The Organ is Too Loud! And So is the Piano. Part II

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.Organ 3

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.




  1. Two more, keep the same pulse going between the intro and the first verse. That way folks know when to start,
    Secondly and analogously, keep a strict pulse within verses and between verses so the downbeat or upbeat of the following verse is absolutely clear. No dropping of anchors on the final lines of verses.

  2. Lots of good points in both posts and in all the comments. I may have missed it though, but I haven’t heard any discussion of what it is about Lutheran culture and protestant generally that has led to the stereotype of the fullthroated singing congregation. So I guess I just think it would be interesting to find out how that specific tradition developed (beyond Martin Luther wrote a few choice hymns), can it be appropriated and how, and do Catholics really want to do it at all anyway?

    1. @Jonathan Ziegler – comment #2:

      Martin Marty, a Lutheran musician as well as minister and historian, pointed to a Catholic emphasis on visuals that was related to the Lutheran emphasis on music. With much of the indulgence peddling of Luther’s time focussed on the building of St Peter’s in Rome, visual extravagance got caught up in the crossfire of the Reformation. Some great German musicians like Bach, Mozart, et al institutionalized the trend.

      Garrison Keillor describes an anemic commitment to the visual by citing the glories of architecture and art in Roman churches, and then summing up the Lutheran contribution as “The Praying Hands.”

      Each denomination embraces both visual and musical talents, and the trends go back before the Reformation, so I would not over emphasize the differences. We need to appreciate the different types of art that are put at the service of God’s Word.

  3. As Catholics we were late to the party on congregational singing. The Protestants emphasized robust hymn-singing back during a time when people were accustomed to making music: singing and playing instruments in their homes, group singing at fraternal and civic events, even singing rowdy songs in the tavern. While some Catholics were singing devotional hymns outside of the Mass, most were taught to be silent in church. Then our liturgical renewal came along which stressed vocal participation–at the very time when public singing went out of fashion.

    When I was a kid (not so long ago) the crowd sang the National Anthem at the start of ballgames, whether little league or major league. Today, it’s sung by some crooning diva with a wireless mic.

    1. @Scott Pluff – comment #4:
      I don’t know Scott, but Polish Catholics had a pretty strong tradition of singing hymns during Mass (ie. Low Mass with hymns). I still have some of my grandparents well worn copies of the “Śpiewnik Kościelny,” published in the 19th century, which was THE hymnal used right up to and even after VII where Mass was offered in Polish. Sunday Vespers in Polish was another strong opportunity to sing, and is included in this beloved book beside the large number of hymns.

      Maybe plant some Lutherans, Methodists, or Episcopalians in the pews at Mass and see if singing improves. But you’d better sing all the verses. 😉

  4. Again… THANK YOU!!!

    Another point is giving an intro that is long enough for the assembly to mentally absorb the the name of the hymn; actually pick up the hymnbook; find the hymn and then be ready to sing. Blessings!

  5. While not related to organ/keyboard performance per se, it might be worth mentioning that cultivating a stable and consistent repertoire, and a commitment to teaching new music, make a big difference in getting people to sing at mass. As is a modicum of musical competence (cantors who sing well, organists who play well, etc.) on the part of musical leadership.

  6. The cantor on a mic issue:
    I believe that the presence of a cantor on a mic is a hindrance to congregational hymn singing, a habit to be overcome in order to get congregations to improve, NOT an aide to employ until they get better.

    I wrote about my issues with amplified song leaders, specifically in relation to the Church of Christ tradition (where robust congregational singing is a hallmark of their worship style):

    The feedback I got from CoCers was all over the map, but those who have spent a lifetime studying this basically all agreed with me: Microphoned song leaders make for less congregational singing, not more. My own experience with Episcopalian and Catholic congregations reinforces this: when I was a frequent cantor in Catholic liturgies, I found the best way to get the congregation to sing was to BACK OFF the mic. As a congregant, I find singing ALONG WITH a song leader or cantor to be much less enjoyable than singing with a congregation that has found its voice.

    On a similar note, I would also recommend UNACCOMPANIED, UNAMPLIFIED singing as a way to help/encourage congregational song. Whether its a chant hymn or a Taize refrain or simple folk song, people will sing if they collectively realize it is the only way.

    BTW – This is one of the reasons I wrote the Mass of the Blessed Fire setting based on Shaker melodies – to encourage unaccompanied congregational participation in the music of Mass.

    1. @Adam Wood – comment #9:
      Adam – I pretty much agree with you, and I regret if my wording suggested lots of cantor singing on mic. I’m talking about situations of complete disaster where almost no one is singing. And this could be in a situation where the people otherwise sing well but, for example, a piece is new or difficult. I think a bit of cantor help there can be a help and not a hindrance.

      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #10:
        I agree with Adam Wood as well. If a cantor is amplified, the members of the assembly are trained to orient aurally toward that sound on that acoustical plane, often unaware of the choral sound of which they are a part (however timid-sounding in comparison to the voices amplified via electronic mediation)…the very sound of the presence of the Christ in “the assembly of the baptized when it prays and sings.”

        That said, if a critical mass in the congregation does not know the text and tune very well, it will be next to impossible for the members of the assembly to instruct and encourage one another in the singing of that song. Couple that with architectural environments that acoustically isolate each worshiper and encourage liturgical introversion, and impeding perception of the natural order (and, I submit, access to the supernatural) by the use of media that aims at the creation of a virtual reality, and I’d say the temporary use of the amplified cantor is unavoidable…if one wants to keep one’s job long enough to mount an expensive acoustical renovation, develop a large choir program to ensure group-singing leadership of the larger assembly at a gazillion Masses each Sunday. It’s a delicate dance, to be sure…not to please everyone, but to keep everyone together and on board while getting the boat pointing in the direction of a place where music is not simply delivered and consumed, but made and offered by the Assembly of God’s Holy People, whole and parts…on the same acoustical plane in which the exterior senses are integrated, the interior senses are awakened, and everything in the natural order gives way to the supernatural.

      2. @Kevin Vogt – comment #20:
        There are times it is better to place strong singers amid the congregation, especially in the rear half of the space, as it were.

      3. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #21
        Right on. We’re off the organ leadership topic now, but my favorite experience/anecdote illustrating your solution was a parish liturgy at which the cantor’s microphone was turned off. Knowing the pastor was going to have a fit over this, I left the choir in the gallery and ran downstairs to turn it on during the entrance hymn. As I walked down the side of the nave, I heard only the choir singing, but gradually the singing started to spread like wildfire through the congregation. At the beginning of the next stanza I succeeded in turning on the cantor’s microphone. The sound of the congregational singing dropped by half and never recovered.

  7. Thank you for your excellent points. I’ll take issue only with number 6. I love this commentary (written by Bob Batastini) found in the preface of GIA’s Worship III low key hymnal:

    “One has only to listen carefully to the singing of any congregation to realize that a significant number of persons sub-sing, that is, sing one octave lower than most of the other adult members of their sex. When hymns are played in their higher keys, sub-singing is made possible. When hymns are lowered, the sub-singers can no longer sing in their comfortable range, and – because these are the persons with the least vocal ability – probably still cannot comfortably sing in the “correct” range, even with the lower key. The better singers in the congregation are also hindered by low keys because they are forced to sing in a range in which it is difficult to sing with full voice. Also, in spaces with less-than-ideal acoustics, the low frequencies are the first to be swallowed by carpeting and other sound absorbing materials. Regardless of one’s position on the appropriateness of sub-singing by members of the assembly, its existence cannot be denied, and if the higher key permits more persons to sing comfortably, it is the pastorally appropriate choice.”

  8. We have a 7:00 a.m. Mass on Sunday morning where the singing has traditionally been led by the organist himself. With this stable arrangement (they have me 50 Sundays per year), I’ve been able to experiment a bit. On responsorial pieces, I strongly sing the antiphon to intone it, then drop my voice to a whisper when the congregation repeats it. Full voice on verses, minimal or none on the refrains. This, along with varying the organ registration in the opposite direction, has produced a very good result. On well-known hymns, I may sing along only on the first verse or perhaps not at all.

    The whole situation is helped by an enthusiastic gentleman who sits in the front pew and sings with gusto every note of every verse. Even though he is in a pew and not in a visible leadership role, he does more to encourage the assembly’s singing than some of my trained cantors. The singing of the 40-50 people in attendance can surpass the sound produced by 300+ at the later Masses.

  9. Thanks to Fr. Ruff for posting this article…he brings up a lot of good points. However, I think he leaves out a point about what to do between the verses of the hymn. Alan talked about this in the first post, and I agree that it is very important to keep the timing consistent between the verses of a hymn and not just arbitrarily release the final chord, breathe for an undetermined amount of time, and then come back in for the next verse without any regard to the meter. I also think if you have a live room you should consider putting longer breaks between the hymns. I have a fairly live room at my church, so I give two whole beats of counted out silence between the verses; it gives a nice feeling of decay from one verse, and gives a bit of a break between the verses. I find that doing “between the verses” correctly to be a commonly overlooked element of successful hymn playing, and unfortunately I find this happens more often in Catholic parishes than the many Episcopalian congregations I’ve encountered.

    I’ve also found another sort of perplexing issue with Catholic hymn singing: having a cantor sing on the mic for the hymn when there is a choir present. I live in the Dallas area, and I recently attended an organ dedication mass at a big north Dallas parish. There was a choir of about fifty people present (many of them professionals), but on the hymns there was still a cantor singing on a microphone. This is so silly! I can understand using a cantor when the choir isn’t present, but why use a cantor for the hymns when you have a choir? This seems to be a very common Catholic issue (this would NEVER happen at an Episcopalian church), and it seems to be fairly widespread. I attended Mass on Trinity Sunday at the National Shrine, and there was a cantor singing on the mic, and he sort of overpowered the congregation and the professional choir on the hymns; and the hymns were super familiar…Nicaea and Grosser Gott!

    1. @Beau Baldwin – comment #13:
      Some cantors are in love with the sound of their own voice, especially if there’s a couple thousand watts of power behind it. Good luck getting them to back off that mic! I have tried and failed.

  10. @Scott Pluff

    My issue is why does one need a cantor at all for a choir mass? So why even have a cantor close to a mic when there is a choir. Why can’t the organist just say “we are having a choir at this mass, there is absolutely no reason for a cantor to sing the hymns at this mass”? I mean you wouldn’t even schedule a cantor at the choir mass… this just seems like an easy one to fix that occurs all of the time. It’s very basic: “why do we need a cantor on a microphone when we have a full choir to help lead singing”?

    1. @Beau Baldwin – comment #15:
      I agree with you about the hymns, but there are parts that are proper to the cantor: intoning the responsorial psalm & singing the verses, same with Gospel acclamation, perhaps a cantor-led Kyrie, solo verses on a refrain-based Gloria or Communion song, etc. Anything sung antiphonally needs a visible sign of when it’s “their turn,” unless you have an exceptionally well-formed and stable assembly (few visitors or guests).

      I’m blessed to have a wireless control panel for our new sound system. With the touch of a button I can cut the cantor volume by half or mute them. I don’t usually micromanage, but sometimes…

      1. @Scott Pluff – comment #17:
        I’m not convinced that a visible sign is necessary. The worship aid can give instructions like “The cantor will sing the antiphon, and all repeat it and sing again where indicated.” The psalm verses can be printed as well, although I have found that the organist can make it pretty obvious – the verse has a cadence, take a big breath, change registration and go – no arm-waving necessary.

  11. I would slightly revise #10 – – though I would agree that if the instrument is going to be loud, the final stanza is it – – and suggest that accompanists use a final stanza to challenge themselves a bit.
    After the first few measures are underway: change the underlying harmony; punctuate the rhythm of the accompaniment; vary the texture; play the alto line or tenor line up an octave as a descant to the melody, etc.
    No reason to presume that WE don’t need to keep growing in our art and ministry as well.

  12. “Then there’s the postlude. Here’s my take: it can’t possibly be too loud.”

    Hurray! Finally, something on which Fr. Ruff and I completely agree.

  13. The cantor is a vicious circle – as Kevin says, in a poor acoustic it’s extremely difficult to get a vigorous congregational sound “rolling.” So you pretty much have to have the amplified cantor – these spaces are normally acoustically designed to favor the clear functioning of a sound system rather than organic sound. Even working in a live acoustic, I’ve found that the cantor supplies a necessary “cue” – in other words, even if the congregation knows the words and melody, it seems that they don’t know they are supposed to start singing until the cantor does. My compromise is to have the cantor start things strong and then gradually back away from the mic.

    Also, at our choir masses the cantor only sings the psalm verses in the mic.

  14. In my experience congregations sing best when the onus is on them. So in our parish we have no choir, and the cantor only sings the responsorial psalm and the verse for the gospel acclamation. The congregation raises the roof.
    New things are learned either just before mass or just before the start of advent and Lent.
    Our repertoire is mainly modern and the singing is led by a mixed band of musicians. Our congregation ranges from new-born to 90 and is about the only one hereabouts that is growing.

  15. Love, love, LOVE this post! Now I don’t feel so alone in my experiences as an organist/director of music! PrayTell, you’re awesome.

  16. Often when people say the organ is too loud they mean the organist is using too many high registers. If you are using too much upperwork, especially shrill mixtures (which obscure pitch) and strong 2’s (think of the inverse tonal pyramid) the organ will not give good support and can actually be painful. Good registration is an art, and just when you think you know every possible combination of sounds you find something new!

  17. A point addressed in #1 and #13 that is worth repeating: MAKE SURE THE CONGREGATION KNOWS WHEN TO COME IN. (How good is my own record at that? Hmm. Isn’t the sky blue today?) For organists who have trouble remembering to take their hands off the manuals before a verse begins, I once came across a proposed solution: Engage a friend to stand alongside the bench with a broom handle to lift your wrists for you.
    May God bless the St. Louis Jesuits, who seem in most respects like very nice men, but some of their songs (e.g. “City of God”) have been published with elaborate settings that are fine for trained choirs and ensembles but give a congregation no clear signal to start singing. (For these composers, there is the related problem of l o n g h e l d n o t e s in pieces like “One Bread, One Body.”) I don’t think they’re naturally cruel. I don’t think they’re carrying over into their music the classroom practice of setting difficult exams so that people have a ready opportunity to fail. I think, however, that they (and some other composers) sometimes overlook an inconvenient truth: A congregation does not have the same capabilities as a trained choir.

  18. Perhaps the cantor should sing from the choir loft or another place where he or she is inconspicuous. I find that the movements of the cantor (hand raising or hand waving) highly distracting. More might sing if they weren’t focused on the cantor’s movements.

    In one parish I attend, the organist accompanies low Mass. So far the congregation has had no problem singing Credo III, for example, without sung accompaniment from the sanctuary.

  19. We have moved away from the volume of the accompaniment. I venture to say that volume is not the only irritant. The vast majority of American liturgical pianists that I encounter play the piano in a much more percussive manner than their European counterparts. Pleasant tone and smooth line are frequently absent, often replaced by an unpleasant lumpiness. Yes, the piano is a percussion instrument but yes also, it is possible to play non-percussively. Touch is as important as volume.

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