Saturday, November 17, 2018

MICROPHONES: Do We REALLY Need Them to Sing?

I'm sure many have gone into another church from time to time, whether out of town on vacation, or visiting family, friends, etc., and find that the person "leading the singing" is standing up front, blaring into a microphone, waving arms when it's "your turn to sing" (even when there is an able choir present).  I've seen it live.  I've seen it on TV.  I've seen it on YouTube.  And every time I see and hear these things, I utter one word: WHY?

At 11 years old, I sang tenor in a choir of boys and men at (the now closed and demolished) Holy Trinity Church in Central Falls.  We had a wonderful organist/choirmaster, Mr. Reuel Gifford.  The church, though not huge, was larger than Sacred Heart, but still a bit smaller than, let's say, SS. John and James in beautiful downtown Arctic.  The acoustics were no better nor worse than those of Sacred Heart.  We were accompanied by a 26-rank pipe organ (this organ most likely had around 1,400-1,500 pipes).  There was not one microphone in the choir loft, yet we were well-heard, even over a generously registered organ.  There was no one up front to lead the hymns into a microphone (the lector/commentator announced the hymns from the lectern, but that was all).  Many of the Responsorial Psalms were sung a capella (no instrumental accompaniment whatsoever).

I had the pleasure of singing in the chorus at Cumberland High School under the venerable Mrs. Nectar Lennox.  Again, not one microphone was in use.  Why is that?  Mrs. Lennox taught us that to get the sound to carry, we need to project our voices to the audience.  This was effective not only to our 100+ voice full chorus, but to the 20+ voice Clef Singers, which I also was a part of.

I was also lucky enough to work as organist/music director at Precious Blood Church in Woonsocket, a church a bit larger than SS. John and James, with a pipe organ about the size of that of SS. John and James (only difference: the pipe organ at Precious Blood still works and is well-maintained).  In the eight years I was there (1989-1997), there were, once again, no microphones in the choir loft.  Didn't need one, even with that strong organ.  Didn't want one.

The ability to project creates a natural amplification when needed.  I refuse to sing into the microphone I have at the organ console.  I use that contraption to announce the hymns only.  When singing, I shut it off and push it aside.  Otherwise, you'd all be fleeing town in fright.  When the singing is really good from the congregation, and I DO hear it, especially at the 5:00 and 11:15 Masses, I tend to shut up for a line or two just to listen and just let the organ lead.  The singers (who will still sing with us on major feasts, like the forthcoming Solemnity of Christ the King), though mic'd, are far enough away from the mic not to "blare".  (Yes, I'm still trying to form a parish choir!)

Addendum to above paragraph, XI-29-18: Last Monday (XI-26-18), I played and sang for my uncle's funeral at his home parish.  When the incumbent organist (who was very pleasant and welcoming, in the true sense, not that agenda-driven sense you hear in the mainstream) offered me the cantor's microphone to place near the console, I simply (but bluntly) said, "I don't sing into that thing, but thank you."  "You don't use a mic?" she said, surprised, "Why not?"  "I'd run everyone out of town," I replied.  Needless to say, the acoustics were strong enough that my voice carried plenty over a generously registered 88-year-old three-manual Austin pipe organ of about 28 ranks (read: about 1,500+ pipes).

The other problem with having someone in front "leading song" is that these "song leaders" or "cantors" in conventional churches have quality voices but still use the mic.  Couple that with the hand gestures they use to cue you in, it is merely drawing attention to themselves.  And again, they're still up front, bellowing and waving (I hope they use deodorant), even when there is an able choir present.

I met an organist - a really good organist - in fact, he was a predecessor from Precious Blood three organists before me, George Beaudet.  When he would work alone at the console, he would sing the first couple of words of a hymn, then stop singing, and let the organ lead, especially in his later years.  It worked for many, many years.

Finally, in another Woonsocket church (Our Lady of Victories, which folded around the year 2000-ish), the liturgy committee chair (brother of the pastor of Precious Blood who hired me there) once told me that if your singing is strong enough, people tend to "start listening and stop singing" (this, of course, pertaining to when the congregation should be singing).

Does the music leadership (organist, singers, etc.) really need to blare into a mic up front and flap their arms like a cuckoo bird?  The short answer is NO.  The long answer is, NO, especially if there is an able choir present.  I will consider in very large churches or cathedrals, but 1) only for Psalm verses, not while the congregation and/or choir is singing, and 2) not up front where attention is attracted visually.

Unmic'd, I remain,

PS: Quod scripsi, scripsi!  (What I have written, I have written!)