Erin Thomassen | Thursday, November 10, 2016
I love hearing people sing off-key at Mass. This is not a sarcastic statement.
You may be confused why I, a member of the Notre Dame Folk Choir, enjoy off-key singing. Shouldn’t I crave four-part harmony, dark vowels and clean cutoffs? I do. Yet there is a different kind of beauty I experience when I leave the choral risers and join the assembly. It is the beauty of off-key praise.
When I sing with the folk choir, I am surrounded by perfect (or pretty darn near perfect) pitch. If I am not careful, I can lose myself in cadence and motif, forgetting to pay attention to the meaning of the lyrics. I can also start analyzing how I sound. Am I blending well? Did I cut off at the right time? Wow, I actually hit the high A. Go me.
Yet I am not supposed to be thinking “go me” or even “curse me” in Mass — unless I am confessing to you and my brothers and sisters that I have greatly sinned. The point of Mass is not to praise or criticize my vocal ability. One of the points of Mass, however, is to praise God.
There are four types of church-going vocalists. These types are not soprano, alto, tenor and bass.
There are those who sing well and know it. These people have no problem singing in Mass. The members of the Folk Choir, as well as the other various Basilica choirs, often fall into this category.
There are those who sing well but do not know it. They may sing quietly at Mass or not sing at all. My friends who I am dying to pull into choir but refuse to sing in public are in this category.
Then, there are those who do not sing well, but do not know it. These people typically sing loudly, but not clearly. No one thinks they are in this category.
Finally, there are those who do not sing well and know they do not sing well. This last category is divided into two subcategories: those who do not sing and those who sing despite their lack of musicality. When I speak of the beauty of off-key singing, I am referring to this last subcategory.
Divided from the act of praise, these voices would not be beautiful. I would be vexed if I went to see “Wicked” and the woman behind me sang along to every song off-key. This may or may not have happened on July 30, 2013 in the Boston Opera House.
If part of the act of praise, off-key singing is even more beautiful than on-key arias. These people are not singing because they enjoy listening to their own voices or want the people around them to notice that they are the reincarnation of Louis Armstrong. They are singing because they know it is part of their vocation to raise their voice in song and worship their Creator with the Church, living and dead, present at Mass.
Where there can be temptation towards pride in on-key singing, there can be practice in humility in off-key singing. The offering of your voice may be painful to your ears, but it is gift to God.
If your child brought you home a crayon drawing of a tree that looked more like an asparagus, you would probably not reject it. You might even hang it up on your fridge. If they wrote you a song about how much they loved you and sang it to you off-key, you would probably not tell them to stop. You might shed a tear.
The point of this column is not to stop people from singing well. That would be a shame, for there is a certain kind of beauty in masterful music ministry that helps people pray. The point is to encourage people who do not sing well to sing anyways. The most important person who is listening is God, and I don’t think he cares whether you are on pitch or not.
This column also aims to affirm those who already sing at Mass, whether you think you sing well or not. Now is an appropriate time to say “Go you,” because through singing of the goodness of God and man’s need for God’s mercy, you are taking your rightful place as creature before your creator.
Singing is a vital part of praise at Mass. Just ask Professor Tim O’Malley or Fr. David. Or listen to St. Augustine, who says: “He who sings prays twice.” Also, listen to the organ, violin or flute that plays before you start singing. It typically plays the notes you are supposed to sing once through before you start tackling the refrain.
So sing in the Basilica. Sing in your dorm chapel. Sing as you bike to your off-campus house. Just because you are tone-deaf does not mean you should be deaf to the call to praise God through song.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.