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Singing with Feeling: Let the Text Drive the Song

As music ministers, we often sing music with incredibly powerful words, but sometimes we forget the importance of singing with feeling.

Every Third Sunday of Easter in Cycle A, we hear the “on the road to Emmaus” account from the Gospel of Luke. Parishioners who are attuned to the lectionary knew that our music ministry would be singing Michael Ward’s “In the Breaking of the Bread.”

This piece is beloved by our community, and why wouldn’t it be? The song musically retells one of the greatest stories of our faith and is filled with emotion, rich harmony texture, and a gorgeous melody. We have found “In the Breaking of the Bread” to be the perfect musical selection for liturgies with that scripture passage.

When we began rehearsing the piece, I noticed that the choir was singing rather lackluster and seemed disengaged. As they continued singing the first pass, I found myself completely caught up in the powerful text filled with emotion and started imagining how this incredible experience changed the hearts and lives of the two companions. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why the group was so nonchalant while singing such a meaningful text.

By the song’s end, I couldn’t contain my angst, and what followed was unrehearsed. I began telling the group the story as if I was one of the two companions. I used phrases from the song without breaking character and let my emotion fly – the amazing awareness when “we saw him,” the excitement running to share the experience with the other disciples, the fear that followed when the immensity of the experience was sinking in, the enveloping peace and uncontrollable joy that ensued. I shared it all in that moment.

When I reached the end, I told them that everything they needed to know about how to sing the piece was handed to them in the text. All they needed to do was deeply connect with the text. Let the text lead the way, and all the phrasing and dynamics will naturally follow. Let the text drive the song!

Oftentimes, we sing the music in our repertoire uninspired rather than singing with feeling, simply because we have sung most of it so many times. It’s easy to lose the emotion, energy, and fervor for songs we know so well – but that’s no excuse. Our challenge as ensemble musicians is to inspire the community’s sung prayer and to lead the community to a greater connection with God through singing. This connection cannot happen when we sing uninspired. We must always connect with the text of the songs we sing, if we have any chance of encouraging our communities to sing.

When I was finished with my outburst, we sang the song again. What a difference! When we finished, a kind of hush hovered as we all recognized how powerfully we sang it the second time. Then one of the members raised their hand and thanked me for reminding us of the importance of singing with feeling. Singing passionately while connecting with the text made all the difference in the world and truly brought this incredible song to life.

My challenge to you this week is to think about the places your ensemble may be forgetting to connect with the text. Whatever your role in your ensemble, encourage your group to really connect with the text and let the text drive the emotion, dynamics, and phrasing of the song. Your ensemble and your assembly will undoubtedly hear and feel the difference.

Written by Steve Petrunak, a founding board member of CLEF and director of music at St. Blase Catholic Church in Sterling Heights, Michigan.

Copyright © 2023 Catholic Liturgical Ensemble Formation

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