    You all gave a wealth of practical information that can help to enliven the song of the people.

  2. I think I watched most if not all the plenums and discussions. By far this was the best. Maybe that is much influenced by my being a person in the congregation rather than a musician in the choir.

    Some parishes should try this out as a conversation starter in parish groups, both musicians and congregational members, about congregational singing. Both the content and the style were very conducive to starting conversations. There were a lot of issues packed into a very small time frame.

    Fr. Joncas or someone suggested that we should have congregational hymn concerts as part of the celebration of SC.

    About a year a ago one of the local parishes won a regional choir competition (non-Catholic as well as Catholic parishes participated). At a parish concert afterward all of the music except the last piece was taken from the classical choral tradition and done beautifully.

    However for the final hymn they chose a current hymn often used at parish Masses and asked everyone to join in. The results were astounding. The previous part of the concert sounded well but did not really fill the church. Once the congregation joined in, it seemed as if the very walls of the church were singing. The choir director was so astonished that she simply ceased to conduct and stood in amazement.

    This strong congregational sound, of course, is not heard on Weekends. First the whole choir Is rarely at one Mass except during Holy Week. Second the congregation of the concert was probably made up largely of people who sing. Third, the relationship between singers producing sound and bodies absorbing sound was probably optimal, i.e. for every body absorbing sound there needs to one producing it.

    I think some parishes should attempt to duplicate this experience of the congregational sound filling the church at a parish concert. In parishes with smaller or less well trained choirs, several parishes may need to join together to seed the effect.

  3. Again, a useful and practical discussion that can help in our parish and I didn’t need to leave the comfort of my hotel room! Thanks Rita and all.

  4. Each weekend I stand in awe at the sound of the assembly singing God’s praise using songs and hymns they have made their own. It is a mostly working class parish made up of people who love contemporary compositions as music that expresses their faith.

  5. I like the comments about singing the faith and committing publicly to the faith. They seem like excellent arguments for renewing the practice of singing the Creed.

  6. I enjoyed this conversation. It validated many things I’ve been feeling about congregational singing for some time. I believe the comments about singing a cappella should be thought about in our future conversations. We used a cappella very effectively in my last parish during the communion procession. It gave the accompanist a relaxed time to receive both bread and wine without having to march up to the altar with the eucharistic ministers (which personally makes me crazy). The assembly quickly learned the give and take of the communion song sometimes singing with instruments, sometimes without, sometimes an interlude, sometimes using the antiphon or refrain as a mantra. It facilitated the use on one piece of music for everyone receiving without ever getting boring.
    I also want to comment about the use of technology. The church I am now attending just lost their music director. Her parting comment to me was that her greatest contribution to the parish in her time as director was the installation of a projection system to display all the congregational songs on the wall. I think this is a problem. When the mode of putting music in the hands (or in this case view) of the assembly becomes the focal point and the technical innovation has more value than the music itself, I believe we’ve lost our priorities. When more time is spent creating the individual projections (literally hours) than selecting and rehearsing the music, we need to rethink what we are doing.

  7. Brava Rita!! Bravo Paul, Rob and Tony!!! As a pastoral musician, I can agree with every siggestion, but I wanted to under score 2 points:
    `Tony’s point about call and response music (The piece doesn’t work without them)
    Rob’s point about the use of the drum to provided the “heartbeat”
    I have found both these points to be SO helpful in giving the assembly the impetus to sing out!!

  8. It’s interesting that music in schools was brought up, that it’s not as existent as it once was and kids aren’t singing everyday as they did 40 or 50 or 60 years ago. And unfortunately that is true. When there are school budget cuts, it’s usually music and the other arts that are the first affected. While school system in my town, in a semi-affluent suburb, has a decent music program, it’s far below some of the other communities in our general area. That being said, these schools are still teaching part singing and sing some of the great classics, balanced with good modern compositions and ethnic folk music as well, alongside musical theatre experiences.

    But when they have gone to the large local parish, which I’m sure would quite measure up to NPM’s standards of what a modern, post VII congregation should be, my own children wonder why the quality of the music (not necessarily the performance of it) is so different from what they’re engaging in at school. They cannot connect to it and feel slighted that they’re singing higher quality music in school than they’re asked to sing in church.

  9. I thank all the participants. What the roundtable participants say has great import and must be given consideration, regardless of my discomfort.

    Some faith traditions would cease to exist without sung prayer. A muezzin or cantor sings the Muslim call to prayer (adhan) from on top of a mosque’s minaret, or more often now through speakers. The call is not just a prompt to come to mosque, but is also a summary of the confession of faith. The call to prayer has become an integral experience within the entire community, as the chant demarcates the time of day — to not hear the call to prayer at the appointed time would likely invoke an uneasiness, as if time itself malfunctioned.

    This roundtable, and my readings on liturgical song, suggest that many Catholics desire a sung expression of faith whose absence would be unthinkable. Even so, unlike Islam, which is still very much an orally transmitted faith (e.g. also Qur’an memorization), western Christianity has become a very literal faith. The Reformation traditions, along with the Tridentine reforms, derive strongly from a significant turn towards literacy in the early modern period abetted by the printing press and other then revolutionary technologies (see Karl Liam Saur’s observations). Rita Ferrone’s remarks on hymnody in Protestant worship (begins 22:01) glances both ways. The desire for musical expression as an internalized and integral component of Christian life is a goal shared by the panel participants. I am convinced that the word and musical notation inhabits a symbiotic relationship with orally memorized sung worship. Western Christians, including Catholics, are beholden to literalism. If literalism cannot be escaped, even in assembly song, why then minimalize its presence?

    Perhaps the discomfort some pastoral musicians express towards literalism stems from its inescapable nature. Certainly, it is more than fair for any Catholic to criticize hyper-literal worship, such as Low Mass. Even so, both the call for greater congregational singing through hymnody and the mute spectators at Low Mass reside at two extremes of a spectrum, and not as opposites.

  10. Jeffrey Tucker at Chant Café seems very disturbed with this video about congregational singing. He would rather we just not talk about it.

    http://www.chantcafe.com/2013/08/how-to-endlessly-talk-about-wrong-thing.html

    The only good evidence we have about congregational singing is the Notre Dame Parish study which found that the people overwhelming supported congregational singing, it is just that almost half the people did not like the music choices in their parish.

    Since the musicians and parish staff choose the music, they and not the congregation are the heart of the problem.

  11. I disagree that Jeffrey would rather not talk about it. I believe be would rather not have the conversation in this roundtable. His point is that whatever we have been doing to increase assembly participation (singing) is simply not happening and I for one have to agree with him on that point. Here we are decades after V2 and in many (being charitable) places I have worked or visited, up to 50% of the congregation does not sing. There are still many people who just sit – stand – kneel without ever utering a word. I have personally witnessed a cantor or music director begging people to sing before mass (in more than one parish). Even Rob Glover makes inference to the difficulties he has getting people to sing. I believe the conversation we need is about the lack of success people have in spite of all the tricks, gimmicks, and subtle minipulations we
    employ. That being said, I still think this was a good discussion for what it was. No one would dispute the goodness or wisdom of congregational singing (even Jeffrey). The arguements arise when we discuss the success of our labour and the reality of our liturgical experiences.
    I find myself saying the same prayer each Sunday I try to inspire and engage the assembly. “Lord, grant success to the work of our hands. Grant success to the work of our hands.”

    1. @Ron Jones – comment #12:

      The reason why as much as 50% of the assembly do not sing is because the US now has a whole generation of cantors/leaders of song who have had much tuition in vocal technique, in liturgy, in scripture… and yet virtually nothing on the techniques of eliciting true congregational participation in song. Fortunately under people like Joe Simmons this is now starting to change, but it is going to take a very long time to undo what happened during the 1980s, 90s and early 2000s in the area of cantor training. A massive missed opportunity.

      I frequently find myself, in response to the question “How do you get your congregations to sing?”, doing “remedial” cantor training in the midst of a workshop which is supposed to be about something else. And I know from the emails that I receive subsequently that these techniques work, that people change, and that pastors are happier.

  12. Wherever I have served most people sing for two main reasons: I can and do sing. We use songs and settings that they can and do sing.

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