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CURRENT ISSUE:  January 7, 2008
VOL. 46, NO. 1   •   Oakland, CA
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How well do Catholics
in the pews sing?

An online survey finds
that music ministers and
parishioners don’t agree

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Catholics in the pews sing fairly well, in the judgment of music ministers at U.S. parishes.

The Catholics in the pews themselves, though, hold a less favorable view of their own singing ability.

In an online survey conducted in 2007 by the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, 72 percent of music ministers said that the singing in the assembly was either “very strong” or “somewhat strong.”

By contrast, only 39 percent of those not involved in music ministry believed that congregational singing in their parish was strong.

Despite the difference of opinion, both groups participating in the survey said the singing in their own parish is better than the general state of congregational singing in the United States.

Among musicians, 39 percent of music ministers gave a positive rating to U.S. Catholic singing overall, and only 27 percent of non-musicians did the same. In both categories of respondents, 53 percent rated U.S. congregational singing as “somewhat weak.”

About 1,400 people took part in the survey, with musicians making up about three-fourths of all respondents, according to J. Michael McMahon, the musicians’ association president. The poll was taken in the fall, and results were announced Dec. 21.

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in your parish

How well do members of your parish raise their voices in song? What makes a positive music experience during liturgies? What would you suggest to improve singing during Mass? Do you prefer listening to the choir instead of singing yourself? Share your thoughts with Voice readers. Send comments — 250 words or less — to cathvoice@gmail.com. Your comments will appear in Reader’s Forum in upcoming issues.
Asked by Catholic News Service in a Jan. 2 telephone interview which side he tends to believe more, McMahon replied, “Both.”

An organist and music director — McMahon plays at St. Agnes Church in the Washington suburb of Arlington, Va. — he said, “When I sit on the (organ) bench sometimes I think, ‘Wow, they’re singing really well today.’”

But as someone who “sat in the pews most Sundays” for about five years until taking his current organist job, McMahon said, “It takes only a quarter of the people singing so that it sounds like a pretty good choir.”

One reason suggested by McMahon was that music ministers can often hear the full sound of the assembly, while congregants can hear only themselves and those closest to them, assuming they’re singing.
Another reason McMahon offered was church acoustics. The use of sound-absorbing materials deadens the sound and prevents people in the pews from sensing the strength of the singing.

“One of the things I learned” from the survey, McMahon told CNS, “was to pay more attention to what it’s like to be in the congregation, . . . and I think that’s really hard to do.”

This was the third online poll conducted by the National Association of Pastoral Musicians in as many years. While the number of respondents was lower this time than in the first two years, McMahon said, “we’ve had such a good response to it, it will probably become an annual thing.”

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