celebrating music during COVID

After shutdowns of public masses during the stay-at-home order periods of COVID-19, many dioceses have returned to public masses.  But liturgical music and masses are not the same. 

Because of concerns related to the spread of COVID-19, a number of measures are being taken by parishes: masks worn, socially-distanced seating, and many of changes for liturgical music.  Less music, little-to-no communal singing, suspension of choirs, and hymnals being stashed in storage.

With all this in mind, what is a music minister to do?  Here are five suggestions of how to use this time effectively in parishes and celebrate music.

1. Sing a New Song to the Lord

This could be an opportunity to introduce the congregation to new music.  Should a music director have plans to introduce some new hymns in coming months, the congregation could be exposed to the music while they are unable to sing.  That way, the music will be familiar when it is time to sing again.  Chances are that your hymnal has many hymns music directors have yet to explore.   This is a good time for that.

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Many hymnals have indexes of scriptural references made in hymns.  This could help guide the music director in deciding what to consider.  If the congregation is mainly listening, can those texts that they are not singing enhance the liturgy with messages that echo the Gospel?   While there may be hymns known that do that, here is a chance to explore them.

2. Teach the Choir This Music, Too

The suspension of choirs is a common occurrence in the Church for the time being.  Many have relied on the ministry to help support their faith lives, as music certainly helps people pray.  There is no reason to keep the choir from learning the new music, even though the choir may not actively be singing.  How does that happen?  Virtually, of course!

Many music ministries have turned to virtual meetings since choirs were shut down.  A meeting over Zoom is not the same as being together.  Besides prayer, choir is often a place to build relationships and enjoy fellowship.  While learning music with the congregation, the choir could learn over Zoom, WebEx, or your chosen platform.  A music ministry can enjoy being with one another, while still learning music they will use upon their return to ministry.

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3. Consider New Psalm Resources

A masked congregation is not going to sing much.  A sung Responsorial Psalm might be one of the few places in the liturgy where a simple, beautiful refrain might be something someone can do behind their mask.  Since that is the case, this might be the time to consider new Responsorial Psalm resources for use in a community’s liturgy.  Unlike hymns, the congregation only needs to know a refrain.  And the Psalms are simple enough that people can remember the refrains. 

Consider looking through the many settings available in Simply Liturgical Music’s catalog for Year A.  If a parish tends to use one composer’s settings every week, this is a good time to try different composers and different styles. If the only thing that kept a parish from using other Psalms is the availability of a musical Psalm refrain in a hymnal or missalette, now is a time to show how easy it is.

4. Learn a New Mass Setting

One of the places in the liturgy where more robust singing often occurs are in the singing of the parts of the mass.   There are settings that most congregations can sing: Marty Haugen’s Mass of Creation or Dan Schutte’s Mass of Christ the Savior.   Most music directors can cite one or another that their congregation can sing robustly.  These may never exit a parish’s repertoire.  But throughout the calendar, there is plenty of room to add.

There are many of options for various seasons.  Kelly James Barth’s Mass of the Gathered Assembly is a festive Mass good for any occasion.  Mass of St. Katherine of Siena is a simple setting with simple melodies written for Ordinary Time.  The name will tell you when to use Cher & Gene Klosner’s Mass for the Advent SeasonMass of the Lord’s Passion is a great fit for Lent.

Reduced singing may last a while, and during the period when churches intentionally are looking to tone down the participation, the congregation can learn new settings so that they may return robustly at the appropriate time.

5. Take a Moment for Sacred Silence

Let us not forget what the General Instruction on the Roman Missal tells us: sometimes silence is important.   Article 45 states:

Even before the celebration itself, it is commendable that silence to be observed in the church, in the sacristy, in the vesting room, and in adjacent areas, so that all may dispose themselves to carry out the sacred action in a devout and fitting manner.

Immediately before mass begins a quiet moment is appropriate.  If parishes are used to introducing something musical at that time, there is a benefit to silence.  That includes other times of the mass, including after communion.  Some parishes are using to singing choral anthems during that time.  A moment to pray is just fine.

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