Sunday, March 27, 2011

Will there be any difference in the sound of Laetare?

Next weekend is Laetare Sunday. The striking difference should be that, for the first time in Lent, we hear instruments play as an application of the entrance text, "Rejoice Jerusalem!"

Sadly, for most parishes, there won't be any difference in how next Sunday sounds and feels. Yes, instruments will be used but they have been used all the rest of Lent too. This certainly violates the spirit of tradition and legislation, but those who are seeking justification in law, they can find it in the General Instruction. The GIRM permits instruments to be used to "support the singing."

To be sure, this is an exception, but it is an exception so broad that it nearly negates the rule itself in practice. One can imagine that the exception here came about for the same reason that accompanied singing came about in the first place. Some chant choirs have difficultly singing on pitch without some external assistance that keeps the pitch from falling. I don't happen to think that this is a very good reason, since using such an outside crutch virtually guarantees that the singers will not improve and overcome the problem.

But because most parishes don't sing chant and don't sing propers at all, but rather replace them all with hymns, this rationale has largely lost its basis. The hymns are sung with accompaniment, whether it is Lent or Christmas or anytime. Accompanied hymns constitutes most of all the music we hear in Mass. Further, though there are many notable exceptions, instruments are mostly not used in a solo manner. The result is the banishment of anything striking about the difference between Lent and the rest of the year.

This is a terrible tragedy, but it is one that is more symptomatic of incompetence than disobedience. For years I've reflected on what is the key missing competency among Catholic musicians today. There are many: the inability to sing without pop-like inflections, the dependency on strict rhythmic metrics, the alarming loss of music-reading talent, the love of microphones and the concomitant inability to project the voice, but among them all I would list this one as number one: the believe that instruments are making us sing and hence without them, there can be nothing called music.

Lent is the perfect time to force the issue. Pastors should unplug all machines and make no exceptions. The singers need pitchpipes and they need to learn to find the music within themselves. There is no way to learn this except to go "cold turkey." There is no gradualism here. The instruments must be shut down, period. Musicians will sweat it out with fear for a few weeks, but they will become better by the end.

Unless the singers can do this, they can never really find themselves in a position to do what the Church is asking. Once they can sing without assistance, a new world will open up to them. They will face vast options on singing the propers. They might even be able to sing the words "Laetare" at the entrance. Then when Easter season arrives, they might even find that they will continue the practice, which would be wonderful.

It is a myth that congregations sing better with instrumental backing. My own experience has been the complete opposite. Only once the instruments are unplugged the people and the schola can realize that there is wisdom in the writings of the Popes that the primary liturgical instrument is not man-made but given to us from God: our own voices.