Keeping together

Do you have a time-lag in your church? Is it sometimes difficult to keep things together? Do you find the music somehow getting slower and slower?

Some will say that they only have a small church – no chance of a time-lag problem here. But it’s a fact that even in a small building this can be a real problem. I happened to be at Mass some time ago in a chapel which was less than 60 feet long at the most, but the time-lag was very noticeable.

In this chapel, the small pipe organ is located on the floor near the back, so the singing presider (who on this occasion was singing strongly through his microphone – but that’s another story) was about as far away from the organ as it is possible to be. I was sitting to the rear of the organ, against the back wall of the chapel.

Imagine the sound leaving the pipes and travelling up the chapel: it reaches the presider a fraction of a second later. The presider naturally synchronizes his singing with the sounds that he hears, and the sound of his voice travels back down the chapel, reaching the ears of the organist a fraction of a second later still. The organist naturally starts to synchronize her playing with the sound of the presider’s voice as it reaches her, so she plays a little bit behind what she was doing before. The sounds from her pipes are now reaching the presider even later than they were previously, so he slows down as well. And so it goes on.

This is the classic double time-delay, which can be compounded far more quickly than you would think, to the point that the music has slowed down so much that it is impossible to pick up the tempo again. Yes, we’re only dealing with fractions as little as 1/20th of a second, but they soon add up to something really significant and the ear can hear it very easily.

Of course there are ways of dealing with this. If the presider (or the cantor, come to that) is mic’d, it’s very helpful to make sure that there is a loudspeaker somewhere near the organist. That way, the organist hears the presider’s voice at the very moment he sings; but even then the organist still needs to allow for the time taken for the sounds from the pipes to reach the presider to begin with. You have effectively halved the time-lag through using the PA system, but you have not eliminated it. To eliminate it altogether, the organist needs to play a little ahead of what s/he can hear through the loudspeaker, so that the sound reaches the presider as if it were precisely the same moment that the pipes speak. The organist will feel herself to be ahead of the voice she hears, and she needs to train herself to accept this. It means being a little schizophrenic!

I hasten to add that this is precisely what the organist in the case I have just outlined was actually doing. She kept the music moving. However, the presider had stopped listening to her and had settled into his own gradually slowing tempo, which many others perforce had to follow…….

Although you can eliminate a time-delay completely by playing ahead of what you hear, there are other complications. Imagine that part of the congregation seated near the organ. They are faced with a dilemma. They can either sing at the same time as the organ pipes speak, which is ahead of the mic’d presider, or at the same time as him and so behind the organ. They are torn in two directions and do not know which way to go!

Now imagine the folk halfway up the church. They may be in the best location, far away enough from both organ and presider (depending on the efficiency of the loudspeaker system) to be able not to be too worried by this little dichotomy that is playing itself out in their midst. But if there are strong singers anywhere near the organ, as is the case when the choir is still at the back of the church, then these congregation members will also have strongly competing loyalties.

In many churches variations on this kind of scenario are enacted every week, and often no one is comfortable but no one knows what to do about it. Even in a medium-sized parish church, with the choir at the front to one side, and the organ or piano up there as well, there can be enough distance between the choir and the sanctuary for there to be a problem, let alone the much larger distance that there may be between the choir, cantor and organ and the people in the back rows.

Now imagine what it must have been like for Msgr Marco Frisina conducting a choir of 8,000 singers, all singing in four parts, in the Paul VI Aula in Rome last week….


Apart from looking at locations, what other kinds of solutions can we adopt?

Firstly, as already mentioned, every organist/pianist/guitarist needs to be able to play ahead of what they can hear in order to provide leadership by ensuring that their sounds reach the ears of the singing assembly and clergy at the optimum moment. This needs practice, practice, and more practice. And because we often do not pay our organists/pianists/guitarists enough, or indeed anything at all, the number of skilled people who can do what is needed is steadily diminishing. And the number of accompanists and music directors who do not understand the problem is steadily increasing!

Secondly, unless your priest is a musician who really understands time-lags (and by no means all musicians do), it really is better if he switches off his microphone when he is singing with the assembly. It’s a great encouragement to the people to see him singing, but hearing him sing is not necessary and can be an encumbrance.

Thirdly, we really shouldn’t be designing any more church buildings which are generally longer than they are wide. The recent cathedrals in Knoxville, Raleigh, Hartford, and even Houston and Los Angeles, are vastly expensive missed opportunities, whereas those such as Oakland show a little more understanding of what a liturgical configuration needs to be. There are ways of gathering the community around the table of the Lord without building in potential sound problems for the future. For if we can’t sing together, how on earth can we pray together?!


  1. To the last, presumably rhetorical question:

    Isn’t the entire history of pastoral liturgy in the Catholic Church the answer to this question?

    “Even though we can’t seem to manage singing together, somehow, nonetheless, we still manage to pray together!”


  2. This might appear to be rhetorical also, but it is not.

    Does it ever make any sense to have a canned drum track played under each song, including the ordinary? The drum track I’m referring to in my case is found in the memory bank of a PLO (piano-like object), and the pastor likes the beat because it keeps the music “lively”. This time lag gets really bad sometimes when trying to follow it from across the length of the church. Does anyone else deal with this “instrument”?

  3. I remember hearing a talk by Robert Batastini, former editor of GIA. He stated that Catholics are the only group in the world who would put several hundred strangers in a room, insist that they sing a song they do not know well, and then refust to provide a LEADER. The organist should not be working as an accompanist, but rather the LEADER. As an organist, it is my job to lead with a good strong tempo. If the congregation (or some other minister-with-microphone is singing slower, I play the organ in a more detached style, that says “Hey! Listen, THIS is how we are singing…move it along.” The only other alternative is to give every member of the congregation a microphone, so that they a fair chance of surviving the battle. “Catholics sing best when the organist and the cantor stay home….”

  4. When you say “Hartford” you don’t mean Connecticut do you? The “recent” cathedral there was opened in 1962 after the fire of 1956.

    1. Hartford should not have been included in the list. I did contemplate using a photo of the interior since it is another modern (though not recent) example of the same long configuration, and it must have crept into the text as well. Thanks for pointing this out, John.

  5. Fourth – don’t play hymns legato! Most American organists are trained from the first to play legato, even writing in fingerings and pedallings for this purpose when starting out. This is also what is usually seen in method books. Unfortunately this often turns the accompaniment into mush in a live acoustic.

    Instead, by opening up the touch you can provide a clear upbeat-downbeat and beat hierarchy – and adjust the degree of this touch to match the space. I was lucky to learn (before I knew there were other options) from organists from the European cathedral tradition. Being used to larger acoustics, they taught the importance of beat hierarchy from the first.

    In a more general sense, the same sensitivity used in performing repertoire applies to hymn-playing as well. I remember David Higgs telling me once that I needed to imagine myself sitting far down the nave from the organ while playing, so that my musical gestures could come across effectively to an audience member sitting there. The phrasing and tempi that we think we are establishing in the loft are not always what the listener experiences. The same consideration makes for more effective hymn playing, for obvious reasons.

    1. Jared, I agree absolutely with this. The music needs to breathe, and good articulation is the way to do it, whether it’s solo organ repertoire or hymn accompaniment.

  6. Churches like ours who don’t have a pipe organ are able to hook the instrumentalists and singers into the building’s pa system.
    This provides at least a partial solution.

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