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Supporting the Voice of the Assembly  
Julie Males  

I, like many of you, have been involved in music ministry since my childhood—long before we called it music ministry. While I’m old enough to vaguely remember Mass in Latin with its traditional chants, my liturgical formation took place in the early 1960s, just after the implementation of the new rite. I come from a musical family. My mother was in the traditional choir and my brother led the folk group. This diversity has been a blessing, as I am comfortable worshipping with many styles of liturgical music.

My passion for music and liturgy became a vocation. After completing graduate studies in sacred music and liturgy, I began working in our diocesan Office of Worship, and my perspective began to change. I no longer had the luxury of focusing on the repertoire of one parish community. I had to select music for diocesan liturgies that was comfortable and familiar to an assembly coming from diverse geographic areas and music traditions. Although I was increasingly aware of a polarization in liturgical styles, I knew my position demanded that I remain impartial. My personal taste in musical style was unimportant. I needed to create a liturgical environment that invited all to participate in sung prayer.

Over time I became aware of several "tools" that could be used to achieve this goal. For instance, using the metric and hymn tune indices to marry unfamiliar but appropriate liturgical texts with well-known melodies, using call and response or adding additional refrains to teach new music within the liturgy, or elaborating instrumentation to complement a simple melody.

Many of these tools were useful when I became the weekend music director at a small parish near my home. Like many of you, this was in addition to my full-time job. When I started this position more than three years ago, I was faced with two big challenges.

The first challenge was that several years ago attendees at the 7:30 am Sunday Mass had been given the option of voting on whether they wanted music on Sundays. After voting "no," they added themselves to the many early Sunday morning "silent Masses" around the country. According to the liturgical documents of the Church, sung liturgy is normative and, although "not every part that can be sung should necessarily be sung at every celebration" (Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship [STL], 115), silent Sunday Mass is not an option.

As a member of the Office of Worship staff, I could not, in good liturgical conscience, model a silent Mass on Sunday. As a pastoral musician, however, I knew the risks of pulling out all the stops with a congregation who had grown to appreciate the serenity of silence. I was determined to be gentle while adding music to the early morning Mass.

My second challenge had to do with where the Psalm would be proclaimed. The practice in this turn-of-the-century Gothic church was for all music leadership to come from the balcony—accompaniment, choir, song leading, and Responsorial Psalm. I felt the Psalm should be proclaimed from the ambo in keeping with the liturgical documents. As I was both psalmist and organist at three of the four Masses, I found myself with the logistical challenge of being in two places at once: accompanying myself on the organ in the balcony while proclaiming the Psalm from the ambo. I wanted to model good liturgical praxis but not change too much too quickly. I knew from painful experience how that experiment could end. I determined to choose my battles carefully.

I decided that, when there was not another psalmist, I would sing the Responsorial Psalm a cappella from the ambo, because the symbolism of the ambo as the place for the proclamation of Scripture is important catechetically. I also chanted the Gospel Acclamation from the sanctuary using a variety of well-known melodies. Staying on pitch did not concern me, since voice was my primary instrument in college. I was concerned that the assembly might be unwilling to sing without the support of an accompanying instrument. After much contemplation, I decided that a simple, repeated melody with a limited range would work best for the Psalm.

After considering many options, I found that the St. Meinrad Psalm Tones would help me solve both problems. The music for each verse of the Psalm consists of the reciting tone, one or two preparatory notes, and a dotted note that corresponds to the final accent of the verse. Each mode has six measures available. The user is instructed on how to adapt the melodies for stanzas with two to six lines in a consistent formula. While all eight tones are based on the Eight Gregorian Modes, some feel more "major" than others and work better for the more festive liturgical seasons. The assembly is able to pick up the refrain of the Psalm easily. Generally, only two measures are used for the melody of the refrain—the first and last. The Psalm tones also would prove useful when introducing the Liturgy of the Hours to the parish.

We’ve been using these tones for the Responsorial Psalm for more than three years, and the result has been most unexpected. I expected to hear complaints that the melody for the Psalm was boring; I expected to hear complaints about singing anything at the early Mass; I expected to feel bored myself with such simple melodies. None of these expectations came true.

What happened was amazing! The assembly started singing. Just as surprising was the fact that they began to listen intently to the verses. The sound of the assembly was surprising at first—gentle and prayerful, but confident, as if they had known the song forever. I saw faces looking up and listening as the prayer unfolds.

For the first time in my experience as a psalmist, I felt connected in a true dialogue with the assembly. I began to pray the Psalms as I proclaimed them rather than focusing on the details of musical arrangement.

As psalmist, the freedom of singing a cappella allowed me to enhance my proclamation of the Psalm according to need. Depending on the readings and liturgical season, I might emphasize one passage by increasing or decreasing volume, slowing the tempo or adding an exaggerated pause. The assembly responded to this. Their faces came out of the worship aids. Frequently I see individuals listening with their eyes closed to the verses, then joining in song for the refrain.

Although I vary the Psalm mode at the other Sunday Masses by liturgical season, for example, Advent is Mode I, Lent is Mode II; Ordinary Time varies according to psalm type and text, Christmas Mode V, etc., I have continued to use the most common setting—Mode VIII at the 7:30 am Mass each week. Amazingly, I have never heard a complaint that the melody is tedious. I don’t think that most people even notice it is the same each week. I even use Mode VIII for the Memorial Acclamation and Great Amen. Using that mode allowed us to sing the same melody when we moved to the third edition of The Roman Missal. Since only the words changed for the Memorial Acclamation, I was able to focus on teaching the longer pieces of the Order of Mass.

After introducing these simple psalm tones for the Responsorial, I began using traditional tunes for the processional, for example, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" during Advent, "We Gather Together" during Ordinary Time, and "Jesus Christ is Risen Today" during Easter Time. It was as though the positive singing experience of the psalm tones created a trusting environment in which I could slowly introduce other familiar Catholic repertoire. Though I have not heard complaints, I have heard the voice of the assembly participating in sung prayer. It is more beautiful to my ears than any choir or orchestra.

Why was an assembly that voted to have no music at the Sunday Mass participating in sung prayer, even when they had no supporting instrument? I believe to some degree the answer lies in the qualities of plain song chant. The following are the advantages of using these simple melodies:

  • Limited range. The limited range of the Psalm is accessible to almost everyone, and therefore does not draw attention to the limitations of a singer’s range. Weak psalmists sound better. The notation for the St. Meinrad Psalm Tones available on the Internet (http://saintmeinradmusic.org/downloads/Meinrad_Psalm_Tones.pdf) is printed in a "higher" and "lower" key, so even less talented singers sound good. Of course, when an individual intones the Psalm a cappella, any starting pitch may be used. The limited range also makes folks in the assembly feel safe to enter the song and hides individual voices from exposure. Tonally challenged singers blend with the assembly—so do big voices.
  • Versatility. Psalm tones have many uses. We have used psalm tones when we wanted to sing a text that was associated with a hymn tune or chant that wasn’t in our repertoire. For instance, my pastor has used one of the tones for the Exsultet and for the Song of Farewell. At the opening of the Palm Sunday liturgy, the assembly chanted the Hosanna to Mode V. When using the Celtic Alleluia as the Gospel Acclamation, we insert the Gospel verse of the day using the first and last measure (of the four-bar system) of Mode VI.
  • Minimal rehearsal time. The chants reduce the need for extended rehearsal with the psalmist, thereby leaving more time to prepare other choral pieces.
  • Assembly preparation for chanted Liturgy of the Hours. Listening to the psalmist sing the full four- or six-measure modes makes chanting Morning and Evening Prayer easy. The assembly already knows the melodies.
  • Noble Simplicity. The elegant simplicity of these chants dignifies any devotional prayer or liturgical function. They are so easy to learn or repeat that even non-musicians can begin to incorporate them into their prayer. Our Legion of Mary uses some of the Psalm tones they’ve heard at Sunday Mass to chant the Rosary together! Though this might not work at every parish, these simple chant tones have greatly increased participation in sung prayer at our church. I believe the tones have also led the assembly to a greater appreciation of not only the text of the psalms, but also to the texts of other traditional chants associated with the liturgical year. The St. Meinrad Psalm Tones worked well at our parish for many reasons, not the least of which is that the parish repertoire leans toward the traditional. I added a little gospel style during Easter Time and an occasional folk Mass, but the mainstream style is traditional.

A musical liturgist needs to have several tools available. Experience is a tool that should not be overlooked. I have been grateful that my predecessors have shared their experience with me until I possessed enough of my own. The following are lessons that have been handed to me along the way.

  • Choose music selections that enable the assembly to sing over those which only interest the music ministers.
  • Fall in love with the sound of a singing assembly.
  • Learn to listen to the singing (or silent) assembly. If you listen, they will show you what they like and what type of support they need. Let all other music serve as accompaniment to the singing assembly.
  • Understand that the function of liturgical or ritual music is different than performance music.
  • Take time to get to know the assembly before imposing your musical preferences upon them.
  • Look for song texts and melodies that already work at the parish and build from there.
  • Search for what is right in the parish music program, not for what needs to be fixed.
  • Understand that liturgical music belongs to the assembly.
  • Understand service, humility, and vocation.
  • Understand music as an art in service to the liturgy.

As music ministers and liturgists, we offer our talents and our knowledge in service to the liturgy. When we learn to love the sound of the body of Christ in sung prayer above all other instruments, we begin to find new tools to support the singing assembly. If you haven’t become familiar with the use of Psalm Tones such as the St. Meinrad Psalm Tones or the Conception Abbey Psalm Tones (which accompany the Grail Psalter), you might consider using them in your parish. These melodies can greatly enhance the sung prayer life of your community. If our measuring stick for the success of sung worship is the "full, conscious and active participation by the assembly" (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 14) rather than performance-quality musical execution, psalm tones are one of the most versatile, inexpensive, and prayerful tools available.

Julie Males
is the director of the Office of Worship for the Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana.
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