Catholic choirs, alive or dead?

Lucy E. Carroll has never actually attended a Catholic Mass in which a cantor belted out, "He'll be coming 'round the altar when he comes! He'll be coming 'round the altar when he comes!" At least, that hasn't happened yet.

"I know that some people have used Stephen Foster music in a Mass," said the musical director at the Carmelite monastery in Philadelphia. "I've heard about people using the melody from the waltz scene in 'Beauty and the Beast' for the 'Gloria.' And I've heard more than one report about people singing the 'Agnus Dei,' which means 'Lamb of God,' to that old song 'Send in the Clowns.' "

In many parishes, she said, pop songs and the modern hymnody inspired by them have all but replaced traditional hymns and, heaven forbid, ancient chants and actual Catholic anthems.

This is old news. What many outsiders may not realize is that many Catholic parishes have, in the past decade or two, followed the lead of Protestant megachurches and now feature plugged-in "praise bands" and worship-team singers -- complete with solo microphones -- who sway in the Sunday-morning spotlights.

Legions of Catholics like this music, admitted Carroll. But many do not, including some younger Catholics who are drawn to candles, incense, sacred art and the mysterious melodies of ancient chants. In many parishes, she said, it may be time -- as shocking as this may sound -- to start a choir.

Carroll is an unrepentant choir director. She believes there is more to being a Catholic musician than the ability to play some guitar chords while singing, "Here I am Lord, Is it I Lord? I have heard You calling in the night." She can speak words like "Victoria" and "Palestrina" without flinching.

"Most people who lead music in our churches today are not trained to be liturgical musicians," said Carroll, an adjunct professor at the Westminster Choir College at Princeton University. "They do not understand that there is music that is sacred in nature and then there is music that is secular in nature. There is Christian music that would be totally acceptable at a revival service or a youth rally, but it is not ... acceptable in a Catholic Mass."

What should someone do if they want to start a choir? Carroll recently published a list of tips in the conservative Adoremus Bulletin ( that included:

* Obtain the full support of the priest, including a pledge that he will praise the choir from the pulpit and cooperate with its efforts.

* Find a choir director and an accompanist. It helps to have money to hire someone and the person must understand worship as well as musical notes on a page. Carroll suggests that parish leaders search at local high schools and colleges, perhaps even seeking out talented students seeking practical experience.

* The best way to find singers is by personal contact. Do not, she emphasized, advertise with phrases such as "Do you like to sing in the shower?" The goal is to find choir singers, not soloists whose volume control is cranked up to "water buffalo." Avoid people who say, "I'll be there for Mass, but not rehearsals."

* Start slow, perhaps singing at the same Mass once a month. Resist the temptation to hide your fledgling choir under a wave of instrumental sound. Train the singers to handle some traditional, a cappella (voices alone) music.

* Start with unison music then let the choir sing "antiphonally," with women singing one line and men the next. Then attempt canons and rounds, such as the anonymous "Dona Nobis Pacem" that congregations have enjoyed for generations. Eventually, the director will learn who can sing soprano, alto, tenor and bass. At that point, the choir can try two-part chants and then easy anthems from a traditional Catholic hymnbook or by modern composers who write sacred music for use in Mass.

The goal is for the choir to become a close-knit family of musicians who lead the church family in worship, said Carroll. She is convinced that soloists with microphones inevitably turn into performers.

"We have to get away from the rock bands and the folks groups and the polka players and everybody else," she said. "We need to stop entertaining our people and get back to our own worship tradition -- which is leading our people in the worship of God."