The ability to sing
  • Jeffrey TuckerJeffrey Tucker
    Posts: 3,624
    I just received this nice note re: my article in the new SACRED MUSIC. Seems worthy to run as a letter to the edito

    Dear Mr. Tucker,
    Your article "The Problem of Catholic Musical Illiteracy" in the most
    recent issue of /Sacred Music/ is timely and well-fashioned. It calls
    attention to a disturbing phenomenon that has appeared, not only in
    Roman Catholic Churches, and not only in _all_ churches, but in modern
    society as a whole. I'm writing you, not to argue with or to refute
    anything you say. Indeed, I greatly appreciate your willingness to
    address this distressing matter. I want to suggest, though, that you
    consider it in a wider context, a context that (to my mind) both
    clarifies and and greatly complicates the problem.

    It's true, as you have noted, that congregational singing, once part of
    the bastion of Protestantism, has declined dramatically in the last half
    century. That is confirmed not only by documents from the past, but by
    people older than I (people in their 70's and 80's) who still remember
    what congregational singing in Protestant churches was once like. The
    clue that puts this decline into perspective is to compare it with
    singing in present-day traditional societies, notably in Christian
    Africa, where both Protestant and Roman Catholic congregations are noted
    for the vigor and vitality of their singing. That clue suggests that, in
    order to understand this phenomenon, we should broaden our sights to
    modern culture as a whole. Since the advent of the mass media and of
    amplified and recorded music (in the 1920's and 30's), there have been
    several generations in the developed world who have been subjected to
    the entertainment paradigm: a soloist or a small group of singers (the
    few) who perform for an audience (the many). The vast majority of people
    in the modern world now assume without question that "music" is the few
    (with musical talent and ability) performing for the many (without it).

    Furthermore, the ubiquitous availability of recorded music has obviated
    the necessity for people to sing. Singing lullabies to infants and
    children, once an almost instinctive parental urge, has yielded to
    playing recorded music to pacify children. Singing in the family, once a
    primary way both of entertainment and of community-building, has
    practically vanished. Most children, as a result, grow up with no model
    for family or group singing, and with the assumption that one need not
    sing, need only listen. If we grant that music is in many ways similar
    to language, then we might ask ourselves the question, "If a child only
    hears spoken language through the medium of a recording, will that child
    be inclined to develop skill in speaking?" I don't know the answer to
    that question, because (I hope!) no one has ever conducted that
    experiment. But it's reasonable to suspect that, since young children
    aren't sung to and aren't expected to sing, many of them will not grow
    up with any _ability_ to sing, and many others will grow up with their
    ability to sing impaired. It's a matter of connecting (or not
    connecting) ears with throats. Whatever school music curriculum these
    children are exposed to is unlikely to address their disability; school
    music curricula these days are often modeled on the entertainment
    paradigm. These children's attempts to sing are likely to be met by
    ridicule, and to cause them intense embarrassment. The result is adults
    who cannot sing, or sing badly, and who avoid singing like the plague.
    Such people, in my mind, are to be pitied, not censured.

    In your article, you raise the question of musical illiteracy. What
    you've written is undoubted true. To my way of thinking, though, musical
    illiteracy ought not to be considered the major concern; after all, most
    Africans and singers in other traditional societies would not be
    musically "literate" in the sense you're speaking of. The matter of
    musical ability, specifically the ability to sing, ought to be the focus
    of concern, if we want rightly to perceive the problems and the
    challenges. The low, pitchless drone we hear when people sing "Happy
    Birthday" in restaurants isn't the result of musical illiteracy; it's
    the result of an inability to sing. That "Happy Birthday" is the last
    vestige of communal singing in U.S. culture; the "Star Spangled Banner"
    at sports events is now almost everywhere turned over to a soloist or a
    recording. The "Kindermusik" movement, growing out of the work of Prof.
    John Feierabend and others, has begun to address the challenge of
    developing children's (and their parents') ability to sing, but of
    course it reaches only a small percentage of the population.

    If children have grown up in a singing-deprived environment, the onset
    of puberty often seems to be the point at which they become completely
    vocally mute. I'm now retired, but for many years I taught a course,
    "The Music Experience," to non-music majors at the UNL School of Music,
    a course that encouraged them to discern features within a musical
    texture, and then to develop the skill to articulate what they hear. I
    should tell you that, upon questioning each succesive class, I
    invariably found that almost 100% of them had performed in a musical
    ensemble, either vocal or instrumental, in high school--they were, in a
    manner of speaking, the "musical elite." Acting on the sage advice of an
    older colleague, who suggested that singing ability and hearing ability
    are in some as yet unexplained way linked to one another, I began to ask
    students first to join me in singing one low pitch. Once a majority of
    them had found the pitch (there were some who never did), I led them in
    singing the degrees of the scale (do, re, mi, but using numbers: 1, 2,
    3). After engaging in this activity for several weeks, I finally gave
    them an impromptu quiz: "I'm going to sing a melody for you. If you hear
    that this melody goes up, rises, would you please draw a rising line on
    your paper. If you hear that the melody goes down, gets lower, would you
    please draw a falling line on your paper. If you hear that the melody
    stays on the same note, would you please draw a flat line on your
    paper." Then (being careful not to make any physical movement) I'd sing
    the notes do, re, mi, fa, sol (all on the vowel "ah"). I'd then collect
    the papers. Invariably 25% - 30% of the class would draw a descending
    line or a flat line. Those results correlated well with a 1993 study by
    Prof. Keith Thompson of Pennsylvania State Univ. Reporting on a survey
    he conducted among 7th and 8th graders, Prof. Thompson stated:

    "Urban, rural, and suburban teenagers have different listening habits
    when it comes to popular music… [but] Urban, rural, and suburban
    students were alike in describing rhythm as the most important musical
    element to them. They paid little attention to instruments and volume
    and none to melody or harmony."

    You may be acquainted with the name "John Bell." Bell is an ordained
    minister of the Church of Scotland (Reformed), and also the primary
    musical figure linked to the Iona Community. Bell has published a little
    book, /The Singing Thing/, in which he treats 10 reasons why Christians
    should sing, and then delves into 4 reasons why people don't sing.
    Here's what he says:

    "If any group of people is asked, 'How many of you cannot sing?' one in
    four will raise their hands to confess tone-deafness, no sense of pitch
    or some other musical deficiency… One in four is an horrendous
    proportion of the population. But it is a specifically European, and
    more especially British, predicament. [This is of course not so; the
    same predicament prevails in the U.S. and, I suspect, everywhere modern
    culture has gained a firm foothold.] In other continents, the
    presumption is that everyone can sing. In some tribal societies singing,
    composing and teaching a song to others is part of the rite of
    initiation into manhood. But in western Europe [and in the U.S.], the
    presumption that all can sing is displaced by the belief that some can
    and some cannot. Those who can't have been told…" [p. 95]

    "…In the West we are going into uncharted territory where music is
    increasingly seen as something which is the preserve of gifted
    individuals whom others are expected to listen to and admire. The more
    this aspect of musical culture prevails, the less will ordinary people
    perceive that it is their prerogative to sing and participate in
    communal music-making. Therefore when the Church invites people to sing
    hymns, it is doing something profoundly counter-cultural. It is both
    presuming that all can sing, and providing material specifically written
    so that the whole community can participate…" [p. 118]

    Most of what I've said is anecdotal: unsubstantiated and
    unsubstantiatable. Given the state of research on this topic, that's
    inevitable. There have been studies of the effects of particular kinds
    of music (e.g., five days of uninterrupted acid rock makes plants wilt;
    but of course there's no indication whether this is due to musical style
    or sheer volume), and also studies on how a certain demographic (e.g.,
    teens) perceives music. To the best of my knowledge, though, there've
    been no broad-based studies assessing people's musical or singing
    abilities. There's no money to be made from this information--in fact,
    the results might be a national embarassment, and might make the popular
    music industry look bad. This information isn't understood as critical
    to national well-being. So there are no big grants to do studies such as
    this, and the studies don't get done.

    It may be up to the church to initiate the conversation, since the
    church has a lot to lose if it's not initiated. I think that
    conversation needs to be carried on in the broadest possible context,
    both ecumenical and with society as a whole. And I think it needs to be
    carried on with humility and patience, with gentleness and grace, and
    with sympathy and understanding for those many people, both within and
    without the church, whom modern culture has deprived of the gift of song.

    Quentin Faulkner
    Larson Prof. of Music, Emeritus
    University of Nebraska-Lincoln
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,279
    Being an organist and not a singer, I would ask those who do sing about something I have noticed. I have worked, in earlier years, for Protestant churches. It appears to me that the Protestant hymns now in the Catholic hymnals are usually in lower keys than they were originally. Is the general lack of singing in our culture responsible for congregations not being able to comfortably sing the higher notes anymore?
  • JDE
    Posts: 586
    CharlesW, yes -- that phenomenon I have also noted. In the 1956 Baptist Hymnal, Hymn No. 1 was Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty on the tune NICAEA (ironic, don't you think?) in E major. In the modern pulp hymnal I have seen this hymn pitched as low as C major, with the default setting in D.

    This has entirely to do with the situation noted by Prof. Faulkner above. People who are told they can't sing, won't sing. And when singing becomes a passive entertainment rather than an activity or an art, society, musical literacy and singing literacy all suffer.

    Jeffrey, perhaps Prof. Faulkner's letter should be an article unto itself, rather than just a letter to the editor; perhaps he would care to expound further on the subject.
  • I agree that this is an article worth reprinting.
    However I would caution that any readership consider that we're not at all in a "Chicken Little-the sky is falling" scenario in reality. Without taking to task any of the points noted by Jeffrey, the professor and others, I would simply say that there is plenty of evidence that indicates that students from pre K through undergraduate collegiate levels are provided significantly greater access and opportunity in areas of music performance, composition and production. There is plenty of literacy evident in local, state, regional, national and international festivals hosted by many organizations beyond MENC, ACDA, ABDA, Choristers Guild and those travel/performance venue programs that are multiplying. High school choirs in urban, suburban and rural (such as where I live, a choral heaven!) learn and sing repertoire that two generations ago could only have been tackled by the Roger Wagner Chorale or the Gregg Smith Singers. I know this because I've been part of it for the better part of my career.
    Now, as a full time RC DM, I also teach K-8. I'm in my third year at our parish school. I use an amalgam of approaches towards both theory/reading literacy, repertoire discernment and growth, and solid classroom management centered upon achieving goals that exceed that of the previous lessons. What I have marveled at is the exponential growth in enthusiasm and skills achievement at all levels. Parent's jaws drop when they hear each of the K-3 classes singing in relatively perfect unison. The 3-5 grades are in their second year of learning part literature via SSA parts assigned to each grade selectively, such as my aforementioned Dubois ADORAMUS TE. The 8th grade Bell Choir, a motley bunch of underachievers in academics (according to their classroom teacher) have learned to respect the enterprise from their predecessor class, and thus have already far surpassed what was achieved in the last academic year. And most astonishingly, by challenging the 7th grade class, who as 6th graders last year were less resistant to singing in general, to sing in S/B configuration some fairly complex music on three major performances with only one 30 minute rehearsal per week, they are a literal miracle that gave the Bell Choir reputation some serious competition.
    But here is the proof in the pudding, that which matters to me, and Jeffrey's article, most: I have told the kids, their parents, their teachers and administrators and my pastor that my job in the school is not to teach kids music literacy or performance skills for their own sake. My job is to create a new generation of "Singing Catholics." That's it.
    How do you know if that's happening? At the weekly school Masses. When the altar servers are joining the priests in singing the ordinaries, hymns et al during the weekend, funeral and wedding Masses. When the second grade class stands in front of their parents and flawlessly, joyfully sing three prepared pieces. When I don't ever have to ask one child not to sing, but lip synch.
    I had occasion at the beginning of the month to substitute instruct at my old public middle school as their director was on med leave. They were in danger of not being able to go to the one festival that "measures" their accomplishment level for the year. What was most noteworthy to me was that there were public school choruses who meet daily that evidenced zero ability to match pitch, much less sing in unison. There were also schools that should have been featured on 60 minutes as exemplars of combined community effort. But the kids in my program would have faired quite well. So, down the road I'll be glad to consider having our school join the Cantiones organization.
    This doom/gloom reality doesn't have to be considered pervasive. It's the same story as it was in Bach's time- if the choir master loves his students as much as his art, and is then hired by a prelate that understands, defends and financially supports the endeavor, and then everyone rolls up their sleeves and gets to it, great things happen.
    Heck, I'm a pessimist by nature. But I'm constantly amazed at the thirst the kids in my city have for singing the great music out there. There's plenty good room (oops, jab) for Les Miserables, American Idol and Michael Haydn/Morton Lauridsen in our curriculums.
    Thanked by 1SamuelDorlaque
  • G
    Posts: 1,391
    Yes, more than deserving of space in SM.
    This is very much on my mind because I just began a not entirely elective musical project with middle-school aged boys and girls, and I am finding very similar results, which shocked me at first.

    "This has entirely to do with the situation noted by Prof. Faulkner above."
    Yurodivi, I think it may have mostly to do with that situation, but is also reflective of a growing reluctance to use any but chest voice. Even many girls will not, or perhaps cannot, (because of the style of singing to which they have been exposed,) sing in a head voice.

    (Save the Liturgy, Save the World)
  • gregpgregp
    Posts: 632
    Charles, can you contact me? I have some time off coming and I'd like to drive over and see what you do, if you don't mind. gaius_iulius (at) yahoo (dot) com
  • JDE
    Posts: 586
    G, if more children were taught the proper way to sing without injuring one's instrument, they wouldn't rely exclusively on breast tone. I personally know of several girls in my community who had vocal nodules as pre-teens; that was mainly their instructor's fault, but still --- proper instruction saves voices! Or, for more bumper-stickerishness, how about "Friends don't let friends belt."
    Thanked by 1R J Stove
  • Jscola30
    Posts: 116
    In talking about keys of songs, I learned in my music ed program, that songs for children in school music books a long time ago were indeed higher. Firearbin is great, he came and spoke at my school last year. I would aslo reccomend Ken Philips' Teaching Kids to Sing and the Ward method.
  • mjballoumjballou
    Posts: 989
    Maybe we should all hire a bus and go see what Charles in CenCA is doing! Just kidding, but his experience shows that children don't have to be either silent or screeching. When I've worked with children in occasional choirs, they do respond well, especially to good music. It takes patience and time. Securing the latter is a real issue in parishes where you're lucky if you can get the children's choir together for an hour a week - and there is almost instantaneous pressure to get them "in front of the congregation." The kids are overbooked, as are their parents. And you hear over and over, "It doesn't matter how they sound. Everyone loves the children because they're cute." The focus on "singing Catholics" is key. Talk about teaching the children's choir the Mass parts is often met with a blank stare.

    I've heard Quentin Faulkner speak at a conference in the past and his comments made a big impression on me as I was preparing to "re-enter" the church music world. The rise of the passive music consumption model has been devastating for group singing, whether it's in the family, in the car, or in church. "Singing is someone else's business, not mine." Why does the average congregation sit "mute as fish" while the choir and the music director flail away? "Hey, it's their job, not mine." I often suggest that choir directors try sitting in the midst of a congregation at a Mass. It's a discouraging, if enlightening, experience. Most parishioners don't even twitch toward the hymnals, worship aids, misselettes. If it's any comfort, I doubt those people sing the national anthem at baseball games.

    Do I think the situation is incurable? Of course not. I wrote an article on family singing several years ago for The Church can take a leading role in this, working with teachers and the religious ed folks, for example, to build their singing skills and confidence. At the base of the singing issue is another larger and harder question. Is the Church simply a mirror of contemporary passive culture or something very, very different with a radical understanding of human values and activities? I have to believe that it is. Otherwise, I might as well listen to Amy Winehouse and wait for disco to come back.
    Thanked by 1R J Stove
  • We encourage wonderful Catholic singing among young people. Send your parish youth to participate in the 2008 season of The National Catholic Youth Choir, "Dona Nobis Pacem," June 16-July 2 in Collegeville, Minnesota!

    Application materials can be found on our web site at here and are due postmarked March 31, 2008.
  • Mjballou, you are absolutely correct when you stated that there is an attitude of "it's not my job" in our musical culture these days. Just take for example the math teacher at the schoo, where I teach: when I would send him song suggestions for Mass for the students, he would just send them back and say "you pick, we don't care" and then the children proceeded to not sing what I chose. I think that is primarily due to the example from the math teacher: "we don't care, you pick." this sends the message loud and clear that music is "someone else's job."
    Thanked by 1R J Stove
  • Not sure how pervasive the following problem is, and in any event I'm an organist, not a singer (except occasionally in a competent but ad-hoc Catholic choir where, if I'm not present, there's no bass at all). Still, my experience suggests that a few choral directors are actively harmful to middle-aged voices (like mine), which implies that they would be 10 times more harmful to adolescent voices.

    I'm thinking in particular of one choral director who was a formidably accomplished musician - organ, piano, harmony, counterpoint, you name it - with qualifications from one of the world's most distinguished music schools; but he knew nothing about proper vocal hygiene. As a consequence, he would compel our choir to belt out all its music fortissimo throughout every rehearsal. The notion of conserving vocal resources had clearly not occurred to him.

    At one point, when I was in the bass section and dutifully obeying his command to roar forth the bass part (which went up to, if memory serves me, F sharp above middle C: this was a Langlais piece), I felt a weird ripping sensation in my throat. Whereupon I suddenly discovered that ... my singing voice had abruptly shrunk to a sub-Robeson-esque growl.

    Well, not to over-dramatize matters, I did to a certain extent recover my singing abilities, such as they were. But I never got back the notes above middle C (let alone my falsetto), and rather than have people feel sorry for me, I left the relevant choir. (I was in my early 40s at the time.) Often I've wondered in the intervening years how many other people's vocal cords this guy ruined - whether permanently or temporarily - by his lunatic insistence that rehearsals be one protracted bellowing session.

    Thanked by 1ClergetKubisz
  • RJStove, some cantors treat Mass as one protracted bellowing session and then ask the accompanist to transpose down because their voices begin to hurt. Go figure.
    Thanked by 1R J Stove
  • I've not encountered that particular problem myself, ClergetKubisz, but I can well believe it must happen. The choir I'm talking about was a secular organization which, nevertheless, did sing in churches sometimes.
  • There is a more practical reason that pitches of hymns have fallen.

    1- concert pitch A440 was only standardised in the latter part of the 20th century.

    2- D major has only 2 sharps compared to 4 in E major and C has none!

    I personally believe that one should not use keys with more than two sharps or flats in the key signature. Otherwise it puts off beginner organists.
    Thanked by 2Adam Wood CHGiffen
  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,410
    1- concert pitch A440 was only standardised in the latter part of the 20th century.

    This is such an important issue.

    The ridiculous notion that music written prior to 1925 (and even later, in some cases) was specifically intended to be sung in a particular range defined by modern pitch standards is, well, a ridiculous notion.

    Even music written in the late-recent era of pitch standardization is transposed frequently for singers of different vocal ranges.

    There are lots of reasons NOT to capitulate to the "transpose everything down" chorus.

    The intrinsic value of the specific pitch classes selected by composers of hymn tunes is most assuredly NOT one of those reasons.

    2- D major has only 2 sharps compared to 4 in E major and C has none!

    I personally believe that one should not use keys with more than two sharps or flats in the key signature. Otherwise it puts off beginner organists.

    People who are excellent keyboardists (as well as people who are not musicians at all) would be shocked to find out how many composers write in particular keys because it is easier on their fingers, for one reason or another.

    I have a friend, a very talented but untrained musician who writes musicals. Most of his music is written in god-awful key signatures with multiple sharps, because (for some strange reason) he find his fingers work better in those keys.

    Sondheim intentionally writes music away from his piano, because he knows that if he puts his hands on the keys, certain habits and patterns will come out no matter his intention. - Not all composers are that self-aware.

    The idea that the SPECIFIC key and range of a classic hymn tune was selected by a composer or arranger because he or she had special insight into the nature of congregational singing ability is SILLY.

    People who refuse to transpose music because of a dogmatic devotion to the printed score are FUSSBUDGETS.
    Thanked by 1noel jones, aago
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,279
    Remember the infamous Widor key of F sharp. He seemed to like that key, but it can be a bit harder to play. Maybe it fit his fingers better.

    I don't transpose, so get over it! Since many traditional hymns have been lowered in recent hymnals, I tend to have them in newer and older keys. So practically speaking, I do transpose to that degree by playing either the higher or lower settings.
  • I have the added difficulty that 4 organs I regularly play are all tuned to different pitches. One is a semitone sharper than modern concert pitch. I have several hymns transposed down a half or whole step to accomodate this. Many of the congregation are elderly and cannot manage a high Ds and Es any more.

    I often find that D major agrees with me while Eb and I just don't get along. I have noticed that flat keys don't seem to agree with me, but I have fewer problems with sharp keys.
  • CharlesW says:

    Remember the infamous Widor key of F sharp. He seemed to like that key, but it can be a bit harder to play. Maybe it fit his fingers better.

    Franck too adored writing in F sharp major, presumably for the same fingering-related reason.
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,374
    Wind players tend to prefer flats, while string players tend to prefer sharps, and many keyboard players I know love A flat and D flat major....
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,279
    Wasn't E flat supposed to be the perfect Masonic key? I read that somewhere.
  • Hadn't heard this allegation about E flat major's Masonic significance (perhaps someone had overdosed on the Magic Flute overture) but I doubt its truth. As for fingering and complex keys, well, of course, Franck was a famous pianist long before he was a famous organist; and goodness knows Widor could well and truly find his way around a piano, quite apart from his organ-loft abilities. (Ditto Dupré.)
  • Just the other day one of the parishioners in the parish came up to me and said she'd sing if I lowered the keys. So the questions we lower keys to get the people singing even if it hurts the music to do so?
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 8,713
    Well, I suppose you could ask her to sing something simple along with you, to check her range: say, "My country, 'tis of thee", "America the Beautiful", maybe some Christmas carols. If she's extraordinarily low or high, you can't fix her, since you need to aim the hymns at the average range.
  • Yes, you need to aim toward the middle. Not everyone will have the same range, of course, and neither do all of the songs (we could go on and on about I Am the Bread Of Life). The range that I aim for is C3 to C4, with a M2 tolerance on either side. For those not versed in numerical notation, this is middle C (written, men are of course an octave lower) to the C the octave above it, again with a whole step tolerance on either side. I really have a difficult time with understanding why people say that they'd sing more if the key was lowered. It's not the key that is the issue when discussing pitch: it's the range of the song. You can do something in E or G, but the range never goes higher than a B in the staff or something, and you have a perfectly singable range without having what is commonly considered to be a "lower key." I think that the issues behind whether or not people sing at Mass has little to do with the pitch or range of the music: the children at the school sing like birds but I never transpose anything for them. In fact, I got this very argument from the middle school students, who complained that the music was too high, so I transposed it to a singable C to C range. Guess what? They still didn't sing. Here's what I have gathered so far as to the factors that go into a persons decision to sing:

    1. Intrinsic desire to sing.

    2. Confidence in ones own ability to sing.

    3. Knowledge of the song.

    4. Opinion of the song or style/genre.

    I am unsure as to where pitch would fit, possibly at number five, but I don't think that would matter much to those who want to sing anyway: they will still try. Now, I'm not saying that we should begin playing everything at the pitch the composer wrote the song in just because that's what he wrote, nor am I implying that things can be sky high with no consequences or effect upon the singing. What I am saying is that music is not as high as some people complain that it is, and it certainly isn't so high as to make it unsingable. I agree wholeheartedly with transposing the music to fit an average range, but what is the standard to which we keep? In my case, I am using the basic child's range, and it is also the range that all trained adult singers have in common.
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,374
    Here's the problem: most women are mezzos, most men are baritones. True SATB voices are at the lower ends of distribution in the bell curve. SATB pieces that were originally written for singing by choir may have been pitched differently. If you want men in a Catholic congregation to sing, consider unskilled baritones as the erstwhile Fach.
  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,410
    Also, a great deal of the post-council folk/pop stuff....

    Yeah, I know- people will sing it IF THEY KNOW AND LIKE IT, regardless of the highness. But that doesn't mean it isn't too damn high. People who don't already know and like it won't sing it for that reason, and neither will men who feel self-conscious about it.
  • Yes, Adam, but how high is too high? C4? D4? Bb 3? And too high for whom? What is the standard upon which you base the decision that it is "too damn high?"

    "Too damn high" is "too damn subjective" to accurately address.

    Your meme is hysterical, btw! I didn't stop laughing for like five minutes.
  • In my eyes E4 is too high for the average congregation (being a bass myself - or at least to low for tenor purposes - I suppose I am qualified to set upper limits). D4 may not occur too often but can be tolerated.
    Thanked by 1R J Stove
  • I find that the D an octave above middle C is the pratical limit of pitch for most congregations.

    One organ I play is tuned a semitone sharper than concert pitch. Often this means I need to transpose a hymn score down into a more manageable key.

    Flat keys and I don't get along. So hymns in E flat get brought down to D major and I'm happy.
  • I did something today that I thought I'd never do: I transposed Silent Night up from Bb to D for the children.
  • Speaking from a pedagogical standpoint, the muscular shift of the voice happens at Eb4 (E-flat above middle C), so assuming that the majority of the congregation has not had the necessary training to navigate the muscular shift you could say that the top not should be D4 for the sake of you men, a half-step below the shift. Move this up an octave for women and that is about where you are at, although women technically should all be able to sing up to the top of the treble staff, or F5.

    Oh, and so there is not any confusion, I come from a school where middle C is C4. I know that there are a few different schools of notation floating about so I just wanted to be clear.
  • @ClergetKubisz: Transposing up is almost always a good idea when working with children, because most music written for children is too low for their voices.
    Thanked by 1ClergetKubisz
  • I've recently tried transposing up during rehearsals, unknown to the choir. Then during mass bring it down to the original key. After mass, the singers will come up and say "the music sounded low today", when in the past they complained it was too high. All pedagogy aside, sometimes we just have to "fool" the singers.
    Thanked by 1ClergetKubisz
  • My observation: people complain about things being too high when it's a hymn/song they don't like or believe is "too traditional." Also, when the choir sees the music in print they "psych" themselves out to think it's too high.

    When I hear the complaint either from PiPs or the choir, I quickly point out that "I Am the Bread of Life" spans 1 & 1/2 octaves and reaches a high e-flat. I seem to recall in some versions it's in A Major rather than A-Flat but still the range is quite incredible. In any event I have yet to hear a congregation not blast the plaster off the ceiling on the refrain of that "hoary chestnut." Most traditional hymns never stray beyond an octave and are usually kept within the range of the staff, unlike so much contemporary music that employs lots of ledger lines below the staff.

    Also, I think a great deal of damage has been done by "organists" who rather than leading the singing with the organ, lead it from the organ and use their own voice to lead the singing. Often, they not only drop or raise the key of the hymn/song (thanks in large part to digital "organs" and electric keyboards being installed in churches) to suit their own voice rather than that of the congregation, but they also "stylize" the melodies by distorting or "jazzing up" the rhythms to suit their own vocal style rather than singing the notes on the page with regular rhythms and a consistent tempo.

    With the current generation of children, I've found that the ones who can't sing "high" also love to sing along with recordings from the latest pop stars (I'm thinking female stars and female kids) who sing with a whiny, chesty voice. There is in fact a speech pathology becoming more and more problematic in teenage girls wherein they employ "vocal fry" in their regular speaking voice. This is leading to significant and possibly permanent damage to their vocal cords (vocal folds, depending on the terms you prefer) later in life. Thank you Brittney Spears for making this popular, thus driving another nail into the culture coffin.

    Finally, this is what makes chant (either in English or in Latin) so beautiful. It's based on moveable "do", and can be sung at whatever pitch level both priest and people naturally gravitate to. When I can back out of the way and let the priest pick his own pitch to intone his part of the dialogues, I find they usually pitch recitation tones around G or F. Since most of the responses from the people have a range of no more than a 3rd (occasionally the 5th for the response after the Epistle), this seems natural and ideal. Even the chants for the Ordinary keep the range fairly limited to an octave. The "rangy" chants belong to the schola, and they're trained to sing with more facility that the people.

    Holy Mother Church knows how to care for her children.
  • @Musicteacher, I've got a couple of singers who know to ask about the transposer if they feel it is too high, so I sort of can't fool them: they'll just ask what the transposition is and whine until it gets changed.
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,374
    Well, the funny thing about Sr Toolan's compass in that refrain is that it's well prepared; she did have some skill in composition, say what you will otherwise about the song. The marked toggling between passaggio points means amateur singer don't get too tired, and her interval choices are relatively intuitive for a people used to folk or popular ballads. For someone thinking of this primarily on the keyboard, it may go unnoticed.