Non Solum: Teaching New Music

Today’s Question: Teaching New Music

Teaching new music to a congregation can be difficult and depends on a variety of factors including the community’s musical ability. Many communities will introduce a new Mass setting, hymn, acclamation, etc., by doing a short tutorial at the start of Mass. Depending on how quickly the congregation learns the new music, a tutorial might be needed several Sundays in a row. But tutorials before Mass are disliked by some as a distracting and non-prayerful way to begin a liturgy. Is there a way to avoid them and accomplish the same end, or at least make them less objectionable?

I am curious to know how your community introduces new music. What practices do you find most helpful? How do you gauge whether the community has become comfortable with the music being introduced?

Please comment below.


Moderator’s note: “Non solum” is a feature at Pray Tell for our readership community to discuss practical liturgical issues. The title comes from article 11 of the Vatican II liturgy constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium: “Therefore there is to be vigilance among holy pastors that in liturgical action not only are laws for valid and licit celebration to be observed, but that the faithful should participate knowingly, actively, and fruitfully.” (Ideo sacris pastoribus advigilandum est ut in actione liturgica non solum observentur leges ad validam et licitam celebrationem, sed ut fideles scienter, actuose et fructuose eandem participent.) May the series contribute to good liturgical practice – not only following the law, but especially grasping the spirit of the liturgy!


  1. New music is introduced before the liturgy–just after the announcements. It does not seem to disrupt a prayerful time (for me) because everyone in the congregation is chatting among themselves, often greeting friends, before Mass. As just a sitter-in-a-pew, I like this because this is the community gathering themselves before the liturgy. And no matter what form it takes, community–forgiveness, peace, love–among ourselves–is what the Sacrifice of the Mass invites us to. To me, this is part of the spirit of the liturgy even though it precedes it.

    1. @Jan O’Hara – comment #1:
      Our parish is similar to Jan’s. We greet one another before Mass and engage in welcoming conversation. Therefore, the rehearsal is more like a call to worship. I greet them and proceed to familiarize them with the psalm or a new piece of music that we will pray during the liturgy. No one complains.

  2. First of all, it occurred to me long ago that the need for “new” music is one of far greater importance to liturgical musicians (and some clergy) than it is for the members of the assembly. The parish I serve knows very well a broad repertoire of psalms, hymns, and inspired songs. Occasionally the music minister and I hear new music at NPM and other gatherings and decide that we just must add that to the repertoire. Here’s how we do it. The choir or ensemble will introduce it either as a prelude before Mass or during the preparation of the gifts. If it has a refrain, we teach that right before Mass begins but just once over lightly so as not to intrude on people’s prayer time. The cantor or the music group do the verses and everyone just picks it up after a verse or two. With new Mass settings, we teach a refrain of the Gloria or a Lamb of God which only takes a few minutes. With help from the music groups and cantors we eventually get it down well. We’ve been able to introduce four new settings since the awful new translation was introduced two years ago. Not bad, huh? Music is the servant of the liturgy and so turning the church into a rehearsal hall to satisfy the desire for “new” music by the musicians should be done sparingly IMO. Now it no doubt helps that I am a very musical person and my love for praising God in song rubs off on people. Every visiting priest comments on how enthusiastically people sing here. Hats off to our wonderful musicians as well!

    1. @Fr. Jack Feehily – comment #2:
      #4 and #2, in my experience, are *best practice*. Have rarely experienced complaints when a trained cantor and Music Director introduce new music. Often, it helps when this is a consistent pattern in the parish community and also when the presiders and/or homilists use or refer to some of this new music when reflecting on that day’s scripture.

      In addition, typically use one Mass Setting for a solid liturgical year (may use other, previously sung settings at times but nothing new).

      In terms of new hymns, chants, etc. – use during a whole season or, during Ordinary Time, for a whole month before changing, interjecting, or adding anything new.

      Would also agree with Fr. Jack – it can be difficult, but planning a whole year out and limiting or focusing what and how often *new* music is introduced is important.

    2. @Fr. Jack Feehily – comment #2:

      “First of all, it occurred to me long ago that the need for “new” music is one of far greater importance to liturgical musicians (and some clergy) than it is for the members of the assembly. ”

      There is something to that. On the other hand, and at the risk of seeming arrogant, trained and experienced specialists often are better judges of these things than the community as a whole.

      In my view, it’s a reasonable expectation that a community will learn a certain amount of new music throughout the year. And there are a number of legitimate reasons to introduce new musical pieces to the community. The need for the community to appropriate singable settings of the new missal translation certainly is one. Another is pastoral reality, as when an English-only faith community gradually (or quicker than gradually) becomes a bilingual faith community; the musical life of the community needs to reflect this development. It also seems to me that the liturgical renewal of the 2nd Vatican Council isn’t complete; we’re still appropriating it, and it’s natural that the community’s repertoire will develop in tandem with this appropriation.

      That a community’s repertoire isn’t completely static but constantly developing seems to me to be a sign of corporate spiritual health.

  3. Fr. Feehily’s suggestions sound quite reasonable (and obviously successful). I believe having the choir introduce the new piece/song and sing/chant it for a number of Sundays helps to introduce the assembly to that particular piece. Once familiarized the assembly picks up the new piece together with the choir from there. However, I am not an expert.
    Perhaps Charles Culbreth has a suggestion on this?

    1. @Dale R. Rodrigue – comment #3:
      Thank you, Dr Dale, for the shout out. After 43+ years the last 23 of those in assignment to a four parish merge (18 Masses each Sunday), the only sure thing I know is that virtually each assembly (I use that as opposed to congregation) amounts to a unique “species” unto itself, including the celebrants. And with such a rotating cast, looking for a uniform “serum” method to inform, infuse and nurture a previously unknown strain of musical nourishment is likely to fail across the broad spectrum.
      I will re-addrress this later today in another post. But I quibble I bit at the notion that the “community” introduces new music, or even that it then guages said music’s successful acquisition. The DM or choir master/cantor (arggh) charged with such leadership and decision responsibilities ought to be qualified to both forensically examine the worthiness and vitality of a musical work, but also have good intuition as to its suitability in the “community” s/he serves.
      I’ll leave it at that for now. Good thread going though. Thanks, Dale.

  4. While also doing variations of what people have already said, the organist at our parish starts playing a new hymn or Mass setting a month before it is officially introduced to the parish, usually as background music.

    By the time it is officially introduced, people are somewhat familiar with the melody.

  5. If you are introducing the Mass of Renewal you can post a link to their website on your parish website.

    That is what my favorite parish did this past month for introducing their new Gloria.

    The cold and snowy weather has not allowed me to check out the results.

    Even if they are positive, they might be biased because the parish introduced a new website in December. They also used survey monkey to ask people questions to formulate the pastor’s response to the survey from Rome on divorce, etc. And then they put the results out on the website. So I suspect it is now a far more active website than most parishes in which the bulletin is the only news.

  6. The music itself should be readily available to people in the pews. For some reason, there are communities that pretty much exclude visitors from singing by use of music that is not provided to them (either literally or effectively).

  7. In addition to the approaches mentioned above, let me add that the attitudes of the presider and the musician(s) are critical in this process.

    For example, consider Presider A:

    “Good morning. Well, the organist has a new hymn for us today. (sigh) It’s pretty good — I heard him practicing earlier — so let’s try our best to get into it. I’m not a fan of all this new music (rolls eyes), but I’m willing to go along with it for the sake of our musicians, and I hope that you will too. Please turn to page X, and follow along as he plays through it once. . .”

    Then there’s Presider B, just down the street:

    “Good morning. You are in for a treat today, as our organist has a prepared for us a wonderful new hymn to grace our worship. The tune strikes me as a little dance tune, easily learned, that gets my foot tapping before I even know it, and the text is an engaging and inspiring take on our gospel reading for today. Here’s how the first stanza goes . . . (singer sings, with minimal or no accompaniment) . . . Isn’t that wonderful? Let’s all join together on stanza two, with a little support from the organ . . .”

    You can guess which congregation might jump into singing the new hymn, and which will not.

    John Bell has a wonderful pair of little books on the subject of congregational song — The Singing Thing: A Case for Congregational Song and The Singing Thing Two: Enabling Congregations to Sing — that are written for musicians, pastors, and others interested in congregational singing. Both are practical texts, but with deep theological underpinnings that engage the reader and leave you hungry to put into practice what you’ve been reading about.

    1. @Peter Rehwaldt – comment #9:

      Presider B sounds like a parent trying to get their child to eat vegetables. So condescending….

      It’s this sort of stuff that makes some people run to the EF or to the Eastern rites.

      1. @Stanislaus Kosala – comment #10:
        Sorry if it came off as condescending. That was not my intention at all.

        Instead, I was trying to point out that the attitude of the presider makes a huge difference in how anything new is received. If the presider apologizes for even trying something new, even before the attempt is made, the assembly often picks up on it. To borrow your analogy, if the parent tells the child, “I don’t like this food, but I’ll eat it because I have to, even though it doesn’t taste good and I’d rather eat something else,” how do you think they’ll react to what is set before them?

      2. @Peter Rehwaldt – comment #19:
        I didn’t mean to accuse you of being condescending. In my experience, if a piece of music is wonderful, catchy, and moves my foot to tap, no one has to tell me this. Just as kids tend to realize that if a certain vegetable were delicious, no one would need to try to convince them of that.
        As a result, the presider’s praise of the new hymn sounds a lot like “we’re going to make you sing this and you’re going to like it” in disguise, at least to me.
        The other concern I have about Presider B’s comment is that it gives the impression, at least to me, that the hymn is something that the assembly sings for its own amusement rather than a sung prayer. (e.g.. the presider’s comments refer solely to how singing the hymn makes people feel)

  8. I don’t think we need to be overly solicitous toward those who would impose silence on an entire community for their own spiritual edification. There is an hour between masses on Sundays in our parish; if people want silence, let them come early or stay late. And they can savor the silences that should be an integral part of our worship. Learning the texts and the notes of the liturgy is part of the community’s liturgical formation, and it’s reasonable to take some of the community’s time for it. People who object are being unreasonable.

  9. Many years ago in Kansas I heard the wonderful Sulpician Eugene Walsh give his take on this topic.

    He favored an intro before mass, for no longer than three minutes. First the congregation read the words, then with some direction thay read them again, then a third time with the music being played softly in the background.

    He made two points very strongly:

    1. The music is the peoples, musicians should not play/ sing and say now join in. The people should “own” the words first.

    2. If possible when the new music was used at mass the people would be asked to just sing the refrain until they had it down before being asked to sing the whole song. (But being open to some feeling comfortable singing the whole song with the choir sooner than asked).

    Fr Walsh had a passion for the people to participate and not feel condescended to by any special ministers – celebrant, music minister, ushers et. al.

  10. #2 Feehily the need for “new” music is one of far greater importance to liturgical musicians (and some clergy)

    The choir or ensemble will introduce it either as a prelude before Mass or during the preparation of the gifts.

    #4 Barkey the organist at our parish starts playing a new hymn or Mass setting a month before it is officially introduced to the parish

    #5 deHaas In terms of new hymns, chants, etc. – use during a whole season or, during Ordinary Time, for a whole month before changing, interjecting, or adding anything new

    #13 Culley First the congregation read the words, then with some direction thay read them again, then a third time with the music being played softly in the background.

    Behind the above comments are several well established psychological principles, verified extensively both in general and with regard to music in particular.

    1. Increasing familiarity leads to increased liking.
    2. People prefer slightly more novel things, and slightly more complex things over very novel things and very complex things.

    The reaction of our brains to novel stimulation is initially much more of a “what is it” than a “I like it” or “I don’t like it”

    If our brains can begin to process it with other familiar material we generally begin to get “I like it” “I understand it” “I know how to do this” positive feelings. Except for some specialists who may override this with their “expert” negative judgments.

    3. After the initial “what is it” followed by a growing “liking” there is a phenomenon call “habituation” in which the exact same stimulation produces less and less of a positive response, i.e. we become bored.

    4. The good news is that we become “dishabituated” if we don’t receive the same stimulation for a while, hence Bill’s excellent suggestion about seasonal music. A season, or month in case of OT, is about the time the people can enjoy a hymn without habituation beginning to develop. The next year we come back dishabituated. We can also become dishabituated by slight changes in how the music is done, e.g. a capella, antiphonally, etc.

    The bad news is that choirs, music directors, and priests with interest in music are often poor judges of where the community is in the curve. All these music people go through the curve from novelty to liking to boredom much faster than the community at large because they experience the song more often through practices and multiple masses on the weekend.

  11. I realize and respect that congregational singing is an imperative cornerstone principle of the liturgical reform. I do not wish to challenge this. I also realize that many musicians read and contribute to PTB. Still, some place should be made for people who would rather start Mass in silence. Also, there will inevitably be people who do not wish to sing on Sunday, or keep singing to the minimum required by the GIRM.

    One idea is to rotate the “teaching Masses” so that by the end of a month all Masses have gotten a tutorial. This way, those who like to begin Mass in silence will only be deprived of this for one Sunday.

    Or, as I frequently say, the earliest Sunday Mass can be set aside for the said Mass. This way, those who do not wish to be tutored on Mass settings or hymns, or even sing anything beyond a plainsong setting, can allow worshipers at other Masses to receive every Sunday tutorials.

    I don’t think it’s possible to entirely placate people who are not inclined towards singing. It is better to simply give them an option where congregational music is limited to perhaps a plainsong Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, with only one or two settings used.

    1. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #15:

      Around here, people who (presumably) are not inclined toward singing just do not sing — not the opening song, not the Gloria, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, they sing nothing.

      No one is forced to participate in congregational singing. If you want to sing, then sing; if you don’t, then don’t is pretty much how things are — at least for the mass I’m attending.

      Perhaps not uncoincidentally then, there is hardly any tutorial for the new music, except just a brief mention at the beginning — as part of the general pre-mass announcement — of where to refer to for which songs (e.g., inside the bulletin, pages XX in the hymnal, etc.)

      1. @Elisabeth Ahn – comment #16:

        Elizabeth: Around here, people who (presumably) are not inclined toward singing just do not sing — not the opening song, not the Gloria, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, they sing nothing.

        I understand well from my own experiences. I don’t sing at Mass, mostly because I can’t sing. When a response is sung, I just say the response in a low voice instead.

        The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) §40 could be interpreted as a mandate for Mass settings and hymns on Sunday. This is why I suggest that a said Sunday Mass include a small number of chants in order to fulfill GIRM §40. In my experience where this has been tried, at least a few of the congregants sing along with the priest. That is enough to fulfill the GIRM rubric in my opinion.

    2. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #15:

      Simply do what I do when I go to the gym with all its TVs on the wall and blaring music. I bring along my Bose headphones which greatly reduce the external noise and allow me to listen to chant in peace.

      This proposal sounds too much like carving out a special recognized sub-community within the larger community with its own liturgy being imposed on other people, which I would question, rather than allowing for multiple personal responses and ways of participating in the communal liturgy, which I would support. Having everyone do the same thing at Mass is tyranny rather than community.

  12. The parish in which I serve as Music Director is very participatory in its singing, and the parishioners rather like new music to pop up from time to time in the repertoire. However, I only very rarely “teach” a new hymn before mass. I prefer the approach of allowing folks to learn the piece over time.

    By way of example, our parish this year is celebrating its 175th anniversary, and I composed a new Gathering Hymn to be used throughout the year. I began introducing it in Late Ordinary Time last fall in preparation for the anniversary year. Being seasonally appropriate and not feast-specific, we sang it as our Gathering Hymn for four weeks in a row. I made a very brief announcement about it before mass the first week, bringing attention to it and its purpose, but did not teach it. Being a Refrain-verse format, when mass began, I had the choir/cantor sing the refrain twice at the start, inviting assembly participation with the usual gesture the second time around. The worship aid contained both text and music for the refrain, but text only for the verses. People began to pick up the refrain fairly quickly, but it took a couple of weeks before it was being sung with gusto. By that time, folks started sing along with the verses, too, even though the music itself was not printed. After these four weeks, the piece was put aside to make way for Christ the King, Advent, and Christmas. It came back again on the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, and the organ intro seemed sufficient to jog memories, the singing almost immediately robust. It now seems that it will serve well as it is used throughout our anniversary year.

    This technique would certainly not work well for every new hymn/acclamation, and some pieces do require that pre-mass teaching time. This can also be aided by posting recordings or links to such on the parish website and directing folks there. It is best practice to think about how a piece will fit into the repertoire long-term, allowing the parish to make the prayer its own over time.

  13. At the other end of the scale, I have known music directors who introduce new music frequently (such as a new entrance antiphon every week) and see no need to rehearse anything with the assembly. I believe the reasoning goes: the music is printed in the worship aid, so that’s all they should need. If they don’t read music, it’s their own fault for being ignorant, or society’s fault for not teaching musical literacy in schools. When it comes to pass that people don’t sing, that just proves their point that people won’t sing anyway, so just let the choir do all of the singing. It’s a circular logic, and not uncommon among certain high-classical musicians.

  14. At the beginning of our celebration of the Feast of the Presentation this morning, the children of the parish processed into church with candles while we all sang the antiphon ‘Lumen ad revelationem gentium’ (our cantor sang the Nunc Dimittis verses). This was completely unknown to our people, but the celebrant briefly explained that we were going to mark this feast of the Lord by processing and singing an ancient chant melody – the very same as that which would have been sung by the monks at the nearby abbey church, but in English this morning. The words of the antiphon and its melody (in modern notation) were on the service sheet along with the cantor’s words, and the cantor sang the antiphon through once at the start. The result was rather beautiful and, if the people were a little hesitant the first time through, they were singing confidently by the end.

    We wouldn’t usually introduce new material in this way, but it worked today. Then again, our people enjoy singing the Mass, we encourage them to do so, and our new parish priest is a fine musician (Fr Peter Jones – known to many of you through his liturgical compositions). Also, our catholic and eclectic repertoire helps: though we started with chant, we went on to enjoy ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence’ (to PICARDY) and – in a rare and rationed outing – Kendrick’s ‘Shine, Jesus, shine’.

  15. I’ve heard Marty Haugen’s perspective on this a few times, and I like what he says: this isn’t a moment of instruction, it’s a moment of invitation. The members of the assembly need constant reminders that they are invited to participate in the singing, otherwise (and especially when musical leadership is being given by competent musicians) the assumption sets in that the music is there for the experts to execute, and to be received passively by everyone else. For me, two things follow:

    (i) the right time to reissue the invitation isn’t necessarily when something new is being presented. If anything, the invitation is more likely to garner a positive response when it’s in relation to something familiar or easy. The upshot is that I run through the psalm response before Mass every Sunday, even when it only contains three notes, or it’s one we’ve sung a hundred times before, simply as a way to keep on inviting participation;

    (ii) You can lead a horse to water… Issuing the invitation over and over doesn’t necessarily secure a response. It’s my job to run through some of the music with the people before Mass, even when all I hear back is whistling wind and the rustle of tumbleweed. As Marty Haugen says, if you invite people they may not respond, but if you don’t invite them they probably won’t.

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