Non solum: Vesting the Choir

A regular Pray Tell reader writes:

We are considering vesting our choirs of boys, girls, men and women, and I’ve been waffling between cassock and surplice, alb alone, and alb with a colored scapular over the top. I am attracted to the scapular not only because it adds a “splash of color,” but also because it represents (especially to those wearing it) a yoke of discipleship and an apron of service. Still, I’m nervous about co-opting a non-liturgical element of religious habits for a liturgical purpose.

For your reference, Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, the 2007 document of the U.S. bishops, says this at no. 33:

Choir and ensemble members may dress in albs or choir robes, but always in clean, presentable, and modest clothing. Cassock and surplice, being clerical attire, are not recommended as choir vesture.

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35 comments

  1. Just curious… Will your parish also vest lectors, extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, and ushers? Will they be vested year round, or not in the summer because it’s too hot? Again, not trying to start anything, just curious about the bigger picture.

  2. I agree with Rick Reed. I am not in favor of vesting choir members for the reasons he stated and for the reasoning in Sing to the Lord. Most of the time when I see choirs vested it is because the choir director needs to feel more important. And again, in the words of Rick…”not trying to start anything…”

  3. At my church in the US, nobody is vested, except altar servers who are sometimes dressed in albs.

    At my church in Korea, everyone who is involved in helping somehow is vested year round: altar servers (boys and girls) in (what to me looks like) cassock and surplice; lectors (men and women), choir members (men and women) and ushers (women) in the same (choir) robes; and extraordinary ministers (men) in albs.

    I don’t feel that strongly about it either way.

  4. For my money it’s only worthwhile if they are up front and in obvious view – where they shouldn’t (in my view) be anyway.
    Trouble is it raises expectations of a level of musical performance that might not be achieved.

  5. I don’t think the scapular on musicians has any sign value to a Catholic congregation: it looks like a gimmick. Now, a scapular that is worn *under* regular clothing can still have meaning to the musicians without drawing undue attention, if that is the goal. People with limited mobility will have issues wearing an alb; vesting the choir in that manner will definitely exclude people who might otherwise join, in which case the question will be – is that worth it?

  6. Robert Hovda, in one of his ‘Amen Corner’ columns in 1980 wrote on the importance of vesting of liturgical ministers

    ‘Like so many sense experiences that rationalist types dismiss as trivial, liturgical vesture has a considerable impact on the feelings of the assembly as a whole as well as on those exercising a particular role of leadership. Anyone who contrary to the most elementary human experience, persists in the stubborn conviction that ideas, points, arguments are the stuff that move human beings, is natively unfit for liturgical leadership, if not for human life.’

    Perhaps the moderators might post the rest of this article from Worship as it would provide food for thought in considering the question under consideration?

  7. Well, I could use this as a jumping off point to advocate for the vesting of the entire Christian assembly in the Alb. Imagine it, every Church with a cloak room. You come in, doff you suit or winter jacket, and on goes a crisp white alb…

    Now, this might be a pipe dream in large congregations, but it could be workable in smaller ones.

    Therefore, if I believe our entire assembly should vested in the representative vestment of our baptismal dignity, I suppose you know my view on the choir.

    1. @Father Robert Lyons:
      I have often found it interesting that there is an automatic assumption that the alb is synonymous with the white gown worn for baptism, when the liturgical books don’t make that connection. The alb was derived from the common dress in the Roman Empire of its time, just as other vestments were. I suppose the association might have developed as a result of pray the priest used to say when vesting in the alb.

  8. Since it is a devotional practice, I would not want to impose or suggest a scapular, or in an way make it normative for a liturgical ministry.

  9. We have a group that has taken over the music for the Vigil Mass. They all wear white shirts, and navy (or maybe black) pants/skirts. Voila: laic uniformity.

  10. A former music director at our parish required black shirts and black pants for high holidays as it were and then white shirts/black pants for regular Sundays. Only on Easter and Christmas was anything colorful permitted…

  11. Assuming the choir and cantor/director are in the procession and remain in the sanctuary or the choir area during the liturgy, I think a plain white or black cope, or a simple open gown worn over a suit or dress would be enough to identify them and their singular role within the body of liturgical actors. If everyone is singing from the choir loft, or they’re out of sight, e.g. from a side chapel and weren’t part of the procession, I don’t see why they have to wear any special attire.

  12. I like the idea of the choir dressing in “uniformed” fashion for certain liturgical solemnities and special events. Sometimes it is easier for choir members to wear a choir attire than to purchase clothes suitable for church, especially for teens or people on tight budgets. I am not a fan of music directors dressing in robes or what some folks refer to as “vestments”. It comes across to me as pompous. I think that music directors should dress as the model to their choirs of appropriate clothing for liturgy.

  13. The choir at my last parish wore simple robes, light tan with maroon collars. I can’t say that I liked them particularly, but, when I saw what counted as “modest Sunday best”, I realized that they were, frankly, a good way to avoid scandal. It wasn’t for the director’s ego, nor did it really promise better musical talent, but it provided a uniform appearance to a specific group of active liturgical participants.

  14. Every time it comes up for discussion in my parish choir we quickly conclude that we’re not Protestants and move on. That said, we do have certain tendencies in dress, especially during the holiday seasons, but the only time I ever recall anything specific being requested is for Pentecost. The matter of appropriate clothing, acceptably clean and in good repair, has never been an issue for us.

  15. This is the most flawed part of the Sing to the Lord. What is wrong with cassock and surplice? It’s just as much traditional choir dress as it is clerical dress. Originally, cassocks were just every day Roman dress anyway; it’s only clerical due to association, and I’m not even sure how strong that association is. Considering that the language says “not recommended” rather than banned, I feel perfectly fine ignoring their recommendation. Maybe when the Sistine Chapel choir starts wearing albs, I’ll change my mind.

    Also, since it has not yet been mentioned, any sort of vestment has the benefit of covering up any differences in social class or wealth. I get the impression that many people here see choir vesture as showing off, but nobody would think that about the servers. Simple and beautiful vestments have the effect of unifying the choir and emphasizing their role as liturgical ministers.

    1. @Doug O’Neill:
      As a choir member, I think it would be cool if we dressed in cassock and surplice, but I think the issue is since choirs are usually men and women, dressing in what is considered clerical dress is problematic.

  16. Business attire should be the norm. It’s important to remember that a member or some members of a choir may be from another Christian church, another religion altogether, or positioned somewhere on the agnostic-atheist spectrum. Members of the choir who are not Catholic might not want to wear uniforms which resemble liturgical vestments of a church or religion to which they do not adhere. I, and perhaps other Catholics, also would not want to wear pseudo-vestments. I do not consider my own participation in a choir (should I ever sing again) as a liturgical function.

    As I have written before in another thread, I completely refuse to countenance litmus tests for the choir, the choirmaster, the organist etc. I would seriously consider not attending such a parish should the presence of a test be made known. Pastors who apply these tests not only drive away talent from their churches, but also act against charity. Pseudo-liturgizing the choir merely invites a “… only need apply”. This is an unnecessary division between parish personnel and the parish as a whole. I suspect that pseudo-vestments could be, but not necessarily be, an invitation for litmus.

    Lest we forget the subtext of Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute)! Certainly Mozart’s thinly-veneered Freemasonry did not cost him commissions from Catholic rulers. So then, why should the OCP annual hymnal arrive from the lips of robed Catholics alone?

  17. In my many years as a choir director for both boys’ and girls’ choirs I have found that it is helpful to have a choir wear some type of vesture. In a very practical sense, it takes care of the problem of young singers who are moving between several different appointments (sports, dance, etc) on a Sunday morning. More importantly, it is easy to observe how putting on a robe “reorients” their mind to focus on the task at hand, and I have seen singers really change their attitude as they vested for Mass and prepared their hymnal and music. This is an interesting discussion in light of this Sunday’s Gospel about how the religious leaders of the time were so concerned about laws, rather than what is behind the law. What is important for me is that children in the year 2015 can come to our parish church from the soccer field or dance, take off their cleats or dance slippers, and put on a choir robe. It is not what the rubrics may encourage, but I think it helps form these young catholics as liturgical ministers in a very practical way.

    1. @Michael Wustrow:
      I agree with Michael Wustrow’s comments on the practicality and formative value, especially with regard to young choristers.

      I do think this question points to others:

      1. Does the lay choir (within the larger “choral” assembly of the Church) have a ministerial function?

      2. Is the lay choir (where it still exists) merely a vestigial substitution for a clerical choir of canons?

      3. Is there any historical precedent for the lay choir, or it an innovation resulting from the liturgical reforms? (The monastic choir, for instance, which in essence is not clerical.)

      4. Insofar as it is an innovation, is it possible for similarly new forms of liturgical vesture to emerge out of theological reflection on the possible ministerial role of the lay choir, whether or not it immediately “reads” as a meaningful sign to the larger assembly? (LKS)

  18. We dress in all black to give a uniform look – one of our Choral Masses is televised and the choir is shown. The thought of a bunch of floral prints combining into some sort of choir-garden on television gives me nightmares.

    In the past I’ve worked at places that used cassock and surplice. I’m fine with that and feel comfortable doing that.

    The problem with albs is that USUALLY the nice ones look very clerical and the ones that don’t look clerical look like bathrobes.

    I’ve substituted at Protestant parishes and had choir members or sacristans try to hand me some bathrobe-looking garment and I’ve always made an excuse about the organ pedals to get them to just wearing my suit or slacks and coat.

  19. I wonder whether vesting the choir would reduce congregational participation in singing (“I don’t need to sing—it’s someone else’s job”).

    1. @Ralph Bremigan:
      What’s important for congregational participation is that the choir be aurally part of the congregational singing. Vestments should have no impact whatsoever on that.

  20. Like what Doug #23 said. I look to the choir to lead people to sing. If a robe makes the assembly sing better, then get them robes. If the asssembly sings better when the choir is wearing the best Nike clothing they can find, then swoosh it up.

    If a choir does anything to make them look like performers, separating themselves from those whom they are to lead, then stop that. My sense is that good choir leadership to get people singing, has little to do with clothing.

  21. First of all, cassocks and surplices are attire clearly associated with clerics. Altar boys were clad in them with the thought that some might move towards a vocation to the priesthood. Dress like a priest and become one.
    Secondly, the Alb is the common liturgical vestment and it’s color clearly recalls the white dress worn in baptism. Traditionalists appear to prefer cassocks and surplices (sometime even for choral garments), but as one who has been influenced positively by the developments of VII I’ve never seen a choir clad in albs. Our choir uses the kind of choir robes associated with countless choral groups most of which may be Protestant. They look nice.
    Thirdly, the choir in my parish does not “help” or “lead” the people to sing. Our assembly knows clearly that they are called and equipped to praise God with a joyful sound. The accompanists provide them with the proper cues. They also see and hear me singing and know what is asked of them. The choir sings preludes and other special music that ministers to the assembly.

  22. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe historically the choir actually consisted of clerics. Over time that was loosened – lay men and boys, then women, then girls. The cassock and surplice therefore diverged into two lines equally associated with clerics and choirs. So I guess I see the denial of cassock and surplice to choirs as a form of clericalism. Some choirs will have men and boys in cassock and surplice (because singing in a choir is just as much formation for priesthood as being an altar boy), but women and girls in albs. But the Anglican tradition has no problem at all with women and girls in cassock and surplice. Having some experience in that tradition, I never thought twice about seeing women and girls in those vestments, because it actually has a stronger association with choirs than it does with the clergy (and besides, they have female clergy). Perhaps that is not true in the Roman tradition, but I still don’t see why cassock and surplice has to be strictly clerical dress.

    1. @Doug O’Neill:
      I’m not sure we can say there has been a divergence of two equal traditions of clerical and lay “vested” choirs. Even in the Anglican tradition lay “vicars choral” still “stood in” for canons, and while there may be some semblance of a parallel line between the choral foundation and the chapter of canons, I would think they are still conceptually linked.

      While lay, mixed church choirs have been in existence for quite a long time, they haven’t been associated with the liturgical “schola cantorum” mentioned in the ritual books until post Vatican II. It would seem to me that the expansion of the use of cassock and surplice represents an extension of the notion of the clerical choir. Since we don’t have cathedral canons in the U.S., the clerical choir really only convenes when communities of canons (e.g. Norbertines) or secular clergy gather for the Divine Office. With the “schola cantorum” of men and boys being increasingly rare in North America (and elsewhere) over the last century, the practical reality of lay choirs became increasingly disassociated with the clerical choir, to the point that while many parishes may have some semblance of a choir within its liturgical assemblies, not many of those choirs function in a way that is integral to the liturgy or performing those parts of the liturgy reserved for the “schola cantorum.”

      1. @Kevin Vogt:
        There you go. I should have checked my history first. It seems to me that the confusion over what the choir should wear is related to the various roles that a choir fulfills.

      2. @Doug O’Neill:
        Doug, you might be right about parallel lay/clerical vesture in the Anglican tradition (beyond cathedral and collegiate chapel?) and other Protestant traditions that continued with “chancel choirs.”

  23. Our choir does not wear vestments, a situation I inherited when I became Music Director 14 years ago, and I have not felt the need to introduce it. The choristers’ dress has always basically been appropriate, although I would say that it has become more consistently so over the years. I generally wear a suit and tie for Mass, and so the men in the choir have followed suit (pun intended), and the women dress in nice modest skirts, blouses, dresses, pants, suits, what have you. (I should mention that my predecessor sometimes wore shorts to Mass.) We are located near the sanctuary, but in such a way that we are very much part of the congregation, too, aside from the fact that the choir is on risers. Albs would look nice, I think, but not necessary in our situation. If it came down from somewhere at some point that I should vest the choir, that is likely the direction I would go. Cassock and surplice would look silly in our space, I think, clerical or not. “Choir robes” strike me as more of a Protestant thing. (I also direct an ecumenical choir, but we just wear choral black and white for performances or prayer services in which we take part.)

    For more solemn or festive occasions, I will often remind the choir of the liturgical color, and many will try to incorporate that into their wardrobe for the occasion.

  24. It is worth remembering that in the Anglican tradition surpliced choirs were a 19th.century revival which provoked riots in some places.

    The earlier Anglican parochial tradition had been for choirs and musicians to be in a gallery (usually at the west end).

    One of the reasons for bringing choirs downstairs was to reduce unruly behaviour in the loft!

  25. I am a member of a predominantly black Catholic congregation. I am also a cantor and choir member. We built our church without a loft. We have two choirs-one Gospel Choir and one traditional choir. Both choirs wear robes, but the traditional choir have robes to represent the liturgical seasons. We have done this for many years. I am so disappointed for having to tell the choir we have to start wearing black. We have only worn black during funerals. Is it necessary for us to change from wearing the liturgical colors?

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