Yesterday in Part I, I examined keyboard volume level on responsorial forms. Today I take up traditional organ-led strophic hymns.
We might as well admit it: congregational singing in parts of Catholicism is still, a half century after the Second Vatican Council, pretty rotten. Back in the 80s, Thomas Day (of Why Catholics Can’t Sing fame) spoke of situations where less than a tenth of the congregation sang, where almost no one joined in even on “Silent Night.” Much progress has been made in many places since then, but such can still be found today.
It is what it is. So let’s deal with it. I think we need an academic discipline called “Remedial Catholic Hymn Leading” for organists. It is not helpful to play as if everyone is singing like Minnesota Lutherans when they’re not. We need strategies for dealing with the reality of our situation.
Here is my proposal for some elements of this remedial discipline.
1. Strong, then soft. You probably want to start strong, but then, after you’ve established the tempo and character of the hymn, pull back for internal stanzas. It is good for the congregation to hear itself (if they’re up to this) because the organ has scaled back the volume. This gives the congregation awareness of itself as a singing body, and self-confidence.
2. Steady tempo. If you select one or more internal stanzas for congregational dominance, you will have to find a way for the organ to maintain the tempo even as it recedes into the background. Otherwise the tempo will drag painfully. Try light, punchy chords on downbeats, for example.
3. Melody solo. For internal stanzas, consider soloing out the melody with a strong registration on one manual and a rather light accompaniment on the other. This allows for strong leadership at a lower volume level. It also helps make the melody clear for Catholics who know a corpus of traditional hymnody of about five tunes. (BTW, I solo out the melody for introductions, but generally not for the first stanza. This one needs to have a more solid surround-sound to support the people. Then the soloing out on the second stanza provides welcome clarification.)
4. Quick tempo. Pick tempos a bit on the quick side. Counteract the widespread impression that traditional organ-led hymns are dull. The elegance of a broad, grandiose Anglican tempo? Forget it. At least for now, in this remedial stage.
5. Strong downbeat. Quick doesn’t mean rushed, for sure not breathless. The downbeat has to be, for doubting and hesitant congregations, even clearer as the tempo increases. Imagine and feel the strong downbeat in your bones before you begin playing.
6. Low pitch. I suppose the vocal specialists will contest this one, but lower pitch is better. Hesitant singers are more likely to balk when it’s too high than when it’s too low. Give in, for now, and forget about how nice and bright it sounds at a higher pitch. Remember, we’re in a remedial stage.
7. All stanzas if possible. If the singing has attained a minimal satisfactory level, it is best to do all the stanzas of a hymn as much as possible. This gives people multiple exposure to the melody, and reinforces their familiarity and confidence with the melody.
8. But not painfully too many stanzas. When the singing is so weak that the experience is not a positive one – for example, when less than a tenth of the congregation is singing – it is not advisable to prolong everyone’s pain by singing every stanza. Our people need positive, encouraging experiences. Go for three, or even two stanzas – of course looking at the text beforehand to determine which stanzas can be omitted while preserving a coherent text. As you work toward the ideal of doing all the stanzas, do only about one more stanza than you think will start to be too painful for too many people.
9. No amplified cantor – eventually. The dogmas that hymns are led by the organ, without cantor or songleader singing into the microphone, is not absolute. It is an ideal toward which to work. In the remedial stage, a clear cantor’s voice can help the hesitant congregation join in. (Think of it as another manner of soloing out the melody.) Teach the cantor to follow the organist’s tempo – the organ is still leading. More important, teach the cantor to step away from the microphone once the people begin to take ownership – for example, at the beginning of the second stanza. On well-known hymns, use no cantor at all as soon as possible.
10. End with a bang. All bets are off on the last stanza. Blast away to your heart’s desire. After doing all the above, you’ve earned it. If, through your restraint, the congregation has experienced itself as a communal singing bodyin preceding stanzas, it should be ready by the last stanza to unite its praise with the roar of all creation on heaven and earth.
Then there’s the postlude. Here’s my take: it can’t possibly be too loud.