What does “Fever Pitch” (film, 1997) teach us about liturgy?

To be honest, this post has been churning in my head for twelve months.   The title has gone from “What does the Football World Cup teach us…” to “What does the [rugby] Six Nations...” to “What does the Cricket World Cup….” All of these sporting events are festivals; a celebration of their sports.   Assiduous preparations are made, invitations are sent out (though these invitations require credit card numbers) and the whole thing is eagerly anticipated.   Some of the greatest stars of their realm are assembled from all over the world and a wondrous drama unfolds. But what has often struck me most is the crowd.   For them, the drama doesn’t start when the match starts.   They have all been eagerly anticipating this moment for days or weeks, the excitement building up as the day draws near.   They will know everything there is to know about their team and its players, eagerly feeding their hunger for more knowledge through news outlets and social media; and they will have debated wi

Don't forget to nurture your own faith.

Some time back was I was talking to a former colleague who was also an organist in an Anglican church.  He told me that he was aware that a great many of his fellow church musicians ceased to go to church once they retired from their leadership roles in liturgical music. Now, there are some differences between Church of England and Catholic organists, chiefly being that they are generally paid.  As such, I suspect that there is a greater risk that what you do becomes more of a job than a ministry.  However, there is a similar risk for all those within the music and liturgy ministries, indeed all ministries that make demands on your time and energy. There is a great deal of sacrifice in being involved with such ministries.  There is, of course, the time and effort in taken in preparation, in practice and rehearsals.  During the liturgy itself, Mass or otherwise, you can never fully immerse yourself as you always have to keep one eye on what you are doing next, making sure that you d

Inspiration from the monastery

This year I have returned to a Benedictine Monastery for the Easter Triduum.  It is a place that I have been coming to, on and off, for over thirty years and which holds a most special place in my heart. I have been greatly affected and informed in my liturgical sensibilities by this monastery, despite the fact that its liturgical "style" is very different from our Vigil Mass Group. I find myself reflecting on why it is I feel so at home here. What is it that I can take back to a parish situation. Firstly, liturgy is important to the Benedictines. It is not merely something that they must follow or abide by: it moulds their very life, it provides a structure to their life and forms them. It is not just an extension or addendum to their life; it is part of the fabric of who they are. So familiar are they with, for example, the Psalms in the Office, that they will naturally refer to them when making a point about their relationship with God. Liturgy is part of their very esse

Sometimes you don't need accompaniment

Our music group plays at the Vigil Mass every fortnight.  On the alternate weeks I lead the singing unaccompanied.  Strangely, our small congregation often - though not always - sings more heartily when there is no accompaniment. I know that we are not alone in this.  Talking with other music leaders, and reading liturgy forums, I know that this happens elsewhere.  I'm not entirely certain why this is the case, and I'm sure that there are a number of reasons, but it does mean that we don't need to afraid of leading unaccompanied singing. Hymn singing is a recent phenomenon in the Catholic Mass.  More traditional is the singing of Processional Songs or Chants.  Put simply, these are similar to the Responsorial Psalm in that there is an antiphon (response) sung by everyone and verses from a psalm sung by a cantor(s).  We use John Ainslie's " English Proper Chants ".  If we had an organist we would doubtless make use of that; instead we sing the processionals

Feel the bass!

What makes good liturgical music? I genuinely believe that it doesn't matter at all whether your community has the finest church organ in the county played by a skilled and sensitive organist or you rely on  two guitars and a tin whistle , or even what musical/liturgical style you have; what makes liturgy beautiful is when you have a community gathered, strong in faith and the living of that faith, singing prayerfully with their collective heart, mind, soul and voice. I can't remember whether I have already told the following story - the old memory is not what it used to be.  Several years ago I spent a few days at a convent for a private retreat.  This convent was recommended by a couple of friends but I was warned that I may find their singing of the office 'hard work' - the sisters were mostly advanced in years and their singing voices were well past their best.  And yet I found it quite beautiful.  True, they would never be asked to record a CD.  But their humil

Leave the melody to the congregation.

I have touched on this  before , but it is worth repeating: when you have a set up like ours - guitar(s) with flutes (and/or other such instruments) - it really is a waste to simply have the flautist belting out the melody.  Once the congregation know and are comfortable with something - be it a hymn or a mass setting - they will join in, especially if led by a cantor and/or singing group.  Instead, allow the flautist to play harmonies to enrich the music. For some time now I have been adding harmonies to music that we have been playing for the last four or five years, using the wonderful (and free) musical notation software MuseScore .  As the workshop at last year's Summer School made clear, anyone who is even remotely musical can develop their own, simple, one line harmony for any given melody; it just needs a little time and some trial and error.  But, if you have more than one 'solo' instrument, why stop at one harmony? When at full strength we presently have one

"Christmas" School Mass

I have been very quiet lately for several reasons, one of which being that I have taken on the role of chaplain at a secondary school, specifically with responsibility for liturgy.  It is a lovely school and the pupils are generally very acquiescent indeed.  But there is still the issue of whole-school liturgies - especially whole-school Masses - when there are relatively few baptised Catholics and very few of those are regular Mass attenders. The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life (Lumen Gentium No 11).  But this rather assumes that those who join together to celebrate the Mass are, on some level, consciously on a spiritual journey and have a desire to grow ever-closer to Christ.  Clearly, this is not the case with compulsory, all-school Masses.  But like any good teacher when planning a lesson, the school liturgist has to try and meet the pupils where they are and somehow make sure that there is 'something for everyone'.  In a general discussion on litur

Gospel Acclamation

I have said  previously that I don't like Gospel Acclamations and Responsorial Psalms to be too lively - rapidly switching between exuberant singing and attentive, "heart"-listening doesn't come easily to me.  However, after some years I began to feel that the standard, triple-Alleluia was in need of some......enhancement; and, after getting an idea from watching a Papal Mass on TV, we began to make use of a short fanfare to introduce the Gospel Acclamation. Two flautists play this simple fanfare (the top line is the melody, the bottom line is a harmony that I came up with), then the cantor sings unaccompanied followed by choir and congregation (with the harmony); the cantor then sings the verse and all repeat the Alleluia (again, with harmony). It's a simple embellishment but it does to serve to highlight the Gospel Acclamation a little more. As well as this we have also been introducing Gospel Acclamation tones from John Ainslie's  Sing the Psalms Si

Alternative to hymnals

The road trip has continued, this time to Budapest - a beautiful city.  We attended Sunday morning Mass at St Stephen's Basilica, architecturally a magnificent building (though far too ornate for my taste) which had something I have never seen before. An area of contention in parishes is the issue of hymnals.  The advantage of them is that you have a convenient collection of hymns and Mass settings, easily accessible, week after week for a one-off (if substantial) investment.  But the disadvantages are many: no hymnal will contain every single hymn or Mass setting that you wish to use and as soon as a hymnal is printed it is out of date anyway; also hymnals result in many of the congregation, often not confident singers, looking down rather than up. One solution is to take out a  license that allows you to use a very wide range of music and print the words on a sheet for each Mass.  When done well, this means that you can hand out one convenient pamphlet which contains everyth

Book of the Gospels

I have been on the road for much of the last couple of months, which gives me an opportunity to see how other parishes "do" liturgy - I'm always keen to pick up ideas.  My own parish does not have a Book of the Gospels - the Gospel being read from the Lectionary, as with the other readings.  However, two of the parishes that I visited do and I noticed one key difference been the two. Both parishes had a deacon who held the Book aloft during the Entrance Procession and who proclaimed the Gospel.  Both parishes had a simple but dignified procession of the Book of the Gospels to the Ambo (the correct term for what is commonly referred to as the lectern).  But it was after the Gospel had been proclaimed where they differed: In one parish, the Book of the Gospels was processed to a stand/lectern where it was placed, open, facing the congregation; whereas in the other it was simply closed and placed, unceremoniously, on a table adjacent to the Ambo, on top of other books. I

The Sign of Peace

I  previously mentioned my experiences of the Sign on Peace at youth Masses back in the early/mid-80s.  Although the days of raucously singing "Let there be peace shared among us" have long-since (mercifully) gone, it is still a part of the Mass that I don't feel we quite get right.  Too often it becomes little more than a "good morning" - a chance for limited social interaction.  Indeed, the sound of brief conversation can sometimes be caught. What is it that we should be doing here? The General Instruction tells us that in the Rite of Peace "...the Church entreats peace and unity for herself and for the whole human family, and the faithful express to each other their ecclesial communion and mutual charity before communicating in the Sacrament." (GIRM 82)  So, in the Sign of Peace we are recognising the union, fellowship, love and dignity that we share as members of the Church.  Our faith is not a 'private love affair' between ourselves a

Society of St Gregory Summer School

The  Society of St Gregory aims to promote study, understanding and good practice in the music and liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church in the UK.   One way in which it does this is through the discussion forum , which was how I first came across the Society after an internet search on some liturgical topic.   Another way is through the annual Summer School, from which I recently returned.  This was my third Summer School in four years and I have greatly enjoyed and gained from each one. People from all over the country – from cathedral music directors to guitarists in small parish music groups, choristers, cantors, psalmists, lectors and servers – headed towards Leeds, some taking as much as eight hours, thanks to chaos on the motorways, to share a few days with other like-minded individuals.   Old friendships were renewed, new friendships forged, smiles etched on everyone’s face – even this gruff northerner’s. There are three reasons why the Summer School is so valuable:

"Singing the Mass", not "singing at Mass" - 2

Included in the second tier of importance of things to be sung at Mass are the Entrance Procession, Gloria, Psalm, Communion Procession and post-Communion. The Gloria is the great hymn of praise of the Triune God and, personally, I am a little disappointed that it only makes the second tier.  That said, it is still considered more important than singing during the Preparation of the Gifts (Offertory) and the Recessional - and it is a daring parish liturgist that would miss out those!  There would be revolts in the pews!! Not so long ago, before the New (English) Translation of the Missal, it was permissible to sing a setting of the Gloria (and, indeed, all the Mass parts) that paraphrased what was actually in the Missal; the Peruvian Gloria, for example, proved popular with many.  That is no longer the case, as I found out myself when I submitted my first Mass setting (High Peak Mass) for permission to be used outside of my own parish; permission was at first withheld for the Glori

The comfort (and limitations) of ritual prayer

I belatedly got into Game of Thrones, having initially dismissed it as a Lord of the Rings wannabe - I really must learn to be more open-minded. One recurring character is The Hound - a massive (though not as massive as his big brother, The Mountain), brutal, vulgar warrior whose casual disdain for other people is as blatant as the obscenities that spew from his mouth.  His story arc, however, seems to be taking him through something of a spiritual awakening.  At the beginning of series 7, he and a small group come across a deserted cottage and inside are the remains of a father and daughter who had killed themselves rather than starve to death in the fast-approaching winter.  What made it all the more poignant for The Hound is that he had, in an earlier programme, visited his own brand of cruelty on their already wretched lives.  And now he felt the nagging discomfort of guilt.  So much so that, in the middle of the night, he got up to bury their remains. After the bodies had been

"Singing the Mass", not "singing at Mass" - 1

In an  earlier post I observed that the first thing that tends to be thought about when preparing the music for a Sunday parish Mass is what hymns to sing.  However, as the graphic below makes clear, they should not be the priority. There is a hierarchy of five levels and I guess that, rather like Piaget's stages of cognition, you shouldn't really start one level until you have fulfilled the preceding one.  If there is to be singing at the Mass (and, frankly, there should be some singing at every Mass since we are, naturally, musical creatures) then the absolute priority, before anything else, are the Gospel Acclamation and the Eucharistic Acclamations (Sanctus; Memorial Acclamation; Great Amen). Even at a weekday Mass, with no accompaniment, this should present little problem; who doesn't know the triple Alleluia? (though not during Lent, of course.)  And the music for the Eucharistic Acclamations can be found in our Missals.  The (English) Sanctus is based on the (ol


One thing that I try to keep to the front of my considerations when planning liturgy is to remember that the music must serve the Mass - the Mass is not there as a vehicle for the music.  To this end it is so important that we understand the Mass more and more - through both study and prayerful participation - so that our music is sensitive to the ebb and flow of what is happening during the Mass. Back in the day, when attending yoof Masses, the "Sign of Peace" was often followed by "Let there be peace shared among us".  It was always sung enthusiastically but (and leaving aside the fact that there is no provision for this in the General Instruction to the Roman Missal) it was a rude interruption on what is a very solemn part of the Mass.  It just doesn't fit!  Immediately following this lively rendition we were expected to behold, in prayerful wonder, the Lamb of God in the Blessed Sacrament.  As human beings we cannot go from such exuberance to such wondrous


Fairly quickly after our Vigil Music Group started, I discovered a very significant resource - notation software.  For many, the go-to option for music notation software is Sebelius.  By all accounts it is very good but it costs well over £400 to buy or a £15+ monthly subscription.  What's more, for my purposes, it is far too powerful - I wouldn't use a fraction of its functions.  MuseScore, however, is more than powerful enough for my needs - and most people's, I suspect - and is totally free. It's not too difficult to get to grips with the basic functions and there are helpful tutorials available on YouTube .  I was very quickly able to create simple responses for the Psalm and, before long, was creating harmonies for some hymns and writing Mass settings.  It is very simple to change the key of a piece of music ("God's Spirit is in my heart" is FAR too low in the hymnal!) or to transpose the music for different instruments (eg B b Clarinet).  Using th

Two guitars and a tin whistle

At the end of the month I am attending the annual Summer School run by the Society of St Gregory (the national society of liturgy and music for the Catholic Church in the British Isles).  One of the workshops is called " Accompanying on a budget: Two guitars and a tin whistle?  Whatever your resources, you can be effective ".  I rather wish that this session had been available some years back when we first started the Vigil Music Group, as some of the things that I expect will be suggested in the workshop came to us slowly over a period of time. For example, it was only after we had two flautists, both simply hammering out the melody line, that it dawned on me that this was such a waste of the available talent.  So we began to introduce harmonies for at least one of the flutes, which made a massive difference all round; it made the music that much more rich and beautiful for the liturgy (a good thing), but it also permitted a greater artistic expression for the musicians; i

How?, Why? and Active Participation

I was lucky enough to catch the BBC Radio 3 programme, Private Passions, while driving in my car the other week.   The guest was Eamon Duffy, Catholic historian and Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Cambridge. The whole programme is worthy of a listen, but at 23 minutes 42 seconds into the programme he is asked about the current state of music in the western Catholic liturgy.   He begins his response with, “That’s rather a depressing question”.   He singles out James MacMillan for praise and vaguely refers to (I’m guessing a very few) other Catholic composers, but otherwise he paints a very grim scene indeed.   I highlight a few key things that were said below…… #      “….we sing in Church the kind of music we would never dream of listening to and that we only otherwise hear at school assemblies….” #      “…[there has been] a radical impoverishment and a loss of the sense of the numinous.”   #      “…the traditional function of music, to lif

Not "either/or" but "both/and"....

Although of less importance than other elements of the Mass, the reality is that the first thing that most parishes will consider when preparing music for a Mass is the hymns to be sung – the oft-derided "hymn sandwich".  Building up a repertoire of hymns, rather than just singing the same old-same old, is good and healthy on so many levels – for both the music group and the Assembly.   The learning-curve for our Vigil Mass congregation, the Music Group and myself has been very steep over the last 4+ years. There is no great secret but, for what it’s worth, here is how I work. The first criterion for me, as much as possible, is that the hymns we use are relevant to the season and/or “theme” of the Mass.   Unless you have an encyclopaedic mind then you need some help here and I use two sources; the suggestions at the back of the hymnal and suggestions provided within the pages of “Music and Liturgy” – the periodical produced by the Society of St Gregory.   I note down