Liturgical Celebrations

Space for Music Leadership: Visibility and Audibility

July 28, 2008


Choir in BalconyBefore the Second Vatican Council, the “music space” in most churches was limited to the choir loft. According to Fr. Gene Walsh, these galleries “came into existence so that women could be admitted into the ‘choir.’ The choir of boys and men occupied space in the sanctuary or chancel. Of course, that space was off limits for women. When they began running out of boy singers, men hung a box on the back wall for women to sing from. Thus, choir galleries stand as blatant sexist symbols.” (Practical suggestions for celebrating Sunday Mass, p. 20.)

Fr. Walsh also stated rather categorically: “The place for the ministers of music should be in the front off to the side of what we call ‘sanctuary.’ The leaders of music must be seen and heard, because they become the leaders of worship for everyone in the moments that they are doing music.” (Practical Suggestions, p. 20.)

 My former archbishop agreed. I remember him telling me that in his visits to various parishes, he had noticed that the congregation sang better when the musicians were located downstairs rather than in a rear loft. Through the years, I have tended to agree with him, but there are some exceptions.

It is important that all music ministers be clearly audible. But the need for visibility varies depending on their specific function, as noted in Sing to the Lord (SL), the recent document on music from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Psalmist – Obviously, the psalmist must be clearly seen and heard. The proclamation of the Word is both an audible and an embodied act, and so “the psalmist should sit in a place where the ambo is easily accessible.” (SL 97)

cantor singingCantor – “The cantor should generally be located in front of the congregation to lead the singing.” (SL 97) This visibility is especially important for leading dialogues and responses. Ideally, when the congregation is singing, the cantor’s leadership should be visible rather than audible because the cantor’s voice should not dominate the singing of the congregation. However, “when a congregation is able to sing on its own, either in response to the priest or ministers or through instrumental leadership, the cantor does not need to be visible.” (SL 97)

Choir – According to Sing to the Lord: “The placement of the choir should show the choir members’ presence as a part of the worshiping community, yet serving in a unique way. Acoustical considerations will also play a role.” (SL 98) Note that clear visibility to the rest of the assembly is not a requirement. Audibility and participation are the key issues. In some older churches, choirs have been successfully moved from the loft to the sanctuary. But the choir can also be a distraction in this location or can appear to be in a “performance venue,” thus inhibiting the participation of the congregation.

Organ and other Instruments – Here visibility is not an issue unless it becomes a distraction. SL states that instrumental placement should be determined by “acoustical considerations so that the sound can support the congregation and…accompany cantors, psalmists, and choirs.” (SL 99)

Organ consoleIn new churches, a space relatively close to the sanctuary can usually be designed to accommodate all or most of the music ministers. This space should have reflective surfaces and expandable room for a choir on graduated levels with flexible, slightly curved seating. The space should be fully accessible, including at least the lowest choir level. According to SL, “it must reflect the sacredness of the music ministry. Any appearance of clutter or disorganization must be avoided.” (SL 100)

But in older spaces, the music leadership may have to come from more than one location.  In churches designed with organ and choir in a rear loft, it may be possible for the choir to move “downstairs,” but several factors must first be considered:

» There should be a location in or near the sanctuary that is large enough for the choir, that does not distract from the liturgical action, and that provides a similar acoustical environment and projection of sound as the loft.

» There should be a comparable organ or other instrument in the new location. In the case of a good pipe organ located in the loft, this is a challenge. Moving the console into the sanctuary and leaving the pipes in the loft is not usually successful except in small churches where the distance from the console to the pipes is not too great. But the pipes may still be too far away from the choir to be heard well, especially when the choir is singing alone.

If the loft is not so far removed from the nave that “the choir members’ presence as part of the worshiping community” is seriously compromised, the best “solution” may be to leave the choir (and organ) in the loft because it remains the best place for them to be heard. In this case, the cantor has a crucial role in providing visible leadership to the congregation and serving as a visual “link” between the choir and the rest of the assembly.

Choir is sanctuaryIn this arrangement, a piano or other substantial keyboard instrument is usually located near the cantor, as well as space for smaller groups of singers or instrumentalists. Often, keyboard players must provide the other link between these two music spaces, carefully planning their moves between sanctuary and loft so they do not distract from the liturgical action. (SL 96)

Especially in older churches, there is often no ideal solution to the music space challenge. But Sing to the Lord is helpful in stating the essentials: “Musicians and musical instruments should be located so as to enable proper interaction with the liturgical action, with the rest of the assembly, and among the various musicians.” (SL 95)

Charles Gardner is Director of Liturgical Music and Executive Director for Spiritual Life and Worship for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, U.S.A.

Photo credit: Michael Jenssen, Minneapolis, MN.

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