August 5, 2020

Liturgical music after the pandemic

Liturgical music after the pandemic

What will liturgical music be like after the pandemic? If you’re wondering about that, you’re not alone. Speculations run the gamut from “everything will return to normal” to “nothing will ever be the same again.” As a publishing professional, I’m knee-deep in the conversations about this question. More significantly, as a church musician, I — along with all of you — am part of the answer: what we are doing now as church musicians will determine the future of church music.

I started singing in church choirs at age 4 and have continued in church music mostly continuously ever since. There’s no question that this is the most turbulent period in church music I’ve ever experienced. Making predictions about the way this will play out is in some ways necessary, but also in some ways pointless. Perhaps the question we should ask instead is: How do we want this to play out? I offer some observations:

Singers sing.

In a recent interview, composer Eric Whitacre reflects on the limitations of the virtual choir phenomenon he created, and which has become about the only choral outlet during the pandemic. He observes: “Singing together in a room, taking that first breath together, and then singing together...nothing beats that and nothing ever will.” I think that there is no doubt that choirs will form again when they are able to safely do so. We love singing together too much. And not just singers — all musicians are experiencing the loss of our creative outlet. Thanks be to God that the gift of creativity may get bottled up but does not dry up. I anticipate an explosion of creativity to emerge from the pandemic.

Music is wedded to the liturgy.

“A cry from deep within our being, music is a way for God to lead us to the realm of higher things...Thus, it is no wonder that singing together in church expresses so well the sacramental presence of God to his people” (Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship). Worship and music cannot be separated; the Church makes a point of telling us so. Thus, while many parishes are either forced to or choose to jettison all music during the pandemic, the liturgy suffers from its absence. We must be persistent and adaptive in our methods to keep music in some form integral to our liturgies. Some of those adaptations will carry forward into post-pandemic. Change is good.

Crisis equals opportunity.

Recall what the authors of the 2013 book Rebuilt had to say about music: “More than any other element in the church’s weekend experience, it is the music that can touch and change people’s hearts...Singing and discipleship go together...The music must be all about attracting the lost and growing disciples through worship.” The book describes their various efforts to improve the poor quality of their parish’s music. Not to say that their solution is right for everyone (and they admit that), but they did take the time to examine what they were doing and how it was not working and to make tough choices about how to change for the good of their missionary charism. Now is a good time for us all to examine our own music programs. There is always something missing. What is it? It’s always easier to change the wheels on a cart when it is not barreling down the path. Take advantage of this time to take a deeper look within.

Church musicians are trying.

If church musicians have ever before experienced anything like how the pandemic has changed our music, it’s been a long time. There is therefore little to fall back on, even including church documents, which speak often of the voice, and how instruments primarily serve to support singing. But what happens when the people are literally being told not to sing in church, and may not have a missal or hymnal at home?

Churches that are livestreaming liturgies, and which allow a cantor in the worship space are trying various approaches:

  • Singing favorite songs or psalms that people largely know by heart, like “Abba! Father” (Carey Landry).
  • Songs with litanic forms like “Open My Eyes” (Jesse Manibusan) where the lyric changes little from verse to verse and is therefore easy to sing from memory.
  • Songs with repetition and/or call-and-response forms like the spiritual “Somebody’s Knockin’ at Your Door,” where the people have a short response to the cantor’s invocation.
  • Songs that acknowledge our fears and offer comfort may be what parishioners need, such as Bernadette Farrell’s “Christ, Be Our Light.” “Longing for peace, or world is troubled. Longing for hope, many despair...”
  • Adding new songs to their repertoire during a time when people may only be listening and not singing: “Say to the Frightened Heart” (Bob Hurd), “Healed in Christ” (Sarah Hart).
  • Repetitive, Taizé-style responses like “Meditation” (Grayson Warren Brown).
Some churches are using only instrumental music. There are many arrangements of hymns and songs that are familiar to parishioners at home. Kevin Keil offers The King of Love: 10 Traditional Hymns for Piano and Solo Instrument.

Our actions matter.

In a film I watched recently (you may know the one), a poignant scene revolved around the statement “That’s how we’re going to win: not fighting what we hate but saving what we love.” I thought about that in regard to many of the issues going on in the world. Music in our churches is no different. We love church music, and so we need to save it — for us and for our children and for our children’s children. Any opportunity we have to marry music to the liturgy during these times is important. Creative ideas may come from surprising places; seek them out. Some among us have already had to make deep sacrifices; others of us can sacrifice more to save what we love. Our actions matter.

So, What will liturgical music look like after the pandemic? The same. And different. Liturgy is literally the “work of the people.” It’s in our hands.