Do You Sing Even when You Don’t Want to?

We’re in the Easter season in the West, which brings with it a plethora of excellent hymns–hymns dancing with alleluia’s, cascading melodies, and majestic triumph as we sing of the Risen One.  I think of tunes like “EASTER HYMN” (Jesus Christ is Risen Today), “SONNE DER GERECHTIGKEIT” (At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing), “O FILII ET FILIAE” (O Sons and Daughters).  Or, perhaps the delightful “NOËL NOUVELET” (Now the Green Blade Rises). 

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But what hymns came to your mind?  If you’re Roman Catholic, did songs like “Sing to the Mountains” (Dufford and Hytrek, 1975) or “In the Breaking of the Bread” (Ward, 1986), or the more contemporary “I Will Rise” (Tomlin, 2008) come to mind?  What songs has your parish sung during this Eastertide?  Better yet, did any songs bring much rejoicing to your heart?  Did any songs bring much weeping and gnashing of teeth?

I’ve heard a handful of the abovementioned songs thus far this Easter–and I’ve heard all of them in the long series of Easter seasons throughout my life.  Which ones bring me joy, which ones make me feel like I’m in a fantastic musical, and which ones bring the proverbial snobby church musician’s internal eye roll of annoyance?

I should start by affirming that all music, regardless of genre, should be executed well.  And, as the 2008 document, Sing to the Lord emphasizes, music should foster the participation of the assembled faithful: “even when listening to […] the singing of the choir, the assembly continues to participate actively as they ‘unite themselves interiorly to what the ministers or choirs sing, so that by listening to them they may raise their minds to God.’” (Sing to the Lord 12; cf Musicam Sacram 15). 

Added to this, music perhaps helps the faithful participate most actively in the liturgical moment of the Mass when it attends to the time, feast, and season which that very Mass is celebrating.  I surely get my snobby church musician face on when music is vague in its lyrics, unattentive to the Feast we are gathered to celebrate. 

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These just being a few of my “requirements” for well-executed church music or, in this case, Easter hymns, what are “requirements” for me, a member of the assembled congregation?  How can I sing my song when the contours of the tune are foreign to me?  How can I sing if I find the music numbingly boring, or painfully banal?  Do I have to sing even when I don’t want to? 

I ask this question entirely to bring judgement upon myself: for, I found myself at a Mass recently in which I could not compel myself to put voice to the opening hymn.  (Said hymn shall remain nameless and it was not one I have named–sufficeth to say that it violated one of my above-mentioned principles regarding execution, appropriateness, or inspiration to participation.)  I could not find enough strength in my heart to sing–but I don’t think this response is the right one.  I think I should have sung, even if I didn’t want to, because that’s the music that the Church was singing in that moment.  By choosing not sing, I was not allowing myself to be the member of Christ’s Body that I am called to be. 

I find this line, also from Sing to the Lord, somewhat comforting: 

“Our participation in the Liturgy is challenging. Sometimes, our voices do not correspond to the convictions of our hearts. At other times, we are distracted or preoccupied by the cares of the world. But Christ always invites us to enter into song, to rise above our own preoccupations, and to give our entire selves to the hymn of his Paschal Sacrifice for the honor and glory of the Most Blessed Trinity.”

(Sing to the Lord 14)

Maybe Easter joy isn’t simply about singing the hymns I want to sing–or the
hymns which (in my opinion) do a better job of singing Easter joy.  Opinions don’t do much to build up the Body of Christ.  Christian unity in worship, however, does.






11 responses to “Do You Sing Even when You Don’t Want to?”

  1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
    Karl Liam Saur

    I find myself more obligated to sing the actual parts of the Mass if I can and the music/musicians/space doesn’t get in the way of doing so: the Ordinary (which might be a lot or a little depending on the circumstance) and responsory for the Responsorial Psalm.

    Hymns, not so much. If the thoughts expressed in a given hymn are not liturgically suitable (they aren’t always, sad to say), I will endeavor to unite in mental prayer with them if I don’t find the music much worth singing for any number of reasons. I think any attempt to challenge or cajole congregants into singing is precisely the wrong way to frame the issue. (This arises to my mind because a pastor recently on two successive Sundays made quite clear in media res that he found the level of participation not up to his preference.)

  2. John Kohanski Avatar
    John Kohanski

    “Opinions don’t do much to build up the Body of Christ. Christian unity in worship, however, does.”

    Sorry, but this sounds judgemental, like something from a cult. Or in Roman Catholic terms, another form of “Pray, pay, and obey” clericalism.
    Every hymn or song that is chosen is indeed someone’s opinion, whether it is that of the music director and/or that of the pastor. If people have made the effort to be at Mass, the Lord accepts them and their worship wherever they are at, for the reasons that He alone may know. Romans 8:26-27.

    1. Katharine E. Harmon Avatar
      Katharine E. Harmon

      Thanks for this critique–and you raise a good point!
      In writing this, I was reflecting on my undergraduate campus ministry experience, as well, where we had different “styles” of chapel worship on each day of the week. Monday had a sermon, Wednesday we had Matins, etc. I recall a beloved professor remarking with respect, “[Student name] always attends the Praise and Worship service on Friday, even though he’d prefer to have Matins every day.”
      In short, I feel like choosing to sing or not is making a claim about what particular aesthetic style I, personally, find most spiritually fulfilling and prayerful. There were plenty of students who’d rather have Praise and Worship every day, and not Matins. But by participating in attendance and viva voce, even if you don’t like it very much…says something about your commitment to a community.

  3. Charles Day Avatar
    Charles Day

    Answering the question asked in the title: I always want to sing. That said, if I don’t know a hymn, I am probably not going to sing until I do know it. Why? Trust me, you don’t want me learning something on the fly in the middle of Mass. I don’t think I am alone in that feeling so if you are a Music Director that seeks participation, choose music that encourages it.

  4. Alan Hommerding Avatar
    Alan Hommerding

    I don’t always want to sing, but I always do sing.

    For me, it is an embodied way to remind myself that the liturgy is about so much more than me and my personal tastes/likes, or personal mood. The only times I haven’t sung is when something like grief or elation makes it physiologically impossible for me to do so.

    I am part of the singing Body of Christ gathered in the Spirit to offer the sacrifice of praise to the Father, so I sing.

  5. Rita Ferrone Avatar
    Rita Ferrone

    I always come to the liturgy wanting to sing. I’ve been singing since I was a tiny child. It’s part of my spirituality and it really is a joyful experience for me, a physical expression of the love I have for God and the shared joy of the faith. So it takes a lot to make me NOT want to sing at church. But it has been known to happen. Alienation! Disconnection. Sick leadership. Hostility. These things float in the air in some parish churches. Churches I have left, by the way, never to return. Because if I find myself in a parish where I don’t want to sing, it’s like the canary in the coal mine. If I don’t want to sing, there’s something toxic in there. Get out, get out while there’s time! The place where one’s song resides is precious. Can’t force it, but must care for it.

    1. Stephen Romano Avatar
      Stephen Romano

      Well said, Rita. Very thought provoking comments! My current situation is one that finds me, the Pastoral Musician, trying to change (bad) habits of the parish 25-30 years in the making as well as a general lack In terms of the correlation (and importance) with regard to sacred music and the liturgy. I’m giving it my very best but, there are indeed days when I do not wish to sing – which is a problem since I’m the leader.

      1. Paul Fell Avatar
        Paul Fell

        @Stephen Romano:

        I think everyone who has served as a music director experiences times where the song just doesn’t happen, internally and/or externally. This could result from something as profound as the loss of a family member or something as simple as allergies (and the medicines that address them). Our awareness of this when it happens is an asset, as it can attune us to what others may be experiencing or enduring. Is that elderly gentleman in the 3rd pew not singing because he doesn’t like the music (again?), or is it because he is grieving the loss of his wife of 40+ years? Maybe something in the liturgy that day struck him unexpectedly and he needs to work through it mentally and/or emotionally before Communion.

  6. Roger Stratton Avatar
    Roger Stratton

    This reminds me of the epic emotional contortions I go through when trying to get myself to sing the national anthem.

  7. Todd Flowerday Avatar

    I’m grateful for the not-naming of songs-that-didn’t-do-it, whatever that might be. For me, I find myself more drawn to the repertoire at the parish’s Mass in Spanish. I don’t always understand all the words, but the choir, especially one family, sings with such conviction (even if the assembly has yet to do so). As for Easter Mass parts, the Gloria in Spanish. As for a hymn, I’d say two have struck me so far: Randall DeBruyn’s metrical setting of the Easter Sequence and Bob Hurd’s “Two Were Bound For Emmaus.” While I think psalms and scriptural songs are generally superior to metrical hymns, I don’t have the compunction that the reform2 movement has placed on hymnody. I find their attitudes weird and amusing. That said, there are so many good settings of Psalm 118, I could go with that till next Lent.

  8. Doug O'Neill Avatar

    Yesterday morning I attended Mass at the nearby parish, and when it came time for the Gloria, I would have participated in singing it, but couldn’t. I didn’t know it, there were no worship aids, and the numbers of the Ordinary selections were not on the hymn board. When it started, I flipped through the Mass settings in the book, but to no avail. It was a responsorial setting, and it took me a few times through the rather complicated refrain to be able to at least join in singing that. I wish I could say this was a unique experience, but I find it typical. Yes, regular parishioners probably learn it by rote (although it wasn’t nearly as strongly sung as the opening hymn “Lift High the Cross,”) but it is unfriendly to visitors. Given that the Ordinary is supposed to be given a higher priority than the propers when it comes to congregational singing, it doesn’t make much sense. The best ways to encourage strong congregational participation are to build strong children’s choir programs and teach them how to read music. The issue of “should we sing even when we don’t want to” is moot unless we give people the ability to actually make that choice.

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