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7 Lessons on Music and the Mass from David Haas

Friday, April 26, 2013

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7 Lessons on Music and the Mass from David Haas | Faith Permeating Life

This is my 400th post. Hooray!

It seems appropriate to use this occasion to tackle a topic that's been sitting on my idea list forever. Pretty much every Sunday I think of it and think I should write about it, and then some other topic comes up between then and the time I sit down to write a post.

This will be most relevant to Catholics (who make up a lot of my readers), but aspects of it are likely to be of interest to anyone who attends any kind of religious service where there's music.

Way back when I first started college, I had the amazing opportunity to take a two-day workshop with David Haas. That link will give you a detailed Wikipedia biography, but you mainly need to know that he's a composer who has written many of the songs frequently sung during Catholic Masses. (Some well-known ones are "You Are Mine," "Blest Are They," and "We Are Called.")

I was new enough to college and to taking my Catholic faith seriously that I didn't really understand what a big deal it was to have the opportunity to learn from and sing with David Haas, but he was such an engaging speaker that much of what he taught during that workshop has stayed with me for over eight years. And it's those lessons -- the ones I still think of nearly every time I go to Mass -- that I want to share with you.

The workshop was geared mainly toward future music ministers, which means the end result has been less of applying the lessons myself and more of critiquing the decisions made by actual music ministers and others. Maybe this is not helpful. But it's interesting stuff anyway.

(I should point out that everything here is based on my memory of something that happened years ago, so nothing here should be taken as his verbatim thoughts. In some cases I may remember what he taught but not why he thought it was important. There are also undoubtedly many, many parts of the workshop that did not stick in my brain, so if you're considering bringing him in to do a workshop with your group, by no means think that two days of brilliance is summed up here.)

OK, here are the thoughts and lessons that have stayed with me:

1. Stop shushing your children during church.

David pointed out that we want children to sing, yet we spend most of Mass trying to get them to be quiet. So you'll see parents smacking their kids, going, "Shush! Shh! Be quiet!" and then poking them, saying, "C'mon, sing! Why aren't you singing?" The message is one of conformity, not engagement -- that church is not a place to be yourself, but a place to obey orders. And with conflicting messages from an early age about whether or not it's appropriate to make noise in church, the one that tends to eventually win out is silence, and you have music directors tearing their hair out trying to get more of the congregation to sing along.

I don't think he was advocating letting children run wild and screaming through the aisles, but rather treating children like human beings -- that is, listening to what they have to say and responding appropriately (which can mean, "We can talk about that later" or "Please speak more softly") rather than continually ignoring or shushing them in an attempt to maintain the "reverence" of church. In other words, we bring our whole selves to church -- we don't go to put on a show. (See this older, related post about a mother and a teenage son I sat behind in church one time.)

2. The music tempo and style should match the Mass.

One of the key messages that David emphasized throughout the workshop was that music is an integral part of the Mass. It is not just something we do to fill time while people walk up and down the aisles. Music can sometimes reach people in a way that words alone cannot. And thus, careful thought needs to be given to making the music "fit" the tone of the Mass. Sometimes a Mass takes on a more somber tone because of heavy topics in the readings, or a solemn tone for a particular occasion. Believing that "we need some loud, upbeat music to attract the young people!" is going to make the music feel jarring and out of place. On the other hand, some Sundays mark particularly jubilant celebrations, and having slow, contemplative music can detract from that joyful spirit.

3. The only theme is Jesus.

I'm still not entirely sure I understand or agree with this idea, but David pointed out that music directors sometimes get too carried away with "themes" in their song selections. So maybe the Gospel reading is "I am the vine, and you are the branches" and so the music theme is "grapes!" and we sing a bunch of songs that reference grapes and vineyards. Or sheep, or whatever it happens to be. David said that the Mass only ever has one theme, and that is Jesus. The music is intended to point people ultimately to Jesus, not to sheep or grapes.

Personally, I like when at least one song explicitly ties to a reading because it gives me a different way of thinking about that same passage, but I can see how it's possible to get carried away with the theme idea.

4. Don't cut a song short for no reason.

One thing I liked about our previous church was that our priest wanted the choir to do all of the verses of the opening song. The idea was that we were singing the song because we were coming together to celebrate and start off the Mass together, not to fill time while the priest made his way up to the altar and then stop as soon as he got there. David talked about this and said that while he doesn't think it's always necessary to sing every verse of every song, it drives him nuts while it's Trinity Sunday and they'll sing the verses about the Father and the Son and then stop before they get to the Holy Spirit because the priest has finished processing in or out.

5. There should only be one song during communion.

Given that music is not intended solely for filling time, David was adamant that there should not be multiple songs slated for communion time. I see this happen a lot with larger Masses, where there are two songs listed on the worship aide, and we'll go on to the second one or not depending on how many people are still in line for communion when the first song is finished. But music at Mass isn't there just to give us something to do while waiting to receive the Eucharist. The songs are -- or should be -- chosen for their message or their effect, just as the priest crafts a homily to leave the listeners with a particular idea or emotion.

A speaker who sees that they haven't used all their allotted time will use the opportunity to reiterate key points, or they'll wrap up to move onto questions, etc. They aren't going to say, "Since we've got the time, I'll give you the first five minutes of an unrelated speech I'm giving next week." Similarly, if people are still waiting to receive communion, a music director can start the verses over again, or simply continue the instrumental accompaniment for a while longer. But starting a brand-new song devalues the role of music by treating it as nothing more than a way to fill time while more important things are going on.

6. Mass is not the time for performances.

Sometimes after everyone has processed through communion and the communion hymn is finished, the choir will sing another song. David explained that while the Catholic liturgy does allow for a "meditation" following communion, it's intended to be something that the congregation participates in, not something the choir does while everyone else listens. I particularly like when our choir here does a Taizé song following communion, where we all sing a chant-like prayer over and over. But it doesn't make sense to do something that by its very nature is meant to bring people together -- communion -- and then create a separation by having the choir "perform" while everyone else sits there quietly.

7. The prayers of the faithful should not tell God what to do.

This last lesson is actually unrelated to music, but it resonated with me so strongly that I remember it every Sunday when I hear the prayers of the faithful. Each week we pray for particular groups -- the Church, world leaders, those who are sick, those who have died, those in the military, those affected by recent tragic events, and so on. What got David so worked up were the words "that they..." Rather than simply focusing on each of these groups and asking us to pray for them, those who write the prayers of the faithful often add instructions for God: "For those who are sick and suffering, that they might be quickly healed." "For the leaders of nations and all elected officials, that they might always protect religious freedom."

This is, one could argue, the opposite of how Jesus taught us to pray in the Our Father: "Thy will be done." We are not asking God to do what is best for each of these people, but to do what we want God to do to them or what we want God to make them do. Sometimes the requests are broad, like praying that Church leaders continue to seek God's will, but some are targeted, like praying before an election that voters vote "to protect the dignity of the unborn" (as if a single vote could do this). In this way the prayers of the faithful can be more about the writer's agenda than being open to the will of God.

I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from David Haas' many years of experience as a Catholic musician and composer. Even where I'm not sure I agree with his conclusions, I've given much more thought to the role that music plays in the Mass and, by extension, the role that everyone in attendance plays in making the liturgy what it is.

What do you think about these lessons?


  1. I LOVE this! While Lutherans and Catholics are different, we have similarities. Especially in traditional worship styles. I wish I could take this post back to my college days and give it to the students who were studying to be in music ministry. Some of my disagreements are the same as yours. One thing I would add is having multiple songs during communion. I definitely see what he's saying there, and it shouldn't just be there to fill the time. But if you have multiple songs that fit and actually relate to what's happening, then I feel it's fine.

    1. Yeah, I don't know if you can make a hard-and-fast rule that multiple songs is always a bad thing, but I do think there's value in asking whether there's a genuine reason to have two songs that goes beyond "there will be a lot of people there and we need to fill time."

      I remember David talked about playing for some giant Mass -- I can't remember what it was for, but some important Catholic thing -- and playing the same song for 45 minutes while everyone received communion. Some people might see that as overkill, that you'd get tired of hearing that song, which is probably true, but I also see how running through a list of 10 different songs would make the time seem even longer and lose the opportunity to be absorbed by and reflect on any one song.

  2. These are some really good thoughts, and yes, applicable beyond just a Catholic service. On the first one, our church has always taken a very relaxed approach to children in service, and nobody scowls at the kids for quietly babbling or driving cars under the chairs. I have found that my kids at about seven, once they are reading well enough to follow along, start taking more interest in the service naturally, which is far more valuable than being forced into it.

    1. I think that's great. If church is about a community coming together, then children are part of that community, not a nuisance or distraction from it.

  3. Wow, Jessica, thank you for posting this. I had no idea you'd met David Haas! "You Are Mine" had a really profound role in my coming back to regular worship and Catholic worship in particular. One day right after I'd left college and was in a period of "church shopping," I had "You Are Mine" in my head, which I hadn't heard since childhood. I thought that was really odd. Then I was reading a devotional which just so happened to feature the passage in Isaiah on which that song is based. Now I really thought it was weird. Then I went to Mass the next day, for the first time for years and years, and their Communion song was, you guessed it, "You Are Mine." I lost it and started crying, and on my way back to my seat from communion a random woman gave me a big hug. And that's the story of how I came back to the Church.

    The lessons you share are just more proof of all the thought Haas has put into creating his music and encouraging others to use it well, and thus helping bring about profound moments like the one I experienced. Liturgy can be so amazing.

    1. He's a pretty amazing person. He told us about "You Are Mine," that he'd held onto it for a very long time because he felt it was too personal to put into a hymnal. But since sharing it, he's heard how much it's come to mean to so many different people.

  4. On a less emotional note, I have to say I particularly agree with the last point about the Prayers of the Faithful. Even when I agree with the outcome the writer of the prayer is wishing for, I don't think it's appropriate to get too specific with prayer, because we are not all-knowing and the outcome we pray for may not be the correct one. To be honest, it is something I struggle with at my current church, as I've shared with you earlier. But of course no church community is perfect, and on the flip side, they are truly fantastic at liturgy, including selecting music to fit the "mood" of every Mass.

  5. Great reflection on what was clearly a wonderful experience.

    An interesting expansion of this would be a discussion of the personality of various masses and how music liturgy leaders do or do not take this into consideration. You could tie into Vatican II and the use of local languages and music within the universal experience of the mass.

    I think my pastor plans three different selections of music each Sunday because he feels our early morning Gospel choir draws people with different needs/expectations than either the later Spanish mass or young adult-oriented night mass.

  6. I've been a Catholic church pianist for 6 years, and some of my (and the congregation's) favorite songs are by David Haas. He has a marvelous gift of creating music that touches you on a personal level and helps bring deeper meaning to the gospel and readings. Given my respect for the man, I'm a little disconcerted to find that I don't entirely agree with some of the points you shared from his workshop.

    On #3 especially... The liturgy of the word is certainly "themed" because the gospel and readings always have some message in common - be it love, the Holy Spirit, etc. So, since we specifically choose songs that reflect the meaning of the word, and the word is on a theme, doesn't it follow that the songs are on the same theme as well? I do agree though that picking random songs with the word "shepherd" in them is NOT a good example of reflecting the word! The theme to follow in that case may be the broader love of Jesus for his church or our calling to follow Him. Perhaps this just comes down to one's usage of the word "theme" actually.

    On #5, if the songs are chosen well and follow the theme, then having two communion songs back-to-back shouldn't feel awkward at all, but rather a continuation of the same meditation. Classic example: "One Bread, One Body" followed by "We Are Many Parts." If a particular church has a lot of time to fill at communion, and they are not to fill it with a choral piece (#6), then they'd be stuck with either repeating the same song 3 times over, or 10 minutes of instrumental, both of which are likely to LOSE engagement from the congregation.

    And although I agree with #4, I have a little observation to make: Aiming not to cut songs short indirectly influences your song selection to those which are already the desired length. I like to use "We Are the Light of the World" for closing because it calls to mind the beatitudes and has some good sending-forth type energy in it, but 8 verses is a lot for closing, especially if your priest is the type who always reaches the back of church well before the end of the 2nd verse! So I would subconsciously discard that song as too long to be an option for closing.

    There's actually one point I would wish to address to members of congregations - semi related to #6. The music ministers are not performers so do not clap for them after mass! Our congregation actually claps for me and the cantor after mass, and while I understand that they're simply expressing appreciation for enriching their worship experience with music, it makes me feel uncomfortable. I normally like to play an extra instrumental verse of the closing while the congregation exits, but when they clap it makes my extra verse sound like an encore, which it is not intended to be! On Palm Sunday of the Passion, we sang "Jesus Remember Me" slowly for closing, and the reverent mood was destroyed by applause afterward. :(

    Anyway I could go on and on about my own theologies of liturgical music. The important thing - which all of your points above touch on - is that music selection should be with the sole purpose to enhance the liturgy, keeping the liturgy itself the primary focus.


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