ASK FATHER: Placement of choir

From a reader…


What does the Church recommend IF there is NOT A LOFT?

I am a music director at a small rural church and ONLY at Christmas and Easter do we have the choir come up during communion and the sing from the corner of the Sanctuary. The Altar is positioned in the center of the Sanctuary with carpet while to the side, in a space 30 feet wide that would even allow a rail to be installed to divide, is where the choir has been in the past. BUT NEVER DURING THE SACRIFICE OF THE MASS.


In small churches certain accommodations must be made.

Perhaps more space could be made in the sanctuary if the altar were to be pushed up against the back wall.   It’s amazing how much space is opened up by getting the table out of the way.

Other options might have the choir sitting in the back row of pews, or taking out the back row of pews and putting in risers.

Or, depending on the quality of the choir, putting them in the parking lot… facing away.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Sid Cundiff in NC says:

    Put them on the back rows. We did this when we started the Mass in the Extraordinary Form in the Charlotte Diocese, at Wake Forest University (Winston-Salem), where the celebrant, Fr. Samuel Weber, was on the faculty. The college chapel, Davis Chapel, was small, so our scholar/cantor sang from the back rows.

  2. APX says:

    The only issue with putting them in the back is if the organ console is in another area and the organist has to “direct” (more or less) the choir.

  3. tcreek says:

    My parish has a large (never used) choir loft. The 4 tier choir is 10′ to the right and in line with the altar. Sacrifice is “out”, performance is “in”, choir is loud, bishop is mute (of course, as usual).

  4. Southern Baron says:

    Our parish, like many, rearranged things in the 80s, long before I was there; but compared to some, it isn’t too bad. The sanctuary was extended into what would have been the transept but it was tastefully done. The baldacchino remains over the tabernacle, even if the altar is now moved forward. The choir and (real) pipe organ are to the right of the sanctuary, but definitely not in it. The loft sadly goes unused, but because it is a traditional layout, with columns, etc, the choir isn’t overly visible, and they are quite good.

    Sometimes I find myself grumbling about the lack of an altar rail, and that they aren’t singing the propers, but then they start the Palestrina and Father starts the incense, and I remember that as modern American parishes go, this is pretty solid.

  5. IoannesPetrus says:

    Fr. John Zuhlsdorf: Perhaps more space could be made in the sanctuary if the altar were to be pushed up against the back wall. It’s amazing how much space is opened up by getting the table out of the way.

    I see what you did there. Pity I can’t show the image for the meme.

  6. AnAmericanMother says:

    Back rows, definitely.
    Acoustically this generally works pretty well. Director can stand either in the center aisle or the side aisle and the choir turns slightly towards him.
    My daughter’s wedding was a small one and took place in the chapel because we would have rattled around like BBs in a boxcar in the main church. No choir loft, small but pleasant-sounding organ that rolls out from a little alcove in the back right corner. Director led from the organ console with all of us turned slightly towards him.
    We did get a double take when husband led me down the aisle before fetching Daughter, and I just kept going round the corner to my place in the choir.
    But according to the crowd (which included a ton of musicians and singers bec. the family and friends are very musical generally) it sounded great. We had a Renaissance and Baroque extravaganza despite the rector’s grumbling, a la Emperor Joseph, that there were “too many notes.” We mollified him by taking out the Credo from the Mozart C Major Mass . . . which we were going to omit anyway because it’s long and takes a lot out of a singer.
    Please pray for us, by the way. The rector is on a “contemporary music” kick and has banned polyphony. Why, why, WHY do Catholics not appreciate their great patrimony? they have sold their birthright for a mess of pottage.

  7. Choirmaster says:

    Best advice: out of sight. Whatever you can do to keep the choir and musicians out of sight. Take it from me, “running” the music for Mass is no easy task and requires constant fumbling, whispering, and re-arranging no matter how well you prepare. Even in the best of circumstances the organist and singers will be shuffling their papers and turning pages; putting things down and picking them up; and of course moving into formation and out of formation back to their seats or to a good place to kneel. Don’t forget that there are times where the choir sings as the people are sitting or kneeling, and thus the choir will have to stand, which can be a distraction in and of itself. All of this hustle and bustle becomes necessary to provide fitting music and perfect timing.

    It’s best not to fight this, but also not to distract the congregation with the down-and-dirty business of assisting musically at Mass. Stay out of sight. The choir will be heard no matter where they are in the building, trust me.

    Someone already said the back rows, and that is a good default position when no loft is available.

  8. Mary Jane says:

    LOL at the “parking lot facing away”. :)

    At our FSSP parish, before we had a loft, we sang from the back pews (as others have already mentioned).

  9. little women says:

    In our parish, the director has chosen the “monastery style”. Our little choir stands in a circle in the aisle towards the back of the church. It works out quite well.

  10. The Masked Chicken says:

    I recommend having the choir in the last rows in the back, as well.

    The Chicken

  11. Mike says:

    In what I suppose was yet another application of the putative “Spirit of Vatican II,” my parish’s choir was in the chancel for several years. That move, undertaken while the parish was still pastored by a diocesan priest, was undone after a faithful religious order was assigned the administration of the parish a few years ago.

    Undoing late-20th-century extremes in the administration of Holy Communion and other abusements will take longer, but incremental restorations of fidelity fortify one’s hope.

  12. Wiktor says:

    My former parish church has a laarge loft that I’ve never seen used as intended. Or maybe once.
    Usually it’s open and full of people having “better view”.

  13. APX says:

    Our priest (FSSP) had reserved the last few rows of pews for parents with small children so it is easier for parents to take them outside when they get noisy. Probably not the best place to put the choir. Thankfully we have a choir loft.

  14. Cincinnati Priest says:

    I have a fan-shaped, very modern church building. Unfortunately don’t have Mass in the EF (yet).

    The choir is in a corner near the front, but not in the sanctuary.

    Still, it drives me crazy while celebrating Mass being able to see the congregation turning their heads away from the altar toward the choir every time they start to sing — even during the Eucharistic prayer when they chant the propers. It looks like I am watching a ping-pong or tennis match. My eyes are on the altar cross, but I still can’t help noticing their head and eye movement out of the corner of my eye. (I know, I know — all you EF folks will say I shouldn’t be facing them in the first place, so I wouldn’t notice. Agreed, but one thing at a time :-) It could be a while before I can pull that off.)

    This is a natural “reflex” and is almost impossible to avoid when the choir is NOT located behind the congregation. It is of course the ‘performance reflex’ that kicks in when the “band”/”orchestra” starts to “perform” – as if one were at a concert. Which is sadly what too many of our Massgoers — and even musicians — believe the Mass is about.

    Unfortunately, the architectural space does not lend itself easily to relocating the organ and choir to the back.

    All the more reason for a traditional church design (cum loft), for any of you fortunate enough to be designing new churches, rather than being stuck with the theological mistakes of the recently past decades!

  15. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Cincinnati Priest,

    Is it a question of visibility, or simply audibility as well? Does the direction of sound attract attention in its own right, or is that not applicable in the fan-shaped design?

    I have encountered choirs in transepts or at the end of side aisles, and so presumably not visible to much, even most, of the congregation, but have no sense of whether attending to the direction of the source of sound is problematical for anyone in such circumstances.

    Choirmaster, and, in general:

    Where does the history of ‘choir stalls’ come into this picture? In 1912, Gerhard Gietmann was able to end his account in the Catholic Encyclopedia article, “Stalls”, “Modern times have made but few changes in the practical and artistic form that was fixed in an earlier era.” But he does not raise the matter of possible distraction.

  16. Stephen Matthew says:

    Based on a combination of experience, personal preference, and my limited knowledge of the church’s history and teaching on liturgy and music, I would say the best placement for a choir:

    1. In choir stalls, in the chancel (or choir!) in the monastic (also Anglican cathedral) fashion would be the best option, but only if you are going to actually have two facing choirs that will chant in keeping with the ancient tradition.

    2. Choir loft (a.k.a. “singing gallery”) at the far end of the nave opposite the altar.

    3. In the apse, in some non-visible fashion, such as behind a screen, like in Westminster Cathedral.

    4. Choir loft in another location (such as transept)

    5. Back of the church, ideally on risers, or standing in an aisle space, or in the back pews.

    6. In a transept, either on risers or at floor level.

    6. Some other place.


    7. In the sanctuary, on risers, or on chairs, or whatever.

    All of this is contingent on certain assumptions about space, acoustics, instruments for accompaniment, etc. and thus prudential judgement will necessarily enter into the question.

    I sing in a choir which due to old age, health, and disability issues sings from a rather visible spot in a sanctuary, while as a parish and choir we would all really rather use the choir loft, it would mean forcibly retiring half the choir (which can have considerable pastoral/psychological consequences to those forced to retire, and musical consequences since no replacements are forthcoming). It is very much non-ideal, as the organ and console remain in the loft, coordinating music across a distance long enough for the delay between sight and sound to be perceptible is a problem (likewise that is a major problem for cantors singing in the front of most traditional arranged churches, too).

  17. The Masked Chicken says:

    “I have a fan-shaped, very modern church building. Unfortunately don’t have Mass in the EF (yet).

    The choir is in a corner near the front, but not in the sanctuary.”

    Putting the choir in the corner is, it seems to me, causing the ping-pong effect. If the choir is put across the front pews, it would be acoustically worse, but liturgically better. A better arrangement might be to slip the choir and put them on either front corner. The would solve the ping-pong effect, since there is no preferred sight direction and it would give more immersive acoustics. The choir could, also, do some antiphonal works.

    The Chicken

  18. teejay329 says:

    Having sung in various choirs all of my life, I do have a bone to pick with the modern placement of them. Why are all of our choir lofts going away? The choir is supposed to be heard…not seen. It reminds me of some horrible 70’s guitar sing-a-long. I cannot stand having the choir off to the side of the altar and up front for everyone to see. It is most uncomfortable for everyone involved, the choir members first and foremost. Unfortunately, the choir loft at our Cathedral was removed during the recent renovation, but at least we have our new space at the back of the Church.

  19. The Cobbler says:

    I’ve seen a fan-shaped Church that was unfortunately too asymmetrical to support the split choir option… Opposite the choir was the tabernacle chapel room thingy. (What was behind the altar if not the tabernacle, you ask? The doors, of course. There were also pyramids on the ceiling for some reason — it can’t have been acoustics for the choir, the sound in that building was always washy fuzzy.)

    In the defense of whoever came up with this, the tabernacle chapel room thingy had the church’s only beautiful stained glass windows of Saints from throughout history, and kneelers encircling the tabernacle just like the stained glass Saints as though Whoever’s in it is the center of that little bubble. If only it hadn’t been a bubble but the same philosophy had applied to the whole church somehow…

  20. Cincinnati Priest says:

    Thanks for all suggestions.

    Unfortunately, due to some architectural constraints I won’t go into here, the split choir is not an option.

    I think I will eventually have to go with relocating to the back, on risers.

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