Music and its Audience: A Question of Balance

Today I’m going to address a hot-button discussion found in almost every church organist’s arsenal: “How do we decide what is musically best for our congregation?” Many of us have our degrees in church music, or music in general, and we are taught a “classic” education; similar to a Liberal Arts degree learning the classics of Aristotle, Socrates, and Goethe, we learn the classics of Bach, Mendelssohn, and the monks of Solesmes. We read alternate clefs and translate neumes into its contemporary notation. For those of us who are not classically trained musicians, we still studied traditional repertoire in instrumental lessons, thus giving us part of a rounded education.

We read AGO, NPM, and Choristers Guild articles. We participate in national and regional conventions. We attend chapter meetings with information pertinent to sacred music. Yet with all of this education in mind, we still cannot hone the finest skill we can acquire in our abilities of a sacred musician: the skill of identifying our audience.

What will the finest education in the world do for us if we cannot identify our audience? Today’s generation listens to music not produced by the human voice, at times. If we cannot bridge the gap between the traditionalists and the modern-day audience, our musical endeavors will not be successful.

Take this scenario, for example: a Catholic parish has a bi-polar group of parishioners. The majority of parishioners are retired, elderly members of the community who have lived in that neighborhood for their entire lives. The other half of the parish consists of young 20something college graduates who live in the area because of its access to jobs. The organist is faced with a challenge: how does one select music for an audience who grew up with the Latin Mass as well as those who may prefer a guitar-accompanied hymn? Such a radical difference between the two demographics causes complications when a sacred musician is trying to pick music, especially when the goal, as it always should be, is to have the people participate in the Liturgy.

I understand that before the Vatican II council, strong participation was not a major goal in the Catholic Church. Moreover, a lack of participation may not be a problem for other denominations (ie. Lutheran!). However, a church musician, despite their denomination, should consider the people for which they are playing when it comes to selecting music.

The finest education in the world cannot help us detect our audience, but it can help us detect how we teach them. The music we select for congregational hymns as well as mass parts, choral anthems, etc. is a didactic tool for our congregations. We must somehow find a balance between supporting the demographic to which we play as well as educating them to our own “classics”. If we don’t ever choose any plainsong or chant, for example, they would not be exposed to it whatsoever.
Solution? Choose as much chant as you deem necessary for the group. For example, have your Catholic congregation sing the “Agnus Dei”. It may take some of the younger demographic to catch on, but persistence translates to confidence in the singer. (Changing the music repertoire too much, too often is another topic!)
Another solution? Use chant frequently for high holy days (Pange Lingua, Veni Creator Spiritus, etc.) This adds to the reverence of the day while also continuing to broaden the repertoire of your congregation.

This itself is part of a classical education for your congregation. Just like a liberal arts education full of the “classics”, not every student adores reading book after book from Voltaire, but it’s necessary for a well-rounded education. A congregation should sing their own “classics” and have an education consisting of classical and traditional music. By picking a combination of the two, we are educating them in our own way.
Maybe I’m preaching to a solely Catholic perspective here, but there’s truth to be found in the balancing act of picking repertoire. If a congregation does not participate enough (except for you Lutherans, you lucked out in the participation subject), it is imperative that the organist find a balance in their congregational singing “repertoire” so they feel confident enough to sing on unfamiliar tunes. If we don’t, we run the risk of discouraging the congregation and, therefore, losing their trust and confidence.

If you have difficulty with your congregation not singing, it may be an option to pick one or two less “classical” hymns to balance out the more traditional side of the music you already play. Maybe this discussion does not pertain to you whatsoever; maybe your congregation absolutely adores singing a lot of chant, and that’s great! For the rest of us, however, a balance may be needed.

Just like most of the things in our lives, we must find a balance. Similar to last week’s post about finding time for an organist’s Sabbath, we must try to find balance in our lives. It may not be the healthiest thing in the world to live solely by the organ console; merely taking time to see a movie or reading a book for an hour or so can help broaden your perspective on today’s contemporary culture. It does us no good to stay solely in the past when our congregations, our people, are blazing toward the future. We can learn to tether the past to the present, not forgetting that the future lies quickly ahead.

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One thought on “Music and its Audience: A Question of Balance

  1. I agree with what you have posted and would like to add one more idea: Pray.
    I have found that when I ask God to help me choose what would be appropriate, I receive inspiration and clarity of mind that allows my accumulated knowledge and experience guide me in a much better way than if I rely only on my own strength.
    Whenever a member of the congregation comes to me after a service to thank me for the choice of hymn, explaining that it was just what they needed to make it through the week, I know that I am not in this alone. God uses us to reach His children. He will guide us in how to accomplish this.

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