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To sing or not to sing?

COVID-19 prevented Catholics from regularly attending Mass. Parishes are reopening but safety measures have affected parts of the liturgy. Singing is one of these. Cameron Upchurch explains why singing increases the risk of infection and proposes ways in which other forms of music can be incorporated into the liturgy without disrupting the central focus of worship.

The last Mass this year at which I directed the music with full choir and congregation was on 15 March – the third Sunday of Lent. By the following Sunday our country was in COVID-related lockdown, our churches closed and our liturgical communities, choirs and instruments silent.

Many of us began contributing immediately to the streamed services that would become the norm for the next months and are mostly still happening. My personal jury is still out regarding the success of these online ventures; for liturgical musicians, the separation from choirs, ensembles and even our instruments has been bizarre, to say the least.

Physical participation in the great ceremonies of Holy Week became an online, radio and television broadcast affair and, for those who live alone, the Resurrection was celebrated this year without the real presence of family or friends. None of this is normal, neither does it in any way deserve the now ubiquitous term, “the new normal”.

The impact of Government guidelines on liturgical music

By the end of May, the South African government issued guidelines allowing for religious gatherings to reconvene under the strictest of conditions (Government Gazette 43365). On the music front, the same regulations limited singing to solo or pre-recorded performances during ceremonies.

Almost all our church buildings remained shut. On 1 October (GG 43762), we saw the easing of restrictions on religious gatherings and on 3 October (GG 43771) the May instructions were withdrawn. The new regulations make no mention of singing or music. This, together with the abrogation of the May regulations, suggests that the ban on communal singing during religious services has been lifted.

The new regulations make no mention of singing or music.

Further to this, on 21 October the Department of Basic Education issued an update on directions for schools, stating that “subject to strict adherence to all social distancing, hygiene and safety measures, choir rehearsals may resume” (GG 43826). Was this a premature move? Locally, Sidumo Nyamezele, director of the Mzansi Youth Choir, has confirmed that no local choir competitions or festivals of any nature are being considered before 2021.

The Archbishop of Johannesburg Buthi Tlhagale, issued a letter on 17September regarding the re-opening of Catholic churches at the end of September. Of liturgical music, he wrote: “Music and singing would need to be controlled, and with agreement confined to either instrumental music or cantor, with a minimum of singing amid the concerns that it causes the virus to spread more easily.” It is these concerns that have attracted the constant attention of music directors throughout the world for many months now.

The risks posed by congregational singing

Alarms were raised as early as March 2020. A choir in the United States reported 53 COVID-19 infections out of 61 members present at a rehearsal. A scientific publication (Hamner et al 2020), cited in a study by four institutions associated with Freiburg University, discussed infection via aerosols as a likely source. Influencing factors, including physical proximity of the singers, the duration of the practice and median age of the participants, were also considered.

An article on physical distancing, published in the British Medical Journal on 25 August (BMJ 2020; 370: m3223), suggests that between silence, talking or shouting/singing in indoor spaces, by far the most risky of all is shouting or singing. It further suggests that “current rules on safe physical distancing are based on outdated science” and that urgent research is needed here.

An article on physical distancing … suggests that between silence, talking or shouting/singing in indoor spaces, by far the most risky of all is shouting or singing.

I have read of churches and cathedrals in the United Kingdom that have allowed small vocal ensembles to return recently, adopting measures like having singers in opposite transepts, facing away from one another, or positioning singers as far away as possible from congregants. The BBC’s Radio 3 channel has resumed broadcasting Choral Evensong from various churches, but without congregations in attendance. While professional choral singing is possible, congregational singing remains prohibited, according to UK regulations updated on 16 October.

Physical and practical factors involved in singing also present challenges in the current situation. For instance, it has been recommended by some that a distance of up to 2.5 metres needs to be maintained. In my own liturgical situation, for example, that is simply not possible, given the configuration of the choir space. If I move any singers, they would then be distant from the organ and closer to congregants, introducing further complications to the situation.

Then there is the wearing of masks. Given that this is absolutely mandatory in South Africa, places of worship included, trying to sing with one’s face covered presents enormous challenges. The movement of the jaw, crucial to singing, is hugely restricted, to say nothing of the discomfort experienced in trying to breathe correctly.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM no. 39) reminds us how central singing is to the liturgy and that it is “the sign of the heart’s joy (cf. Acts 2:46)…There is also the ancient proverb: ‘One who sings well prays twice.’” But, only when we are unencumbered by concerns for our health and that of others, will we be in a position to sing well, in accordance with the dignity of the liturgy.

So, if we suspend communal singing for the time being, what do we do, if anything?

Live instrumental music can serve as an alternative to live singing // Catholic Church of the Holy Trinity, United States

Alternatives to live music and singing

A first option is live instrumental music. Be it the organ, other keyboard instruments or string, wind or percussion instruments, many parishes have at least one or two resources in this regard. There are, however, many instances, where singing is usually a cappella and instruments may not be readily available. This may be an opportune moment to explore and extend the use of instrumental music at Mass, which could include traditional instruments.

At this stage, the most likely places for instrumental music would be before the liturgy begins, the Entrance Procession, the collection, continuing into the Presentation of the Gifts, the Communion and Recessional.

This may be an opportune moment to explore and extend the use of instrumental music at Mass.

The use of recorded music during the liturgy is hardly addressed at all by any of the principal liturgical documents, with the Directory for Children’s Masses (no. 32) mentioning it as a possibility, if allowed by local Bishops’ Conferences. It is reasonable to say that all these documents assume live music making during services, with instrumentalists and singers considered part of the gathered assembly, but with a particular function.

However, it would also be fair to say that the liturgy documents do not have in mind the type of situation in which we find ourselves at present. We are called upon now to be creative, and to act at the same time with due regard for liturgical norms.

While recorded music is often identified with entertainment, if used judiciously in worship it need not necessarily suffer from this association. If live instrumental music is not possible, then recorded music must realistically remain an option, if desired. It is most effective, however, if there is a sound system that can convey the music clearly into the liturgical space without being neither indistinct nor intrusive.

There has been mention of a cantor singing at various times during the Mass. While acknowledging our extraordinary circumstances, this would not seem the best option, given that the parts of the Mass that we should be singing are, of their intrinsic nature, communal. The only part of the Mass, strictly speaking, that can be sung entirely by a cantor is the Responsorial Psalm. Provision is made for this when it is sung “directly” (i.e. without response), but it would not make liturgical sense to only have this sung while the rest of the Mass is recited. As a general rule, if a soloist were used, they would be best used sparingly, avoiding the Ordinary of the Mass.

The silent option

In all this talk of music, let us not forget silence. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal reminds us that “the liturgy of the word must be celebrated in a way that fosters meditation…The dialogue between God and God’s people taking place through the Holy Spirit demands short intervals of silence, suited to the assembly, as an opportunity to take the word of God to heart and to prepare a response to it in prayer. Proper times for silence during the liturgy of the word are, for example, before this liturgy begins, after the first and second reading, and after the homily” (GIRM no. 56).

The dialogue between God and God’s people taking place through the Holy Spirit demands short intervals of silence, suited to the assembly, as an opportunity to take the word of God to heart and to prepare a response to it in prayer.

GIRM, 56

Also, rather than having any music before Mass, silent reflection may be more suited to the day or the community, with the same principle applying after Communion.

Whatever our individual or community situations at present, it is not “business as usual”. As I write, Europe is seeing massive rises in COVID-19 infections and South Africa is debating the possibility of a second wave, with cases on the rise again. To be sure, we cannot continue indefinitely in a cyber Church, nor can we adopt practices in our newly re-opened liturgies that might be risky. Archbishop Tlhagale reminds us that, “we need to proceed with prudence and caution and concern to protect one another and especially our most vulnerable”.

We had to find ways of celebrating Holy week without setting foot in a Church; I am sure that we will be able to make Christmas meaningful, even if it means that, out of love for our neighbours, we might have to forego our favourite carols this year.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.