When I first arrived at St. Martin of Tours nearly 20 years ago, the parish did not have a culture of singing. Having volunteered as a guitarist years earlier, I knew that the songs chosen varied widely (good) but that there wasn't much repetition, and including very familiar hymns was not a priority (not helpful). The congregation was very quiet.
The first thing I did upon arrival was to develop a step-by-step plan for changing the overall singing culture of the parish. It did take several years, but while there is an occasional quiet mass, for the vast majority of celebrations the congregation sings with gusto, which brings joy to my heart. When I evaluate how well I did on a particular weekend, my evaluation hinges not on how fancy the prelude and postlude were, or whether or not the vocal ensemble nailed the anthem, but rather on whether or not the congregation was empowered to sing.
In various chat groups with other church musicians, the question of how to achieve this is often discussed. So I thought I'd share my step by step plan, and then in later posts elaborate on each step of the process.
1. First I explained to my congregation why I was asking them to sing.
2. Next, I found short responses and accustomed them to singing without someone singing their part on over the sound system.
3. When choosing music, I omit any hymn that requires accompaniment in order to sound good. If a melody is solid, it can be sung effectively a capella.
4. I developed a parish repertoire list and made sure to repeat newer songs three times in any given year. For very new songs, I made sure the repetitions fit into a span of five weeks.
5. I researched organ accompaniment techniques that better support singing, and put them into practice.
6. I noticed that the congregation sings better when the melody is played on a sustained instrument, and neither the piano nor the guitar are sustained.
7. I started occasionally teaching music to the congregation before mass.
These were not steps that I did sequentially--rather I was working on all of these concurrently. But for clarity's sake, in future posts I will elaborate on them individually. I do hope this gives newer church musicians a starting point to begin thinking about things that are within their control that can make it easier for the congregation to praise God in song!