My first year as a choir director, someone asked a question during a rehearsal sometime in May.
“Are we going to take the summer off?”
I was about two syllables into responding with “I wasn’t really planning to,” when I noticed the combination of hope and exhaustion on the faces of my choir members.
“What if we kept singing through the summer, but didn’t rehearse on Wednesdays? We’ll just come an hour before the service and work on things. Easy things, things we’ve done before. How does that sound?”
And so it was that my choir landed on what apparently (unbeknownst to me) is a typical schedule throughout church-music-land: no rehearsals after Trinity Sunday until about the first week of September. But we’re still providing music for 2+ months.
It seems the pattern of having your choir continue to sing, working on things before Mass and programming literature they’ve done before, is pretty common, and that the other common pattern is going from a full choir to just a small schola or a single cantor. Along with this is typically a simplification of the music overall, favoring smaller choral works and (often) more congregational music.
Among the problems with this for a music director is that there isn’t a lot of opportunity to learn music ahead of time for the summer months when they come. We’re all too busy on Lent and then Holy Week and then Eastertide and then Ascension and then Pentecost and then Trinity Sunday and then Corpus Christi. Throw in a handful of Confirmation services, Baccalaureate Masses, and other end-of-school-year festivities, and its easy to get to the Summer without any decent “general” choral music in repertoire.
And yet, as the summer months roll in, and the thermometer and weekly attendance move in opposite directions, we choir directors struggle to maintain a balance between our desire to offer our best and the reality of the summer lull.
So here’s a suggestion…
Chant the Propers.
After years of learning that the propers are THE IDEAL toward which we are all working and striving, it seems (sometimes) that singing the Propers – the authentic texts of the Mass – is some far-off goal that only a few can achieve.
But it can be so much easier than whatever you are doing right now. And the Summer time is the perfect time to start.
All you need is a set of good, simplified chant settings of the Propers. (And there are several available.)
Here’s what you can do…
Perhaps during the school year (“choir season”), you are singing a choir piece during the Offertory.
Just replace it with either that Sunday’s proper Offertory or one of the (allowed by the Church) seasonal options from (for example) the Lumen Christi Simple Gradual. Whether you have two people in your choir or twenty (or none), your singers can learn the antiphon quickly and easily after hearing it once or twice.
If you are using a resource that has an Antiphon and the pointed Psalm verses (like the Simple English Propers or the Lumen Christi Simple Gradual), you, or your one cantor, or your whole choir, or just the men, or just the women – somebody in your choir – can sing the Psalm verses.
You can sing the Antiphon once at the beginning and the end, with chanted Psalm verses in the middle. Or you can sing the Antiphon twice at the beginning (Cantor; All) and repeat after every few verses.
This is no more difficult than the Respond & Acclaim brand responsorial Psalms, and much more beautiful.
If your Offertory music is usually a congregational song or hymn, you can either put the text of the antiphon into their programs or (if you’re trying to clean out your end-of-year budget), you can get the assembly editions of the Simple Gradual and put the numbers on the hymn-board.
“Our song during the Preparation of the Gifts is number two hundred and ninety eight in the green Simple Gradual. That’s TWO NINE EIGHT in the GREEN book. ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul’. TWO NINE EIGHT”
A similar change could be made at the Communion (in addition to, or a replacement for, a congregation hymn or song). And if you wanted to get REALLY DARING, you could do the same in place of (or after) the Entrance Hymn.
This is not hard to do, musically.
The problem with implementing sung Propers is almost never musical in nature, but “political,” so to speak. Change is difficult in any organization, and people don’t take kindly to it.
That’s why the Summer is the perfect opportunity to begin.
If you start with the Offertory as I suggest above, there would be very little interruption to what people are expecting. If you print the antiphon text in the program, or put the assembly edition into the pews, the proper antiphon becomes (to the mind of a complaint-prone congregant) just another refrain to just another nice piece of music. If you begin in the Summer time, the typical lull provides explanatory “cover” for a change to simpler, easier music; while the simpler, easier music makes your Summer lull so much more full and beautiful. Doing this during a specific season makes it easy to “backtrack” if needed, providing you an easy out if problems arise (though I suspect there won’t be as many as you fear).
Perhaps, when the Summer is over, you go back to what you have always done during the year. Or perhaps, if the response was positive, you continue implementing the rest of the propers with your choir or with your congregation. Perhaps the experience with modal chant (and square notes!) will provide the starting point for working towards a fully sung liturgy.
As I mentioned, there are several excellent resources available for doing this. One of the best is the newly available Lumen Christi Simple Gradual. There is an Assembly Edition, if you’d like to put the antiphons themselves in front of your congregation, and there is a Choir Edition which includes psalm verses for a soloist or choir.
The Choir Edition can be used by itself with no other investment needed, as described above. A copy for every person in your choir ensures that, whatever else happens – whether a copy machine breaks, or a shipment of octavos doesn’t arrive, or every member of your Bass section gets s cold – you’ll always be able to sing the proper and authentic texts of the Liturgy, in beautiful musical settings. And that’s worth having all year ’round.
Whatever the outcome and whatever your specific summer-situation is, whether you are just looking for something easy and good to get you through the Summer lull or whether you are looking for a way to begin fully implementing sung propers, the Lumen Christi Simple Gradual is a great resource to have.
Put a dozen copies in your choir room, relax, and enjoy your Summer.