POLL (and a rant): Where’s the band?

There are criteria for music during the liturgical action.

It must be sacred and it must be art.

That is, the idiom of the music should be sacred – not blatantly secular – it must present sacred texts and it must be artistic, both as a composition and by performance.

Idiom is a little hard to describe, but it has to do with connotation.  For example, certain instruments and styles of music invoke smokey jazz night clubs or summer parades.  Those are connotations which shift very slowly.  Other music or instruments, such as pipe organ, instantly makes you think of church.

Some people think that beauty is in the ear of the listener and that you cannot dispute tastes in music.  I disagree.  Some music really is better.

Another thing which complicates discussion of sacred music for liturgy is the issue of "active participation".  The shallow, false understanding of "active participation" which has been dominant for so long convinced most people that the congregation has to be doing stuff or otherwise they are not being "active".  So, as far as music is concerned, people weren’t to listen, they were to sing!  And sing everything. Listening was "passive".  That is wrong, of course, for listening is tremendous active.  It is active receptivity

Still, the result of the false notion of music and participation resulted in a dumbing down of music.  Music became a mere tool to spur participation (incorrectly understood) rather than an "integrating part" of the liturgical action: prayer itself. 

To get everyone to sing, music had to be in the vernacular and it had to be simplistic.  People with the wrong idea of participation and no serious musical preparation started pushing out catchy junk inspired by the Campbell soup jingle or Gilligan’s Island theme.  Musical garbage for the lowest denominator. 

Stuff everyone can sing!

Thus was the door to our treasury of sacred music slammed shut. 

To spur the singing of this rubbish, even more people were co-opted into doing stuff, song leaders and combos, etc., were pushed up to the front of the church because doing stuff and seeing it being done was now the point of participation in the less and less sacred action.

Here is a little poll question.

Where is your band or music combo or choir situated in your church.

It is possible that in some places with more than one Sunday Mass you may have a band in front for one Mass and a choir in the loft for the other.  Or, the choir is up top in the loft for most Masses but then there is the single "contemporary" or "youth" Mass.

But for the most part, where are they?


Where’s the liturgical band/choir?

  • Tucked away (in the choir loft or out of view) (56%, 420 Votes)
  • In full view (up front or close to the sanctuary) (44%, 329 Votes)

Total Voters: 749

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Jeffrey says:

    The best thing about being tucked away is not having to “perform” for everyone. I’ve sung in a progressive N.O. church many years ago, next to the altar, right where the Gospel was read soon after, and you look at a lot of people’s faces. It’s much harder than singing in the back where people have to turn around to see you, which most don’t.
    Another distraction of the singers in front is that personalities can get involved. What if you don’t like (really don’t like) who is singing? You can generally ignore it much more easily if they’re out of sight.

  2. Sid says:

    To rescript Twain on Wagner, contemporary church music isn’t as bad as it sounds!

    More things offend in the MOF than the music, but nothing so immediately assaults the senses. From where the extrovert musicians are placed to the attack on the ear drum, from the inappropriate to the insipid to the inane to the heretical to shear garbage to Protestant camp meetings gathered by the river to aging hippies at Filmore East to wistful memories of “Puff the Magic Dragon”.

    Truth be told, hymns don’t belong in the Mass anyway, and instead hymns have their proper place in the Office. No place for them really is provided, be it MOF or MEF. So they’ve been shoehorned into a time where something doesn’t seem to be going on: beginnings, endings, collection, communion.

    It goes without saying that Catholic tradition is completely ignored. And teens should go to Mass with their parents.

  3. Liam says:

    Unfortunately, neither option covers another common arrangement – in the transept. Quite visible, but not in the sanctuary. Often a good choice acoustically, and practically.

  4. Simon-Peter says:

    The choir in my term time parish (which is the Cathedral) sits for the most part in one of the transepts, and then after the Rite of Communion, they move to the sanctuary, sing a bit, and then process out with the clergy at the end of Mass. There is a wonderfully large and unused choir loft.

    In my home parish, there is a small ‘music group’, which sits in a gallery, hidden from everyone except the celebrant (whose glances seem to act as a start/stop button).

    Now, while I prefer the music produced by the showy choir, I do wish they were hidden!

  5. Ruben says:

    Music used in the liturgy should be impersonal, dogmatic [? This makes no sense to me.] and therefore sacramental. The final condition relies upon the first two.

  6. Melody says:

    I’ve sung in a parish choir until recently, and I must say, I couldn’t have done it without a choir loft.
    The practice of putting everyone in front of the congregation really hurts liturgy because most people get stage fright. I bet that goes for priests too. I can imagine it’s much easier for many priests to celebrate facing the altar than to be constantly aware of the watching eyes of the congregation.

  7. David Andrew says:

    Ruben said,

    Music used in the liturgy should be impersonal, dogmatic and therefore sacramental. The final condition relies upon the first two.blockquote>

    Well said, and I’ve been trying to say that and instill the notion of objectivity into the psalmist’s role since I took my current position. I’ve been run at by folks armed with the shield of what Fr. Z has called “invincible ignorance and arrogance.” I’ve been told that by requiring the cantor/psalmists to approach the singing of the psalmody with a more objective approach that I’ve, “stripped away my ability to pray when leading the people in song.”

    The church I work for has a “worship space” that displays the musicians in full view. In fact, the organ console and cantor’s podium are literally 5 feet away from the tabernacle. Of course, thanks to the years of WONderful catechesis (the success of which our doyenne of sacrament preparation and formation will tell you), people think nothing of chatting and sipping from their water bottles in the music area with little concern for their visibility or their proximity to the sacred actions taking place.

    Argh. I’m tired. So very tired.

  8. Mitch_WA says:

    Choir was recently moved to back of church. Also most of the hippyish choirs left during the our last pastors reign. So now there are two choirs who alternate sunday\’s for the 8am Mass and the Sat. 5pm and Sun. 10am Masses have no choir so the choir is the parish, and for the most part that works fine, our current pastor is trying to develop a love for Chant in our parish.

  9. JayneK says:

    I belong to a recently formed choir that very much wants to be out of sight. We are in a modern church building with neither loft nor transept. Our pastor has agreed but it is going to take some time to arrange the necessary structural changes.

  10. cuaguy says:

    I am lucky, Organ/Choir in the choir loft, not just in the back, but in the loft. The only problem is that for big masses, we have a cantor down front, singing from a stand on the completely opposite side if the sanctuary than the tabernacle/pulpit/everything else. Though on a normal Sunday, the cantor is up in the loft.

  11. Daniel Muller says:

    The most damaging instruction in the GIRM is the almost offhand comment that the responsorial psalm should be chanted from the ambo. If one chant from “on-stage” is good, more is better!

    The parish that I usually attend is building a new church. There is an organ console in the plans but no pipe chamber. There is the outline of a grand piano along with chairs and music stands right next to the sanctuary. I am quite sure that a magnificent “sound system” is a top priority.

    By the way, no pews in this building are perpendicular to the thrust sanctuary; those in the nave are turned inwards a prissy 10°, with the obvious purpose that no one is allowed to face liturgical east! Remodeling this church to make it appropriate for Catholic liturgy at some point in the future will be just that more expensive in this mostly poor area of town.

  12. Nathan says:

    OK, now I’m conflicted. The Carolina Cannonball says that every time we vote for Fr. Zuhlsdorf in the “Blogger’s Choice Awards,” someone plays a tambourine at Holy Mass. http://thecrescat.blogspot.com/2009/02/every-time-you-vote-for-fr-z.html
    Is there a clear moral choice here?

    In Christ,

  13. Amanda says:

    Our parish uses primarily the organ, but has a strange blend of banal 70s music and a few real hymns. The choir is in the choir loft for the sat vigil, and 3 Sunday Masses (the hymns are markedly better at the TLM). The Spanish Mass, however, has the choir/band up front in from of our Lady’s altar, complete with guitar and tambourine.

  14. Rebekah says:

    We used to sing in the choir loft until our church was renovated and it was decided the choir loft would be better served by holding a massive air-conditioning unit. It takes up the entire loft, forcing the musicians to the front (they also removed the pipe organ to fit the air conditioning, and now have an electric one instead). There aren’t any “bands” though at my parish, and the organ is played more than the piano.

  15. Vicky says:

    I’ve sung from an old fashioned choir loft and up front. The choir loft is infinitely better. There was also a marked difference between the muscial selections in the two parishes. From the choir loft we sang many songs in latin from the St. Gregory Hymnal and the rest came out of the St. Michael Hymnal. At the other parish we sang things that came out of “Now That’s Worship”. I’m so glad to be back in the choir loft where no one wants to hold my hand and everyone kneels.

  16. TJ Wasik says:

    The choir at the church I attend sits in the front, however that is the only option. I attend mass at a Newman center on a college campus, and the chapel that we must use is an interfaith chapel and the layout does not allow for the choir to be anywhere else but in the front.

  17. JaneC says:

    I have done just about every configuration possible for a singer in a church–one side of the sanctuary, directly behind the altar, back pew, loft, and either side of the sanctuary in a monastic choir-type arrangement.

    The monastic choir-style arrangement was ok, in the tiny chapel that we were in, and I think it is the best solution for a group that must sing from the sanctuary because of architecture. But being in the front was stressful for me when I was in charge, because people would fidget or even whisper, and our white choir robes covered a multitude of sartorial sins but not all (shoes, mainly, but brightly-striped shirts also showed through), and I felt like the congregation were looking at me when I was conducting–I was a novice conductor at the time and very self-conscious, so having anyone but the choir observing me was nerve-wracking.

    Lofts are better. The singers still have to be quiet, thankfully not an issue with our current crop of singers, but if they need to sip from a water bottle, switch positions with another singer, or felt like wearing lime green platform sandals today, or if I need to quietly consult with the organist about something, we won’t distract the congregation. I am very glad to be in a loft now. It also saves me from being expected to do the ridiculous airline stewardess-style arm movements to “invite people to sing,” or to assume a specific facial expression, or whatever.

  18. Rachel says:

    We are very fortunate to have a lovely choir loft that is in the back of the church so that when the choir sings it sounds like angels. However, the Spanish Mass choir (in the same church) puts all their folks at the very front of Our Lady’s altar. They have their guitars, etc and they sit on the altar rail. Some other parishes that I have been at has their choir at the front as well. I prefer the choir loft.

  19. At my parish the Choir loft is used except for the teen Mass, where the praise band is in the front.

    When I was at my old parish and involved with choir, we sang in the front, it was quite annoying for me, considering I don’t like being the center of attention.

    The loft is much better

  20. Scott W. says:

    Thankfully, in the choir loft. Unfortunatley there is still the appearance of drums, tamborines, and that dreadful Peter Jones “Gloria”. Have you heard this thing? I mean I can offer up lengthy music, I can even offer up BAD music, but this the is both bad and takes FOR-EV-ER to sing through.

    P.S. And of course we have the insipid hymn leader at the lectern doing touchdown poses.

  21. RichR says:

    I usually ask this question: if you were to take the words out of the song and play the melody for an average group of American non-Catholics, what would come to mind?

    a) monasteries, sacred spaces, and contemplation

    b) rock concerts, dancing, sweaty guys with crazy hair

    c) soap opera, cheesy elevator music, bad acting

    d) hippies smoking weed while playing guitars

    e) other

    Now, think about the average hymn sung at a mainstream parish and do the above exercise.

  22. Fred says:

    I’m an organist at two parishes (princiapl substitute) – at the Cathedral parish in our diocese, the organ, piano, other instruments (typically strings, flute and brass for feast days) and all choirs are in the loft. There is also a very sophisticated electric keyboard that does a fine job sounding like a brass line, or a cello line, or some tympanny etc. when we don’t have the instruments we might want (or can’t afford the instruments we might want). The cantor does go to the ambo for the psalm. There is a cantor stand off to the side where the opening and recessional hymn are sung but the communion hymns are announced by the cantor from the loft. The choir usually sings one or two anthems at communion – so there may or may not be a separate congregation communionn hymn (listening is participating, as Fr. Z notes).

    At the other parish, there is a balcony all the way round (it is not a modern looking chruch by any means, but a significant reniovation of an early 20th century chruch – it is shaped in a square cross – so 4 balconies – on each side of the cross arms, I guess might be a proper description – it isn’t a round chruch. In the most recent renovation, a new pipe organ was buolt in the loft above and behind the main altar. The choir sings from that poriton of the balcony/loft, for the most part. I don’t think this is nearly the distraction that I had thought it woudl be – the sight lines of the pews on the main floor (as it were) are directed toward the altar becuase of the slope of the floor and the height of the sanctuary – it is about three steps up to the level of the altar. There is some architectural ornamentation on the wall back of the altar that “shields” the choir from being seen (for the most part) while they are seated. Those sitting in the other balconies are on raised platforms again directing attention to the altar. The onyly real complaint is from the choir members who cannot see the altar and the acoutics in the lfot (in terms of hearing the words spoken by the lectors and priests)

    My only additional comment is the use of the piano. While I try to play most everything on the organ, there are some pieces that musically work much better on the piano and sound odd on an organ (and I don’t think it the skill of the organists). Now, the real issue is whether those are appropriate music selections for Mass; as Father Z notes, some music is better than other music. But, I think the change will necessarily be slow…but if overtime, we add chant, add some prayers in Latin, reduce the number of “contemporary” tunes that work better with guitar and piano, play good hymntunes on a good pipe organ (with a little varied accompaniment, choir descants, etc. where you have the “resources”), then I think we will see (perhaps more quickly than we expect) proper sacred music in our parishes and catherdrals.

  23. Fred says:

    my apologoes for my spelling – I clicked submit before I did a preview to do a spell check

  24. plisto says:

    In my opinion, there should never be any need for any sort of “band” in the roman liturgy. Contemporary pop-style music doesn’t belong to the liturgy. It can be enjoyed at a concert, or a nightclub -but church in her liturgy is not a concert nor a club.
    The chant should have the prime of place, and sacred polyphony. In this way, we could once again be proud of our true cultural heritage -and also many of our (pagan) relatives and friends would -know this by my experience -respect the mass and our liturgy more, if it were very reverent -even non-believers can sense, when something really genuine and, I would add, sacred, is going on, if it’s not made unclear by some silly muzak.

  25. Jason says:

    Our choir — such as it is — is painfully in front, with its electric piano and assorted guitars. They fail many of the tests I’ve seen laid out for liturgical music; on RichR’s test, above, they scored “weed-laden hippie”, and basic competence is a problem. I’d love to help — I’m a trained and able musician — but nobody is willing to offend anyone by making any changes, and I don’t think it would be right for me to participate in what they are doing! At least someone put a kibosh on the “Gloria! {clap clap} Gloria! {clap clap}” business.

  26. Trad Tom says:

    I’m beginning to think that David Andrew belong to the same parish! I could have written his comment nearly verbatim! We have a wonderful choir loft, left unused. The noise, lack of reverence, and water/tea/soda drinking (within five feet of the tabernacle!) among the choir members makes me crazy! I, too, have grown so tired over the years. When, Lord, when?

  27. Trad Tom says:

    oops……”David Andrew and I”….

  28. Ruben says:

    I may have used the word dogmatic in an incorrect context. What I meant to say is that in a liturgical setting (at least it seems to me) that music exists as an exterior sign in order orient the interior disposition toward what we believe (IMHO). I often hear music at mass that seems to express what the composer or musician “feels” as opposed to what he should or does hold in faith. I guess what I am trying to say is that liturgical music for me is iconography for the ears which can touch the soul if performed as such.

    I remember one Christmas we had at our church some brass instruments which during mass did not at all sound obtrusive. At the end of mass one of the brass players began to riff on a New Orleans style jazz improvisation. New Orleans style jazz improv is great but in the context of the mass the personal expression of the musician seemed terribly out of place. The personal expression of the musician overshadowed what could have been more greatly appreciated as a moment for the sacred.

  29. Sieber says:

    Loft? What loft? We don’t need no stinkin’ loft! We ain’t got no loft!
    We need everbody down front to lead the hand clappin’.
    Besides, you ever tried to haul a Sousaphone up the tiny stairs to a loft?

  30. Andreas says:

    Presently, the vote indicates that majority of choirs are “tucked away”. And I have to ask: where do these people live? I haven’t see tucked away in decades anywhere in this land. It’s all up front on some newly constructed stage-looking platforms with lots of wires and microphones and a piano. Isn’t that the standard? More than half is tucked away? I must be living in a bad dream.

  31. Daniel Latinus says:

    Choirs should be heard and not seen.

  32. Kevin says:

    Everyone seems to have a problem with some aspect of music at Mass and (for the most part, it seems) rightly so. I just wish someone could do something about it. All the blogs and articles don’t seem to change anything. The scripture readings follow a cycle why can’t the music do the same? For starters we could all learn a basic Latin chant for the Mass parts. And then some traditional Catholic hymnody, maybe some simple polyphony and a few Marian hymns just for starters. This might be a step back for some parishes but would a move into new territory for most. Then wouldn’t we all be on our way to a more universal church? We just need a group of modern day apostles to lead us in this endeavor. A group with the authority to dictate (yes, dictate) what is to be sung at Mass and what should not be sung. An organization with ecclesial authority. Hum???

  33. Coletta says:

    Is there anywhere in Florida where we can attend a beautiful Mass? Really. This is a real question :)

  34. missalthumper says:

    At the parish we belong to, the choir is in the loft. Most often it’s gregorian chant with the organ only for the exit hymn, but occasionally classical Masses are used and on those occasions the choir is accompanied by the appropriate instruments. An observation, though: recently we went to Mass at a parish close to our house. This parish had the choir and a band down front next to the sanctuary (which was called the “stage”). Now—both the choir at the parish where we belong and the choir/band at the nearby parish are amateurs. But the choir/band SOUNDED like amateurs, whereas the choir at our usual parish does not. Could it simply be the difference in the style of music? Or something else?

  35. Jayna says:

    My church was built in 1975, so you can imagine what it looks like. No choir loft for us. The excuse is that no one will sing if they can’t see the choir and some nonsense about acoustics.

  36. Evelyn says:

    Ours is not tucked away, but is off to the side. One thing I have noticed in a couple of old churches with more modern music, is that the sound system is bizarre. The mic’ed singers follow the organist visually, but the organ is delayed by half a beat if it is in front and the pipes are not right there, so nobody is together. In a big church with a small congregation, it’s even worse, because the folks in the pew don’t know whether to follow the organ sound, the movements of the choir, or the actual voices coming out the speakers. Ugh. In smaller churches, I think this would not be such a problem. I’m definitely a proponent of choir lofts to remove the personal/personality element from the music.

  37. Maureen says:

    Choir lofts rock. Sideways choir stalls rock, theoretically. (I’ve never sung that way, but it seems reasonable.)

    You don’t _have_ to sing the psalm from the ambo. I think the basic idea is that it’s desirable to have a psalmist chant from the ambo, because it is a reading; but you’re still allowed to sing it from the choir loft or another place if you have good reason and feel like it.

  38. Mike Morrow says:

    Fr. Z wrote: “People with the wrong idea of participation and no serious musical preparation started pushing out catchy junk inspired by the Campbell soup jingle or Gilligan’s Island theme.”

    That’s a little unfair! The lyrics of “Amazing Grace” precisely fit the tune of “Gilligan’s Island” (and vice versa). Try it.

  39. Charivari Rob says:

    Sieber – “Besides, you ever tried to haul a Sousaphone up the tiny stairs to a loft?”

    As a recovering sousaphone player, you’ve made my day.

    Andreas – “Presently, the vote indicates that majority of choirs are “tucked away”. And I have to ask: where do these people live? I haven’t see tucked away in decades anywhere in this land. It’s all up front on some newly constructed stage-looking platforms with lots of wires and microphones and a piano. Isn’t that the standard? More than half is tucked away? I must be living in a bad dream.”

    At my current parish, we don’t use the choir loft, but the musicians qualify (in my mind) as tucked away. The double-duty organist/cantor at one Mass has a small organ console tucked up against a column beside the old St. Joseph’s altar (behind the platform at the crossing). The choir at our other Mass is in the transcept, just beside the platform, but behind a massive column, out of the line of sight of at least half the seats in the nave.

    At my previous parish, we did use the choir loft, except during Lent, when the pipe organ was not used, and we’d sing from a position behind a simple keyboard down in the transcept.

    For all the problems that can come with choirs down front, using the loft has its problems, too. For one thing, many (if not most) choir lofts in older churches are inaccessible (or burdensome, at least) to anyone with mobility challenges. For another thing, I’ve seen some pretty ridiculous behavior (in the loft) from choir people who think they’re out of sight and therefore decorum is not required.

  40. Alli says:

    People with the wrong idea of participation and no serious musical preparation started pushing out catchy junk inspired by the Campbell soup jingle or Gilligan’s Island theme. Musical garbage for the lowest denominator.

    Funny you should mention Gilligan… I dated a guy who was the choir director for a couple Masses at a rather liberal parish, and one day he walked in, singing the words of “Amazing Grace” to the theme music of Gilligan’s Island. It – very annoyingly – fit perfectly.

  41. Cecilia D. says:

    I am in the choir at church and I love singing in the choir loft it sounds so much prettier and better up there.

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