Thoughts on random congregation members singing the harmony lines of hymns
  • Hi,

    I’m looking particularly for Catholic music director’s opinions. With Lent quickly approaching, the same boring 4 or 5 traditional Lenten hymns will be sung at Mass. I find singing them boring and kind of pedestrian. I find singing my respective voice part (tenor) more palatable and enjoyable because I like the harmonies, and it just fits my range better. I have them memorized from years of choir, but I fear that doing so would be vanity, or drawing attention to myself. Granted, the people who sit around me are singing their own harmonic dissonance, so it shouldn’t matter, but I feel like if they wanted the congregation singing SATB, they would give us SATB hymnals.

  • francis
    Posts: 10,668
    Get a baritone to sit next to you
  • Sponsa,

    Catholic music director, here.

    Since my tenure began in this parish a month ago, we haven't used any vernacular hymns (I'm at an Institute apostolate, so it's TLM); however, we might at some point in the future. We don't have hymnals in the proper sense of that term.


    I grew up, outside the Catholic Church, at a Cathedral for which breaking out in four part harmony using the printed hymn books was so normal as to be hardly worthy of note. Counter tenors (usually retired boy choristers) were known to sing well-known descants on occasion, especially if the organist was improvising a last verse -- which was common enough, and there wasn't a shortage of well-known descants.

    I think that if the congregation can sing consonantly with the hymn's accompaniment there isn't a serious problem with congregational part singing.

    COULD IT BE vanity on your part? I suppose it could, but wanting to sing more than a dull melody when one has the capacity to sing more than that isn't, necessarily, vanity.
    Thanked by 3tomjaw francis CHGiffen
  • Don9of11Don9of11
    Posts: 684
    There are other hymns available if you're willing to look beyond the mainstream missalettes and Breaking Bread types.

    A good scource is the Devotional Hymns Project. There are quite few hymns listed for lent that are very good both English and Latin.
    https://www.catholicdevotionalhymns.com/song-index/

    The other source is A Catholic Book of Hymns which has four part harmonies for all the hymns and a very comprehensive Liturgical index https://sacredmusiclibrary.com/product-category/hymnals/

    But getting back to your post, I think if the congregation is capable of singing the voice parts and I'm sure there has to be one or two old choir members in the congregation who might enjoy singing parts again.
  • Yes, if you can sing in a consonant manner, go for it. It depends on the organist too. I freely stray from the given harmonizations verse to verse when expecting unison singing. If you can't tell when the organist is off book, then don't sing the harmony.
  • I do this all the time, as does another ex-Anglican of my acquaintance. I think that printing SATB hymns in melody only is a form of dumbing down. Too often there is an assumption that "nobody cares" or "no one is going to sing harmony."

    As I have mentioned before on these boards, I think that we could be on the verge of an American Catholic Renaissance. Call it feminine intuition. Last musician there is a rotten egg.
    Thanked by 2CHGiffen LauraKaz
  • SalieriSalieri
    Posts: 3,177
    I've done it before (though I'm often not in a congregation on Sundays, since I'm an organist). It's really a matter of voice placement: I'm a tenor, hymnals these days seem to pitch hymns so that the melody is in the alto/bass range (OLD HUNDREDTH in E? I mean, really?), so singing the tenor or even alto part, if it's a really low transposition, allows me to sing in my range and not ruin my vocal cords. I just keep an ear out in case the organist is doing an alternate accompaniment, in which case I sing the melody, switching Octaves as needed if it goes too low. I don't do it to draw attention to myself:I just do it because it's what feels comfortable in the vocal tract, so there's no vanity. Don't overthink it.
    Thanked by 1LauraKaz
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,942
    I always sing the bass line of the refrain of Angels We Have Heard on High.

    Hymn melodies for unison singing should be pitched for mezzos/baritones, because that's where the significant majority of untrained PIP voices are placed. That can be annoying for the trained SATB voices lurking in the pews, but those voices are in a distinct minority in the overall distribution. (It's one of the problems with assuming SATB is the the natural state of affairs.)

    * * *

    On a different note about Christmas carols: please do not program The First Noel as the *processional* hymn at a Mass occurring from early to mid-morning - it's just too tiring to sing without having had the chance to warm up; it would work better as a recessional. There are other hymns like that (e.g., Lord You Give The Great Commission....)
    Thanked by 2CHGiffen LauraKaz
  • I used to play for a reformed congregation of Calvinist descent, and they sang full-voiced SATB so loudly and well, it was like I was accompanying a choir of 80 every Sunday. I LOVED it. In fact, they actually made me tear up on multiple occasions while I was playing because the sound was so profoundly moving. They learned, that I would do an interlude and typically do something off-script for the final verse, at which point they would boisterously join in the melody while I framed the organ around them. I. Loved. It.

    I have no problem with people singing parts wherever they may be, so long as they match what we are doing in the loft. I don't put SATB hymns in the worship aids all the time (there aren't many at my current post who would even think to bother) but I do know there are a few ex-mennonites who like to sing parts, so I provide them for those parishioners when I have the space. All the better, as far as I'm concerned.

    People figure out pretty quickly if you are doing something that doesn't match the music, and they intuit that they need to sing melody at that point, so I don't worry about that either. I'm not sure how I would feel about a descant coming from downstairs, however. I'd not be keen if that was un-complementary to our choral sound or fighting the descant that I was playing on the organ, so there I think a little discretion is advised on the part of the congregant.
  • GerardH
    Posts: 410
    This reminds me of one horror-story I witnessed.

    It was a wedding. The bride had previously sung in choirs, and a small handful of her friends were singing for the Mass. At one point they sang a very well-known hymn, but in a completely reharmonised arrangement - so re-arranged and reharmonised it had essentially become a modern hymn-anthem. I didn't particularly like the arrangement, and programming it was a... choice.

    But one member of the congregation took it upon herself to sing the alto line - the alto line she knew - loudly. She was so loud she basically drowned out the already weak choir. She never realised. She never listened. She sang it from beginning to bitter end. It was horrific, absolute cacophony. The organist was livid.

    So don't do that.
  • Indeed. Don't do that.
    Thanked by 1igneus
  • Also, don't sing like an operatic soloist. I once had a person visit from out East who was clearly a classically trained singer. She sang like she was on stage at the Met, and she alone drowned out half the congregation. It was very distracting, even though it was excellent singing for what it was.
    Thanked by 2John_F_Church igneus

  • There are other hymns available if you're willing to look beyond the mainstream missalettes and Breaking Bread types.


    I’m not in charge of the music, and I feel like our music director doesn’t really care about what’s being sung at Mass anymore. He’s so busy with all his other choirs throughout the city that at times it feels like he’s just here to get health benefits and have access to an organ. I feel bad saying that, but it seems like something’s wrong with him (personal level wise).
  • Be thankful that he (or she) is singing, and enjoy the harmony.
    Thanked by 2CHGiffen CharlesW
  • francis
    Posts: 10,668
    Also, don't sing like an operatic soloist
    EVER!!!!!!!!!

    (rant) Nothing is more repulsive at a liturgy than an egotistical performance.(end rant)

    I have had more of my share of these types in choir. I believe it is what Paul describes when he talks about a thorn in the flesh which he prayed THREE TIMES that God would remove it.
  • GambaGamba
    Posts: 539
    A relative of mine is an opera singer, who has been on stage at the Met – a real Kavalierbariton with a huge instrument. He is devoutly Protestant and shared with me that he always feels incredibly awkward going to church when he’s on the road. He takes seriously every Christian’s duty to praise God, and his spirit is stirred by the singing in the churches he visits, so he really wants to join in, and tries to sing very softly so as not to distract the congregation. But a pianissimo operatic baritone is still a voice trained to fill a massive hall and carry over an orchestra, even at pp, and so despite his best efforts to unobtrusively participate, he always gets sideways glances and then after the service, compliments and invitations to join the choir.
    Thanked by 1mmeladirectress
  • francis
    Posts: 10,668
    I would think that anyone who is trained as an opera singer would have full control over their instrument to the point that they could sing straight tone, nominal diction and layman expression and volume. No? I certainly can play the piano like an amateur without too much effort.
    Thanked by 2ServiamScores Elmar
  • GambaGamba
    Posts: 539
    Yes, but given the sad state of singing by the general public, a man who not only sings, but makes it through a phrase of a hymn without breathing and sings above middle C without strangling stands out…
  • francis
    Posts: 10,668
    Gamba

    Do you mean to tell me he’s rising above mediocrity?! That will certainly cause problems.
    Thanked by 2ServiamScores tomjaw
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,942
    ". . . invitations to join the choir."

    And I would suggest the response that I, a longtime former chorister (and before that, hornist), sometimes give in response to such invitations: my voice, such as it is, is much more useful among the people (usually, I place myself in the middle if the choir is in the loft, or midway back but catty-corner from a choir in/near the sanctuary, but when there's an overamplified cantor/choir, I just sit in the back). Choirs should not be hoovering up all the sturdy congregational voices. [When I get an invitation in a place whose music I am underwhelmed by, and it becomes insistent, my response is a little more pointed in a different direction: the repertoire is not one that would sustain my commitment to music ministry.]
  • >> Choirs should not be hoovering up all the sturdy congregational voices.

    Would make an interesting separate thread of its own. :-)
    Thanked by 1ServiamScores
  • And armies shouldn’t be hovering up all the able bodied young men… but here we are, alas. What other candidates can choirs draw from anyway? Should we prefer choirs draft people who can’t sing well? Lol
    Thanked by 1mmeladirectress
  • francis
    Posts: 10,668
    Have a hymn sing every other month which will blossom many other congregational singers… it might also draw people to the choir… it might also expand your repertoire… and please don’t forget to include teaching them some Gregorian Chant
  • We recently acquired our new organ, and I’ve been toying with the idea of a hymn sing. Im not sure it’s ever been done here, or if it has, it’s been at least a decade.
  • WGS
    Posts: 297
    I've heard of a parish/church/community hymn sing held regularly on the 5th Sunday of a month. Pick your own day, but you might want to bypass a month with a 5th Sunday that conflicts with a religious or national holiday. Participants may pre-select or vote for a favorite. - may even bid for a choice if you want to make it a fund raiser.
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,942
    "And armies shouldn’t be hovering up all the able bodied young men"

    Even under conscription, it's not *all*, and leaves lots of able-bodied non-young men on the home front. The analogy chosen suggests choirs are war terrain....
  • Liam,

    Surely, choirs are canon fodder in the liturgy wars?
  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 2,767
    bride … and a small handful of her friends were singing a well known hymn… The organist was livid.
    The more shame on them for muddling the line between anthem & hymn.

    Certainly on needs to pay attention to the organ harmonization when singing a lower part. But sticking to the tune has its pitfalls too. As I'm sure must have befallen many others, I've been a visitor when the printed hymnal, the guest organist and the local tradition of GROSSER GOTT were all out of sync. Should I have just slunk away instead of indulging in heterophony?
  • I’ve quit underestimating my Catholic congregation. The choir are happier, the people are happier, I’m happier.

    The only thing I’ve added (for a while) is the note that, if you can’t read your part on the SATB verse, it’s a-okay to keep singing the melody.

    If you aren’t doing this... why not?
  • My theory with satb music when I can fit it in the worship aids is: people who can’t properly read it won’t bother even attempting it so it’s of no concern, and those that can, well, all the better!
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 5,148
    @NihilNominis
    As soon as I saw the music for that hymn, I broke out singing "Ach, Herr, lass' Dein lieb' Engelein..." with J.S.Bach's setting in my head. One of my all time favorites!
    Thanked by 2NihilNominis Liam
  • GerardH
    Posts: 410
    The more shame on them for muddling the line between anthem & hymn.

    A line from which I steer well clear!
  • It seems like congregational singing in parts is more an Anglican tradition (since the Catholic tradition is more chant-and-polyphony based, civilians singing is parts is more rare), but there is no problem with it - unless of course you sing the harmony in the book while the organist decides to play changes.
    I and my choir members have had much success over the years recruiting parishioners for the choir when they sing in parts in the pews. But as mentioned, it comes with a danger.

    The other question is, what do you do if your priest wants to sing in harmony. All the time. Into a mic. ... ....
  • You have to ask him to stop. I’ve run into this before. Also, just failing to turn their mics off during other things, like the time our pastoral associate kept his mic on for the Gloria, in competition with our cantor.
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 9,157
    Well, not stop altogether, but change to the melody, because his role in leading the congregation is so influential.
    Thanked by 1Richard Mix
  • francis
    Posts: 10,668
    I improvise a bass line all the time at forum. The students either look at me with wonder or more likely wonder why.
  • Kathy
    Posts: 5,499
    Depending on how you do it, I think it's fine and I do it a lot. But I try to think about it like a DM. Unless it's an extremely familiar hymn, I wouldn't harmonize on verse 1, so others around me can get going without distraction. Nor on the last verse, because that's often harmonized differently.

    I think it's also important to not be soloistic about it, and use a standard chorister trick (listen carefully to another voice near me) to keep my volume in check.