Implementing an a-cappella music program in your parish – Practical tips.

The necessary foundation of an a-cappella music program is music literacy. What is music literacy?

Music literacy is when singers are able to sing music without hearing it first. An analogy can be made with teaching reading to a child: we would not say a child can read (is literate) as long as we have to voice the words before they can be read by the child.

In the context of a parish, the level of music literacy needed is basic: diatonic scale (not chromatic) and unison singing are sufficient (see this page). To pursue our analogy, a child who can read would not necessary be able to read in all languages, or even at all levels of a same language, and still “literate”.

The ability to “audiate” is key to music literacy, and to a-cappella singing. Audiation is to music what thinking is to language.

How is an a-cappella music program built on music literacy?

Concretely, in such a parish music program, any willing parishioner can be trained in 12-18 months to lead-sing a-cappella the first and second degree of participation defined by Musicam Sacram (See paragraphs 21 and 28-30). This level of sight-reading would also allow the trained singer to lead hymns.

This differs from the most common situation when church singers are taught to expect a “cue” from an outside source, like a supporting instrument. It is usually a piano. If a choir or a cantor are unable to sing a-cappella simple tunes from the Roman Missal after 2 years, it shows they are being taught to be dependent on the instrument. They are not being taught music literacy.

Typical timeline of implementation of an a-cappella music program:

  • Initial 2-6 months: demonstrate, explain and recruit. First, it is highly preferable if the priest sings his parts. Either way, an experienced cantor chants the mass: answers to the priest, ordinary, proper. It may be only once a month(*). The “low hanging fruits” of singing participation (Simple ordinary, Responsorial, Alleluia) allow to identify the singers to be recruited for the next phase (“core”).
  • Following 2-3 months: establish a preparation-to-mass process. For the “core”, establish a easy to attend rehearsal time. Example: 30 minutes before each sung mass. With this limited time, solidify dialogues, learn to sing Gloria and Credo antiphonally (cantor-core) to invite more participation. The fact that preparation time is key becomes then obvious to all. This realization is key to breaking the dependency on instrumental “cue”, and a cornerstone of music literacy. The experienced cantor is not an “instrument”, and this may need to be emphasized. The choir then realizes that “just showing up” is not helpful. However, “showing up prepared” is. This is key. We can then establish more rehearsal time at mutually agreeable times. Explain the long-term time-saving advantages of a literacy program. They will not be obvious at first. Rehearsal will be attended if singers understand what they are learning. The support of the pastor is key in that phase.
  • Next 4-5 months: from “cue” to literacy. Expand the repertoire by learning the process to learn new music: solfege. Rote learning is diverted towards solfege learning. Illustration starting at this link. A few individuals may then be ready to lead a-cappella masses on their own (see example of a check-list here).

(*) Higher frequency of sung mass is always desirable. But experience shows it is possible to start a program just once a month, as it motivates the “core” group to learn faster and be able to fill in the other Sundays.

For best chances of success:

1. re-position liturgical chant away from the mainstream musical context.

  • Explaining a liturgical approach vs. musical one. No liturgical education is ever wasted.
  • The hierarchy voice-instrument is thus reversed, with voice on top, and instrument no longer necessary (no “high priest” of music at the keyboard/altar),
  • The process of learning choral music can then be “from the inside out”: every singer is a potential leader in an a-cappella situation:
    • necessary to avoid flaws (tempo dragging, pitch sagging,..)
    • the leader is only the “first among equals” to preserve unity. Unity is essential to chant.
  • The “elitism” of which Liturgical Chant has sometimes been accused is only accidental, not essential to chant. Examples of accidents:
    • Instrumentalists feeling left out and describing chant notation as “difficult”
    • Chant scholars not satisfied with being “first among equal”, redefining a better “high priest” position by making a purity claim (a certain language, period, rhythmic method,…).
    • “Elitism” can also be a way to deride a good thing: the drive to improve and learn more. The rich musical tradition of the Church has given us many good teachers to learn from. Incorporating valuable teachings will not disturb the essential unity and should be encouraged, not derided. A thirst to learn more is also accidental to chant.

2. Anchor the music program in the liturgy books and documents about liturgy.

  • A hierarchy is necessary to learning. The hierarchy of liturgy books matches quite perfectly the hierarchy needed for music literacy. This seems logical as music literacy was invented by the Church (staff lines, solfege,..).
  • Promoting “variety” in music is not erasing hierarchy, it establishes a hierarchy with music expert at the top (able to offer “variety”) and the illiterate singers (unable to read a broad variety of music) under them.
  • The hierarchy of the liturgy books fosters music literacy, and music literacy fosters variety. But emphasizing variety does not foster music literacy.
  • The apprenticeship of music outlined in the liturgy books is very analogous to the apprenticeship into discipleship. But human-made music is accessorial to the liturgy, which starts with the Trinity.

3. Also…

  • The priest should sing as much as possible. As per Musicam Sacram (1967) paragraphs 21-25: first, second and third degree of participation. The impetus to sing is restored to the priest-as-Christ-the-head, away from “the musicians”.
  • The starting assumption is that 10% of all congregation are able and willing to sing parts of the mass assigned to them. The percentage is likely much higher. The initial a-cappella exchange priest-cantor will reveal the congregation’s singing potential.
  • In this process, the initial cantor is morphing into a schola director, which is human management: identifying most eager singers, setting up convenient preparation time (30 minutes before mass is a god first step), solving simple musical problems (example: for pitch matching, see here ). The cantor should train to be ready for that transition.
  • If a children schola can be formed, it is a great accelerator: children have no fear of singing, and adults more easily will try what they see children are able to do.

Now you have a schola with music-literate enough to be motivated to keep growing. What next?

  • The individual desires and needs of newly autonomous singers will likely not converge for very long. The initial a-cappella cantor must realize this is a sign of success, as a good teacher is no longer needed when the students, excited with their new knowledge, think they learned what they needed.
  • The pastor must then clearly communicate the longer-term liturgical objective, and the outside help that may be necessary, or not. Keeping the hierarchy as defined per the Liturgy Books may be more difficult as “musical ambitions” grow. That is a good problem to have…
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