When Musical Technique and Piety Clash
  • Forgive me if there’s been a thread on here that’s covered this before.

    When learning how to sing, I was taught as a general rule to stand up straight and keep your head up. Very basic. Geared towards optimal sound.

    Yet when working with Catholic choirs who are blessed with a deep sense of reverence, traditional outward forms of piety contradict these rules at different points — EG:
    • Bowing one’s head for the Holy Name of Jesus (which means those who do it sing downward, not out towards the altar and pews.)
    • Remaining kneeling for the Memorial Acclamation and the great Amen (which means, up in the choir loft, behind the organ and not above it.)

    There are probably other examples but they escape me. But you get the drift.

    When you’re more or less taking on a leading role for the laity by singing in choir, it would seem as though the demands placed on you are naturally different than when you are simply a layman singing in the pews. In this situation, do you give more glory to the Holy Name by singing it well or bowing your head for it? I personally would say the former and would like to get my choir to start doing these things — yet the defects in sound are brief and minimal, and asking them to forego their piety is not something I or them would be excited to have asked.

    What are your thoughts?
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,927
    I used to tell my choir that they were not the congregation. They were working and worshipping through their work and needed to sing the best they possibly could. Others will differ.
  • I have a very different attitude than many here. I firmly believe that a Gregorian schola should overlap with a choir (be it SATB or otherwise, e.g. men's voices only) in terms of membership, but they need not overlap entirely and not at every liturgy. That means following the Mass, and things like the bows for the Holy Name should be observed, whether you are at the front (in the choir/sanctuary), on the floor somewhere, or in the loft (or divided, depending on the occasion, say with cantors in the choir and the rest of the men elsewhere). Personally, I think this should be the case even if the people doing the most work on a given day (like someone cantoring solemn Vespers) is paid a stipend just like a polyphonic rehearsal or Mass call, and it avoids the handling of the choir from becoming too concert-like and professionalized in what I consider the wrong way, especially if you're trying to build up a schola filled not just with good or even excellent singers but faithful Catholics.

    In polyphony, this is not possible due to the length of the phrases, never mind the technical aspects, and you have to reach out to paid singers from the community who may or may not, depending on the circumstances, be faithful Catholics, especially at first.

    Also, the problem of the bows is why I am a big fan of alternating at each strophe of the Gloria and Credo, either women/men (depending on whether you have a woman's schola of any kind as well) or men/all (either a cantor or the men of the schola together), and while this is good to do in the Pauline rite for aesthetic reasons (IMHO anyway…) it is all the more so practical in the traditional form and are conscientious of the prescribed gestures. That is, in the Gloria and Credo, you only have any one group bowing for about half, so Adoramus te, Gratias agimus tibi, and Jesu Christe are sung by one group, then suscipe deprecationem nostram and Jesu Christe by the other), and the same for Jesu Christe and simul adoratur.

    Now, practice varies somewhat for the genuflection in the Credo, and the exact mechanism of the bows will vary depending on the positioning of the schola and of the direction (I can't recall what was done the last time I was at a Mass sung by a schola composed of one of the ex-PCED communities but I can say with certainty, having watched a short video from Randol Abbey in France (one of the trad daughter houses of Solesmes via Fontgombault) that they do indeed bow profoundly for the Gloria Patri of the Introit according to the monastic custom.

    Obviously there are fewer bows in the NO, and in the traditional form some are barely noticeable nods (like the Alleluia of St Michael or several Vespers antiphons on the same day…), but I think the general point still stands, though I admit that I have a very different perspective on this than most people here.
  • What is taught as "good singing posture" is only a means to an end, i.e. giving one the easiest path to breathing deeply and efficiently. Opera singers often have to perform in positions far more disadvantageous than what you describe, and yet they project to the back of the hall without issue.

    Aside from the Holy Name of Jesus occurring during an extended melisma in polyphony, where it may be impractical, none of these situations would present a major impediment to me.
  • francis
    Posts: 10,639
    Piety and showing honor to God far outweighs the meager sacrifice of 'proper musical posture' in not doing so.


    I am saying this because the phrase is very small and probably doesn't make much of a difference in 'musical excellence'.
  • I don't think anyone has suggested not showing honor to God. The question of whether our Lord cares more about bent necks or worthy singing is not as simple as that.
  • When you are singing in a schola or a choir, the act of music making becomes your spiritual offering. While it is certainly fine to bow the head at the name of Jesus in general, if hardly seems necessary (or even appropriate) if you’re in the middle of singing ‘Jesu salvator mundi’, for instance. Kneeling for the great amen (presupposing it is merely a changed response and not a florid polyphonic setting) or even the mysterium fidei is hardly offensive to the music. I ultimately think that these things simply require a degree of prudence. You can nod your head slightly without facing all the way down to the floor, or you could even gently bend a knee (à la very mild curtsy) rather than bow the head, while singing a motet. But if people are bowing so much that they are literally facing the floor and altering the sound of the choir when they are supposed to be singing, they are being too grand with their gesture and it becomes inappropriate. Our Lord would certainly know if you make an act of reverence in your heart even if you don’t nod your head while singing.
  • John_F_Church,

    No one else has tackled this question, so I will:

    since kneeling properly involves a straight back, there's no problem with kneeling for (for example) the Benedictus when sung polyphonically and therefore after the Consecration, or the Mysterium Fidei in the UR.

    Getting choirs to accustom themselves to this idea is tricky, though, because
    1) so few people want to kneel anymore, anyway
    2) they don't realize that not changing posture allows less noise.
    3) force of habit is sometimes hard to break.

    Organists, on the other hand, which is to say those who probably need to kneel the most, can't kneel to play.
  • When I play in the Ordinary Form, the Memorial Acclamation is either done unaccompanied or with just the melody doubled so that I can remain kneeling next to the organ between the end of the Sanctus and the Doxology.
  • There is nothing irreverent or unseemly about standing during the Canon. IGMR shows the standard posture for the Latin Rite is standing for the whole Mass of the Faithful, with a geneflexion at the consecration if possible, and allows for local custom (much kneeling) -
    43. Fideles stent ab initio cantus ad introitum, ... ; necnon ab invitatione Oráte fratres ante orationem super oblata usque ad finem Missæ, præter ea quæ infra dicuntur.
    Sedeant ...
    Genuflectant vero, nisi valetudinis causa, vel ob angustiam loci vel frequentiorem numerum adstantium aliasve rationabiles causas impediantur, ad consecrationem. Hi vero ...
    Est tamen Conferentiæ Episcoporum, gestus et corporis habitus in Ordine Missæ descriptos ingenio et rationabilibus populorum traditionibus ad normam iuris aptare. Attendendum tamen erit, ut sensui et indoli cuiusque partis celebrationis respondeant. Ubi mos est, populum ab acclamatione Sanctus expleta usque ad finem Precis eucharisticæ et ante Communionem quando sacerdos dicit Ecce Agnus Dei genuflexum manere, hic laudabiliter retinetur.
    Ad uniformitatem in gestibus ...
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,927
    There is nothing irreverent or unseemly about standing during the Canon

    In the east, we stand with the risen Christ as the Council of Nicaea decreed. Standing is fine even in the west. The Latin Rite priest where I worked maintained that standing, sitting, and kneeling were all valid options. He generally knew his canon law quite well.
  • Organists, on the other hand, which is to say those who probably need to kneel the most
    This made me laugh.

    I keep a little kneeler right next to the organ where I play. (Conveniently, it is a little box, where the padding is the lid, so I store my organ shoes inside.) but it is literally right where you step off the bench, so I can easily get down and pop right back up. I’m fortunate that the space in my loft allows for this. I’ve played many places where this would not be possible.
    Thanked by 2MatthewRoth tomjaw
  • SalieriSalieri
    Posts: 3,177
    Generally speaking, the postures taken by the faithful at Mass are matters of common custom, not rubrics. And it is also always important to avoid scrupulosity: otherwise everyone would be crawling on their knees to the altar rail, rather than doing the sensible thing and walking like a normal human being: yes, God is awesome, omnipotent, and all-holy, and we should owe him due reverence, but he is also a God who "humbled himself to share in our humanity". And, if we are supposed to give God our absolute best in Worship, with the finest vestments, vessels, art, and music, then the execution of that music ought also to be the best we can do, and this includes proper posture to enable proper vocal technique: the act of singing in itself should be a prayer just as much as the words being sung, standing is and always has been the normative posture for worship, especially in sung liturgy, e.g., the psalms of the office are supposed to be sung standing, Rome permitted sitting during the psalmody much in the same way Moses permitted divorce.
  • Salieri,
    the postures taken by the faithful at Mass are matters of common custom, not rubrics.
    describes the UR, not the UA.

  • Umm, actually it does, Chris. Fr. Fortescue mentions in The History of the Roman Rite Described that the lay people in the body of the church "enjoy a certain natural liberty".

    Richard Friend talks more about this at length in an article about the topic from Rorate Caeli:

  • I have never had difficulty projecting sound whilst bowing my head at the name of Jesus or the Most Holy Trinity. At any rate this differs not from standing whilst singing the Sanctus (at which a profound bow [from the waist] is appropriate), or other parts of the mass at which the people might be kneeling.
    Thanked by 1tomjaw
  • Stimson,

    Something got lost in translation. I agree with you that in the old form, the laity enjoy a certain natural liberty. Completely agree. No distance between your position and mine, so far as I can tell.
    The more recent form, on the other hand, requires the assembled lay faithful to do this, and do that, so that someone can claim that, for the sake of unity, everyone must stand during the entire time when Our Lord is being given to the faithful.

    [Palm smacks head: I've just seen what I wrote in the post to which Stimson addresses his comment. I have my letters backward. UA is more "free" than the UR, not the other way around.]
  • Happens to the best of us, CGZ!
    Thanked by 1Salieri
  • SalieriSalieri
    Posts: 3,177
    But the choir/schola cantorum when exercising its ministry is no more part of "the congregation" than the servers or readers are when exercising theirs, otherwise, the readers would have to sit when proclaiming the readings, and the servers somehow sit when assisting the priest at the offertory in order to "follow the rubrics": common sense needs to prevail. And if there is a lacuna in the rubrics regarding the choir, one needs to supply from tradition and Roman/Papal practice (romanitas): the former rubrics indicate that in the Mass and Office the choir/schola is to stand when singing, unless the contrary be indicated (e.g., kneeling during the final Marian Antiphon on penitential days) or permitted (sitting during the psalmody of the office); further, Papal practice seems to have the Capella Sistina standing through the whole liturgy; further, since recent legislation treats a lay choir/schola and a religious or clerical choir/schola equally (not to be confused with non-singing clergy "in choir"), rather than as a second class, it would be appropriate for a choir to utilize the former rubrics when necessary.

    Now, on a practical level: my choir kneels when singing the Memorial Acclamation because it's so short, but stands for everything else, including the ordinary, proper, hymns, and motets; they bow their heads and the Holy Name (briefly, even if the word is prolonged on a melisma), and make a profound bow during the Gloria Patri at the Introit and Communion, it doesn't interfere with singing, but they are standing, as the schola cantorum should.
    Thanked by 1a_f_hawkins
  • In fact, the Marian antiphon is sung kneeling in choir ever day but Sunday, except during Paschal Time, not only on weekdays of Advent, Lent, on Ember Days in September, and on vigils…
  • Thank you all for your replies,

    I appreciate the diversity of answers.

    One reason I ask: our choir (partly due to the acoustics of the church) requires microphones, and they are set behind the organ. When they are kneeling rather than standing, they are further away from the microphones and blocked by the organ. It would seem from just the mere physical, sonic situation, the requirement of standing is more warranted.

    But as just a person in the pews, yes I agree with many of you -- there is no reason not to bow or kneel.

    Concerning the choir though: while the primary aspect of worship is internal, are we not to give even in our outward conduct as the fatted lamb/GoldFranckincense&Myrrh/costly perfume? As the choir, is not the music itself our primary sacrifice? If so, should we not offer it as nicely and well done as we can? While their posturing might be different from the laity, I see no reason to read that difference as constituting an inherently different spirit of worship. (Like CharlesW said, the Byzantine Rite has everyone stand, albeit they bow at key moments.)
  • John,

    On the subject of microphones and posture:
    God doesn't need hearing aids
    Thanked by 1M. Jackson Osborn
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,927
    Yeah, but some of the congregants do. One of my choir members once told me some ladies in the front couldn't hear. I asked how old they were. When I got the answer, "upper eighties," I understood why they couldn't hear. The problem with microphones is that they are over-amplified far beyond what is necessary for hearing.
    Thanked by 1hilluminar
  • As exhibited on the opera stage, good vocal technique can be maintained in a variety of postures.

    If a bow of the head or kneeling is disrupting the voice, then something isn't right in the technique.
  • I have my fair share of warblers—I guess they have good technique!
    *runs away giggling*
    Thanked by 1tomjaw
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,927
    I agree professional singers have good vocal technique. WIth volunteers, you get the luck of the draw - or the luck of who will show up at rehearsals.
  • Charles,

    Noting that some of us need hearing aids (I do), magnification of the sound for everyone, equally, doesn't help. I, therefore, conclude that it is better to not use microphones and speakers for singing, and to keep sermons blessedly (not unhelpfully) short.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,927
    Most sermons are not worth hearing to begin with. I visited a Protestant church that had a sound system, but it had individual headpieces for the hearing impaired. They had their own volume controls so the church speakers could be kept low enough for others to hear but not be overpowering.
  • Most sermons are not worth hearing to begin with.

    Could you define "most"?
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,927
    Chris, I hated to say "all." It seems that since Vatican II, the sermon has expanded in importance and the Canon has shrunk.
    Thanked by 2ServiamScores tomjaw
  • francis
    Posts: 10,639
    which is louder... a sermon or a canon?