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August 10, 2022

How to choose a Mass setting


Mass Setting

 

When is the last time you heard someone ask, “Which Mass setting should we sing?” It’s likely that it was recent but there’s no doubt that the question will come up on a regular basis. Choosing the setting, however, is only part of the story—successfully integrating the music into the assembly’s repertoire is the most challenging (and rewarding) part. With some thoughtful preparation, singing the Mass can provide enduring, meaningful musical experiences among your parishioners.

Another important question: “How often should we change Mass settings?” The answer to this depends on many factors including how frequently settings have changed historically at the parish and how clergy, musicians and parishioners are feeling about it. A common practice is to change every season, perhaps dividing Ordinary Time between two settings—but each parish can choose for themselves.

A related question is: “How many Mass settings should we have in our repertoire?” If a seasonal approach is adopted, starting with three to five settings is optimal.

And finally: “How many new settings should we introduce?” This question often gets left out in the hustle of planning responsibilities, but its discussion can produce valuable insights. One per year? Three per year? It depends. While it can be tempting to just do what has worked in the past (and sometimes we need to do just that), introducing new musical expressions of the timeless texts in the liturgy can yield fresh, more meaningful singing in our midst.

When choosing Mass settings, it can be helpful to have many options on hand (recordings and/or scores) and then maintain a list or folder system with headings such as: “Settings we’ve sung” (ranked in order of preference); “Settings we are looking at”; “Settings we are aware of”; “Settings that didn’t work out”; etc. Include general notes (starting with suitable seasons) with each Mass to assist with future planning sessions. Developing a long-term plan, perhaps one to three years out, can also provide always-appreciated breathing room.

A word about unity: Many parishes offer more than one Mass per week, and while the musical needs and style for each Mass may vary, it is important to keep in mind the feeling of unity that a Mass setting can provide when all parishioners enjoy singing it. Keeping a common repertoire for the whole parish will help parish-wide celebrations.

Now, on the final question that typically comes up: “What process should we use to introduce new Mass settings?” Perhaps the most important word in that question is “process.” Everyone has a limit to the amount of new information they can take in, so a staggered approach might serve well. For example, beginning two months before full implementation, begin rehearsing the new setting with musicians and clergy. Try playing melodies from the Mass whenever instrumental music is presented at your parish—perhaps during a prelude or “pre-prelude.”

Consider singing through the Sanctus with the assembly before a Mass, and then a week later, do the same with the Gospel Acclamation (if there is one) and Lamb of God. The Glory to God may be the most challenging movement of the Mass. Fortunately, it often contains melodic material from movements already learned, so singing through it before Mass may be easier if it’s introduced later in the process, perhaps on the third week. Finally, don’t be afraid to go over those measures that seem to trip people up, smoothing out the rough edges until it seems people are singing comfortably. Perhaps a slower tempo is needed at first? In short, find a process that works with your parish.

One last thought: Introducing a Mass setting may not go as planned. That might mean that the assembly loved it much more than you thought possible, and some of them may thank you! I sincerely hope that describes your next attempt at this process. However, it could also mean that things don’t go well, people don’t take to the new setting, and the feeling seems to be meh. If this happens, it may be important to look at the overall process: selection, introduction, integration. For example, if the introduction of the setting didn’t go so well because, say, key musicians were absent, it might be worth a second shot. Look for opportunities for improvement each time you go through the process.

To search for, peruse and experience new and old Mass settings at OCP, visit ocp.org/mass-settings.

Two parting ideas: 1) Keep a positive attitude when introducing new music—it helps people keep an open mind. 2) Evaluate the effectiveness of a Mass setting once it’s been through its paces at your parish and keep notes to make decision-making easier in the future.
Crandal
Scot Crandal

Scot Crandal is a gifted composer, singer and musician. Director of music at the Episcopal Parish of St. John the Baptist in Portland, Oregon, Scot has also worked at OCP for several years, both as a music editor and music development coordinator, in charge of submission and arranging. He earned his music degree from Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington, and was a music teacher in public schools for several years. In addition to writing songs for the liturgy, Scot composes and performs jazz, classical and popular music. He plays guitar and piano, and has showcased his strong tenor voice in several Portland Opera productions.

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